Breaking the 300 Barrier – A Day at Torrey Pines

I wrote about my adventures on Saturday at Encinitas Ranch and the Kia Classic at Aviara. I haven’t posted a story yet about my round Sunday afternoon at Tierra Rejada with the LA Golf Group, but I promise to get that up later this week.

That’s because I wanted to skip ahead to my milestone day yesterday down in La Jolla, CA. Monday marked my 300th course played (and 301st, just for good measure). It was finally the perfect opportunity to go and play the famed Torrey Pines courses.

The main reason I’ve never played here is because of the exorbitant prices they charge those of us who don’t reside in San Diego. As a muni course, they cater to locals and regular players, which I can fully appreciate and understand. But the difference in price is significant and has always deterred me from playing there. It’s always been kind of a tease because I live just an hour away, but cannot benefit from any sort of local discounts.

To give you an idea, for a resident of San Diego it costs $61 to play the South course on a weekday and $76 for a weekend round. For those of us who live outside of San Diego, it is $183 weekday and $229 weekend. It’s quite a big difference, as you can see. Torrey Pines used to be a great deal for anyone to play. I know many guys who used to play it “back in the day” at great rates across the board.

Torrey Pines has been a longtime host of an annual PGA Tour event (currently called the Farmers Insurance Open) and has always been a sought-after place to play, but they still kept the prices down for awhile. Then once it was selected as host for the 2008 U.S. Open and the South course was renovated by Rees Jones (2001) and The Lodge opened up, they really bought into the hype as more of a “destination” course and started jacking up the rates. For what you get at Torrey Pines, though, the resident rates are still a steal of a deal. It’s just the rest of us who have to pay a lot more for the right to play here.

Because Torrey Pines would represent the 300th course I’ve played, such a “special occasion” helped me justify the price in my own mind. I cannot help but compare it to similarly run courses like TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, Bethpage Black in New York and Cog Hill outside of Chicago. Like Torrey, they offer nice rates to local players, but charge out-of-towners a pretty penny to play their nationally acclaimed courses. Well, I paid around $150 each to play both Harding Park and Cog Hill while on vacations, and I know I will gladly do the same if I get a chance to play Bethpage Black. So I just had to look at Torrey Pines as likely a “bucket list” kind of place worth a once-in-a-lifetime splurge.

With my mind made up, all I had to do was go down there and play. The extra wrinkle at Torrey, though, is that it’s not easy to get out on (or so I thought). Plenty of golfers (resident and non-resident) flock to La Jolla every day for a chance to test their mettle on these two great tracks. In fact, there’s a whole sub-culture to the process that’s an interesting component of the Torrey Pines experience.

Residents and non-residents alike can book tee times well in advance, but there is a pretty hefty booking fee per player. If you are coming in from way out-of-town and want to ensure you get to play here, your best bet is to suck it up and pay the fee for a guaranteed time. Just be sure to call way in advance of your play date(s) because the tee sheets fill up quickly.

For many others, the routine at Torrey Pines is to try your luck with the wait list. As a single player, that was my best option. I showed up to the course around 5:00 am. It was pitch black and foggy, but there were several cars and players already milling around in the parking lot. The protocol for walk-ons is to put your golf bag in a line-up next to the starter’s window. On very busy days, some guys will get there hours early, drop their bag in line and then sleep in their car until the starter actually gets there.

I chose to play yesterday because there weren’t any tournaments or events going on and a Monday offered my best chance of getting out quickly. Plus, I wanted to play for the weekday rates to save at least a little bit of money. I got there early, but still at five in the morning on a Monday, my bag was 10th in line. The reason this has become such a tradition is that Torrey Pines does not book any advanced tee times before 7:30am on any day. From dawn until then, it is strictly reserved for walk-on players. First come, first serve.

Just because I was the 10th bag does not mean I was the 10th player in line. Many of the bags in line represented a whole foursome. Some were singles, some were twosomes and some were threesomes, so you really don’t know for sure until people start lining up. By the time the starter opened up at 6:30, there were a bunch of people in front of me and behind me all waiting for their turn.

Many of the old regulars choose to play the North course as it’s a less-challenging course and not quite as in-demand from tourist players who really want to play the South. My hopes were to play both courses yesterday, but South was my priority as the official #300 on my list. By the time I got to the window, I had no worries about getting out quickly before the 7:30 tee times started. I was paired with a threesome and we teed off at 7:00—the third group off the tee. Though it was two hours of waiting just to get to the starter’s window, I was amazed at how smoothly it went after that.

We enjoyed a nice early morning walking pace at just under 4.5 hours. The South is a long and tough course that makes you work on every shot, and walking it is a pretty good workout, so that pace doesn’t surprise me much. When I was done playing the South, I went back to the starter and put my name on the waiting list for North. He seemed unsure as to when I’d get out, but it sounded promising. Less than 20 minutes later I was getting called and teeing off on the first tee on the North course. What a pleasant surprise. The pace for the second round was slower than the first at just under five hours, but it was a beautiful day and I didn’t mind taking my time to enjoy both of these great layouts and all the spectacular scenery they offer.

Regarding the price, they don’t offer any sort of replay rate, but the North is a bit more reasonable to begin with. It’s still $100 on a weekday, but that didn’t seem so bad after paying the full South fee earlier.

Sorry for such a long preamble, but I think the price and the walk-on experience are two very important things when it comes to spending a day at Torrey Pines.

As for the courses themselves, I was blown away. I enjoyed both of them more than I even expected. I read a lot of reviews on Greenskeeper.org (most from resident players) and they often like to nit-pick every little thing that bugs them about the courses. The way they make it sound is that if you don’t play within a few weeks of the Farmers Insurance Open (when the courses are obviously at their best condition-wise) you will be sorely disappointed. Many comment on how much of a rip-off it is at the non-resident rate and some will say it’s barely worth the resident rate.

As a city-owned course with kikuyu grass in the fairways and rough and poa annua greens, I am sure the conditions here can fluctuate at various points in the year. The last review of the South course from a couple weeks ago almost scared me away because it sounded like things were awful. I’m glad I didn’t let it deter me because I was very impressed with the conditions. I have absolutely no complaints. Excellent fairways, near-perfect greens, beautifully manicured tee boxes, bunkers full of soft sand and thick, lush rough all throughout both courses.

The rough is one of the big stories at Torrey Pines. It will leave an impression on you and you will hit at least a few shots out of it during your round. The fairways here are very narrow and most of them slope to one side or the other, making them hard to hold at times. The rough yesterday was probably about four inches deep (nothing compared to how deep it is during the tournaments) and with kikuyu grass, it will wear you out big time. It’s hard to hit from and it’s demoralizing, but it’s strangely fun in a sadistic way. It’s a key part of the experience here, if you ask me.

Both South and North offer some spectacular views along the cliffs of La Jolla and they use the natural terrain to shape the holes. It is really a wonderful setting for a golf course.

It was very foggy during my morning round and really didn’t clear up much until the back nine, so unfortunately some of the best views on the South course (3rd and 4th holes particularly) were obscured. I do love playing a great seaside course in early morning fog, but I do wish I would have gotten better views on the South. It cleared up enough as we got to play some of the beautiful back nine holes along the cliffs like 12, 13, 14 and 16, so it wasn’t a complete loss.

People like playing the South because it is a great test of your golf skills. It is a long course that plays at just over 7,000 yards from the blue tees. The black tees can be played “by permission only” according to the scorecard and are over 7,600 yards. Still, there are some “alternate” back tee boxes that Jones added in for the U.S. Open redesign that can stretch the course even further. One of the guys in my morning foursome was a longtime SD resident and pointed out many things to me during our round, including the crazy across-the-cliff alternate tee boxes on the par-5 13th hole.

One hole that always stands out on the television broadcasts is the 18th hole. It’s a very simple design meant to provide a great risk/reward opportunity. It’s a pretty straightforward par-5 with a small pond in front of the green. For the tournaments, they usually shave down the rough in front of the green for Sunday’s traditional front left pin placement so that balls will rarely stay out of the water if left short or given too much backspin. And with the grandstands all around, it makes for a great finishing hole. In real life, it was a little underwhelming. It’s not as visually intimidating and it’s a fairly benign three-shot hole if you play it safe. If you go for it, there is more room for error around the green without the grandstands there. It also depends on pin placement and much firmer/faster tournament conditions. The pin was in the middle yesterday and didn’t bring the water in play at all, so it was easily accessible with the softer conditions.

After contending with holes 1-17 on the South course, the 18th is almost a pick-me-up for us average players who need their confidence back at the end of a round. It sure worked for me as I got a pretty routine birdie that left me feeling good after an otherwise tough round of golf.

All told, I actually played better than I would have expected on the South course. I went in expecting to play the white tees (which are still over 6,700 yards), but joined the guys in my group on the blues. I’m glad I did because I felt like I got more of the total TP experience.

By the time I teed off on North, I was ready to relax a bit more and enjoy the afternoon. The stress of getting out on the courses was gone. The weather had cleared up nicely and the temperature was perfect in the mid-60s. I was paired with three guys visiting from Idaho. They were fun to play with and were definitely enjoying the beautiful weather and scenery as an escape from a cold winter up there with no golf at all. Their enjoyment of some of the views helped give me my own “tourist” feeling and reminded me I was playing somewhere truly special, even if it is just an hour’s drive from my house.

I walked the South course, had barely eaten anything and was ready enjoy a more casual round on North, so I rented a cart this time. Though for $20 a player (actually $40 a cart whether you have one or two riders), it’s another area where they stick it to you.

I really didn’t know what to expect from the North course. They do play one of the early rounds here during the Farmers Insurance Open, but they don’t show as much of it on TV and I was less familiar with the signature holes. The first hole is nice as you go up over a small rise in the fairway and get to view the ocean in the background. Then, when you get to the 5th hole, you really get a treat.

The 5th hole is a fun par-4 that doglegs left over a hill. As you turn the corner, you get a great downhill approach view overlooking the cliffs and ocean in the background. By the time we played it, all the paragliders (or whatever you call those guys out there) were floating around over the cliffs by the South course in the distance.

Then you get to the 6th hole, which is one of the most beautiful par-3 holes anywhere with a steep drop off and incredible views of everything in the distance. The 7th runs along the cliff and back uphill. It’s a tough dogleg right that requires two great shots to get at the green perched way up there.

5-7 on the North course is one of the best three-hole stretches anywhere I’ve played. Yet the North course also has a few rather boring holes. Both 9 and 18 come to mind as pretty straight and simple par-5 layouts that don’t offer much excitement. So the North really has a bit of everything.

Either way, I loved both courses. If I had to choose which one I liked more, I am not sure I could pick right now. They each have many positives and a few so/so elements. It may take awhile for things to sink in before I figure out where they both fit in my overall San Diego County rankings later this year.

If I get the uncontrollable urge to play Torrey again, I would be more likely to go back and play North simply for the better rates and a better chance of getting out. I would love to go down there at least once a year to play, but the non-resident price is too much for me. It would really be great if they could at least introduce an intermediate rate for SCGA members or something else that helps golfers throughout Southern California get out for a more reasonable price on a regular basis.

If I get invited to a special event or have a chance to play with someone and piggyback on their resident rates, I will go to Torrey again in a heartbeat. Otherwise, I’ll just have to hold onto fond memories of my experiences there yesterday and think of it like so many other “bucket list” courses I’ve had the pleasure to play in the past 10 years.

Some pictures from Torrey Pines Golf Course (South) (3/25/13):

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This is what it looked like from the signature 3rd tee in the heavy coastal fog:

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The 4th hole is definitely one of the longest par-4s I’ve ever played at 467 yards from the blue tees.

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Some pictures from Torrey Pines Golf Course (North) (3/25/13):

Some views from the great stretch of holes 5-7:

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