SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Classic golf course design from the game's past eras can certainly be found among the 90-plus golf courses in San Diego County.
Like many parts of the United States, this destination really beefed up its golf scene in the 1990s and early 2000s, building sparkling new resorts and golf courses set among the mountains and residential communities.
But golfers sought out this temperate climate suitable for comfortable golf 12 months a year long before then. Many of the area's earliest golf courses were designed by the Bell family. William Park Bell, an apprentice of Willie Watson (Harding Park) and George Thomas Jr. (Riviera Country Club), designed many of the area's private clubs in the 1920s, including San Diego Country Club and La Jolla Country Club.
Later, his son, William Francis Bell, carried the torch by delivering a handful of courses that were quite similar in philosophy to his father's classic portfolio.
Today, golf travelers in search of the classics can take solace in the fact that many of San Diego's grand old walks, aside from Torrey Pines and the private clubs, are highly affordable.
Rancho Bernardo Inn is one of San Diego's classic golf retreats, built long before resorts such as Grand Del Mar, Barona Resort or Aviara Resort.
Debuting in 1962 and designed by William F. Bell, Rancho Bernardo Inn features big, splashed bunkers, narrow fairways and doglegs wrapping around trees and water. The course also has a collection of scenic par 3s, none of which are too long, that are as good as it gets. While the majority of the course lies down in a valley, the dazzling 18th heads steeply uphill to an elevated green. Thankfully, the view here, spouting fountain and all, is worth the trudge.
For one of the area's most authentic old world golf experiences, you can still play this jewel with hickory sticks, be sure to ask the resort for available times.
Nestled into 425 acres of secluded valley floor surrounded by mountains, Sycuan Golf Resort is an ideal getaway for golfers who like old-style golf. It may be a Native American-owned resort now, but it was originally a private club named Singing Hills, and still feels more like a laid back club than a big golf resort.
The two full-length, 18-hole courses at Sycuan, Willow Glen and Oaks Glen, demand precision over power. Both date back to the 1950s but were redesigned by Ted Robinson Sr. in 1980. While both play under 6,700 yards, they still play tough enough to serve as the home facility for the San Diego State University golf teams.
Carlton Oaks Lodge & Country Club boasts a great walking course; it's one of San Diego's top tournament venues for the pros when they're not at Torrey Pines. It's a course that won't give up a shot to modern technology thanks to a redesign of the original 1958 layout by P.B. Dye. It now plays up to 7,400 yards if needed for pro and collegiate events.
For daily play, the club's membership enjoys walking the course, usually from the 6,700-yard set. The back nine features a fine, classic-looking stretch of holes that play through cottonwood trees, where you'll have to shape your ball on demand in order to score.
The Torrey Pines renaissance is peaking after a major, five-year restoration which began in 1999 and brought a U.S. Open to this San Diego municipal jewel on the bluffs of La Jolla. William F. Bell completed both the North and South courses in the 1950s with initial plans from his late father, who passed away in 1953.
Rees Jones' renovations for the 2008 U.S. Open altered Torrey Pines South further (and added plenty more difficulty), so consider a less expensive and gentler play on the shorter North course.
San Diego's most popular local play isn't Torrey Pines by a landslide -- Coronado Golf Course is right up there too. This coveted, value-laden municipal course on the harbor dates back to the 1950s. It is a sunny, dead flat walk along harbor-front holes with ocean breezes. Coronado tops out less than 6,600 yards and you'll have to shape some shots around palm trees.
Formerly Stardust Country Club, 27-hole Riverwalk Golf Club in Mission Valley was a members course that hosted the PGA Tour's San Diego Open in the 1950s and '60s. The course has since been spruced up a bit by Ted Robinson Jr. to add some more land contour and a little beautification. Each nine-hole loop plays between 3,100-3,400 yards from the back set of three tees.
Balboa Park Municipal Golf Course is the oldest of the San Diego municipal courses, dating back to 1915 and set in the 1,200-acre city park. It's a William P. Bell design that has since been altered and tops out at 6,288 yards. Course officials say Balboa Park is "good for patient, straight hitters and bad for those who are wild off the tee." Still popular, it's a little easier to get on than Coronado and Torrey Pines, and non-residents can walk at Balboa Park for $40-$50.
March 1, 2011