It has been a busy summer already, but I can’t let a three-day holiday weekend go by without hitting the road for another little golf trip. I decided to do something special on Saturday. I actually had this planned for the first day of my Tahoe trip a few weeks ago. That never happened because of weather concerns and I ended up in Monterey instead.
Though I didn’t get all the way up to Tahoe this weekend, I still wanted to attempt the unique double-dip that I had conjured up. As a native Californian who has traveled all over this great state, I know just how diverse the topography is. However, it was earlier this summer this idea occurred to me.
I realized that two courses I’ve always really wanted to play were not only geographically convenient to one another (by my standards anyway), but they each also held contrasting distinctions.
Furnace Creek Golf Course always intrigued me because, well, it’s golf in the middle of freaking Death Valley—one of the hottest and most inhospitable places on earth. It also holds the distinction of the lowest course on earth at 214 feet below sea level.
On the other end of the spectrum is Sierra Star Golf Club in Mammoth Lakes. It’s only a little over three hours away from Furnace Creek, yet it is known as the highest golf course in California. It sits at an elevation of over 8,000 feet. If you are curious, the highest course in the world is La Paz Golf Club in Bolivia, which is 10,800 feet above sea level!
I’m sure someone has attempted this combination before, but I couldn’t find any stories about it online. Either way, I had to try it myself.
I got started as early as possible…
Furnace Creek Golf Course • Death Valley, CA • 8/30/14
Rather than battling Labor Day weekend traffic on Friday night (only to still have to get up very early the next morning anyway), I just decided to go nuts and hit the road early Saturday morning. In fact, I left my home around 1:15 am!
Going up the I-15 through Baker is the fastest route into Death Valley. I allotted 4.5 hours to get there for my 6:00 tee time, but it only took about four. It was pretty creepy in the small parking lot while dark, but there were some lights on outside the tiny pro shop and I walked around a little to check things out. I had booked my tee time directly on the course’s website, so I was unpleasantly surprised to see the little sign on the door that said “open at 6:30.”
I waited around. It was already in the high 80s, so it was already a bit stuffy with temperatures later in the day projected to be 110-plus. Admittedly, I knew I was “cheating” myself a bit by playing Furnace Creek so early on a summer morning. I always figured I would play here on a super hot afternoon just to say I did it. I may go back and try that someday, but with this other plan in place, it made the most logistic sense to play here early and quickly.
Anyway, some workers did finally show up and opened up the pro shop around 6:10. When I checked in, my tee time wasn’t even listed on their sheet. I guess it is just one of those phantom online times that really doesn’t exist, but other than starting a little later than initially planned, it was no big deal. A few other golfers had showed up by then, but I was still going off first by myself around 6:15 and finished a couple hours later.
The price during the summer months is $30, which includes cart and I believe is good for all-day play. I was only in for 18 this time, but if you really wanted to test your endurance I’m sure you could try playing 54 or even 72 holes here on a blazing summer day!
As for the course itself, it is basically what I expected. It’s a pretty straightforward layout. The landscape down in the valley is flat as a pancake, so the course winds its way around the property and holes are mainly defined by rows of old tamarisk trees lining the fairways. There are a few palms here and there, too. This low area below sea level is clearly the one place in Death Valley that does support some natural life and greenery. Otherwise, the rest I saw while driving through is just as advertised. It is desolate desert landscape as far as the eye can see.
The course started in 1927 with a three-hole course, which later expanded to nine holes in 1931. In 1968, William F. Bell added the additional nine holes to make it a full regulation course. It is connected with the Furnace Creek Inn. (Note: Now known as The Oasis at Death Valley.) Attempting to make it a little more of a destination-level course rather than just a novelty, they brought in Perry Dye to renovate the design in 1997. You can see some Dye touches with some subtle mounds, contours and hazards, but he didn’t go too crazy with it. It’s still a pretty basic design, though the back nine is a little tighter than the front with some short doglegs.
There isn’t that much detail to go into or holes to highlight. It’s not a bad course, but it won’t blow you away in terms of design or challenge. The biggest aspect of challenge is offered by the elevation itself. Most people will say that you’ll want to use an extra club to make up for the heavier air below sea level. Personally, I didn’t experience a significant difference and things played pretty true.
Furnace Creek is a par-70 course with just two par-5s. So when you look at the total yardages (6,236 from the blues, 5,873 from the whites), it won’t seem like a long course. But when you factor in the elevation and the lack of yardages two more par-5s would normally provide, it is certainly no pushover.
The course was actually in pretty decent shape, which was a pleasant surprise. Though far from great, things were better than expected for August in Death Valley. Everything is purposely left a little shaggy (primarily kikuyu grass to stand up to the heat). The fairways and rough had their fair share of bad patches, but were relatively well maintained with defined, consistent cuts. The tee boxes were okay enough and the bunkers were fine. The greens were the weak part, though. I was worried on the first hole when the green was more sand than grass, but the rest were okay. They were verticut but not sanded. They were still pretty bumpy—very firm, but also very slow.
Maybe the highlight of the day was the abundance of coyotes wandering around the course early in the morning. I saw at least a dozen. They were no threat and actually pretty skittish, making it impossible to get a good picture of any of them. The best part was watching three little pups playing alongside the pond between holes 6 and 7. They were having a lot of fun and it was quite adorable.
However, when I was rolling up the 18th fairway, there were a bunch of vultures (or were they buzzards?) just hanging out off to the side. When I got close, they all flew off and perched themselves atop some neighboring palm trees. Watching them just sit there looking over me like that was kind of creepy.
Other than getting to say you played golf in Death Valley or if you are already staying at the resort, there isn’t anything so special about the course itself to make it a must-play. Still, it is kind of cool they are able to maintain a decent course in such a nasty area.
Some pictures from Furnace Creek Golf Course (8/30/14):
Before leaving Death Valley, I took a slight detour south of Furnace Creek to check out the other golf course in the valley. It’s not a real course, but it’s a natural oddity they call “Devils Golf Course.” It’s a big field of crystallized salt deposits that have created a jagged landscape that you wouldn’t want to try walking across. I took my pictures and that was good enough.
After that, I hit the road again on the way toward Mammoth. I stopped for a pretty tasty breakfast at the Village Café in Bishop, where I had a green chile frittata.
From there, I made my way up the mountain…
Sierra Star Golf Club • Mammoth Lakes, CA • 8/30/14
Once I was on the road and knew when I would get to Mammoth, I booked a tee time on my phone for 1:20. The price was $95, which seemed rather expensive. The morning rate here on a weekend is $125, so I guess I got a little break in the afternoon. The lofty price is probably my only beef with Sierra Star because otherwise, I absolutely loved it.
There were plenty of people at the course, but it seemed the morning crowd was subsiding by then. I teed off by myself a little after 1:00, but quickly ran into some groups ahead on the 2nd hole. After that, there was nowhere for me to really go, so I just relaxed and enjoyed the beautiful day. In a way, I might have been a blessing that I wasn’t rushing through the round. I really underestimated how the drastic change in elevation would affect me, but I was definitely short on breath the first few holes. Eventually my lungs were able to catch up to the thinner air.
Another single caught up to me on the 8th hole and that helped as we played it out together behind the slower groups. The total pace was a little over four hours, so I had nothing to complain about.
If you’ve followed my blog, you’ll know I always get a kick out of playing two contrasting courses on the same day. Well, this combination took the cake. Furnace Creek and Sierra Star couldn’t be more different from one another. One is flat and surrounded by expansive, lifeless desert. The other is rich in natural resources and beauty.
Sierra Star is a mountain course in the truest sense. It reminded me a lot of my beloved Mt. Shasta Resort course in Northern California, so it was hard not to get a good feeling. The Cal Olson layout is hilly, narrow and lined with tall pine trees to create beautiful framing and contour on every hole. There are a lot of tricky doglegs and semi-blind shots to offer plenty of challenge.
This is definitely a target style course, but it depends on which tees you play. From the tips, it is over 6,700 yards. From the blue tees, it is just 5,980. Also, to the opposite effect of Death Valley, the high elevation here will add some distance to every shot. I did notice the difference here. Generally, you’ll want to use at least one club less than usual. So, you can shave a couple hundred yards off those totals when considering which tees to play.
I’m not a big fan of such a large difference between those black and blue yardages. So when I got out on the course and saw a green tee box listed on the signs, I was happy there was an “intermediate” set of tees or perhaps it was a combo set. Greens were not listed on the scorecard or the yardage book, though, so it was confusing. Also, there were no black tee markers set out.
On every hole, I noticed the signs always had the greens listed within 5-10 yards of the black tees, so they really weren’t of any significant difference. They are basically the blacks. I looked at the GHIN app on my phone and no green tees were rated, so there is no point to them if you ask me. I ended up moving up to the blues after a few holes, though those felt a bit too short when combined with the extra distance of the mountain altitude.
It was quite windy on Saturday afternoon, so that added another element to factor in when trying to figure out my distances. Not to mention the greens were a bit too firm and very hard to hold, so it was difficult to feel comfortable on any approach shot.
There are a lot of great holes at Sierra Star, but a couple par-3s stand out. The 7th is kind of the signature hole here with little bunkers in the fairway that are in the shape of a bear’s paw prints. I knew about these coming in, but they are more subtle than I expected. I always thought they were pretty prominent in front of one of the greens, but they are not really in play and not easily noticed until you drive past them.
Mammoth is home to many bears, so they embrace that throughout the course. There are stickers on the cart that say “do not feed the bears.” All of the ball washers on each tee box is a wood carving of a bear holding the plastic washer. There are other fun bear carvings through the course, as well.
The 18th is another good par-3 with water along the right, but sparks the debate of whether or not a course should end on a par-3 hole. Usually, it’s frowned upon, but this is a good hole heading back toward the clubhouse for a memorable finish.
The course was in solid shape. The fun layout and the gorgeous scenery tend to balance out with any flaws in the conditions, but I would still say things were very good. The tee boxes were good and the fairways were mostly nice with lush green grass. The rough was pretty consistent and enough to penalize bad shots. I was in a ton of bunkers that day and all had good, coarse sand. As I mentioned, the greens were firm and a bit hard to hold approaches, but they still rolled pretty good at medium speeds.
As far as the layout goes, Sierra Star is not a design that everyone will like. It is tight, tricky and tough, and long hitters may leave their drivers in the car, but I love mountain courses and this is my type of place. Even if you don’t like the course, you’ll be hard-pressed not to enjoy the beautiful scenery and mountain resort setting. I would highly recommend it, but I would have felt more comfortable paying somewhere in the $60-70 range. It is in a popular resort area with limited golf options and I guess they have short season to make their money for the year, so it’s understandable why they charge so much. It’s just not a $100-plus course by normal standards.
Some pictures from Sierra Star Golf Club (8/30/14):
After such a long day full of golf and driving, you’d think I’d be satisfied with my low/high achievement, but there was too much daylight left to stop!
Snowcreek Resort Golf Course • Mammoth Lakes, CA • 8/30/14
This course is just a couple miles away from Sierra Star and it was a convenient time to play it. I also knew this course was a bit overpriced, so I figured the rate would be better for me on Saturday evening than on Sunday morning. I was going to play it either way, so I might as well get a deal!
Well, if I got a deal then I am really glad I didn’t play it Sunday. The cost was $35 to walk the nine holes after 5:00. The guy working the pro shop didn’t seem too happy when I showed up to try and play. I think he was trying to shut down early. He told me I was welcome to play only if I walked. He didn’t want to send out any more carts that late. I don’t know what that would have cost me anyway, so I hoofed it.
He also told me it was super busy and I might not finish. There were still a couple hours of daylight left, so I figured I’d get all nine in even if there were some people in my way.
It was four holes before I caught anyone, but I will say those were exhausting four holes. Not only was I pretty beat this late in the day, but the design of this course is odd. It is built in a little valley facing a mountainside that’s home to Mammoth Rock. Everything runs away from the rock. The first four holes play slightly uphill as you make your way toward it. The grain of the grass is also against you and the wind is blowing straight in your face. And, from what I’m told, the wind is almost always blowing hard here.
However, the rest of the course was a breeze to walk as I went back downhill with the wind at my back. I guess I got my second wind (pun intended).
I joined up with the twosome in front of me and we were stuck behind a sixsome (who all had carts, by the way). The course really wasn’t as busy as the pro shop guy made it sound, but the sixsome was really clogging things up. Luckily, a marshal was out there and forced them to let us play through on the 6th hole. It definitely made a difference because it was starting to get dark and rather cold once the sun disappeared behind the hills to the west.
The course is pretty straightforward and much more forgiving than Sierra Star. The fairways here are pretty wide open and what you see is what you get. Snowcreek was designed by Ted Robinson, which is only apparent on the 9th hole with the wood pilings lining the water hazard. Otherwise, I didn’t notice any other real distinctive Robinson design features.
Snowcreek is a good resort course and definitely the best 9-hole course I’ve ever played. It is regulation length as a par-35 with one par-5 and traditional hole lengths. I don’t know if they have enough property for it, but if they were able to add another nine holes it would be a worthy competitor to Sierra Star. They are very different courses, but both beautiful and enjoyable in their own ways.
Snowcreek was also in really nice shape. Overall, I thought it was better conditioned than Sierra Star. The tee boxes, fairways and rough were great. I was in one bunker and it was fine. The only drawback was that the greens were way too firm and nothing would hold at all. However, they were rolling great at relatively quick speeds.
Depending on the price you have to pay, Snowcreek is a course worth playing while in Mammoth. There are only two games in town, so the prices are what they are and you’ll just have to suck it up if you want to golf while there. It’s definitely not worth $35 to walk at late twilight, but I am still glad I got to play it as I was impressed with the course itself.
Some pictures from Snowcreek Resort Golf Course (8/30/14):
For dinner, I ate at a Mexican restaurant in town called Roberto’s. The place was packed on a Saturday night, but I was able to get a seat upstairs in the bar. The food was great and luckily, I got out of there just before a fight broke out between two drunk guys behind me. Seriously, as I was walking down the stairs I heard the rumble begin. I didn’t go back up to watch it, but was just glad I didn’t get caught in the crossfire!