LA JOLLA, Calif. – There aren’t many golf courses on the planet that take my breath away.
Whistling Straits comes to mind. I’ll never forget the first time I came around its distinguished clubhouse and looked up the 18th hole with endless Lake Michigan as its majestic backdrop. Wow! It was hard to believe something so special was right in our backyard.
Pebble Beach on California’s famous Monterey Peninsula is easy on the eyes, too. The view from the back deck of The Lodge at the end of a day trip along the Pacific Coast Highway is every bit as mesmerizing as it seemed to be watching the “The Crosby” on TV as a kid.
It was much the same sensation Wednesday at Torrey Pines Golf Course during a media day outing for the upcoming Farmers Insurance Open, San Diego’s annual PGA Tour stop.
I’ve made a handful of visits to this city-owned, 36-hole jewel along the coastal cliffs perched above the Pacific Ocean. Usually, I’m on the outside of the golf course looking in from the equally captivating Torrey Pines State Reserve, a 2,000-acre state park (with eight family-friendly walking trails) that sits between Torrey Pines’ North Course and the ocean below.
In fact, the only other time I had played golf at Torrey Pines before Wednesday was the day after the 1994 Rose Bowl. Four of us who had made the journey to the West Coast to witness Badgers football history chose to add to our sports sensory overload by treating ourselves to a round of golf on the South Course before flying back to the grip of another Wisconsin winter.
The only thing I remember about that experience? We didn’t finish all 18 holes. Lost in the fine print about California’s wonderful weather is the pesky detail that the sun sets before 5 p.m. in early January – just as it does in places where golf can’t be played – and our 1 p.m. tee time did not allow us the chance to make the walk up No. 18 like stars such as Jack Nicklaus (1969), Tom Watson (twice), Johnny Miller (1982) and Phil Mickelson (1993) had done on TV.
That wasn’t a problem with a 10:10 a.m. tee time Wednesday. This time, I got the full Torrey Pines experience – all 18 holes, the magnificent ocean views and course conditions on their way to being ready for what is becoming Tiger Woods’ annual season debut on the PGA Tour in two weeks.
To top it off, my playing partners wanted to play from the black tees, so 7,051 yards it was. At that length on this course (for someone my age), two things were needed – my A game to enjoy the walk and a working iPhone to capture the stunning highlights – and, fortunately, I had both.
It says something about a golf course that it can be enjoyed by an average golfer, transformed into an annual PGA Tour stop and, as it will for the second time in 2021, host a U.S. Open. As with most top-shelf municipal layouts, however, the great debate is this: Is it worth $202 for a non-San Diego city resident to play the South Course – No. 36 on Golf Digest’s list of America’s 100 greatest public courses – during the week (or $252 Friday through Sunday) when it is $63 and $78, respectively, for residents and $122 and $152 to play the North Course, which joined Golf Digest’s top 100 list of U.S. public layouts at No. 93 in last year’s biennial rankings?
To me, it’s a veritable bargain compared to the going rate at Pebble Beach ($550 plus a $45 cart fee for non-resort guests) or even Whistling Straits (which no longer publishes its greens fees on its website but was already at $410 plus caddie cost and gratuity as recently as 2017). And, for full disclosure, our media-day round was free in an effort to give those of us writing about the Farmers Insurance Open a taste of the magical rough that is still more than an inch shy of what it will be in two weeks when Tiger, Rory and the crew arrive – if you wanna see a ball disappear, pull a shot two yards left or right of the fairway – and Sunday pins on rolling, poa annua greens with great definition, several perched on shelves.
Those golfers who drill deep into course features such as signature holes and tweaks to the layout rave about Nos. 4 and 12 because they run along the exterior of the South Course bordering the ocean. But Nos. 6 through 8 and Nos. 13 through 17 have their charm, too, because they wrap around the deep ravines over which tees and greens in that stretch sit.
It can be an adventure, of sorts, playing the South Course before the pros arrive.
My playing partners walked what seemed like halfway out into the Pacific to test out the far back tee on No. 13, turning a fairly straight-forward par-5 defined by its sloping fairway inside of 150 yards running straight uphill to a difficult green into one that requires a 250-yard carry off the tee. I enjoyed the variety in the four par-3s, increasing incrementally in length from 150 yards (No. 3) to 210 (No. 16), where a I drew a 3-wood into a stiff breeze and watched it land 7 feet above the hole – well, I saw it disappear into the shadows of a green surrounded by bleachers – only to have my birdie putt curl left of the cup, leaving me with my fourth par 3 of the day.
Mostly, though, I came to appreciate that Torrey Pines is not just another pretty course next to a body of water. As workers scurried to put the finishing touches on bleachers, hospitality areas and other structures in advance of tournament week (Jan. 20-26), I realized that I’m looking forward to The Farmers as much as my next chance to play Torrey Pines.
The field is always among the best on the PGA Tour. I feel confident saying that because I've #SeenItCoveredIt so I know a thing or two because I've seen a thing or two.
Woods, a seven-time winner of the event, confirmed Thursday he will tee it up again in two weeks with eight other former champions, including Phil Mickelson, Jon Rahm, Jason Day and Justin Rose. McIlroy is back after making his Farmers debut a year ago. Xander Schauffele and Rickie Fowler, two SoCal natives, will be there, too.
With grandstands strategically situated for the views as much as the action, there isn’t a bad seat in the house. And, in my book, the only thing better than playing Torrey Pines is walking it with golfers who really know what they are doing (oh, to pull off some of those shots, right?).
Few courses afford golfers and golf fans as many ways to enjoy what it has to offer as Torrey Pines. Google Flights shows airfare as low as $139 out of Milwaukee during tournament week and, if you act fast, there are still a few tee times available the Tuesday after the final round if spontaneous is your thing. If not, there is always the 2021 U.S. Open on the same course that gave us Tiger vs. Rocco in that epic 2008 playoff that gave Woods his last major championship victory until last year when he won his fifth Masters Tournament at Augusta National.
January or June at Torrey Pines, it doesn’t matter. The view is unforgettable.