Billy Bell, Wind Chill and Fast Greens: November Golf in the High Desert

I reviewed the high desert short courses I played on Saturday already, but decided to group these next two full-size courses together as a somewhat natural pairing in an area where good golf options are relatively few and far between.

I ended up in the high desert region two days in a row. Once the wind picked up on Saturday afternoon (with a vengeance I might add), it carried through into Sunday. It wasn’t nearly as chilly on Saturday, but the heavy winds certainly affected play at this first course…

Muroc Lake Golf Course • Edwards AFB, CA • 11/15/14

I’ve been trying to knock out the last few military base courses I didn’t play previously. I’m learning that most are somewhat accessible to civilians, but some are definitely easier than others.

Depending on who you talk to at Muroc Lake, the course located within Edwards Air Force Base, the guest play policy is pretty muddy. Some say it depends on who is working the pro shop on any given day along with the guard working whichever gate you enter. You might be able to get a day pass and play the course if you are a one-time visitor like me.

However, the safe bet is to apply for a civilian golf pass, which is a multi-step process involving a faxed or mailed in application (indeed, only the latest technology here at one of the most advanced military installations in the world). Then you have to go pick up the approved application at the course, which involves getting sponsored for a day pass to get on the base when you arrive. Then you take that info over to another office on base to get your guest pass card, which is then good for a year.

So if you live nearby and plan to play the course fairly regularly, applying for the pass is a good idea. For someone like me, who is likely only going to play the course once to check it off the list, then it’s a massive hassle. Anyway, I did what I needed to because I didn’t want to drive all the way up and hope I’d get lucky. At least this way I knew I could play any day of the week and get on the base with minimal hassle.

I secured my pass a few weeks ago, but Saturday was the actual day I decided to play the Muroc Lake course. This time of year, they have shotgun starts in the morning around 8:00 in case there is a frost delay, but then the afternoon is just regular open play. I got there around 12:30 and had no problem getting into the North Gate with my snazzy civilian pass card. Check in at the course was easy and the guy even offered me the good morning deal, which was $30 and included a cart and lunch.

By the time I went to tee off, a couple other groups had just went and there was a really slow twosome right ahead of me. Knowing they had the shotgun in the morning, I asked inside if I could start on the back nine instead. They obliged and I was on my way. I cruised through the front, playing through another walking single and then playing through a couple twosomes on the back (including that one who teed off before me earlier). Overall, it worked out well and I was finished pretty quickly.

Muroc Lake was originally designed by William F. Bell, but it sounds like it has evolved (or maybe devolved) over the years with various alterations. It’s a pretty traditional layout framed by the rugged desert. There is only one water hazard on the course—a small pond on hole 17 (a par-3) with a sign by it that says “Muroc Lake.” I’m not sure if this is just a goof or if that is actually where the lake the course is named for, but either way it shows a good sense of humor from someone.

The story of Muroc Lake Golf Course is told on the greens, which are truly diabolical. The rest of the layout is pretty forgiving, but these greens will torture you, especially if the wind is blowing as hard as it was Saturday afternoon.

The greens are elevated and have plenty of undulation and false edges. As a first-time player, it was hard to know where I was hitting to and that added a lot of challenge in my round. They were also very firm and extremely fast, so with all the slopes and the wind pushing the ball around, it was difficult to land and keep the ball on the putting surfaces. The best metaphor I can make is to imagine trying to hit your ball onto a giant turtle shell and hope it somehow holds. Even short chips and putts weren’t always easy to keep on the greens!

After awhile the greens and the wind became a comedic situation, but it was also frustrating when I thought I hit a good shot only to see my ball trundle off one of the edges and down a hill into the rough.

At the same time, the greens at Muroc Lake are definitely the most interesting aspect of the design.

The greens were in good shape and were the best aspect of the course condition-wise. Otherwise, it was just in okay shape heading into the chilly high desert winter months. It’s definitely not peak season around here, and that was to be expected. It looked a LOT worse than it actually played, though. The tee boxes were good. The fairways were firm, tight and fast with a lot more brown than green. They were ugly looking, but they were fairly consistent and good to hit from. The rough was much more spotty as it just blends into the desert around the edges. The bunkers were good, as well.

Muroc Lake isn’t worth all the hassle to get a pass as a one-time player unless you are a dork like me trying to play as many different SoCal courses as possible. However, in an area where the golf courses are very spread out and several of them are not full-length options, Muroc is a solid option and worth checking out if you live locally.

Some pictures from Muroc Lake Golf Course (11/15/14):

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On Sunday, I was back up in the high desert again, getting together with some of my golf buddies for a round at one of the area’s more well-regarded courses…

Crystalaire Country Club • Llano, CA • 11/16/14

I’ve always heard good things about Crystalaire, yet it has always been a little bit of a mystery. It is very remotely located along the Pearblossom Highway 138 that spans the desolate space between Victorville and Palmdale and there isn’t much civilization around. There’s just a small community (mostly retirees, I’d guess) with a great golf course in the middle.

Crystalaire is considered a private club, but they have been reaching out with some more public play opportunities in recent years. Apparently, you can go out there just about any time on a Monday or Tuesday at a very reasonable rate. Also, they have a monthly drawing on their website for a free foursome.

I happened to win the drawing at the end of October and was excited to take advantage of a free round with some friends. They told us we were welcome to come out any time after 10:00 as they want to still reserve the morning hours for member play. That was no problem as it was more appealing for us to have a mid-day time anyway.

We all got there around 10:00 and the vibe here is very casual and relaxed. They do not make tee times and, without much crowds, you can play at your leisure. We took some time to hit the driving range and roll a few practice putts, which you’ll definitely want to do if you ever play here. Attempting to learn these greens is vital part of the Crystalaire experience.

By the time we teed off around 10:30, it seemed we had the place to ourselves. By the second hole, though, a threesome of elderly members were on our tails and we let them go through. It was a little awkward, but it was ultimately the right decision because we never had to wait on a shot after that all day and nobody else bothered us from behind. Not only was it nice to play at our own relaxed pace, but we needed a little extra time as the course had its way with all of us. The scores were not pretty. Let’s just say that.

I didn’t know too much about the Crystalaire layout going in. Like Muroc Lake, it is also a William F. Bell design and the greens are just as tricky. I’ve always heard the greens are fast, furious and deceptive, but never much about the layout itself. I was expecting it to be relatively straightforward, but it turned out to be much more interesting than anticipated. There’s a good mix of holes with some big doglegs, minor changes in elevation and plenty of trees in play. The property is peppered with lots of gangly old joshua trees, many of which sit right in the middle of fairways for an interesting look. There are plenty of other bigger trees lining the fairways and shaping the shots for each hole.

There are a handful of water hazards throughout the course. Unfortunately, they were all completely dried out. The 11th hole (a par-3) does have a pond that still had water in it, but the rest were bone dry. Not only does this take away the visual appeal of a handful of holes, but it also removes one aspect of challenge as you can now just go in to try and advance your ball out of the hazards without taking the penalty stroke.

Beyond those dried out hazards, I was impressed with the conditions at Crystalaire, especially for this time of year in the high desert. The tee boxes were excellent. The fairways were mostly very green and fantastic with just a few thin/brown spots here and there. The rough was pretty good but inconsistent—super thick, deep and lush in some areas and shorter/dormant in others, and then just kind of melding into the desert around the outer edges. The bunkers were great.

Anyway, I obviously buried the lead here, which is the greens. These things are evil, yet fun, to try and figure out. There is a natural slope to factor in, coming from the mountains to the south and flowing toward the open desert valley to the north. Then, you have to account for the wind, which happened to be blowing very hard (and quite chilly) on Sunday.

Oh, and did I mention that the greens at Crystalaire are really fast? They are quick and slick, so anything downhill, downgrain or downwind (or worst case scenario, all of the above), you really had to be careful. That said, the surfaces do require you to get the ball going with some momentum. You can’t just barely tap your putt and let it trickle down to the hole. You still have to hit it square. However, once the ball is going, it is hard to stop.

Full approach shots could hold the greens, but long putts and chips were often hard to control. We had numerous balls roll all the way off the greens. You could be much more aggressive on uphill putts and you had to hit it pretty firm up the slopes, but it was hard to hit anything with too much confidence here.

Between the wind and the greens, it’s clear Crystalaire really got in all our heads on Sunday. We all want a rematch, so hopefully one of us will win another monthly drawing.

Still, Crystalaire is well worth playing any chance you get. It’s definitely off the beaten path, but I’d say it’s easily the best option in the region. I know I’ll make a point to play there again.

Some pictures from Crystalaire Country Club (11/16/14):

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