On Sunday, a friend and I drove down to Santee (just east of San Diego) to check out this course. I had previously purchased a voucher on Underpar.com that was a great deal. It was $74 for two players and included a same-day replay round, so $37 a piece was a steal for this course that is generally considered a bit overpriced. The voucher was set to expire at the end of the month and though I generally don’t like playing Sunday afternoons, the voucher was only good after 11:00 on weekends and this was the best day for both of us. We needed to use it or lose it.
We got down there a bit early. The course was not too crowded at all, so they let us off around 10:40 as a twosome. We could see a few scattered groups out on the course, but we never ran into anyone and were able to enjoy our own pace during the first round. It was a beautiful day, so I am surprised there weren’t many people out there. Well, I guess they were waiting for the afternoon (after 1:00) when weekend prices drop a bit at Carlton Oaks.
When we circled around for our replay round, the first tee was wide open and we headed out quickly after grabbing a quick hot dog (quite tasty and surprisingly inexpensive by golf course standards). All was going well until we ran into a number of groups. By the 7th hole, things were getting backed up and our joyride came to a grinding halt. What I found interesting was most every group out there was another twosome. Still, it was slow going after that.
By the time we finished the signature 11th and 12th holes, we were running out of energy and patience, so we decided to call it a day. We had gotten more than our money’s worth already and it was just too draining having to wait so much after having such an ideal pace the rest of the day.
Carlton Oaks features a very fun and challenging layout designed by Perry Dye, son of famed course architect, Pete Dye (one of my personal favorites, as you may know). Taking claim as the only Dye-designed course in San Diego County, this offers all the hallmarks you’d expect from this family.
The landscape here is overall very flat, but they did a good job creating natural contour with plenty of mounding and undulation throughout the fairways, rough areas and around the greens. This provides some visual appeal and also, as is typical on Dye courses, intriguing play options. These mounds can sometimes be helpful if you catch the right slopes. But they can also be maddening if you hit the wrong sides of the hills. I always find this to be a fun feature.
The Dyes have always been big on using railroad ties along the edges of water hazards and sometimes in bunkers. Carlton Oaks takes this concept to the extreme with many sand traps featuring slanted railroad tie faces. In reality, there’s more form than function in these unique-looking bunkers, but it’s still an interesting element throughout the course.
I thought the back nine layout was stronger overall than the front, but both have plenty of memorable holes. I think the highlight stretch is 11-13. The 11th is a relatively short par-4 that is a major dogleg right around a lake, tempting you to bite off as much of the corner as you can for an easier approach shot.
The 12th is a beautiful par-3 nestled on the other side of that lake with a stark drop-off on the right edge of the green. There’s plenty of bail-out room left and absolutely no room for error right. However, the more you chicken out, the more intimidating your next pitch/chip shot will be with the water looming behind the hole. Given the sucker pin placement we had Sunday (on the right, just a few paces from water’s edge), it was extra scary.
11 and 12 are really the signature holes at Carlton Oaks, but the 12th is a beast of a par-5 to follow up right after those tight water holes. There isn’t anything specifically challenging about it with no water hazards and plenty of room to work with tee to green, but it is long at 575 yards from the blue tees and has a nice visual look as you get closer to the green and have a neat bunker complex along the right side of the fairway to make things look extra tight.
I do think they could benefit from a “combo” set of tees between blue and white. We played the blues, but it felt a bit too long for me at 6,700 yards. However, the whites are only 6,101 and that felt a tad too short. Something in the middle using a mix of the two tee boxes would be ideal.
We were a little worried about the conditions heading in. The most recent reviews on Greenskeeper.org didn’t sound so promising and have seemed to go steadily downward over the past couple of years. It seems they’ve been doing some major maintenance here—redoing the greens and other work that has left the course a little worse for the ware.
We were pleasantly surprised to find Carlton Oaks was in decent playable shape. This was our first time here, so I can’t speak to what it might have looked like in its heyday. I can imagine this being a really really stunning course if everything were perfectly lush, green and manicured. What I can say today was the greens were in great shape and were definitely the highlight condition-wise. They rolled at medium speeds, but were super true and smooth on putts.
The fairways and rough were okay, but inconsistent with mix of brown and green areas (thin in some places, nice and fluffy in others). Things weren’t that visually impressive, but everything was plenty playable, though. I will say the greenside bunkers could use a little extra sand given how challenging they are. The sand in them was good quality, but the top layer just felt a little thin for the delicate shots required to get out of some of them.
Given the price we paid, our visit to Carlton Oaks was definitely a success. The layout is fantastic and the conditions were decent enough. That said, I do think their normal rates are too inflated. I usually see weekend tee times listed on GolfNow in the $75 range and I can’t say it’s worth that in its current condition. If they can get back to top-shelf conditioning someday, then a higher price tag would certainly be warranted for this championship-level layout and relatively secluded setting.
Some pictures from Carlton Oaks Golf Club (7/14/13):