On Saturday, I made my way down to San Diego to visit Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club. This is a course I had only played once before and it was long before this blog. I was looking forward to revisiting it and finally writing an official review.
We purchased an UnderPar voucher that included a round and a free replay. I also had a $20 off code that came with my SCGA membership, so it worked out to be a great deal at $27 each. The voucher did have some weekend restrictions (after 10:30), but we were able to book the 10:30 tee time.
We teed off on time, paired with a couple that only played nine holes. The starter matter-of-factly told us that it was going to be a very slow round. He was unapologetic about it and it was pretty much clear that management was making no efforts to speed up play on the course. We braced ourselves for slow play and made the best of it. Five hours and 17 minutes later, we were finishing the 18th hole. It was quite brutal and definitely seemed to put our chanced of finishing 36 in jeopardy.
Fortunately, we got out right away for our second round. We did have to play through a few slower groups along the way, but thankfully finished in just under three hours with a little bit of daylight left.
I really liked Carmel Mountain Ranch the first time I played it, probably around 10 years ago. Since then, it has gone through some changes. It was one of the first Southern California courses to renovate with a major turf reduction during the drought. That was obviously met with mixed reviews. I totally get the concept behind it because it does save a lot of water. It just never looks as nice, especially as things deteriorate over time. I’m sure it looked fantastic at first with “beauty bark” laid out in the non-grass areas atop a firm sandy base. However, something like that isn’t easy or cheap to maintain at a high level either, so now you can see what becomes of it after several years of minimal maintenance.
For me, the outer areas only came into play a handful of times and I never had too much trouble hitting from those spots, whether it was just hardpan dirt/sand or patches of old bark and pine straw. At times, these turf-reduced sections can make a slightly errant shot much more errant as the ball will roll-out into worse areas along the boundaries of the course.
Nonetheless, Carmel Mountain Ranch is still a very fun and extremely interesting layout. I enjoyed it plenty the first time around and would still contend it’s a neat course design from Ron Fream. It is very hilly and definitely a “target” style course as it winds through a residential community. The course is rather spread out and there are multiple street crossings and tunnels that you will traverse as you work your way through all 18 holes. One other notable change since the first time I played is that they switched the nines. In this case, I am fairly indifferent on that because you can argue pros and cons for either routing.
Despite being surrounded by houses and busy streets, Carmel Mountain Ranch does utilize it’s natural elements very well. There are a lot of natural boulder outcroppings and ravines that make up the terrain in this part of San Diego County. They are used naturally to help shape this course. I particularly like the integration of some boulders that are located within sand traps.
The best example of this is found on the great 7th hole. It is a very short par-4 that is reachable for many players, but with plenty of trouble to get into. The green is fronted by a huge bunker that has a Stonehenge-like arrangement of huge boulders in the middle of it. The green itself is the craziest green on a course that has plenty of unique green complexes. This green is kind of a boomerang shape with three distinctive tiers separating each third of the putting surface. The pin location can dramatically impact how this hole plays on any given day.
There are quite a few memorable holes throughout Carmel Mountain Ranch. I won’t go into further detail because it would take too long, but 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 13, 14 and 17 are all interesting holes that come to mind. Basically, there is nothing boring about this course. It is not for everybody because of its target layout, some quirky elements and super-difficult greens, but it’s my kind of place.
Unfortunately, the conditioning is nowhere near as nice as when I first played it. The course just feels a tad neglected, which is sadly true of so many courses throughout Southern California that suffered through the drought and economic downturn. All the pieces are there to bring Carmel Mountain Ranch back to something really special again someday, but for now you have to accept something that is just a little “less than” what you might remember from its heyday.
The tee boxes were not great. They were firm, lumpy and some showed signs of a very recent aeration. The fairways were firm, tight and fast with some inconsistencies, but mostly decent enough. The rough was somewhat spotty, with some really nice patches and some areas not so great. The bunkers had great soft sand and were definitely one of the highlights of the course along with the greens. The greens were pretty nice. There were maybe a few slight bumps here and there, but they were mostly rolling well at rather quick speeds. These greens are complex and very difficult to read, so putting was an adventure all day and it was hard to lag a putt close to the hole without it slipping by an extra few feet.
For the right price, Carmel Mountain Ranch is still definitely worth a look. It’s a unique, fun and memorable layout with a lot to like. The regular rack rates are a bit high if you ask me, so it is worth looking for a deal. What we paid was excellent for 36 holes on a Saturday, even if the first round was brutally slow.
Some pictures from Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club (3/31/18):
(Click on any picture below to pull up a gallery slideshow.)