The Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay in California: A terrific links golf experience

The Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links in northern California is evolving

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. – Half Moon Bay Golf Links, located less than an hour from San Francisco, features 36 holes overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There's the Old Course, a mostly parkland golf course designed by Arnold Palmer, and the newer Ocean Course, which gives the complex its links feel.

And over the past couple of years, the Arthur Hills-designed Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay is looking more and more like something out of Scotland or Ireland, not the United States, mainly due to a change in maintenance practices that include lower mowing heights, higher native grasses and less water.

"Firm and fast," said Bill Troyanoski, general manager of Half Moon Bay Golf Links. "That's what we're striving for."

It's been a gradual process. While the golf course isn't true links in the St. Andrews fashion (nine holes out and nine holes in), it's flat, wind-blown and has plenty of views of the Pacific Ocean. The fairways have natural undulation, and the large greens have plenty of movement as well.

The golf course is naturally all Poa annua, and it's now starting to look like it's been there much longer than 1997, the year the Ocean Course opened. It's no longer plush from tee to green. Fairways are being mowed tighter, and scaling back the irrigation produces some natural browns, which means drives and approach shots will shoot forward -- or sometimes another direction. It's the polar opposite of the Old Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links.

"Where else can you go where you can go and play a traditional parkland course maintained to the edges, go out the back door and play 18 holes against the ocean?" asked Troyanoski.

Changes on Half Moon Bay's Ocean Course still coming

Half Moon Bay Golf Links' Ocean Course, host of the 2008 LPGA Samsung World Championship, already had credibility. As a regular site of qualifying for the U.S. Open, no qualifier course has played more difficult. The medalist at this year's event on the Ocean Course shot 2-over par.

That might seem surprising if you catch the Ocean Course on a calm day. With virtually no out of bounds and parallel fairways on much of the golf course, you can spray the driver with impunity. Bring in some wind, however, and hitting greens can be difficult. Then once you get to them, putting on the deceivingly fast greens is no cinch, either.

To make it tougher, five new tees have been added to bring the course close to 7,000 yards. A couple of more tees are planned for the future, and already there's been a transformation of some of the bunkers to sod-wall pot bunkers, meaning that catching any one of those will most likely add a stroke to your score. The bunker transition is expected to continue over the next couple of years.

Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links: The verdict

If you're looking for a terrific links golf experience at a reasonable price, the Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links should be on your radar. With the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links down the coast a bit, Half Moon Bay is accessible and affordable, with rates as low as around $150. And you don't have to stay at the Half Moon Bay Ritz-Carlton to play the golf course, although the experience of combining both is highly recommended.

The golf course seems easy enough from the first hole, but it progressively gets more difficult. The front nine is somewhat shorter than the back nine, but a couple of the par 4s -- when playing into the wind -- are a challenge to reach in regulation.

The ocean and cliffs along the Ocean Course are visible from many parts of the golf course, but those views become monumental as you reach the finishing stretch. From the 15th green and 16th tee, the cliffs and the Pacific Ocean loom to the left, making the Ocean Course a truly special experience.

There is no driving range at Half Moon Bay Golf Links, but both golf courses have excellent short game areas. A practice bunker on the Ocean Course is the best place to get in some full swings before the round. Lessons are available from the professional staff.

Stay and play at Half Moon Bay Golf Links

The aforementioned Ritz-Carlton is as luxurious and comfortable as any in the company's portfolio. The finishing holes at both golf courses play up to the 261-room resort hotel and its oceanfront courtyard and fire pit.

The Ritz-Carlton features a 16,000-square-foot spa, beauty salon and gourmet dining. There is also tennis, basketball courts and trails that run along the ocean and edges of the Ocean Course. The resort offers a variety of packages, including golf packages.

In addition to resort dining, Mullins Bar & Grill, named in honor of longtime head pro Clyde Everett "Moon" Mullins, offers both casual and fine dining as well as a large selection of draft beers and wines. The restaurant, formerly known as Caddy's, was renovated in 2006. An array of photographs of the golf courses, as well as images of Mullins' friends such as Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Jackie Gleason and Bob Hope, adorn the walls.

Aerial photos courtesy of Joann Dost/Golf Lifestyles Inc.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.

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The Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links in northern California is evolving