Southern California golf on the cheap: Five affordable resorts near San Diego

When the Carmel Highland Golf Resort shuttered its golf course in 2015 and became a standalone DoubleTree by Hilton hotel, San Diego lost one of its most affordable golf stay-and-plays.

The former 125-acre course in San Diego's Rancho Penasquitos neighborhood is now slated to become a new residential community after the land sold for a reported $14.5 million earlier this year. Fear not, bargain hunters. Not every affordable resort in one of golf's most luxurious addresses has gone to seed.

None of these five value choices offer the beautiful beach of the Hotel del Coronado, the ocean views of the Lodge at Torrey Pines, the splash park of the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa or the luxury of the Fairmont Grand del Mar, but if it's good golf and a comfy bed you're looking for, they most certainly fit the bill (pun intended). What's free is all that SoCal sunshine.

Carlton Oaks Golf Club, Santee

What Carlton Oaks lacks in the aesthetics department –- the course and lodge aren't much to look at -- is made up for in functionality. Everything is here for a nice weekend getaway.

The 51-room lodge sits next to the main building, which houses the check-in lobby, pro shop and a restaurant/bar that was lively when I poked my head in during my recent stay. Some rain didn't allow me to enjoy the small outdoor pool and hot tub, but you probably will have better luck than I did. It rarely rains in SoCal these days. I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the door to my room for the first time. It was spacious and modernized with flat screen TVs and pocket fridges.

Some TLC by a pair of recent superintendents have rejuvenated conditions on the Carlton Oaks golf course, a unique Perry Dye 1980s redo featuring some mounding and lots of bunkers with wooden-plank faces. Carlton Oaks, a past host of qualifiers for bigger tournaments, can be tough on higher handicaps. Better players will more appreciate its challenges.

San Vicente Golf Resort, Ramona

San Vicente has done a nice job investing in its 28-room, AAA 3-Diamond Lodge and Ted Robinson-designed golf course. Even the pro shop has been recently renovated to become more user friendly.

All the remodeled rooms have comfy beds, a fridge and a large patio or balcony overlooking the course. The 6,633-yard San Vicente golf course completed a million-dollar turf-reduction program in 2015 to save on water costs amid the ongoing drought. Mulch and native plants replaced roughly 18 and a half acres of grass on the perimeter of the playing areas. Dozens of trees were removed and some were replanted. Despite all the changes, San Vicente has kept its old-school parkland character intact. A couple of ponds and some subtle elevation changes offer a playing experience that never gets old.

Pala Mesa Golf Resort, Fallbrook

Pala Mesa Golf Resort clubhouse

Dating to the 1960s when its golf course opened, Pala Mesa is scheduled to get a major facelift in 2017. All 132 rooms and the main lobby and Aquaterra Restaurant will be renovated and updated.

All of the rooms are located in buildings near the surrounding hills just a short car ride from the lobby or along the first fairway. My room was palatial in size with a huge closet and a kitchenette (lacking a microwave/oven, though). The renovation will use the spaces in these rooms more effectively.

Pala Mesa's golf course starts off slow before building to a high from the elevated tees on the back nine. You can't go wrong with so many interesting doglegs and par 3s ending at tough table-top greens.

Sycuan Golf Resort, El Cajon

Echo's Lounge at Sycuan Golf Resort offers a relaxing atmosphere.

Echo’s Lounge at Sycuan Golf Resort

Once you turn a corner to enter the beautiful Dehesa Valley, you've left suburbia behind and found a Shangri-La of golf. Sycuan has all the bells and whistles of a complete resort -- 54 holes, including a short course; multiple restaurants; the Primrose Spa; an outdoor pool and nice rooms. What sets it apart is three miles away, the Sycuan Casino.

Owned by the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, the casino has grown from a small "Bingo Palace" founded in 1983 into a major gaming hotspot of more than 2,000 slots or video poker machines, more than 40 gaming tables; numerous restaurants; and a 457-seat entertainment venue that hosts national musical performers and comedians (Sinbad and Blue Oyster Cult are coming in January). The GameDay Sports Bar & Grill features almost as many beers on tap (32) as it does large screen TVs (39).

Sycuan's Willow Glen Course is the headliner with three or four really cool, one-of-a-kind golf holes.

Hotel Karlan San Diego - a DoubleTree by Hilton, San Diego

The former DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Golf Resort San Diego changed its name in November 2016 to project a new attitude. It has an entirely different feel than the other resorts in this story. Guests at the recently renovated 174-room hotel can utilize two outdoor pools and a tennis court. Newly updated are the spa and the Asado Grill.

A complimentary shuttle service provides playing opportunities at the nearby Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club, a semiprivate course designed by Ron Fream in 1986. Recent Golf Advisor reviews indicate construction projects to repair cart paths and bunkers have caused some hassles, so call ahead to inquire about course conditions.

In November sergiogmusic wrote in his three-star review of Carmel Mountain Ranch C.C.: "Unfortunately there's a lot of construction work going on when I visited we found it a little confusing to navigate through the course because of the lack of signs and path bypass/detours. Other than that I think it is a very decent course; I'm definitely coming back hopefully when construction is completed.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Southern California golf on the cheap: Five affordable resorts near San Diego
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