By Robert Kaufman
Anyone who plays golf understands the first swing on the first tee can instill a certain level of angst. Naturally, world-class courses may amp up that sensation a notch or two. Then, as you prepare for your initial shot on a layout that has hosted, not only a PGA Tour event every year since 1968, but also one of the greatest duels in United States Open history, the anticipation can conjure a variety of unwanted images in the mind. Such is the case at Torrey Pines.
The 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines (South Course) marked only the fourth time the USGA’s premier golf championship was contested on a public access facility, joining Pebble Beach Golf Links, Bethpage State Park (Black Course) and Pinehurst No. 2. Culminating one of the most dramatic playoffs in the history of golf championships, the world’s No. 1 golfer, Tiger Woods, withstood a fractured bone in his leg to humble journeyman PGA Tour player, Rocco Mediate and secure his third U.S. Open.
“It was definitely the best experience I’ve ever had on the golf course, period,” said Mediate. “Nothing I will do from now on will ever compare to what happened with Tiger and I that day.”
Needless to say, Torrey Pines is a venue that Woods feels right at home. Along with his historic U.S. Open victory, Tiger has also claimed the first-place trophy seven times at the PGA Tour Farmers Insurance Open. But while he plays a different game than the rest of us, that won’t stop golfers from traveling the extra mile to challenge television-star courses to measure their skills against the best in the world.
Situated on the coastal cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the community of La Jolla, California, approximately 20 minutes north of San Diego, Torrey Pines is a 36-hole facility that came on the scene in 1957. Known to many area locals as the “working man’s Pebble Beach,” both the North and South championship courses were designed by legendary course architect, William F. Bell.
Years before Torrey Pines appeared on the golf landscape within the boundaries of Torrey Pines State Park, this same land was the site of Camp Callan, a military training center for use by the U.S. Army during World War II. In return for a permit to use this portion of the park, the military had to guarantee that no part of the park would be damaged and that it be kept open to the public. Following the end of the war and camp closure in November 1945, the buildings were torn down and used for lumber to build homes for veterans.
Bell’s father (William P. Bell, Sr.) had other ideas but he died in 1953, before realizing his vision of building wind and sea-swept golf courses that would afford golfers both rugged play and breathtaking surroundings. After a special city election in 1956, resulting in approximately 100 acres being set aside for the construction of public golf courses, Bell, Jr. ensured his father’s dream by overseeing the completion of the North and South courses at Torrey Pines.
For nearly 40 years, the courses would seldom disappoint but, eventually, the heavy golf traffic took its toll. In 1999, the City of San Diego Parks & Recreation department initiated a program to provide funding for capital improvements to Torrey Pines with a goal to improve the quality of both courses to attract a higher quality field for the annual PGA Tour event and major championships, such as the U.S. Open. With that decision, another architect with a well-known family name in the golf design world, Rees Jones, was commissioned to restore the courses for competition. Known as the “Open Doctor” for his work renovating many U.S. Open courses, Jones made remarkable improvements but left intact the original design of both layouts out of respect for the original course architect.
In the Golden State, there no shortage of golden views and both courses do not disappoint in that department. Every hole clearly tests a player’s skill with tight fairways, lush rough, pine trees, bunkers, and often challenging weather conditions, including fog, rain and wind that, typically sweep in on these seaside layouts. The South that has sealed a reputation as the tougher of the two and due to it’s notoriety, the tee sheet is packed all year around.
At 7,051 yards from the blue tees (permission is required to play the black tees at 7,628 yards) the course begins on one of the many tough par 4’s at 445 straightaway yards but eases a bit on No. 2, the shortest par-4 on the course at 363 yards, where you can choose to hit driver or lay back with an iron. Either way, be sure to keep approach shots below the hole.
The third hole, the first par-3 at Torrey Pines South provides the Pacific Ocean as a dramatic backdrop. If you’re not overly seduced by this major distraction, take aim for any spot on the green because anything long or left invites disaster. The prevailing headwind usually offsets the downhill slope but when conditions are more benign, players can afford to be more aggressive.
The fourth hole is another major eye-candy diversion with blue danger bordering the entire left side of this long 467-yard, par-4. Any drive or subsequent shots hit left along this stretch will find a watery grave and when you eventually reach the green, all putts will trail toward the ocean.
That same motto holds true for No. 7, another lengthy par-4 at 445 yards and also the number one handicap hole. This dogleg right fairway requires an accurate drive to allow playing the second shot approach to the left side of the green to avoid the deep bunker on the right.
Following a break at the turn after No. 9, don’t loosen the belt just yet as the second half begins with a fairway heading back towards the Pacific. It’s not a difficult hole but could become complicated with an errant drive.
On the backside, players are challenged with two 200-yard-plus par 3’s. The eleventh, at 204 yards, is dead into the teeth of the ocean breeze and a hidden culvert, in the form of a water hazard a little over halfway, will catch “low screamers” and pop-ups. To further throw your eyes off target, you may be distracted by some overhead activity thanks to hang-gliders often seen soaring above the cliffs.
The other 209-yard sixteenth, typically playing directly into a wind off the ocean, demands a long iron selection into a green surrounded by bunkers.
Arguably, the most improved hole of the entire renovation by Rees Jones is the 419-yard, par-4, 14th. This hole was transformed into a medium length, gentle dogleg left with some risk-reward choices off the tee and a green heavily guarded by canyon wildlife on the left side and back. And, yes, more bunkering. The approach is key here. Make sure to put the ball in play off the tee and then be accurate on club selection for your second shot so as not to miss the green anywhere but short.
Before the renovation, the 570-yard, par-5 finishing hole posed a great risk-reward situation setting the stage for golfers to post a high number. Not wanting to finish a round on a sour note, going for the green in two shots is looked upon as suicidal. Heavy bunkering on either side of the fairway will punish anything but a precise drive and even then, the undulations on the fairway can make it difficult to strike a fairway wood with solid contact. The “Devlin’s Billabong” water hazard awaits in front of the green, threatening to swallow up whatever comes its way.
Speaking from experience, the South Course will severely test the handicap, which is why the North Course, at 6,601 yards, has a reputation of being the gentler and more enjoyable of the two. It also has what many consider Torrey Pines’ signature photo hole at the par-3, 162-yard, 3rd hole. No matter which course is played, however, you’re sure to leave with some picturesque golf postcards
Perhaps, equally impressive to the golf is The Lodge at Torrey Pines, which pays homage to the Craftsman era of architecture as it sits adjacent both courses and just a few steps from the starter shack. Upscale shopping in La Jolla, horse racing at the nearby Del Mar Race Track, and the trendy Gaslamp District in San Diego are a few of the popular scenes to grab your attention when not playing golf. Of course, the beaches and popular whale watching also play major role in a San Diego adventure.
With a wealth of activities to fill any vacation scorecard, it’s a no-brainer to understand why Torrey Pines is a much sought-after golf destination and holds a slot on any golfer’s bucket list.