Twas the Season for Great Golf

I usually don’t play too much golf during Christmas time, especially when I’m spending the holidays up in Northen California in my hometown. Usually this time of year, it’s pouring down rain 24/7.

But this year, plenty of sunshine was in the forecast. The temperatures were lower than normal without any precipitation, but the forecasts looked good enough for me to want to play golf.

Last week, I hit the road Tuesday evening and stayed the first night in King City, CA. Then I got up super early the next morning and headed to my first golf destination: Pebble Beach! The forecast called for super sunny skies and I figured it was a great chance to head back to the Monterey Peninsula and cross another course off of my bucket list. I have played Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill previously (both in the middle of summer and both with cold, foggy conditions), so I wanted to play Spanish Bay this time.

The Links at Spanish Bay • Pebble Beach, CA • 12/21/11

I got there a little after 7:00. My tee time was for 8:30, but with a long day of driving ahead of me I hoped to get out early. They certainly accommodated my request. Because of frosty conditions, the first tee time wasn’t until 7:50. They let me go out by myself a few minutes before that first group. Perfect!

The first few holes were downright freezing. I couldn’t feel my hands until midway through the second hole. I chose to walk (with a pull cart), which warmed me up pretty quickly. $260 to walk is pretty insane, but it is Pebble Beach so sometimes you have to splurge. By about the 4th hole, the sun was out in full force and the temperature was just fine. Without a cloud in the sky, it was a picture perfect day on the peninsula. Being first off, I felt like I had the entire course to myself. What a true pleasure, especially in one of the most beautiful golf settings in the world on a gorgeous day. It was absolutely the most enjoyable round of golf I’ve ever played. Simply perfect experience.

I finished my round in about 3 hours, which was great with my drive looming ahead. I have to tell you, though, I was very tempted to try and play another round at either Poppy Hills or Del Monte. I decided not to, so I could make it home before too late.

The course was immaculate from tee to green. Everything was in perfect shape. More variety of hole layouts than expected and I’d like to say more oceanfront views than Pebble or Spyglass. The inland middle holes (holes 9-12 I think) provide a nice change of pace in the middle of the round before getting back to the rugged seaside links on the finishing holes. It’s a challenging track (especially on and around the greens), but still pretty fair. What an exceptional course.

If you are out there making your big Pebble trip, DO NOT leave Spanish Bay off your list. It’s worthy of as much praise (if not more, based on my personal experience) as its big brothers.

Pictures from Spanish Bay (12/21/11):

After everything went perfectly with my experience at Spanish Bay, the next day at Bandon was quite a drastic shift.

Bandon Dunes Golf Resort (Old Macdonald) • Bandon, OR • 12/22/11

I had set my tee time for Thursday at 9:00 on Old Macdonald. I’ve played the other three courses at Bandon Dunes in the past and enjoyed each one of them immensely, so I’ve been looking forward to playing Old Mac since it opened a few years ago. I am now looking forward to playing their new 13-hole par 3 course (Bandon Preserve), which opens sometime next year.

I arrived early in Bandon, rolling into town around 7:00. It was still pretty dark out and very cold (34 degrees in Bandon according to my phone’s weather app), so I stopped at one of my favorite local restaurants (The Station) for a nice hearty breakfast. It’s a cool little diner that caters to the local crowd and tourists alike. They have cheap, good food and nice hometown environment.

I got to the course around 7:40 and there was hardly anybody to be seen. I didn’t see anyone out on the course and only one golf bag was sitting outside the tiny Old Macdonald pro shop. My hopes were immediately up, because my plan was to try and play 36 holes this day. Bandon has exceptional winter rates ($100 for first round and then only $40 for a replay round on any other course!) and I wanted to take advantage of them. Resort guests and Oregon residents get even better rates this time of year.

I was hoping I could repeat my timing at Spanish Bay, get a quick early round in at Old Mac and then go over and play Pacific Dunes (which I’d only played once before). Sunshine was in the forecast, so it seemed like a rare nice winter day to take advantage of these Bandon deals. Normally, it’s pretty nasty there in the winter, hence the great rates.

Well, my hopes were dashed as soon as I checked in at the pro shop. I told the guy in there I’d like to get out as early as possible and he let me know that because of frost on the course, 9:00 would be the earliest tee time—if not later. So I had to wait around, which was pretty boring. The start time then kept getting pushed back until finally they made the official announcement that 9:40 would be the first time. There was another single they were putting off first and then it would be me paired with another twosome. Also, they would be starting us off on hole #6 because the frost was melting off faster on that part of the course.

When the time came, they piled the first few groups in a shuttle and drove us over to the 6th hole. We teed off about 9:45 and were thrown right into the fire. With all the waiting around and no real warm up, it was tough to go right into playing mode. What made it tougher is that Bandon is a completely unique experience. It’s hard to describe, but “you have to be there” to truly understand it.

Most of the Old Macdonald course is set in this wide open expanse of nothingness. Rolling dunes, gorse bushes, nasty sand traps, wide fairways, large greens…I mean really, really, really, large greens! In fact, they boast the largest green complexes in the world. You wouldn’t believe it until you are standing in the middle of one. Of course, on most holes there’s no real distinction between fairway and green. It’s all just shaved down turf that flows seamlessly—only broken up by gnarly bunkers and patches of rough. Definitely true “links” style meant to be a tribute to old school course architect C.B. Macdonald. If that’s the case, he must have been a real bastard!

There is not a flat lie on the course. Everything is hilly and undulating. The fairways are super wide, but you have to be careful of positioning, so you don’t roll into trouble. Some greenside bunkers are not to be trifled with (including one that’s an ode to the road hole “Hell” bunker at St. Andrews) and you want absolutely nothing to do with any fairway bunkers. All the bunkers here are filled with beach sand, which is super soft and takes some getting used to. Out of greenside bunkers, it’s not so bad, but out of fairway bunkers it’s just plain evil. You just have to take your medicine and do what you can to get out.

There’s a lot of putting on this course as you tend to see on the British Open courses in the UK. Most times, it’s easier to putt than to chip around greens, but some greens are like roller coaster rides. No matter what approach you take, it’s hard to get close. False edges are everywhere and one wrong hit can send you careening down a hillside or into another bunker.

Let’s just say that this course is very tough. It’s been awhile since I played Pacific Dunes, but I remember that one being very tough as well. I hear a lot of people say that Bandon Trails is the toughest, but I did pretty well there and this one seemed much more challenging. The Bandon style of golf takes some getting used to, but if you are also off your game it can be extra tough.

The course was in OK condition considering the winter conditions and the lack of rain the area has gotten this season. It was pretty brown throughout and the ground was pretty firm. I didn’t really like hitting my irons off the thin fairway turf, and that definitely contributed to my personal struggles. Greens were hard to hold on approach shots, but once you were putting, though, the greens rolled pretty true.They are just very hard to read and it really helps to be on the same shelf as the hole.

Some pictures from Old Macdonald (12/22/11):

On Christmas Eve, my brother and I decided to play one of my “home” courses—Salmon Run in Brookings, Oregon (just a few miles north of the OR/CA border on the coast—about 1.5 hours south of Bandon). This is one of my favorite courses that few people know about.

Salmon Run Golf Course • Brookings, OR • 12/24/11

They had some major frost delays in the morning, so it wasn’t until afternoon that we teed off. We ended up only paying a 9-hole rate, but the lady in the pro shop said they wouldn’t care if we wanted to sneak in a few holes on the back before it got too dark or cold. We ended up playing 13 holes before we ran out of daylight, so it was a good deal.

Salmon Run is built in the hills with a creek that runs through (and really comes into play) most holes on the course. The course is not super-long, but it’s very tight. It’s a real shot-maker’s course (“target golf” as they would say) that requires some strategy off many of the tees. Most longer hitters won’t use their drivers more than a few times (if at all) here.

The greens are pretty big and firm with plenty of undulation. Trees surround every hole and plenty of elevation changes provide a very scenic setting.

Being winter, the course was in surprisingly great shape. There were a few muddy spots and a few places where the ground was frozen through (shaded areas that don’t get hardly any sun), but nothing to complain about.

The signature hole at Salmon Run is the par three 4th. It features a large island green. The main tee boxes are way up the hillside. There’s a zig-zagging path up to the top, which is why the nickname for this hole is “Lombard Street.” This time, though, there was a whole new tee area set up that I’d never seen before. It was pretty well manicured, so it made me think it was more than just a temporary “winter” thing.

The path up the hill to the normal tee boxes can get a little slippery (even in the dead of summer), so my hopes were that these alternate tee boxes were just a winter thing. At the turn, I asked the lady in the pro shop and she didn’t have a solid answer. It sounds like they are still determining whether these are going to be permanent or just temporary. She did mention that the normal boxes will definitely be open when they have tournaments and special events there, and that anyone was welcome to walk up the hill at any time if they want to take pictures or play from up there. So either way, not all is lost. It would be a shame, though, if they closed them permanently.

Some pictures from Salmon Run (12/24/11):

Alternate tee view on hole #4 (see my Oregon Regional Review for normal tee shot):

All in all, it was a great trip for golf. It’s rare I get to enjoy sunny skies or any golf at all when visiting my hometown area in the winter. I would recommend all three of these courses highly.

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