Getting Dramatic in the Inland Empire

Saturday found me playing a double-dip on two of the Inland Empire’s more “dramatic” designs. Adding to the drama was the afternoon round was my second match of this year’s GK Cup (Greenskeeper.org) tournament.

The afternoon match was set at Hidden Valley Golf Club. If you clicked on a link just to read about that course, you’ll want to scroll down because my first review is a bit lengthy. After all, for my warm-up round I made a return visit to the course with perhaps the most drama of them all…

Champions Club at The Retreat • Corona, CA • 4/19/14

From my experience, this is easily the most polarizing course design in all of Southern California. It’s the place that people love to hate, yet I know a handful who do really like what it offers.

I probably fall somewhere in between. There are aspects of Champions Club that appeal greatly to me and the style of game I like to play. It’s a visually stunning course running up and down through a rugged canyon setting and it’s a true “target” golf design that puts a bigger premium on accuracy than distance.

On the other hand, there are some very unusual and tricky hole designs that aren’t for the faint of heart, and I can certainly understand why some people despise the actual layout.

On another level, there’s an aspect of service. As part of a nice residential community (The Retreat, of course), the club used to be strictly private. They’ve been public for several years now, but there’s still an air of “snootiness” that some may like and others may not. I remember the first (and only other) time I played there a few years ago. The very first thing the pro shop guy said to me (before any kind of “Hello” or a “How can I help you?”) was “Are you a scratch golfer?”

He said it in a very confrontational way. When I replied “no,” he grumbled “well, you better play from the white tees then.”

He may be right and he may have just been trying to be helpful, but I didn’t like the tone of it and it set things off on the wrong foot. For the record, I did play the whites that day and it was probably a good idea as a first-time visitor.

The big clubhouse is very nice and the facilities are great overall, so the place gives off a higher-end feel than similarly priced courses in the area. However, conditioning is also an ongoing issue here. On their website, the description says how Champions Club is known for its pristine conditioning. I see enough GK reviews to know that’s never the case anymore. To be fair to the course, though, it does seem prices have come down in the past few years to reflect what is now a less-than-high-end product when it comes to the course conditioning.

Don’t get me wrong, the conditions are decent enough most of the time and fall right in the range with its competitors along the I-15 Corridor (Eagle Glen, Dos Lagos, Glen Ivy, etc.). In that, it’s far from “pristine,” but generally plenty playable.

I booked a 7:00 tee time through GolfNow for $45. I knew it was a slightly reduced rate because they just aerated the greens earlier in the week. Much, much more on that later. I ended up playing with a twosome that went off at 6:50 and we were the third group out behind a couple of foursomes. Still, the early morning pace was fantastic and we finished in about 3 hours, 45 minutes. Also, I’m please to note that the staff was much friendlier than on my previous visit.

There are some incredible views a lot of memorable holes at Champions Club. It’s a visually stunning and impressive layout in the canyon. There are severe uphill and downhill shots required and forced carries over ravines. The fairways are mostly narrow and feature plenty of slope, so precise tee shots are generally required. For longer hitters playing the blue or white tees, the driver may stay in the bag more often than not.

So much of this course is about positioning off the tee. That’s because the greens are very hard to get at. Most of them are pretty wide, but very shallow front to back, and they feature some crazy undulation. This is a Nicklaus course, so you can expect tough greens. Most of the greens are elevated and well-protected, so you have to be bold and accurate to have any sort of chance at birdie. Also, they are known for being pretty firm and fast, so they can be hard to hold on approaches, so that makes things even tougher.

Many holes would be categorized as “risk/reward” designs. The 1st, 2nd, 6th, 11th, 12th, 16th and 17th would all fall under that description if you ask me. The course features a great collection of par-3s, as well.

Since the last time I played there, they have taken some measures to “soften” the course a little bit for the public players coming to visit. I don’t know everything they did specifically, but I know they removed some bunkers and did some other things to not make it so brutal in certain places. The only one I noticed specifically was the par-3 12th hole. As it is now, it’s still a tough hole, but before it was really nasty with everything sloping severely from left to right and anything rolling off to the right was pure trouble. They took out a big bunker, added some thick rough to stop balls from rolling into the canyon and cut out some trees. It’s a much better hole now.

Holes 10-14 are the heart of the roller coaster ride known as Champions Club. These are intimidating holes and downright confusing for a first-time player. This time going back, I had some idea of what was required for each one and was able to play them properly. That made a big difference. They are still not easy, but I can appreciate the specific strategy required for each.

One hole I really didn’t care for the first time and I still am not a big fan of is the 10th. It is a tough par-4 that’s pretty much an easy layup of 170-180 yards off the tee and then you’ll still be left with that same kind of distance for your approach. However, you are hitting over a ravine and to a severely elevated green. Between the ravine and the green, there is some room to land short, but you’ll be faced with an awkward blind uphill shot out of rough (there’s no fairway cut on that side). So basically it’s a forced lay-up followed by a long and extremely difficult approach to a very tough green. Have fun!

Otherwise, I kind of enjoy the design here. It’s not the kind of course I would ever want to play every day, but it’s one where you want to visit once every year or two just to ride the roller coaster and see what kind of shots  you can pull off.

As I hinted at earlier, the course isn’t very super lush or pretty at the moment, but it was very playable from tee to green. The tee boxes were the highlight. They were excellent. The fairways were semi-dormant with a lot of roll-out (unless you find one of the scattered soggy patches that were like magnets to my ball), but generally nice to hit from. The rough was not too penal. I wasn’t in a bunker (somehow), so no comments there.

But speaking of sand, the aerated greens were an absolute mess. There was more sand than grass on most of the surfaces. They were slow, bumpy and basically laughable. While things were still damp in the morning, it was like putting through oatmeal. In all my years, I’ve never seen this much sand on aerated greens. You couldn’t even see hardly any aeration holes. I think it will take several weeks for them to be playable, but we’ll have to see.

The greens marred what would have otherwise been a very good experience at Champions Club. The discounted price was nice, but not enough to make up for how bad they were. That said, I think the affect on my score was a wash. Putting was brutal and pretty pointless, but the greens were much softer and easier to hold than normal on approach shots, so I guess it’s a bit of a trade-off.

Champions Club is worth a visit just to make your own opinions of it. It probably takes several times of playing it to understand and appreciate any strategies required for specific holes, but not everybody has that kind of patience. Some might play it once and never come back because it’s just too wacky.

Some pictures from Champions Club at The Retreat (4/19/14):

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Other than the greens that probably did more damage to my putting stroke than anything, Champions Club was actually a fitting warm up to my afternoon round…

Hidden Valley Golf Club • Norco, CA • 4/19/14

Just a short drive up the freeway, I visited another course I was looking forward to playing again. In fact, this one has been near the top of my list for a return visit. The only other time I played here was almost 10 years ago and my memories of it were pretty vague. I just remember liking it a lot.

This course has been through some turmoil over those years in between visits. They had a big scandal thanks to a tournament group who set up “hospitality” tents with strippers (and more, as the rumors go) throughout the course. Then when the economy went in the toilet, there was a good chance it was going to close altogether. Thankfully that never happened because this is a really good course.

Like Champions Club, Hidden Valley is a tough target course set in a similar hilly canyon setting. It’s got a few funky holes of its own, but it very enjoyable on all levels if you ask me.

My opponent and I had a 12:20 tee time that was a $42 “hot deal” rate through GolfNow. It was worth every penny of that. Any chance to play out here for under $50 is worth taking, especially knowing they haven’t aerated recently like so many other local courses. In fact, the pure greens on Saturday afternoon were like heaven compared to the fiasco I had in the morning!

We were paired with another twosome and we teed off on time. The course was plenty busy, but the pace was pretty good and it took about 4 hours, 15 minutes total. The wind had picked up and that added an extra element of challenge for us. Unfortunately for me personally, the match was tightly contested and I came out on the losing end. Oh well, I had a lot of fun on a great course and was able to make a new golf friend in the process. That’s the great thing about the GK Cup experience.

Outside of a few holes, I would say Hidden Valley is more forgiving than Champions Club, but the idea is very similar. I think most people I know would pick Hidden Valley if given the choice.

There aren’t many flat lies on the course as it goes up, down and along the hilly canyon terrain. There are some tough forced carries, rugged desert waste areas and some of the biggest boulders you will ever see. They are a nice visual component through the course and will come into play from time to time. I know that because on the 10th hole, there is a big one up near the green and my ball was stymied right behind it. I had just enough room to attempt a big flop shot over it. I cleared the boulder, but still came up a little short of the green.

Easily the wackiest hole at Hidden Valley is the short par-4 7th. It’s quite short as the crow flies from tee to green, so some hitters might choose to go for it. But if you miss, you might be in trouble. Some big bunkers guard the front of the green along with a pond that’s short/right and you cannot see from the tee. If you take a more conservative route, it’s still a tough hole because it’s basically a big upside-down L shape with a 90-degree turn left to right at the corner and very, very narrow landing areas all the way. It’s hard to know what to do here without much previous experience, but it’s interesting.

That hole is followed by the beautiful 7th hole, which is a great par-3 over the aforementioned pond. Both par-3s on the back nine are also fantastic. The 13th tee is one of the highest points on the whole course and offers an amazing view of everything below, including the green that requires a very good shot to reach. The 16th is also a very nice one with water short and right.

There are many memorable holes at Hidden Valley and each one is different than the last. They each require good shots from tee to green to have a chance at scoring well, but if you are on your game and hitting your spots, there will be a lot of good birdie opportunities throughout your round.

Hidden Valley was in very nice overall shape and definitely more “green” looking than Champions Club. The tee boxes were mostly good, but a few were a bit lumpy and the par-3s were pretty chewed up late in the day. The fairways were mostly lush with nice fluffy lies. The rough was a bit inconsistent, but mostly good. I wasn’t in a bunker, so I can’t comment there.

Best of all, the greens were excellent. They were soft and receptive, which resulted in maybe a few too many stray ball marks that, but the surfaces were smooth, true and relatively slick. They were not lightning fast, but anything downhill was very uncomfortable and hard to stop within three feet.

I was really looking forward to playing Hidden Valley again and wasn’t disappointed on this visit. Kudos to whoever is managing the place now because the course is back in good shape and it’s such a fun design. I can’t wait to come back again!

Some pictures from Hidden Valley Golf Club (4/20/14):

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