HALF MOON BAY, Calif. -- A visit to northern California in August, while my home state of Texas endures the annual stretch of 100-degree heat, is a rare time when teeing off on a cloudy 55-degree afternoon feels practically idyllic.
That was the scene for my rounds at Half Moon Bay Golf Links: a cool breeze, the sound of ocean waves, and nary a rattlesnake to worry about while sniffing out errant tee shots in the rough.
Frankly, I'd feel practically awash in luxury holed up in the trailer park across the street from the courses. But a stay at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, which was added to this sleepy beach town of about 11,000 residents in 2001, takes it to the max.
The Ritz-Carlton brand (a part of Marriott family for those of you looking to burn some reward points in style) has some stellar golf properties like Maui's Kapalua and Arizona's Dove Mountain, current and recent PGA Tour venues, respectively.
Half Moon Bay is a former LPGA tournament host (a one-off stop in 2008 for the Samsung World Championship), but this property's niche isn't so much about serving as a pro venue as it is a place for vacationers to hobnob in style in an exquisite setting. The 36-hole Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay's stay-and-play offerings certainly hold their own in the West Coast's most prestigious golf region.
It's close enough to the Bay Area that residents can day trip or enjoy a very convenient weekender. But it's apparent this spot of the California coast's allure stretches coast to coast and beyond, particularly those of us across the country whose nagging neighbor is humidity.
Half Moon Bay Golf Links
Prior to the Ritz, Half Moon Bay was a golf course community, home to an Arnold Palmer design that is now known as the Old Course, which hosted all sorts of celebs. The affable Moon Mullins, the longtime golf pro, aided in the construction of the flagship course. Mullins passed away in 2009 after more than 30 years on the job, and he carries a kind of mythical lore in these parts. The restaurant in the clubhouse is named after him, and the large scotch and wine selection, not to mention fresh seafood from oysters to lobster and mussels, should keep you among the spirit of Mullins awhile.
Half Moon Bay's Old Course plays mostly inland, providing a more confined but very pleasant environment of Cypress trees and Monterey Pines that frame gentle doglegs. The back nine of the Old gets a little tougher, with seven water holes, but it's the finisher that epitomizes climax in golf. The cliff-side, par-4 18th tumbles gently downhill along the coastline with the Ritz in the background, rivaling just about any resort course on the coast not named Pebble for theater. You'll need your nerves from tee to green.
The approach shot will likely be played in front of scores of onlookers as the patio at the hotel has become quite a gathering spot, complete with fire pits, s'mores, music and more. You may never have more eyeballs on your short game than here, so be prepared. (Read Brandon Tucker's full review of the Old Course here.)
The Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay, added by Arthur Hills in 1997 in anticipation of the resort opening up a few years later, brought an entirely different style of golf to the property. A 2009 "links enhancement" project aimed to make the course appear even more like an Old World links. Unlike the more protected Old, the Ocean Course is exposed and often on higher ground with sweeping views and a fresh breeze. The course certainly looks the part, with deep pot bunkers and wispy grass, though certainly not as bouncy as its fescue neighbors to the north like Bandon Dunes and Chambers Bay.
While it's pretty tough to rival the Old's marvelous coastal 18th, the Ocean presents a different kind of signature hole: an elevated tee shot that looks high across the sprawling wide-open links and ocean. Course literature may point to the following par 3, a fun hole playing along the cliffs in its own right, but where I come from, elevated tee shots where your driver is jumping out of the bag on its own with excitement get my vote. I may be biased here, because Michael McPhie, the golf links' food-and-beverage director, met us on the tee with a bottle of Islay Scotch and some chowder -- and after a helping of both, I smoked my best drive of the golf trip. (Read Brandon Tucker's full review of the Ocean Course here.)
Michael McPhie pours out some Scotch, then an appetizer of fresh shellfish after the round.
Stay and play at the Ritz-Carlton
You don't have to stay at the Ritz-Carlton to play either course at Half Moon Bay, which offers tee times dynamically priced based on availability. Rates top out at around $200.
But if you're hip to a splurge, staying at this Ritz is tough to beat. Guest rooms are spacious with ocean views and marble bathrooms fit with both tubs and showers. The public areas have a way of making the space feel far more intimate than its scale.
A real treat is the Club Level lounge, which is open all day and serves full hot breakfast, lunch and dinner. There's even self-serve wine and beer -- proof you won't find a whole lot of riffraff abusing the open bar around these parts. I popped in here about five times a day for everything from a cappuccino to breakfast to wine.
But don't let the lounge's trimmings keep you from the restaurants. The Conservatory specializes in locally grown, organic ingredients (its salads are a thing of beauty), including a growing wall full of herbs used to craft cocktails, all overlooking the ocean in an airy setting.
While the property also has a spa, indoor pool and fitness center, it's tough not to steer your attention to the outdoors. From the hotel patio you can pick up a walking path that is about a mile long (shared by resort guests and the public) that winds down along the Ocean Course's 16th, 17th and 18th holes. Beach access along this path leads to plenty of sand to wander about beneath the cliff. Keep an eye out for the original foundation supports, since revealed after a couple decades of erosion, and be thankful that wise engineers chose to move the hotel a hundred feet or so away from the cliffs.