The main reason for my recent trip to Northern California (and more specifically, the Monterey area) was for this bucket list course. Obviously, Cypress Point was the top of my California bucket list at one point. However, I had the great fortune to play that dream round back in 2013. That moved The Preserve Golf Club right to the top.
Now, the purists would argue that probably San Francisco Golf Club or Los Angeles Country Club (North) should have taken over the number one spot on the California wish list. Well, those are now numbers one and two (respectively). That’s because I just got to play The Preserve last Monday, making it only the second blog post I’ve labeled as a “Dream Course Review.”
Something about this course and club captivated from the first time I heard of it. The funny thing is it’s not on everyone’s radar because it has always come shrouded in a bit of mystery. It has a small membership (about 200 members from what I’m told) and its setting is spectacularly remote. Cypress Point is located in the golf mecca known as Pebble Beach while SFGC and LACC are situated smack dab in the name of their metropolitan namesake cities. The Preserve is quite a bit more off the beaten path. Plus, it’s a much newer course and hasn’t had the same time to build its legacy in the stacked California golf landscape.
The Preserve Golf Club is located in the heart of the Santa Lucia Preserve. Yes, it is actually part of the nature preserve and that setting is a large part of its appeal. Getting to it is tricky. First, you show up to the nice (but unmarked) gate on San Carlos Road just behind Quail Lodge & Golf Club. Then, you drive up a small, winding two-lane road through the preserve. About 20 minutes later, you pull up to the grand clubhouse and you are ready for one of the most memorable golf experiences you will ever have.
One of the reasons The Preserve was so desirable for me is the fact that I didn’t think I’d ever have a chance to play it. In fact, I know more people who have played Cypress and SFGC than have played this course. That’s why I was so shocked when I learned a member outing at The Preserve was on the NCGA’s calendar in 2018. I guess it was a gift from an outgoing board member. However it happened, I wasn’t going to miss my chance to access this course.
Another reason I think they hosted this outing was to help get a little exposure out there as the club is going to start hosting more big tournaments in the near future. The Preserve will be the site of the 2018 California Senior Amateur Championship and the 2021 California Amateur Championship. I don’t see this course hosting any huge events because logistics would be a nightmare, but these tournaments should help put it on the map as a championship-level venue.
The event was rather expensive at $395. Luckily, no caddies were required and food was provided, so that helped keep any further expenses down for the round. As soon as the NCGA outings and tournaments went up for registration in January, I was there ready to pounce and reserve my spot. This one actually didn’t fill up as quickly as some others, which was surprising. My friend and I got in immediately, though, and that’s all that mattered to me!
They were doing a regular tee time start beginning at 8:00 rather than a shotgun start like you’ll find at most outings. We were in the first group out paired with two other singles, which was very cool. This is one we didn’t feel the need to rush and the course just takes time to play. It is a challenging layout and there are a lot of thick/deep native rough areas that require some ball searching if anyone in the group goes astray. I did well to avoid it for the most part, but the other guys in my group were not so lucky.
The design of The Preserve, which opened in 2000, gets primarily credited to Tom Fazio. However, it was more of a team effort and he didn’t oversee every aspect of the architecture. Mike Poellot and Sandy Tatum were the other main designers. Kevin Norby is also listed as a contributor in 2016, but I am not sure what he did. Certainly, Fazio’s presence is easily felt throughout the course, especially in the distinctive bunkering and the large, tricky green complexes.
The most interesting aspect of the design is related to the nature preserve setting I believe the designers were required to maintain at least 90% integrity of the natural resources on the golf course property. That means not much extra shaping of earth or any removal of landmark trees or other wildlife habitats. Because of this, the course is so well integrated into the existing landscape and just feels like an extension of the preserve itself. We saw turkey and deer roaming around and plenty of large birds of prey in the sky, but there is no shortage of other wildlife who call the Santa Lucia Preserve home including mountain lions, bobcats and gray foxes. Probably a good thing no mountain lions were spotted that day!
As for the course, it was everything I hoped it would be. I wish I played better, but even a few really bad blow-up holes couldn’t dampen my enjoyment too much. Most of the front nine is very hilly and set amongst the gnarly old oak trees and many other tree species as the course works its way further from the clubhouse. Then, the middle section of the course goes into a more open meadow area before returning back to the hills for the final stretch of exciting holes.
To the naked eye, that middle section may not seem as dramatic as the rest of the course. However, I think it is somewhat needed in the overall flow. The early part of the course is so jaw-dropping and challenging, you need a little breather. These middle holes aren’t necessarily easy per se, but it does give you a chance to settle back in before the finishing crescendo builds up.
What the signature holes are is hard to say. I would say there are probably about 12 of them that I remembered vividly before even going through my picture selections for this article. The 1st hole does set a nice tone with a steep downhill dogleg tee shot to a fairway that is more forgiving that it looks from the tee box. The 3rd hole offers the only actual water hazard on the entire course. All the par-3s are magnificent, probably highlighted by the 6th and 16th. The 17th is a short and kind of crazy triple-dogleg par-5. The 18th is a solid finisher with by far the most intimidating forced carry tee shot out here.
The clubhouse is very nice and was actually more swanky than I expected. Because of the small membership and “natural” tone of this club, I half-expected a small shack in the woods with minimal fanfare (kind of like Cypress Point). However, they had big and beautiful clubhouse with all the amenities of a high-end club, and we even got our own lockers for the day. I was surprised they even had enough carts on site for such a big group. The pro shop was well-stocked with memorabilia. I walked away with a towel and a nice wooden bag tag for my collections.
The course conditions were very good all around, as one might expect. I wouldn’t say things were immaculate out there, though. The tee boxes were nice and most had been fairly recently aerated, which didn’t really affect much. The fairways were really good and the primary cut of rough was nice and lush throughout. Then, there are the outer “native” areas. Most seem like they were cut down somewhat recently, but that still left thick tufts of ankle-to-calf length grass that made it hard to locate any lost balls. There were some other knee-deep native areas to be avoided, as well. The bunkers had perfect white sand that was pristinely manicured (certainly one advantage to being in the first group off).
The only small negative on the day was the fact that they aerated the greens a couple weeks prior and didn’t tell any of the registrants. It wouldn’t have kept me from playing, but I would have come in with an appropriate expectation rather than finding out only when I went to roll some putts on the practice green. They did their best they could to roll the surfaces and get things as flat as possible. However, they were still a bit bumpy. I will say they were pretty fast and downhill putts were tough to stop. I can only imagine how slick these bent grass greens are when in normal condition.
As you can probably tell, I came in to my round at The Preserve Golf Club with extremely high expectations. Other than the greens not being perfect for us, it lived up to my hopes. I have a hard time comparing over 900 courses, but this one should make my top 10 once I have time to full digest everything. This is truly a special course that offers a one-of-a-kind golf experience. I don’t know if the NCGA will ever be able to arrange an outing here again. If you ever have the opportunity to play here, you’d be a fool to pass it up.
Some pictures from The Preserve Golf Club (4/23/18):
(Click on any picture below to pull up a gallery slideshow.)