Birthday Bonanza 2013!

Last year, I made the most of my birthday with three free rounds up in Ventura County. This year, I kept things a little closer to home…well, kind of. My Wednesday started with a visit to an Orange County course with one of the best birthday deals around.

Tustin Ranch Golf Club • Tustin, CA • 8/7/13

I’ve taken advantage of this offer several times now because it’s hard to resist. Not only is the course convenient (just a few miles from where I live), but it’s a chance to play one of the area’s more expensive tracks basically for free. It used to be completely free and included a round of golf, a meal and range balls. All you had to do was show up and show them your ID and they treated you like a king for a day. They changed the policy this year, but it’s still one heck of a deal. If you just play as a single, it costs $25 and includes all the same amenities. If you bring paying players with you (who benefit from reduced “member” prices as your guest), then you still get to play for free.

I just went by myself, which is what I’ve always done here, and was happy to pay the $25. The main reason I went solo again this year was because I wanted to get out and around as early as possible. I showed up while it was still dark out and they were able to get me out first with another single at 6:15. He turned out to be a quick player, too, so we zoomed around the course and were finished by 8:30! Afterward, I grabbed my “free” meal—a breakfast sandwich and drink from the snack bar—which was delicious.

In a way, I don’t mind paying the $25 now because I’ve always felt a little guilty in the past. I’ve never paid for a round here and probably will never pay anything near the rack rates. On one hand, I’m almost offended by the incredibly high prices they normally charge for what I consider to be a somewhat “average” course. But on the other hand, I absolutely loved the free birthday round. Now paying at least a little something takes away some of the guilt.

Tustin Ranch is a decent course. I don’t find it to be the most exciting layout, but it is solid. It’s a Ted Robinson design and has some of his hallmarks. The greens are the stars of this course as they are challenging. They are large and feature some severe slopes and undulations. Every time I’ve played here, they’ve been quite quick, as well. Basically, you cannot be above the hole here or you will have a hard time stopping the ball going downhill on chips or putts.

There are plenty of big bunkers throughout Tustin Ranch and the fairways feature some natural undulation to provide contour and variety. Tall, skinny palm trees can be found in abundance throughout the course. Most of them provide a nice visual frame around the sides and backs of the greens (more aesthetic than functional), but some will come in fairways and on a few tee shots. At some point, you will be begging your ball to slide past one of those narrow suckers when you need to make a difficult shot.

The 11th hole is the signature par-3 that you can see to your left when you drive into the parking lot. It’s a tough, but nice-looking hole over water to a well-protected green. The 9th and 18th are also exciting finishing holes for each side as the two greens are near one another and share a massive lake that you have to hit over for your approach shot. Both of these greens feature some of the most dramatic tiers on the course and it’s especially vital that you try and get your ball on the right level.

I wish my birthday weren’t in August because I never quite get this course in peak shape. The conditions were solid, but they were doing A LOT of maintenance around the course on Wednesday. There were several huge patches of rough that were completely cut out and it looks like they’ll be dropping in some new sod soon. Several bunkers were closed (marked as GUR) and are being redone. They were also trimming all the palm trees, so many had huge piles of dead fronds and debris underneath. The place definitely looks a bit “under construction” right now.

Beyond that maintenance work, things were decent and playable. The tee boxes were good. The fairways had plenty of brown spots and some thin areas, but were still very nice to hit from. The rough was a bit patchy with some bare areas and some super lush areas, too. In the bunkers that were open, the sand was nice, but it was super damp and heavy that early in the morning. The greens were the highlight as they were in excellent shape. Smooth and quick as always, especially once they started drying out a bit. 

My only complaint about the greens was that some of the pin placements were really tucked to the back edges and were borderline illegal. I counted off one that was only three paces to the edge and I think some were even tighter than that. With these big, sloping greens here, it seems unfair and unnecessary to set the holes up like that.

I do think the course is generally way overpriced for what you get and it will probably never excite me other than the prospect of playing it for free (or at least very cheap) on my birthday. However, the staff is always excellent. They are very friendly and courteous. With the way they treat you here, I do commend management for creating a very guest-friendly environment that helps justify some of the extra cost. Some, but not all!

Some pictures from Tustin Ranch Golf Club (8/7/13):

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The quick round at Tustin Ranch worked out well because it opened up a new possibility:

Barona Creek Golf Club • Lakeside, CA • 8/7/13

Geographically, this was anything but a convenient option, but the timing worked out so I could pull it off. Unfortunately, Barona Creek does not offer any birthday specials, but it’s a course I’ve been dying to play. The reason I’ve held off is because I knew I wanted to go there on a weekday afternoon in order to take advantage of their favorable rates. On weekend mornings, this place can cost up to $160. Yesterday, I paid $64, which included a discount as a casino card member there. When I got to the resort, I ran in and quickly signed up for a player’s card and it saved me an extra $16!

What I love about Barona Creek is that their twilight rates start at 11:00 every day. Most courses right now start twilight at 3:00, so that’s a sweet deal. It wasn’t too crowded, so after I checked in, I was able to head out to the first tee right away. I played with another single and we teed off right at 11:00. We played through one twosome on the front, but then my partner left after the 9th hole. I thought I’d zip through the back by myself, but ended up catching the groups ahead of me by the 12th hole. I ultimately joined the couple in front of me for the last few holes. Still, the total round was only a little over three hours, so I can’t complain!

I’ve always heard great things about this course and I was really hoping it would live up to the hype. I wasn’t too sure at first, but it quickly grew on me and I ended up loving the layout. It stands out from anything else in San Diego County with a links-inspired style design. The scenery is similar with the hills and giant boulders surrounding the course, but Barona Creek (and the whole resort) is built in a flatter, more wide open little valley. Throughout the course, you have unobstructed views and it’s a very nice setting. There are some minor elevation changes, but nothing as dramatic as other canyon courses in the eastern part of the county.

Like most good links designs, the elements that stand out most at Barona Creek are the bunkers and the greens. There are many sand traps on the course and they are really neat looking. They are very large, rugged and flow naturally with the landscape with long native grasses framing the edges. They are also to be avoided at all costs (same goes for the long native grasses and desert areas that surround every hole). There aren’t a ton of trees out here and most fairways are pretty forgiving (wide, but sloping slightly one way or the other usually). However, there are a handful of big old oak trees and water hazards that come into play from time to time in order to mix things up just enough when the flow of the course needs it.

There are a lot of nice holes here, but the hole that stood out to me most is the 14th. It’s a short uphill par-4 that’s set the furthest away from the resort buildings and up against a small hillside. The narrow fairway zig-zags back and forth up to an elevated green. It’s not a hard hole if you hit a safe tee shot, but it just has a great look when you are standing on the tee. Long hitters can attempt to drive it and that would be fun to watch someone going for it.

As much as I enjoyed the course itself, I was a little disappointed in the conditions. When I called ahead the other day, they said the course was looking and playing “great.” I know you can never fully trust the pro shop guys, but you’d think they’d at least bring up that the greens had been heavily sanded. They were not punched (as far as I could tell), but had a generous layer of sand on the surface. However, they still rolled true, quick and smooth even with the sand. It was more visually unpleasant as it didn’t affect playability much. Some spots in several of the fairways looked to have been aerated recently, but were recovering well. Like most links courses, there are mostly tight lies here (by design). Things seemed quite dried out throughout fairways and rough, which provided a lot of extra roll-out on drives, yet the turf was consistent and nice to hit from in most places. The bunkers looked great and the ones I was in had good sand. The tee boxes were nice and level. On the front they were pretty dried out and crunchy, but on most of the back nine holes they were pretty lush and green. 

Though the course doesn’t look its prettiest right now, it plays fine and I really enjoyed the layout. I’d love to come back here when I know it’s in tip-top shape. If you can get out here on a weekday, that’s by far the best deal.

Some pictures from Barona Creek Golf Club (8/7/13):

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The 14th:

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