Short Course Blitz #17: In Search of Rare Collectibles

This is a busy golf week for me, but it’s been fun with a lot of diverse courses in play. I haven’t done a Short Course Blitz in a long while, and this article barely qualifies as one since I played these three courses on three separate days and they are located all over the map. However, they were all kind of special in their own ways and it made sense to group them into one review. They are all obscure and rare courses to add to my ever-growing collection.

The first course was on Wednesday, as I headed up to the mountains to meet up with a friend for a round at his local course. This course just happened to finally be the last public track on my Southern California list, and it’s one I’ve been waiting on all summer…

Bear Mountain Golf Course • Big Bear Lake, CA • 9/16/15

It took a lot longer to play this one than I expected, considering I finished the rest of the public short course list much earlier in the year. However, this is a seasonal course, so I had to wait until late spring for it to open. Then, I wanted to give the course time to get into decent shape by mid-summer. To complicate matters further, I have a friend through Greenskeeper.org who is a longtime Big Bear resident, and I knew that whenever I ultimately played here, I would want to play alongside him. It just made sense.

After some back and forth, coordinating schedules over the past couple months, we finally lined up Wednesday afternoon. The rain storms earlier in the week threatened a little, but it ended up being a glorious day up on the mountain. Windy and chilly, but beautiful and sunny as you’ll see in the pictures. It was my first time up at Big Bear, and I just love the relaxed mountain vibe there.

We made a 1:00 tee time, but met up earlier for lunch in the quaint little cabin-inspired clubhouse. It turns out they had a deal going for $38, which included nine holes, cart and a full lunch with drink. I enjoyed a delicious burger and then we were ready to tee off along with another friend of his, who is also a longtime local resident. It was really cool playing with them as they told me all about the course and the different changes (both good and bad) that have taken place over the years.

At the heart of it is a pretty simple little par-35 course. The holes are pretty straightforward in design, but it is more challenging than it looks. The 1st and 9th holes both provide some uncomfortable tee angles. The 3rd is very challenging as it plays uphill and into the prevailing winds, with a very tough second shot over a ravine and to an elevated green. The 8th is the signature par-3 over water with a weird little island tee box for the ladies right in the middle of the pond.

Outside of the 3rd hole, the first half of the course (1, 2, 4 and 5) plays downhill and downwind. Then, the rest play uphill and into the wind. The wind and the hills offer some challenge in judging approach shots. Though there are no huge changes in elevations, the naturally sloped grade the course is built on factors in on every shot. Never is that more true than on the very tricky greens. You’ll see some very interesting putts here with massive breaks in play.

Speaking of hills, the course sits right across the parking lot from the Bear Mountain Ski Resort (same ownership) and you can see the snow-less slopes during the summertime. Then, you also have the little zoo right next door. Apparently, during the early morning (breakfast) and evening (dinner), the wolves there will howl loudly. The zoo is right next to the first tee, and I’m sure that’s an awesome way to start a round of golf in the mountains. Unfortunately, we didn’t play at the right time.

We ended up playing 18 holes. I went back in and paid an additional $16 for a replay nine with cart. The front nine was a little slow as we were behind a foursome, but otherwise it wasn’t too crowded out there this time of year. We had the second nine all to ourselves and finished 18 in about 3.5 hours.

With the challenges of maintaining a high-altitude course with a short seven-month season, I was pleasantly surprised with the conditions. Things were quite lush and green throughout. Some tee boxes can use some leveling out, but the grass coverage was fine. The fairways were very nice. The primary rough areas generally had great thick grass coverage, but the ground underneath has a lot of gopher holes and lumps, so you usually won’t have an easy lie or stance. I wasn’t in a bunker, and they look to be worth avoiding here if possible. The greens were firm and quicker than I would have expected, rolling fairly smooth. Downhill putts were tough to stop and uphill putts needed plenty of extra oomph to get there.

It’s certainly not worth the drive up the mountain just to play this course, but it sure felt good to finish this part of my list while playing with such local great company. I enjoyed the scenery and the fresh, brisk mountain air. The course is very fun for what it is and it’s definitely worth a stop if you happen to be up there during the summer months.

Some pictures from Bear Mountain Golf Course (9/16/15):

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It wasn’t until Friday when I played the second of my three short courses, but it was also a rather unique and special one to check off the list. In some ways, it was one of my white whale courses, but in other ways it’s been a huge nemesis…

Golden Era Productions Golf Course • Gilman Hot Springs, CA • 9/18/15

This is one of the more unusual courses around this area. It’s not open to the public, but it also doesn’t have a private member club either as far as I know. It’s become kind of a mystery, just like the organization that owns it.

It is now only open just for special events and charity tournaments. It seems like a lot of work to maintain a 9-hole golf course just for this use, but I guess it’s working for them. One cool thing is that their tournament fees are minimal (I think just a minor cart rental fee), so it allows organizations to raise more money without having to pay the course hardly anything. It’s an interesting arrangement for sure.

However, what has always made this little course such a tease for me is the fact that it used to be public and relatively inexpensive. Some golf buddies and I used to come out this way all the time to play either Soboba Springs or the now-defunct Quail Ranch. We drove by Golden Era dozens of time and never gave it much thought.

Golden Era Productions Golf Course is owned by The Church of Scientology and it is located next to their huge compound there in San Jacinto, which also houses Golden Era Productions. Even before I was a hardcore course collector, I always said to myself “I need to stop in and play nine holes there one of these days,” yet I never did. I’m not sure exactly when they switched the course over to charity-only mode, but I certainly missed out on the days when it was easily public-accessible and it’s been eating at me for years.

Over the past few years (since affirming my quest to play everything I can in SoCal), I have periodically Googled “Golden Era Golf Course Tournament” to see if there were any events, but I rarely got any results. When I did, it seemed very overpriced just to be able to play nine holes on a course I knew wasn’t anything that exciting.

Earlier this week, I did another Google search on a whim and something came up, buried about five posts down on the page. The Hemet Lions Club was having a charity glow ball tournament on Friday evening. The price ($50) was still steep, but I couldn’t pass the opportunity. I shared the information with one of my fellow course collectors, knowing he’ll do anything to play a new course, and it was on. We signed up and were ready to head out there.

Ironically, when we were at the course, we found a sheet listing all the tournaments scheduled for September and there are like two or three every single day. They just don’t seem to get the word out as many looked easy to sign up for. I wish I had known this sooner or I would have headed out to Golden Era a long time ago.

After all, my biggest hesitation in signing up was the fact that it was a glow ball tournament, meaning it would be played primarily in the dark. As a blogger who likes to provide plenty of course pictures and a nice course write-up, that is obviously a problem. At the same time, I was kind of intrigued by the glow ball thing as I’ve never tried that before. A new golf experience plus a new golf course (especially one so tough to get on) ultimately won out over my blogging concerns.

The plan was to get out here a little early and see if they’d at least let me walk/drive around the course to get a few pictures before the tournament. We got there extra early and the staff was super nice, letting us play the nine holes before the rest of the tournament group showed up. That was very cool and it worked out beautifully. Not only was I able to get some good pictures in daylight, but I was able to play the course as it was meant to be played rather than in the wackiness that would ensue when we teed up again at night.

As for the course itself, there isn’t anything too amazing to note. It’s a decent 9-hole regulation track (par-35) with some old trees in play and a few water hazard holes. Being right up the road from Soboba Springs, it definitely had a similar look and feel. I guess you could say it’s kind of a “poor man’s Soboba” in that respect. The conditions were decent. The grass was pretty shaggy throughout, but the coverage was pretty lush and consistent. The greens were slow and a bit bumpy. The bunkers were a bit crusty.

The property does have an interesting history. It was once home to Massacre Canyon Inn and there was a 27-hole course. Apparently a massive flood wiped out much of the course and the Inn eventually closed. The Church of Scientology bought the property in 1978 and then ultimately constructed the 9-hole course that you find here today. There are all sorts of old pictures, clippings and stories on display in the clubhouse. It’s a mini museum inside.

We enjoyed a chili dog dinner with the Hemet Lions Club (great group of people) and stuck around for the glow ball play that started once it was getting dark. We were provided with one glow ball each, but they were not easy to play with. Not only does it feel like hitting a rock, but they are not really that easy to find (especially in the shaggy grass of Golden Era). They put out some glow stick runways in the middle of the fairways and around the greens, but it is so odd to get any sense of direction or depth perception when playing in the dark.

It was a shotgun start and we played a few holes before catching some groups ahead and then the whole thing ground to a halt with almost all the groups log-jammed on a couple holes. It was dangerous as balls were flying all around and nobody knew where other groups were. Eventually, we decided we had experienced enough to say we did it, so we were very thankful we got to play the course beforehand and the glow ball round really didn’t count for anything.

I’m glad to finally check Golden Era off the list and it turned out to be quite an adventure just to play this average 9-hole track.

Some pictures from Golden Era Productions Golf Course (9/18/15):

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Fast forward to Saturday morning and this spread-out blitz kept rolling on with another new short course to add to the list. This was another special one, but for different reasons. That’s because it’s one of the lesser-known, yet hardest-to-access little courses in SoCal…

Sherwood Lake Club • Thousand Oaks, CA • 9/19/15

After having outings at famed Sherwood Country Club the past couple years, the SCGA was cool enough to inquire about setting up some outings on the smaller course in the Sherwood community. They were able to set up two different play days this year, with Saturday being the second one. It was a very small group, as Sherwood wanted to reduce the amount of visitors out there. The big course has been under a major renovation this year, so I guess that has led to more traffic on the Sherwood Lake Club course.

There were eight people out there today for the SCGA thing and six of us were good friends (all fellow course collectors looking to check this one of their own lists). There definitely wasn’t any big crowd of members out there (we only saw a handful of other players all day), so we ended up having the place basically to ourselves. We let the two guys we didn’t know go out first and then the rest of us just had fun as a sixsome. It was crazy at times with our goofy troop, but it was a blast on this course.

Sherwood Lake Club is an 18-hole par-3 course meant as an ode to Jack Nicklaus. Each hole is meant as kind of a “tribute” to some of his famous hole designs. There’s a full breakdown on the club’s website. I had only played a couple of the courses noted, and any tribute seems to be a pretty loose interpretation.

That doesn’t stop the course from being an absolute ton of fun, though. This is one exciting little adventure through the hills and trees that are in abundance at Sherwood.

The front nine plays significantly longer and tougher at 1,173 yards. There are a couple of holes under 100, but then there are a couple long-ish ones (4th and 5th holes are 173 and 169 respectively). The front nine overall is a good mix of distances and it is the much hillier and spread-out half of the course.

The back nine is only 792 yards total with only one hole over 100 yards (18th hole is 119 yards). It’s more of a “pitch and putt” set up, but do not let that give you false confidence.

This is one tough par-3 course. The greens are small and undulating, but you can be aggressive on your tee shots. You have to be. If you miss a green here, you are in trouble. Almost every hole has a forced carry from tee to green. There are some deep bunkers and run-off areas. There are trees in play at times. And then there’s the rough. Man is this stuff nasty. The main rough is thick, lush and deep, so chip shots are incredibly difficult. Then, most holes (and the faces of all the bunkers) are lined with extra long and lush fescue that is all gnarled. If you do find your ball in this stuff, a good recovery will take a miracle!

Basically, every shot is do or die. Hit the green and you will have a very good look at birdie. Miss and you will be struggling just to save a bogey.

There are many memorable holes here, but perhaps the best example of this is the shortest hole of them all. The 15th is said to be inspired by the 12th hole at the Ritz Carlton Golf Course in Jupiter, Florida. However, I think that original hole was likely inspired by the more famous TPC Sawgrass #17. The 15th at Sherwood Lake is a true island green. The shot from the regular tees is just 65 yards. It’s a tricky little wedge with very little room for error. It’s awesome. This hole does have an alternate tee box off to one side that plays more like 125 yards, so the members choose to play it from time to time.

After we finished our round, one of my friends and I hung around and asked about doing a replay. They let us go out again and I thought that was really nice. We zipped around that second round as a twosome and also got to play that alternate tee box on 15th, which makes it a completely different (yet still very tough) hole.

The conditions were very nice overall and whatever water shortages the rest of SoCal are dealing with don’t seem to be an issue here. The tee boxes were more semi-dormant bermuda. Not as green, but nice to hit from. Everything around the greens was very lush and green. The greens were receptive on well-struck shots, meaning you could go pin-seeking, and rolling pretty true at medium speeds.

Most people don’t even know this second course at Sherwood even exists, but for those who can access it, it’s a pretty fun little treat.

Some pictures from Sherwood Lake Club (9/19/15):

The alternate tee view on the 15th:

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