A few years ago, I was working on a story about America’s municipal courses that could use a nip and tuck. Someone suggested Coronado Golf Course nestled in the serene, upscale beach community of Coronado, just minutes from downtown San Diego. For setting, playability and price, it’s arguably one of the country’s great munis, but could it be even better?
I reached out to my friend Tod Leonard, then the longtime golf correspondent for the San Diego newspaper (who has since joined Golf Digest) and an authority on golf in his neck of the woods, and proposed my question. His answer was short and sweet: He wouldn’t change a thing.
That about sums up how I feel about San Diego, one of those cities that is lovely to visit and even better to call home. It’s a hard city to squeeze into a phrase.
For starters, it capitalizes on one of the Pacific Coast’s best harbors, which has made it a home of a Navy and Marine Corps base since 1846. It has a tourist neighborhood with a Victorian Gaslamp District, beloved by baseball fans streaming out of Petco Park, conventiongoers and college students. While outclassed by the Bay Area and neighboring Los Angeles in attracting foodies, it has developed a vibrant roster of restaurants. Its world-class zoo and 1,800-acre Safari Park, 30 miles northeast, draws throngs every day. So do Sea World and Legoland. And Mexico – Tijuana, Baja California and the rest – beckons a few minutes from San Diego’s southern boundary.
It is Spanish tiles, palm trees, tropical blooms, year-round flip-flops, bonfires on the beach and fresh fish tacos – try the Taco Stand with locations in La Jolla, Encinitas and downtown San Diego or Oscars Mexican Seafood with locations in Pacific Beach and Hillcrest, as suggested by native Xander Schauffele.
The city, however, may be most famous for its glorious sunsets. If San Diego has a cohesive identity, it’s a shared embrace of an easy, breezy Southern California casualness.
And, of course, there’s the golf.
Have we mentioned the weather? Forget Philadelphia, it’s always sunny in San Diego, where year-round temperatures averaging 70 degrees are its prime appeal, with the seashore-to-desert beauty of the county a close second. Outdoor activities have virtually no chance of being canceled on account of weather – average rainfall is less than 10 inches. All those blue skies make San Diego a hotbed for golf and there are plenty of options to choose from, including Torrey Pines, site of the 2021 U.S. Open.
The 36-hole municipal course sits hard along the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and is named for the rare and beautiful wind-contorted trees that bear needles in clusters of five and grow exclusively along this stretch and Santa Rosa Island. The courses were designed by William P. Bell and his son, William F. Bell, and built on the site of Camp Callan, a U.S. Army installation during World War II, just south of Torrey Pines State Reserve.
Both the North and South layouts have been used since 1968 for the PGA Tour’s annual Farmers Insurance Open. In 2008, the South layout became the second daily-fee course to host the U.S. Open, won by Tiger Woods, and architect Rees Jones has it ready for its return engagement this week. Jones rebuilt every green and redesigned the greenside bunkering in 2001, making the putting surfaces more difficult while adding elevation and multiple terraces. He continued to tinker through 2019 in preparation for the 2021 U.S. Open.
The North may be less dramatic – and thankfully shorter – but it’s arguably more scenic with views of passing hang gliders among the treats. The paragliders and hang gliders take off from Torrey Pines Glider Port at the far end of a dirt parking lot a few miles south of the course. The North got its own touchup from noted designer Tom Weiskopf a few years ago. When the wind blows hard off the ocean, beauty becomes secondary to the challenge.
San Diego has more than 40 public-access courses in a variety of oceanfront, mountain and desert settings, including Maderas Golf Club, which winds through cliffs, rock outcroppings, creeks and forests of the inland hill country of north San Diego.
I’m still making my way through all that terrain, but I always make sure to visit Barona Resort & Casino, one of several Indian casinos that have been popping up throughout California for more than two decades. As competition intensifies to attract gamblers, a golf course has become as essential an amenity as the all-you-can-eat buffet. Barona Creek Golf Club is the centerpiece of the resort, which is located 25 miles northeast of downtown San Diego in Lakeside’s desert-mountain setting.
The Barona Band of Mission Indians settled the land in 1932. Gary Roger Baird and Todd Eckenrode designed the track, which opened in 2000 and ranks No. 8 on Golfweek’s Best Casino Courses list. Eckenrode is an underrated designer who creates courses that demand a wide variety of shots while allowing for the occasional daring play.
“Barona Creek is quite a different course for the San Diego area, and purposely so,” he said. “We designed it to be at one with nature, to blend into its setting seamlessly. At the same time, the design was ‘old-school architecture’ in its strategic bunkering, sloping greens, and multiple options of play.”
On the drive to the course, billboards promote “the loosest slots in town.” I don’t know about that, but the surest bet is that you’ll want to play Barona Creek more than once.
That same urge for an emergency nine is common at Coronado Golf Course. The 406-yard third hole practically smacks into the Coronado-San Diego Bay Bridge as it eases past massive Navy ships. The 370-yard, par-4 16th wraps around the shore near the boat-lined Glorietta Bay Marina, where you can rent kayaks, boats and jet skis – or rent bicycles to pedal the paved 15-mile path along the shoreline. The 18th tee is perched at water’s edge and offers memorable views of San Diego Bay. It is quite simply a civic treasure.
The street lights are now electric, but the Gaslamp Quarter, a 16-block national historic district, remains downtown San Diego’s entertainment hub. A west coast version of Bourbon Street, it is lined with restaurants, dive bars and cocktail lounges, many of which are drowning in neon and sardined full of over-served tourists and college students. While cultural and business centers downtown make San Diego a world-class city, it is the sandy coast that brings the city near perfection.
A slender seven-mile strip of sand known as the “Silver Strand” tethers the lovely peninsula of Coronado Island to the mainland down near Imperial Beach. Orange Avenue, Coronado’s main artery, is lined with quaint shops, restaurants, galleries, theaters and the Coronado Museum of History & Art.
The island’s most famed sight is the Hotel Del Coronado. Very few hotels offer as much history with a night’s rest as “The Del,” setting for numerous TV shows and movies such as the Marilyn Monroe classic, “Some Like It Hot.” In 1888, it was designed of white clapboard and red shingles to be “the talk of the western world,” and it has a fascinating and colorful past that includes presidents and princes, socialites and scandals, ghosts and glamorous celebrities. It remains one of the best places in town at which to view the setting sun. Consider a cocktail at the Palm Court and walk the white sand beachfront in the morning before taking breakfast on your room terrace.
San Diego’s North County begins above La Jolla and stretches to the edge of Orange County, taking in beaches, hills, flower fields and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
The Fairmont Grand Del Mar is surrounded by the communities of La Jolla, Del Mar and Rancho Sante Fe. The resort features its own golf course, The Grand Golf Club. Graced by Pacific breezes from the nearby coast and with stunning Los Penasquitos Canyon as his canvas, Tom Fazio designed a challenge of sloping terrain, sharp elevation changes, diverse bunkering and lush fairways. During my round, we played through Brooks Koepka, who was working on his game, and it’s not uncommon to see Schauffele, Charley Hoffmana and even Phil Mickelson working with renowned putting coach Derek Uyeda, who teaches there.
The Fairmont exudes refinement, capturing the elegance and Old World comfort of the Spanish palaces, French coastal retreats and Florentine villas. My “signature poolside” room was just steps away from the heated adults-only Relaxation Pool. Due to COVID precautions and the timing of my trip, I didn’t get to enjoy the onsite restaurants, but based on the to-go egg sandwich and smoothie I had in the morning, it’s gotta be good. The resort is an equally appealing spot for a romantic getaway or reunion of longtime friends, offering activities such as archery, miles of hiking trails, pickleball and BMW bicycles for use.
There is no better way to savor the area than to wander south along the coast from Del Mar (where the turf meets the surf at the Del Mar Fairgrounds from mid-July to early September) to Point Loma, the most southwesterly point in the continental United States, which stands guard over the entrance to San Diego Bay. The 17-mile harbor is one of the world’s great natural bays. It is best seen while afloat, which if you’re not in the Navy likely means taking one of the harbor cruises that leave from the foot of Broadway.
San Diego keeps to its military and maritime roots at places such as the Aerospace Museum and at the Navy Pier along the city’s Embarcadero, where retired aircraft carrier U.S.S. Midway has been turned into a museum.
If anything epitomizes San Diego, it is Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre verdant urban oasis only a few blocks north of downtown and San Diego’s answer to New York’s Central Park. It cannot be fully explored in a weekend, much less an afternoon. It is museum central; a hiking haven; an architecture showpiece; host of lawn-bowling matches and fitness boot camps, free concerts and world-class theater productions. It’s best known as the home to the San Diego Zoo.
The 100-acre facility houses more than 4,000 creatures in habitats ranging from a showcase for Indonesian orangutans and siamangs (the first time these two apes are living together at the zoo), to the polar bear plunge and world-famous panda exhibit that is the most timeless feature in the park. There’s even summer nighttime viewing for those who’d rather spend the day on the golf course or basking in the sunshine at the beach.
Add it up and it’s no surprise why San Diegans are fond of referring to their seaside hometown as “America’s Finest City.” Don’t ever change, San Diego. Don’t ever change.