Torrey Pines(South Course) – La Jolla, CA (Architects: William P. Bell/Rees Jones re-design)
The San Diego, California area has always been known for its military presence, and during World War II the land that both Torrey Pines Golf Courses sit on today was a camp used for training anti-aircraft artillery replacement specialists. It was called Camp Callan and it was torn down after the war ended. At this time a special election dictated that the land would be used for a public golf course. In the 50s William Bell laid out the golf course routing you (mostly) see today, however, Bell never saw his work finished as he died before a putt was ever holed at either course. The South Course that I discuss in this post was redesigned by Rees Jones around the year 2000 in hopes of landing a major tournament, which it did when it hosted the 2008 U.S. Open won by Tiger Woods.
The two courses sit on bluffs over looking the Pacific Ocean in the sleepy, yuppie town of La Jolla, just a few miles north of the San Diego city limits. The property is named for the type of pine trees that can be found all throughout the courses. A Torrey Pine cone is shown in the image above. If you’ve never seen one, they’re huge, nearly 3 to 5 times the size of a cone you might see off an ordinary pine. I was so struck by the appearance of the cone that I picked up one laying on the ground, stuffed it in my bag, and placed it on my mantle when I got home from my trip.
The PGA Tour has called Torrey Pines home since 1968. In the present day tournament schedule, the Farmers Insurance Open is the name of the event played on both the North and South Courses around the 3rd week in January. The Torrey Pines Courses are indeed municipal golf courses by any way you can define them. San Diego residents pay a much cheaper green fee than out-of-towners. Countless golfers line up at the starter shack before the sun comes up in hopes of snagging a treasured tee time. Since the 2008 U.S. Open, the South Course has become the Bethpage Black of the West Coast.
I haven’t played Pebble Beach, so I can’t compare Torrey Pines to it. As you might have read in my Kapalua review, the views of and from the Plantation Course in Maui are stunning. The property at Torrey Pines rivals those views and then some. Teeing off on the South Course’s 1st tee, the course keeps a pretty good poker face for one hole. By the time you walk off that green you have your first view of the Pacific and several other parts of both the South and North courses. Your quick climb from the 2nd green to the 3rd tee reveals the breathtaking money shot you’ve been waiting for. Make sure you have your camera/phone with you.
While the remainder of your day doesn’t live up to what you see at the third and fourth holes, it’s still pretty damn good. The routing from the 4th to the 13th takes you back and forth along the south side of the property. If I had to nit pick anything about the course, it’s the fact that you play the 9th, 10th, and 11th holes along side a hospital and random office complexes. The generators and other machinery at the hospital are loud enough to annoy you during your round, but not sharp enough to distract you or ruin your day. The offices are just ugly and out of place. By the time you putt out on 11 you’re back to gazing at the hang gliders and the ocean while trying to figure out how to make a par at the monster that is the 12th hole.
The picture above is from the back of the 4th tee. Get your viewing in after your tee shot has been struck, otherwise you’ll be distracted by the nude beach that rests below the bluff you’re playing golf on. Yes, there really is a nude beach. No, you won’t be distracted looking at old saggy tits and old balls being dragged through the sand.
As I’ve stated previously, the property the course sits on is stunning. The routing around the gorges (or barrancas) is superb. While holes 3 and 4 put the Pacific in play off the tee, the green on the 4th hole also backs up to a large barranca that separates the North and South Courses. Barrancas are re-introduced to the golfer again at the 12 and 13th. Another hole of note is the par four 14th, which plays along a large barranca with the green seemingly tip-toeing out on to the ledge just to see how close you may dare to get near it.
The par three 16th also brings you across part of the barranca and plays to about 220 yards. A quick hook here from the old tee is easily executed by a nervous hacker. A newer tee built for the U.S. Open can add yardage, but it also changes the angle to the green so that the tee shot plays directly over the gorge. Walking off 16 and over to the 17th tee provides you with one last shot of the glorious landscape you’ve traversed throughout your round.
Obviously Torrey Pines gets a high score in this part of the review. The use of the land and the ocean views are perfect. If I made one complaint, it might be that a few of the holes like 1, 2, 5, 10, and 15 lack some identity. Still, I won’t deduct points for that because those holes are perfectly fine. It’s not their fault that they’re the red-headed step child to the rest of the holes that actually grab your attention.
I wrote this about Kapalua in my last course review, “when you get perfect weather 365 days a year you have no excuse to not be a perfectly maintained golf course.” That again applies here at Torrey Pines. They don’t need any excuses. The South Course was nearly perfect. And it should be when you figure in the fact that tour players would be on site in less than 3 weeks from my round prepping for the Farmers. The greens on the South are undulating, but not too severe. However they are quick and tough to read. They seem to have mostly a sand base as well. What that means is if you’re approaching them from the fairway and have some spin on your shot the ball will check like you’d want/expect it to. Good shots from the fairway are rewarded. When coming from the rough, a shot will release hard and the distance of the release is hard to judge.
The fairways are firm and fast, and I think anyone playing TP under these conditions can thank the tour and the USGA for the course being this way. I’m a high launch/high spin player. When I play in the midwest, most of my tee shots barely roll out thanks to over irrigation and a saturated golf season. It takes a good old fashioned drought for me to get 20 yards of roll from a shot hit with my driver. At Torrey that wasn’t the case. The turf is so perfect that my ball almost never sat near it’s pitch mark. I could even see it bounding down the fairway from the tee. That’s fun for any player, but it also means you need to know how to play shots off the slopes of the fairways to get good angles to the greens and find flat spots to hit from in the fairway.
If not, you’ll find the rough here to be plenty thick. I’ve noticed rough this dense at a few courses I’ve played after the USGA has hosted a recent U.S. Open. It’s my opinion that they generally throw so much seed at the ground leading up to the event that you have some truly nasty thick (albeit 3 inches) rough for weekend golfers in the years following the championship. Good luck with that cabbage.
San Diego residents can make a tee time up to 7 days in advance to play either Torrey Pines course. Only a few times each day are reserved for resort/hotel guests and other tourists. If you’re a resident and you’re playing the South, you’re in for $61 fucking dollars. That’s right. You can play a U.S. Open course that hosts a PGA Tour even every year for the same amount of money it costs to fill your gas tank, so long as you have the correct address.
If you’re a poor schmuck that doesn’t live in San Diego, like me, then you pay 3 times that amount and likely get up at the ass crack of dawn in hopes of getting on the course. Is it worth it? Every fucking penny. How can it not be? You’re almost guaranteed good weather, perfect course conditions, and a championship caliber golf course that has a good amount of history on it. Throw in the views you get and that price tag is a no brainer. If you have the chance to get on, pay the freight. FYI, that’s a walking only price. Carts are fairly restricted here so you’re better off walking anyway. There is a twilight rate if you show up later in the day hoping for a small discount.
This is where Torrey will finally lose some of the luster I’ve already built up in this post. Torrey Pines is, in its very soul, a muni. It always will be and it can feel that way at times. If you arrive before sun up, the staff there will be a bit gruff with you. They see 100 ass holes a day showing up to badger them about getting out to play their dream course. You don’t matter to them, and why should you? I will say, they do an amazing job of accommodating almost every golfer they can in any way they can. I was the 11th bag in line that morning which made me the 1st single on the waiting list for the South Course. The cashier was great to me and got me out in the 2nd group because they were residents that only showed up as a twosome.
The starter barely did anything in comparison to what you’ll see them do at most courses. That surprised me. The shop staff is really only around to sell you keepsakes and take care of guests of the Lodge. There is a restaurant on site, but I didn’t have time to try it out. The snack shop, the beverage cart, the rest of the staff, they were all average depending on your expectations. If you generally play public facilities you’ll have no issues with how they go about their business.
From what the locals told me, the rounds can be a bit slow once you get past the hard core golfers that get out at day break. Our walking foursome that pegged it at 7:07 am finished in 4:38 minutes. We didn’t wait much on the group in front of us and we had a nice gap behind us. Play early if you go. Expect a 5 hour round if you have a reservation past 9. For this pace and the average service, TP gets dinged on it’s score, but not much.
I think I’ve clearly established the fact that the golf course is still a pure muni. On the other hand, the Lodge at Torrey Pines is anything but. The Lodge is a resort built on site sometime in the last 10 to 20 years. The rooms here go for nearly $400 or much more per night. There is a spa, restaurants, and about anything else you can image. The Lodge sits to the direct east of the South Course’s 18th green in the picture below.
If $400 a night is too steep, it was for me, I suggest the Hilton next door. While the prices here ebb and flow a bit, you might find a seasonal special that makes your stay quite affordable. There are also more rooms at the Hilton so demand isn’t as high. It’s still a very nice place to stay and has similar services and facilities to what you’ll find at the Lodge. Guests of both onsite hotels can book advance times on the Torrey Pines Golf Courses, so long as you book more than 14 days ahead of time (instead of 5 days like I did).
There’s also plenty to do in La Jolla and all of the San Diego area, as you can imagine. That’s all a bonus for TP in this category. Where the score drops some is in it’s golf amenities. They’re pretty much non-existent. The range is shit because you can’t use the turf the tour players use. The putting greens are fine, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a place to practice your short game. I was also surprised there was no (either sanctioned or unsanctioned) caddie program. With so many golfers walking the facility, it would seem to me that having local kids learning about golf by caddying and making money would be a slam dunk. Did I miss this somewhere? At Bethpage State Park in New York, no caddies are offered from the golf course, but several locals wait for loops near the clubhouse and are available for hire by golfers. Why aren’t there any here where they could work 335 days a year?
I wanted to score this category a half point lower than I did, but the South course earned a bonus half point here for having the Farmers Open bleachers and hospitality tents up 3 weeks in advance. These might be eyesores to some, but I thought it made the experience even cooler. Too bad Slugger White wasn’t around when I could have used a ruling from hitting my 2nd shot over the corporate tent on 18 when I went for the green (yes, I bailed because of the H20).
The staff at Torrey won’t let you play the U.S. Open tees, or what weekend hacks should refer to as the ‘idiot tees’. That’s probably just as well. I hit it far enough to play 7300 yards, but I don’t need the 7700 the South Course can give you. The blue tees as they’re laid out for regular play will give you about 7100 yards and a course rating near 75 with a 140ish slope. While that’s rated close to what my home course is, it’s still far from easy.
You have to hit it really shitty off the tee to lose golf balls at Torrey Pines unless the rough is so thick you can’t find it (this did happen to our group a few times). The only water hazard that should be in play is at the 18th green. This makes the course fun to play and gives you a chance to recover from most wayward shots. In my group, the other 3 golfers were all carrying handicaps of 15 or more, they played the white tees, and the course was quite fair and enjoyable for each of them.
The greens, having been redone by Jones, reminded me of what he did when he worked on Cog Hill No. 4 near Chicago. They have a similar feel. The tiers of the greens at Torrey are most subtle than the severe ledges at Cog, but the green complexes and surrounding bunkers were similar and equally as difficult to deal with. Most greens require a shot to land on them through the air. You will play very few links style shots on the South Course, if any. The wind wasn’t a factor at all during my round, but the locals tell me it is typically more fresh and has a big influence on several shots.
With so few forced carries and hazards, the South Course should be fun to play for everyone. One caveat is perhaps the rough as I previously noted. If you’re elderly or a weaker player in general, you might have some issues hacking your ball from the thick rough the USGA put on steroids 5 years ago. There will be instance in your round that will force you to hit a more lofted club to advance the ball because you cannot make clean contact with it otherwise. It’s not the length of the grass that causes the problem. It is thick, period, and it will get you at some point.
Per usual, this rating isn’t based on a 5 being “way too hard”. I’m rating a course a 5 when I’d say it’s playable and enjoyable, but not easy, for players of all levels. I think Torrey Pines South is playable and fun for most skill levels. However, some of the quirks from the Jones redesign, the undulating/quick greens, and the thick rough knocks its score down a half point.
Playing Torrey Pines (South), on a 70 degree day in the middle of the winter when you’ve seen nothing but snow for weeks is Nirvana to a golfer like me. The experience is even better if you can remember parts of Tiger’s U.S. Open win and his countless other victories in La Jolla. The course conditioning, the corporate tents, walking out of your hotel room to get on the golf course, the barrancas, the ocean….it’s all tough to beat. What I can’t figure out is how this course isn’t ranked in the Top 100 of every golf publication that makes such a list. The views and layout alone should rank it that high. The bottom line? Don’t pass on the opportunity. If you’re going to be in Southern California, find a way to play Torrey Pines. I’m told the North Course is pretty good too.
Score: 4.67 (out of 5)