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Torrey Pines – a once-in-a-lifetime round

By Paul Knowles

Lucky travel writer gets a unique opportunity to play one of the great golf courses – alone!


It was, in truth, a complete fluke. I was invited to visit San Diego by Robert Arends of the San Diego Tourism Authority, part of a group of six Canadian writers spending four days in that  great city. When I received our itinerary, a few days before the trip, it included “tandem hang-gliding”.

It took just a few seconds, during which I imagined the look of abject horror on the face of  the professional hang glider as I approached – overweight, overage, and overwrought. Best to give it a miss, I thought. So I asked if there were alternatives – a winery tour, perhaps, or maybe golf.

Robert emailed back: “Would you like to play Torrey Pines?”

Would I? Torrey Pines, home of the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open. Torrey Pines, location of the 2008 U.S. Open, won by Tiger Woods in a sudden-death playoff over Rocco Mediate? Torrey Pines, one of San Diego native Phil Mickelson’s favourite courses (he’s won here three times). Yes, I would.

There wasn’t a lot of time free, so I knew I would be playing nine holes. Torrey Pines has two 18’s – both in play during the Farmer Insurance

Open – so wherever they put me, I would definitely be playing fairways and greens (one hopes) played by Tiger and Phil and Jason (who won here in 2015) and Bubba (2011) and Tom Watson (1977) and Jack Nicklaus (1969) and Gary Player (1963) and… oh yes… Arnold Palmer, in 1957.

Perhaps you can tell, I was pumped.

I arrived just I time (travel media trips tend to be tightly scheduled affairs), got my rental clubs and car, and asked who I was playing with… I assumed I would be joining a two- or three-some already booked.

“No,” said Frank, the starter, “We closed the course half an hour ago. It’s just you.”

Just me. Just me and my clubs and my golf balls and the front nine of Torrey Pine’s north course. I was speechless – quite an unusual situation, believe me.

Torrey Pines is a unique golf course. It is described as “surely the most accessible public facility for the die-hard enthusiast wishing to play at a world-renown facility that nearly all golfers know by name.” It’s a municipal course, owned and operated by the city of San Diego. That doesn’t mean it’s inexpensive – 18 holes cost somewhere in the $150US range, depending on when you play. But it’s in terrific shape, kept that way by the annual demand of PGA championship play.

It’s also tough – the greens undulate like a belly dancer (I won't forget you, Number 7) – but average players who chose their tee blocks wisely can enjoy the round.

The North Course – which was renovated prior to this year’s Farmers, in January – is simply beautiful. You can play distances ranging from 7258 to 5197 yards (although the longest, the blacks, demand special permission). I opted for the gold tees, which play 5851 yards (acting on the advice – not offered to me personally, mind you – of Jack Nicklaus, who says golfers of my age and ability should never take on anything over 6000 yards). The golds were a great choice – every shot was makeable (if not necessarily made).

The course offers views of the ocean, stark ravines, rolling fairways, and of course the scruffy, iconic Torrey Pine trees.

One thing I loved about the course – quite unexpectedly – was the condition and the texture of the bunkers. I visited several – and, unlike my normal experience – I exited them precisely and accurately. Loved those bunkers, for a change!

The North course gives you lots of chance to ease into the game – the first hole is a straight-away Par 4, slightly uphill, with three bunkers that can be avoided. The signature third hole (Par 3) offers a wonderful view of the ocean; it demands a tee shot that clears a bunker guarding the front – and when you make it (can you hear the brag, here), it’s a great feeling.

The North Course is Par 72, so there are two Par 5s and two Par 3s on each nine. The second Par 3 I played was the 8th – usually 161 yards but shortened by the tee block placement on the day. I found the right-side bunker, but again came to appreciate the consistent quality of the sand, popping it out to beside the pin, for a very welcome par.

The South Course, also Par 72, doesn’t offer a 5900 yard option, but players of moderate experience should go for the gold again here, at 6153 yards. This is the course always used for the final days of the Farmers, again with at least half the holes laying alongside the impressive ravines.

Torrey Pines is definitely one of those iconic courses on every golfer’s wish list. It was on mine – still is, actually, since nine holes only served to whet my appetite, and to convince me that I can conquer the ninth, which beat me up a bit.

But I doubt I will ever again have the Tigeresque opportunity to play Torrey Pines alone with my clubs, my thoughts – and my absolute delight.

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