The transformation of Torrey Pines South for the U.S. Open, renovation of The Grand Golf Club and opening of the Grand Del Mar Resort have launched San Diego golf into the upper echelon of U.S. destinations.
LA JOLLA, Calif. - San Diego's always had the surf, the sun-drenched bodies, the cool breezes, the ability to trigger a desire in first-time visitors to relocate.
This is one of the few tourist areas in the country that's never needed to rely on exaggerations, half-truths or PR pontificating.
Only the golf, while good, hasn't always lived up to what regular golf vacationers expect in a major destination. For years, San Diego's had a surprising lack of golf resorts - luxury odes to the game where golf is clearly the No. 1 focus. It's never come close to a Phoenix-Scottsdale, a Cabo or a Myrtle Beach in this respect. Golf often became something you had to work in with your own planning.
Golf courses that you'd travel anywhere to play also never really materialized in San Diego (especially with Torrey Pines disappointing as many golfers as it satisfied for years). There was no Pebble Beach, no Bandon Dunes, no Troon North.
To top all that off, San Diego's dining scene came up lacking compared to other West Coast hotspots like Scottsdale, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Its restaurants seemed set in another age, somebody's parents or grandparents' version of fine dining.
This all led many San Diego visitors to come to the same conclusion that Jon Kuchment did.
"San Diego's my favorite spot to visit," Kuchment said. "But it's one of my least favorite places to play golf."
The golf landscape around Ron Burgundy's favorite city is changing quickly though. Kuchment needs to take another San Diego-area trip. For it's no exaggeration to declare this the golden age of San Diego golf.
"You can definitely make the case that golf all around San Diego is better now than it's ever been," said Mark Woodward, the new CEO of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA), who recently left his job as the city of San Diego's golf operations manager after the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, a city-run course. "I'd like to think that we had a part in that, and there are others throughout the area who've made a major difference too."
San Diego golf has never been healthier in terms of its product. It's never had this many must-play courses before. There are renovated, redesigned courses with new life. There are old traditional tracks that have never been in this good a shape.
The prime example is Torrey Pines South, of course. The host to arguably the greatest U.S. Open in history came out of that Tiger Woods-Rocco Mediate playoff duel looking better than ever. It has some major mystique to it now, and thanks to the USGA's varied tee system at the Open, Torrey has golfers eager to try holes at different lengths.
People want to go for the putt on 18 that Tiger hit to force that playoff. People want to play 14 from the shorter 277-yard tee that was in play during later rounds. Even the dinky, ugly pond on 18 - the one put more into play with the Open-prep tinkering - is suddenly an attraction.
The biggest difference comes in Torrey Pines' course conditions, though. The views from those high seaside cliffs always loomed spectacular, but the grass in the fairways often looked sickly.
"It was nowhere close to the shape it should have been in," Woodward said of what faced him when he took over. "The conditions were somewhat embarrassing, frankly."
Woodward compared the old Torrey Pines to being about a $30 golf experience. (The city charged vacationers five times that). Now, Torrey Pines South's much closer to delivering value for its $160 weekday greens fee ($200 weekends), though it's still not completely at that price level of conditioning.
Torrey Pines North is suffering from a bit more of an Open hangover. A site for the USGA's many hulking tents, the North's only reopened as a nine-hole course, one that's still springing back from the foot traffic beating it took. On Sept. 1, Torrey Pines North is scheduled to be back to a full 18.
It didn't attract U.S. Open fanfare, but the renovation of the Tom Fazio golf course at The Grand Golf Club - and the opening of the new linked luxury Grand Del Mar Resort - might end up meaning even more to the long-term health of San Diego as a golf destination.
With a few exceptions, including the still-excellent La Costa Resort & Spa with its two golf courses, greater San Diego's long lacked great golf resorts. Barona Creek surely qualifies, but the removed location of this Native American Indian resort 30 minutes outside San Diego doesn't make for the greatest convenience - especially if you're trying to get in beach time. And who isn't trying to get beach time on a San Diego trip?
Grand Del Mar Resort is filling part of this golf void with a resort that takes luxury to a new level (you may never be able to settle for a mere Four Seasons again). It takes on San Diego's food problem with Addison and its four-course tasting menus from an innovative ex-Scottsdale chef, William Bradley, who's finally brought the city an L.A.- or New York-level dining counterpart. Plus, there's that redone Tom Fazio golf through the canyons.
The biggest benefit of all these rebirths may come in the carryover effect on existing golf courses, which have to raise their game to compete. While San Diego is far from the near arms race of good conditioning that makes Palm Springs golf so consistently good, it's closing in on that mindset.
"I think more courses are taking more pride in what they put out there for the golfer," said Grand Del Mar Director of Golf Shawn Cox, a longtime San Diego golf pro who's also worked at Torrey Pines and hoity toity La Jolla Country Club. "If you think about it, there's no reason for San Diego to take a backseat to any golf destination.
"More courses are starting to realize that."
August 14, 2008