SAN DIEGO -- Simply put, when you combine weather with the quality of courses, dining, nightlife and scenery, the San Diego area is one of the best golf destinations in the United States.
If money's no object, there are some obvious choices, but if you're on a budget, there are some pretty good selections as well. Here are some recommendations based on cost:
High end San Diego golf: Torrey Pines leads the pack
There's no shortage of high-end golf in the San Diego area, which has some of the best in the West. Not surprisingly much of San Diego's best is north of the city right off the coast.
If you haven't played it before, my first recommendation is Torrey Pines, which many find hard to believe is a municipal (yeah, the locals play it for a fraction of its $200-plus rack rate). Located in La Jolla, the views are spectacular, and the two William Bell classic layouts, with a little renovation work by Rees Jones, have withstood the test of time. Stay at the Lodge, if you can, for the whole experience. Sure, that's likely to run a cool grand for two or three days, but it does guarantee tee times on both the North Course and the South Course, which not only hosts the PGA Tour's Farmers Insurance Open, but also the 2008 U.S. Open, which was Tiger Woods' most recent major victory.
A little farther up the coast in Carlsbad is La Costa Resort & Spa, which also got some recent renovation work. Dick Wilson did the original work, but Damian Pascuzzo and Steve Pate have made it much better as part of an overall $50 million expansion of the entire resort. Again, if money is no object, stay at the resort and take advantage of the world-famous spa facilities.
Just a few miles from La Costa is another high-end resort, the Park Hyatt Aviara. Formerly the Four Seasons, the resort has great dining, views and a spa. And the Aviara golf course, the only Arnold Palmer signature in the region, is pretty unique, mostly because of the ornamentals. The course doubles as a nature resort, and 20 percent of the maintenance budget goes to maintaining the 60 acres of landscaping, which includes purple ice plant, Pride of Madeira and agave plants.
Just south of Carlsbad on the coast in San Diego is another high-end gem, The Grand Del Mar. With stunning Los Penasquitos Canyon as his backdrop, architect Tom Fazio created a course with dramatic elevations, his signature bunkering and perfect course conditions at one of San Diego's most premier resorts.
And while Torrey Pines certainly has a nationally reputation, many in the know say Maderas Golf Club doesn't take a back seat to Torrey Pines in the scenery department. Located in Poway, this Johnny Miller-Robert Muir Graves design, which can play almost 7,200 yards, has plenty of dramatic features, five live waterfalls, three lakes and more than 40 acres of wildflowers. It also has one elevated tee after another, a terrific Tuscany-style clubhouse and a very accommodating and friendly staff.
And finally, there's Barona Creek Golf Club, located about 45 minutes east of San Diego on the Barona Indian Reservation. With no homes on it and plenty of views from the tee, golfers get a real sense of being away from it all on this very forgiving, enjoyable and beautiful layout. There are, however, more than 100 foreboding bunkers, some tough putts, and ponds and lakes to challenge low-handicappers. The golf course is also a Bronze Signature Sanctuary Course of Audubon International.
Mid-range San Diego golf options
If ocean views are what you're looking for, but you don't want to pay $200 green fees, there are some slightly cheaper options. The Greg Nash-designed Crossings at Carlsbad, for example, can be had for $100 or less for visitors and offers plenty of coastal views. This upscale municipal, named for the five crossings of its environmental areas, features views of both the mountains and Pacific.
Another course near the Pacific is another terrific municipal, Encinitas Ranch, a Cary Bickler design located just up the coast from Torrey Pines. The course isn't right on the ocean, but you can see the Pacific from a couple of holes. More important, this little 6,800-yard gem is in great condition and enjoyable for a fraction of the Torrey Pines price.
Bickler (with John Cook) also designed the terrific Salt Creek Golf Club, a linksy sort of layout always in good shape and never boring. Located in Chula Vista about 20 minutes north of San Diego's main airport, the course features on the best risk-reward par 5s in the county (no. 6), sloped fairways, a few elevated tees and views of Mount Miguel and the Pacific Ocean on a couple of holes. Recently, Salt Creek also revamped its clubhouse and grounds, adding to the experience.
Just east of San Diego in Jamul is Steele Canyon Golf Club, an excellent 27-hole layout from Gary Player. The Canyon, Ranch, and Meadow nines each offer a different set of challenges, and the signature hole is the Ranch's par-4 third, which has a tee perched 175 feet above the fairway.
And finally, head over to El Cajon for the Sycuan Golf Resort (formerly Singing Hills) to experience not only 36 holes of championship length golf, but a pretty good 18-hole par-3 course as well. First opened in 1956, all 54 holes were later redesigned by Ted Robinson.
San Diego golf on a budget
While it seems like there's very little that's cheap in San Diego, there is bargain golf, and it's pretty decent.
One of the most fun and scenic courses anywhere is Coronado Golf Course, a municipal located right on the water, minutes from downtown San Diego. We're talking $30 green fees for a 6,600-yard gem that gets quite a bit of play and is plenty fun.
While Coronado isn't exactly a best-kept secret -- locals and frequent visitors to San Diego certainly know about it -- Sail Ho Golf Club, which is right next to San Diego's Charles Lindbergh Airport, does seem to get overlooked. It shouldn't be. Built by A. G. Spalding of Spalding Sports back to the 1920s on the north end of Liberty Station, this Bickler design might be just 1,000 yards long and nine holes, but it's got a great history. Sam Snead was once the head pro there when he was in the Navy, and Phil Mickelson played a few junior events at this well kept, well designed course.
Another course with military ties is Admiral Baker Golf Course, which features 36 holes, some of them with ocean views. The North Course was recently redone, and while the courses are there for the Navy, the public can play there as guests of military personnel.
And finally, while Torrey Pines is the best of San Diego muni golf, Balboa Park G.C. is arguably second best and a lot less expensive to play. Balboa Park, which measures nearly 6,300 yards from the longest tees, was also designed by Bell (1921). And it's usually in pretty good shape.