Central Coast Day 2: Old Favorites and New Surprises

If Day 1 wasn’t productive enough, my friend and I were back at it nice and early Saturday morning. There were 36 more holes on the schedule, and it started with one of the Central Coast’s most hidden gems…

Rancho Maria Golf Club • Orcutt, CA • 9/7/13

Rancho Maria does not generally come up in conversations when people are talking about Central Coast golf options. Granted, there are plenty of great courses in a place where quality outweighs quantity, but Rancho Maria is one few people outside the area seem to have played (or even heard of, for that matter).

For me, it was one of the last couple of courses on my personal “to do” list in this region.  In fact, Rancho Maria and the Ranch Course at The Alisal were actually the last two public regulation 18-hole courses in Santa Barbara County I hadn’t played. This one is much more accessible and it was geographically convenient to Monarch Dunes, where we’d be playing in the afternoon.

We had a 6:50 tee time and we could see the course looked to be in nice shape when we pulled into the parking lot. The weekend rack price was $47, which included a cart (more on the cart situation later) and was a hell of a deal for a course that turned out to be very enjoyable. We were paired with a local twosome. They knew the course backwards and forwards, which turned out to be helpful and informational during the round. This is a course where some local knowledge can definitely pay off.

We were in the fourth group off the tee, but the early bird pace was plenty quick and we finished in just under four hours. Regarding the carts, they are a bit unique here as they do no feature roofs. That’s rare to see and it took some getting used to, but it was kind of fun and more convenient in some regards. That said, I’m not sure I’d be too excited about these carts when it’s raining or hot, when some cover/shade would be preferred.

Rancho Maria is an older course and it offers a classic charm. Whereas some newer courses force undulation on greens and move a lot of earth to provide contours on fairways, it seems to flow naturally here with the lay of the land. In some respects, it creates some quirky design elements. In others, it looks and feels just right.

One such element is Rancho Maria’s most notable hallmark, the massive eucalyptus tree that guards the 16th green. “Massive” may not even do it justice. I’ve never seen a eucalyptus tree this large before in my life and it sits just to the front and left of the green. You have no choice but to play a lower approach shot to avoid the overhanging branches. The guys we played with said you used to be able to hit over it, but those days are long gone. It’s a feature that definitely impacts playability of the hole, but it’s so distinctive, beautiful and cool that it’s a case where form outweighs function.

Similarly, there are some naturally side-slanting fairways, tight dogleg angles and severely sloped greens that reflect the natural twists and turns of the landscape. The greens here are especially tricky. The 4th green stands out because of its insane side-slope that is almost unfair, but still highly memorable. Perhaps because I almost made a long rainbow putt that broke a good 15 feet.

Plenty of trees line the fairways and create some narrow chutes to contend with from the blue tees. Things tend to open up a little after that and the greens are accessible. There is a lot of OB in play, as well, if you happen to stray beyond the tree line on most holes. So you always have to be fearful of spraying it too far.

The setting at Rancho Maria is also very nice. It’s right off of Highway 1 and a few holes line the main road, overlooking the farmland across the street in the flat part of the valley—which happened to have a thin layer of morning fog rolling across for a very beautiful backdrop. On the other side of the course are some beautiful golden rolling hills, where plenty of cows were out grazing. There are no houses around the course and it’s a a great atmosphere for golf.

The course was in excellent condition I thought. The greens were pretty quick and smooth, and very soft/receptive in the early morning. The fairways were in great shape. They had some thin areas here and there, but mostly excellent. The rough was good and would get a bit spottier the further you strayed from the fairways. Beyond the tree lines it was mostly just dirt and hardpan as you neared the OB stakes, giving you even more incentive to stay inside the trees.

My only real concern on this course is the amount of exposed roots on the outer edges of fairways and in all the rough below the old growth trees. If you are near the trees, pay careful attention to the ground underneath your ball to avoid injury. The bunkers were damp and heavy in the morning, but the few I found had good sand.

Though you don’t hear much about Rancho Maria and it does have a few old course quirks, it’s really a wonderful track. The locals we played with said they always keep it in good shape and it’s clear they put more money into maintenance than marketing. If you look at their website and consider their lack of exposure compared to other local courses, you’d think this was nothing more than a cheap, crappy old muni. It’s not. It’s full of character, charm and challenge and a worthy stop if you are looking for somewhere different to play beyond the obvious Central Coast choices. It’s definitely a hidden gem if you ask me.

Some pictures from Rancho Maria Golf Club (9/7/13):

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This photo almost does the tree on 16 justice:

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For the finale of our trip, it was time to pay visit to an old favorite on the Central Coast…

Monarch Dunes Golf Club (Old Course) • Nipomo, CA • 9/7/13

This was my third time playing this course and the second year in a row heading up there for a Greenskeeper.org event. This wonderful course is an annual stop for GK and, for me, always a good excuse for another Central Coast golf adventure.

I won’t go into crazy detail this time, but as always will reflect on impressions, conditions and experiences from this visit. To see some photos and reviews from my last visit (including playing the 12-hole par-3 “Challenge Course” that I really love), you can see last year’s post HERE.

When I first heard about Monarch Dunes and saw some of the early artist renderings on their original website, I couldn’t wait to play it. The first time I finally played it in 2011, I found it quite enjoyable, but slightly underwhelming compared to my lofty expectations. Last year, I came to appreciate it more once I knew some of the holes better. I found myself looking forward to a rematch with each of them.

In other words, Monarch Dunes won me over more last year. This year, I might have taken a slight step backward again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an enjoyable course on all levels, but there’s still something that I can’t quite put my finger on that keeps me from absolutely loving it. It’s a very dramatic layout with nice aesthetic touches, but I think some design elements feel a tad “forced” in places.

I have always struggled with the greens here. They don’t suit my low ball flight well as they are hard to hold with somewhat springy surfaces. They feature a lot of undulation and are difficult to read, making chips and putts very tough to get into the hole (at least for me). Maybe I’m just griping because my usually dependable short game tends to take a dump here, but something doesn’t quite suit my eye when I’m standing on and around these greens.

Please don’t take this as a negative review because I am still fond of Monarch Dunes and would recommend it in a heartbeat. The layout challenges me, which can be frustrating, but it keeps me wanting to come back and try again. I have no doubt I’ll be back here next year with high hopes, only to fall prey to my own mental hurdles on a course that’s not as difficult as I’ve made it in my mind!

The course was in pretty good overall condition, but didn’t seem nearly as nice as last year when I was really impressed with conditions. This year felt a little rougher around the edges, but still solid overall. The greens were in good shape, rolling smooth and fast in the afternoon. It’s not easy to make ball marks on these greens, so that means less damage as the day goes on.

As for the Greenskeeper.org event, it was another great success. We had a ton of fun out there as always. We had a smaller group than normal, but it was kind of nice with a more intimate crew getting together on this unique course.

Most people I know really, really love this course, so you probably will too if you decide to visit it. I still don’t love it quite as much as I want to, but I really don’t have any tangible complaints and I’m always happy to come back and play it again. Some day I hope to figure out these greens and how to effectively play each hole based on my game.

Some new pictures from Monarch Dunes Golf Club (Old Course) (9/7/13):

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After golf, a group of us headed to A.J. Spurs in Grover Beach just north of the course. We ate at the one in Buellton last year. This is a really fun restaurant and great for a group meal because of the family style servings, delicious food (in very large portions) and Old West decor.

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