Coastal Trip, Day 3: No Slowing Down

I don’t know if I just wanted to feel younger during my long birthday weekend or what, but it ended up being the most golf I’ve ever crammed into a three-day stretch. 63 holes Thursday. 54 Friday. And another 54 Saturday as I continued my tour of the Monterey Peninsula…

Rancho Cañada Golf Club (West) • Carmel, CA • 8/9/14

Note: Both courses at Rancho Cañada are now closed.

I had a number of different ideas and destinations that I considered for Saturday’s rounds, but I saw the price for an early morning round at Rancho Cañada and couldn’t turn that down. Through GolfNow, it was just $39 for a 6:12 time. I knew I’d get done quickly and I knew I’d probably enjoy the West course after a fairly positive experience on the East course last November.

I ended up playing with another twosome of early birds and we teed off a little after 6:00 as it was barely light enough to see. We pretty much had the place to ourselves and it seemed like awhile before any other groups got on the course behind us. We had a lot of fun and my playing partners were two really nice, laid-back guys. Though the courses don’t seem to get too much hardcore dawn patrol play, the staff was ready for us. The pro shop opens very early and the starter was ready to check us in by the first tee while it was still dark out. By the time we finished, though, business had picked up.

Rancho Cañada is another of those places you don’t hear mentioned amongst the lexicon of great courses in this golf mecca. It does generally appeal more to local players who want a quality experience without paying an arm and a leg. This place certainly offers that with two enjoyable courses that are well conditioned and in a nice setting in the Carmel Valley. Are they big time “destination” courses? No. But are they worth playing? I’d say so.

They are definitely different than anything in Southern California and the conditioning is well above average for what we’re used to with courses in the same price range, so I consider a value visit to Rancho Cañada a nice little treat. I wouldn’t put them above the more well-known Monterey area courses on anyone’s wish list, but I wouldn’t dismiss them as affordable low-end options.

West and East are pretty similar courses. So I would say you can play either and get the gist of the Rancho Cañada style. I’ve heard some people refer to West as the tougher of the two courses, but I think both offer plenty of challenge and intrigue. The layouts are flat, but there are many tight “chutes” of trees to contend with and accuracy is key to a decent score.

Course knowledge can be helpful on some holes because positioning off the tee can make a difference at times. The 14th hole is probably the most notable on the West course. The tee shot seems simple, but the further you get out there (without going too far), the better off you will be. The second shot is right over the river/creek to a very well-protected green. If you are not far enough you will have a blind shot over the trees for your approach. It’s a hole you really have to see to understand how tricky it is.

The course was in very good overall shape, though it was very soggy early in the morning to add a lot of extra challenge. The tee boxes, fairways and most rough were very green and lush. The thick, deep and wet rough was really brutal and we called it “velcro grass” because anything that touched it would stop immediately and settle in. My only real complaint with the fairways was that they left the fresh clippings on the turf, so your ball would be covered bits of sticky wet grass. I was in one bunker early on and it was like wet cement, but they looked to improve as things dried out later.

Rancho Cañada offers two fun courses in a great setting and generally at very good prices, so what’s not to like?

Some pictures from Rancho Cañada Golf Club (West) (8/9/14):

I had originally thought of heading back inland for the rest of the day to check out some courses in the Gilroy/Hollister area, where I’ve never played before, but I ultimately decided to stay along the coast. It was more of a logistical decision because I knew I could check out these next two courses while I was in the vicinity. Then I could save those inland ones for future trips along the 101 for easier access.

I headed up PCH not too far north of Seaside…

Pajaro Valley Golf Club • Watsonville, CA • 8/9/14

What added some appeal was that Pajaro Valley did have some readily available tee times on GolfNow, so while eating a quick breakfast, I went ahead and booked the next available time at 9:45. The price was $51, which was a little bit of a let down because I had noticed a “hot deal” just a little earlier that I was too late for and that was only like $30.

Oh well, I was ready to go and it worked out well. The course is very easy to get to right off of Highway 1 and I had driven by it once before while taking a “shortcut” through some of the back roads. So, I had a tiny glimpse of it then, but still didn’t have any specific expectations.

It was relatively busy out there. It started off as a very nice day, but the clouds rolled in and the wind picked up, so it was pretty chilly by the time I finished. I caught up to the threesome ahead on the third hole and joined them for the rest of the round. We had plenty of fun, even though we were stuck behind a really slow threesome. The total pace of a little over four hours was just fine, though. Coming from SoCal, any round under 4.5 on a Saturday is usually a happy one!

Pajaro Valley is an enjoyable overall course with a nice “Monterey” flair. Plenty of big old cypress, eucalyptus and pine trees dot the course and remind you where you are playing. The course, like most around here, is pretty hilly. There are a number of holes that kind of have a ridge in middle for an uphill shot off the tee and then a downhill approach. In general, it’s a decent mix of holes (shapes, distances, etc.) and most players will use every club in their bag at some point.

I’d say the most notable thing at Pajaro Valley is the strong collection of par-3 holes. I thought they were all nice here, whereas many other courses I played on the trip had some rather boring par-3 designs despite being in such great settings.

The 3rd hole is a good one over a little marshy area. The 7th is slightly downhill to a pretty well-protected green that offers some nice views of Elkhorn Slough down in the valley. One of my playing partners mentioned that was a great place for kayaking, if you’re into that sort of thing. The 11th is another solid downhill one. And then the 14th is kind of the signature hole set back into a corner of the course with another fun downhill tee shot.

The course was in decent shape, with any watering being focused on the tees, fairways and greens like almost everywhere else I played. The fairways were mostly green, but tended to be inconsistent. Sometimes I got a really tight lie and other times it was quite shaggy, with a mix of rye/kikuyu throughout. The rough was pretty non-existent and had a lot of bare spots, especially the further you got off the fairways. There were plenty of gopher mounds scattered throughout, too. Otherwise, the bunkers were decent and the greens were good.

I doubt I’d go out of my way to play Pajaro Valley again, but I’m glad I played it Saturday and found it pretty enjoyable for the most part.

Some pictures from Pajaro Valley Golf Club (8/9/14):

Of course, I wasn’t done. I drove across town and through the middle of Watsonville before getting back out into a really rural area for round three of the day…

Spring Hills Golf Course • Watsonville, CA • 8/9/14

It seemed like there were plenty of people around when I got to the course. Despite being just 15-20 minutes across town from Pajaro Valley, the weather was much nicer here. It was sunny and beautiful. The first tee was wide open by the time I checked in, so I headed off on my own. The price was $45, which seemed a bit too steep for that late in the day, but I was going to play no matter what.

Things couldn’t have worked out better. I was running a little out of energy after so many rounds in the past couple days, so another 4-plus hour round would have really wiped me out. I ended up playing through three groups on the front nine, but the timing always worked perfectly that I caught each of them on a tee box for an easy play-through. By the time I got to the final few holes, myself and another single had caught a few groups and played out the last three holes together. Yet another nice local guy met on the trip.

Spring Hills in an older course that seems to be one of the favorites amongst the locals. It certainly has its quirks and places where local knowledge is of great benefit, but I found it to be a really fun course. It’s definitely a “target” course that’s not long, but requires a lot of accuracy and strategy to play it well.

The course starts with probably one of the wackiest first holes I’ve ever encountered. A hillside runs along the right and a creek runs along the left, so a straight drive is required. Once you get out to the corner, the dogleg of all doglegs is revealed. It turns right and I would guess is more than a 90-degree turn, with a small green perched on top of an upslope. Because I don’t drive the ball very far, I was faced with a completely blind approach over the hillside of about 200 yards. I hit it pure and perfectly on line, but came up a few yards short of the green. I was able to get up and down for par, though, and that started the round off on the right foot.

There are a few holes with really narrow angles and a lot of the fairways slope severely from one side to the other. Plenty of trouble will come into play with a stray tee shot, so you have to be careful at all times (I say “tee shot” and not “drive” because a lot of folks will leave their driver in the bag on many holes here).

The people I was playing with at Pajaro Valley referred to the 8th hole at Spring Hills as the “toilet bowl” and I learned why in person. The fairway here is quite wide, but is slanted at a steep angle from right to left. The downhill approach shot is then over a big dip to a green that’s slightly elevated on the other side. In between, you have that toilet bowl effect because anything short will swirl down the drain and end up in the little collection area down at the bottom. That leaves you with an awkward, semi-blind uphill pitch to the green with a big bunker in front.

The 18th is also a fun finisher. It’s basically a 200-yard layup off the tee and then a very short approach over a pond. It is drivable for some, but would take a really perfect shot as there’s very little room for error. As long as you play it safe, it’s an easy hole and a confidence boost to end on. But if you are just a bit off on either shot, it can be a painful finish.

Spring Hills was in pretty good overall shape. I’m starting to feel like a broken record with all the water conservation talk, but it was pretty much the same deal here. Most things were good and green, but far from immaculate. The rough was spotty and mostly brown and/or bare once you got off the fairways. I wasn’t in any bunkers, but they looked decent.

For me, Spring Hills was a pleasant surprise. Because of its target style and a few funky holes, it’s not one that everyone will like. The setting is beautiful in a fairly secluded valley and everyone around there seemed really nice. There’s a sign out by the first tee that proudly states this is a family-owned course. You can understand why it’s one of the lesser-known local favorites because of the casual vibe here and not too many out-of-towners clogging up the course.

Some pictures from Spring Hills Golf Course (8/9/14):

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