Another stop on my “revisiting nice courses I’ve only played once in the past” tour. This time, I made it up to Rancho Cucamonga to rediscover Empire Lakes.
Part of the inspiration for this visit is the recent news/rumors that have been going around that they have sold the property and the course will be closing to use the land for residential development. That is set to happen in 2016, and though a lot can change over the course of a couple years, it is still sad news for Inland Empire golfers.
Whether this is just a very clever and elaborate marketing ploy to drum up business or the rumors are factual, it made me want to play Empire Lakes again for the first time in many years. This course went through some rough patches with the economy, but every recent review I’ve read on Greenskeeper.org say it’s in the best shape it’s been in years. All the factors working together made it really enticing.
A friend and I had booked a 1:28 tee time through GolfNow (a hot deal), but when we arrived the first tee was wide open and he let us go right out. A single caught up to us on the 2nd tee and our excitement was short-lived as we ran into the groups on the 4th tee. We were behind several groups and also had a single in front of us. That guy finally gave in and joined with us at the turn, but it was still a lot of waiting on most shots. That said, the total 4.5-hour pace was fine enough.
Before playing there again Sunday, I didn’t remember a ton of specifics about the Empire Lakes design. I recall it being a pretty nice course, but a tad overpriced back in the day—enough to not make it a regular in my “rotation” out that way. I remembered vague bits and pieces of the course, but nothing too detailed.
In a way, my round Sunday was like playing this Arnold Palmer course for the first time. A few holes felt very familiar, like the nice par-3 2nd hole over water and several parts of the back nine. Otherwise, it has matured quite a bit since I last played it.
The front nine is tighter with more of a “target” layout. It pays to play safe and stay out of trouble to avoid the big numbers. The back nine plays significantly longer (especially if it’s windy like it was Sunday), but is more open in design. The whole course is a somewhat links style design with a lot of mounding, plenty of thick native grasses surrounding the outer edges of the fairways and a number of nice water hazards in play.
Where the course offers the most challenge in my opinion is the sight lines off the tee. Landing areas are obscured and it’s hard to feel comfortable with your aiming lines without prior knowledge or a detailed yardage book/GPS handy. In actuality, most of the landing areas are pretty generous, but it never feels that way while standing on the tee.
Once you get out on the fairways, the holes take shape and you know what you need to do to get effectively on the green. It’s the type of course where your tee shot can get you in a lot of trouble, but good approach shots and sound short game skills can save your score. The key here is to stay out of the hazards and the deep, deep rough.
There are a number of memorable holes here. I particularly like the stretch of holes 2, 3 and 4 and both 9 and 18 are fantastic finishing holes for each side of the course.
One interesting thing to note is the “alternate” tee box on the 16th hole for the blue and gold tees. The normal tees are set along the cart path, but then one of our playing partners told us about the secret blue/gold tee box off to the left and hidden amongst the tall grass behind the big water hazard. You wouldn’t know it’s there, but it does have gold and blue tee markers in place to make it a legitimate teeing area to play from. I can’t recall ever seeing a hole where either tee box can be used.
As hoped, the course was in excellent condition. It is lush, green and nicely manicured throughout. The native areas are wild and unruly as they are designed to be, so you’ll be lucky if you even find your ball. If you do, a recovery shot is never easy. The greens were soft and rolling at medium speeds. They got a tad bumpy late in the day, but still ran pretty true. I was only in one bunker and it had a big puddle in the low spot. However, others I noticed looked fine enough to the naked eye.
If you’ve never played Empire Lakes, now’s a great time to check it out because of the great conditions. If you used to play here in the past and have been waiting for it to “come back” to it’s former glory, that time is now.
Some pictures from Empire Lakes Golf Course (6/22/14):