Course Reviews: Admiral Baker Golf Course (North vs. South)

It’s an age-old battle of North vs. South.

Generally, in the golf world (especially here in Southern California), the South is usually the stronger representative at 36-hole facilities that use a simple North/South distinction in the course names. Torrey Pines, Pelican Hill and even Los Serranos all come to mind.

Admiral Baker Golf Course is obviously named for an important Naval leader, and though I know it’s not the case, my fantasy has him commanding the Union Navy in battle against the Confederates. After all, at Admiral Baker Golf Course—just like in the Civil War—it’s a case where the North is far superior than the South in every way.

Okay, I’m just having a little fun to make this story a little more interesting. In reality, golf at Admiral Baker down in San Diego is nothing too dramatic or worth fighting any battles over. It’s a solid facility with two decent courses to choose from, and I finally had a chance to play both on Sunday.

For me, it was the result of a plan coming together just right. With the Chargers set to play their playoff game in Cincinnati at 10:00 PST, I hoped that would mean these usually crowded courses might be a little less busy. The strategy ultimately paid off pretty well.

I got there pretty early to get on the wait list for whichever course they could get me on first. I actually figured dawn patrol would be the busiest time with people wanting to get out early and home in time for kickoff. That was somewhat true, but I didn’t have to do much waiting at all before they called me to check in. They put me in the second group off on the North Course at 7:04, paired with three other walk-on singles.

Round 1: NORTH COURSE

Once it was light enough out and the starter gave us the green light, we teed off and enjoyed a nice pace for a morning round. The lead group did their job and we never pressed them much. Likewise, the group behind never pushed us at all, so we played at our own speed and finished in 3.5 hours.

The price was $55, which included a cart. Though not cheap, it’s reasonable enough. I paid the full civilian rate, whereas most people out there were getting a good military discount. Good for them.

I had no real knowledge of what to expect from this course. I had read plenty of reviews on Greenskeeper.org, but most were from locals who have played the course a lot. So most of the commentary was about conditions and about it being a “solid” local option. And I had no pictures for reference, so I always just imagined it being a rather basic “muni” kind of course, even though it’s military, not municipal. I expected something more along the lines of the MCAS Miramar course, but I got something I found to be much more enjoyable.

The North Course features a nice layout with some decent scenery and a fair amount of challenge. It’s not overly difficult and most holes are pretty forgiving from tee to green, but at over 6,800 from the blue tees it certainly makes you work for a good score.

The greens feature some interesting undulation and bunkers are well-placed for protection around them. The layout is more hilly than I realized, as well. It’s nothing too dramatic like Balboa Park, but it’s far from the flat, boring course I envisioned in my head. There are some natural hazard areas, including a big pond that is the centerpiece of the back nine and is designated as an Audubon certified sanctuary.

Overall, the course reminded me of a hybrid between Balboa Park and Riverwalk. Personally, I’d probably rank it a slight notch above Riverwalk.

The course was in pretty good overall shape for winter, which was also a nice bonus. The tee boxes were fine and the fairways were mostly pretty good. It did seem there were multiple types of grasses growing throughout the course. Overall, some areas were better than others and there were still plenty of thin spots mixed in. The rough was fairly consistent and easy to hit from. The bunkers had nice white resort-quality sand.

The greens were also very good. They were a little firm, so I found them hard to hold shots at times, but the surfaces were smooth with hardly any ball marks and were rolling true at medium/quick speeds. I believe the grass used on the North Course was bent grass (or something mixed with that), though I am not sure. Whatever it is, it’s not a type you see on many SoCal courses. One of my playing partners remarked how this grass has made a huge difference here because the course gets so much play and the firmer surfaces lead to less damage. It sounds like the greens might have been a big problem area in the past.

The North Course was a very pleasant surprise and enjoyable on all levels. I could definitely see myself playing here again, though I wish I could get the military discounts, which would make it even more appealing. Of course, the San Diego area has so many good courses to choose from (including a lot in this same price range), so don’t take this relatively positive review out of context. Comparatively, Admiral Baker is still nothing more than a solid middle-of-the-road option in this region that’s so loaded with great golf.

Some pictures from Admiral Baker Golf Course (North) (1/5/14):

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I had conquered the North, and it didn’t take long to take on the little brother at Admiral Baker…

Round 2: SOUTH COURSE

Within a few minutes of finishing on the North, I checked in with the pro shop to see about a replay on the South. The replay rate was just $20, which included the cart. It would have only been $10 if I chose to walk. Either way, it’s a good deal.

I headed over to the first tee and could see the South Course was a little busier than I hoped with the Charger game already in progress. I checked in with the starter and he let me know I could join another couple of singles going off in a few minutes. That gave me time to grab a hot dog and Gatorade at the snack shack (conveniently located a few feet from the first tee box).

We teed off at 10:45 and though we waited on the threesome ahead of us most of the round, the overall pace was still pretty good at 3 hours, 45 minutes. We picked up a fourth single along the way and even a fifth who played with us on the 18th hole. The more the merrier on a beautiful day. Winter in San Diego is hard to beat!

I knew going into the day that the North Course was generally considered better than the South. My understanding was the North was longer and more of the “championship” level design while the South was perhaps geared more toward the high-handicapper with shorter distances (topping out at just over 6,100 yards) and a slightly more “target” style design. In my head, I imagined something like the two courses at Costa Mesa Country Club here in Orange County.

It’s no secret I love the shorter Mesa Linda course at Costa Mesa. So after a positive impression of the North in the morning, I hoped that the South Course would bring me a lot of fun just like Mesa Linda. I guess I set my expectations too high because nothing about it excited me too much. It’s a fine course that certainly serves its purpose as a beginner-friendly design, but nothing too interesting.

Easily the best holes on the South are the two that are definitely the least “beginner-friendly.” In fact, they are two of the more intimidating holes at the entire Admiral Baker complex. The par-3 3rd is a nice-looking hole over a big water hazard without too much room for error.

Then the 13th is a fun par-4 that doglegs right over a creek to a well-protected green. A big tree sits at the end of the fairway and can get in your way on the approach. It’s a hole where some local knowledge helps because positioning off the tee is vital.

Otherwise, the South course is relatively flat and pretty forgiving from tee to green. Most fairways run parallel to one another (with usually only a thin line of trees between) so even a stray drive will stay in play and not do too much damage. Overall, the back nine is more interesting and challenging than the front nine on the South. It does bring a little more trouble into play.

There are a number of short par-4s on the South that are reachable for long hitters and have some room for error, so it is fun to be aggressive here.

One thing I did like on the South was the mounding around some of the greens, primarily on the back nine. In this case, they are a bit more form than function, but it still perks up an otherwise bland design.

The South was definitely not in as good a shape as the North. It seemed like every lie I had in the fairway and rough was different. There were many different patches of all types of grass. There were many thin areas and some lush ones, too. It was not horrible, but you really had to pay attention to the lie and grass on each shot. The tee boxes were mostly good and the bunkers were solid, as well.

The greens on the South are different type of grass than on the North, as well. They are more traditional SoCal poa annua, so I felt more comfortable on them. They were very, very soft and receptive, but also smooth on putts rolling at medium speeds. The soft turf did lead to some ball mark damage, but it wasn’t as bad as you’d think it would be on such a busy course with a lot of high-handicappers. I did notice some burnt-out spots on a couple of greens, but the holes were kept away from those areas.

Overall, it was a good day at Admiral Baker and I’m glad I finally got to check both courses off my list.

Some pictures from Admiral Baker Golf Course (South) (1/5/13):

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