EL CAJON, Calif. -- They aren't the big-name, opulent golf resorts that populate the pages of national golf magazines.
No matter. Carlton Oaks Golf Club, Sycuan Golf Resort and Pala Mesa Resort are still good enough that I based my entire four-day weekend getaway around staying and playing at these off-the-beaten path destinations near San Diego. Haven't heard of them? You're probably not alone.
They're far from the bustling SoCal beaches and coastal towns that attract tourists. They're tucked away into the scenic hillsides further inland with old-school, motel-style accommodations. Places like Sycuan and Pala Mesa are the backbone of California's golf industry. These destinations are nice enough to impress guests and still somewhat affordable for the masses. You aren't paying premium prices for ocean views or dining at five-star restaurants.
I threw in one round at a bucket-list course -- Maderas Golf Club in Poway -- just to have something to brag about back home. To anybody who claims they can't afford a golf getaway to SoCal in winter, this is the best formula: Sprinkle in one splurge among a bunch of value-oriented rounds to make it work.
Despite some wet weather and a frost delay, I was still living the dream, especially compared to the forecast across the rest of the country that weekend.
Day one: Comfy at Carlton Oaks
After picking up my rental car at the San Diego International Airport, it was a smooth half-hour drive to Carlton Oaks Golf Club in Santee. Carlton Oaks has had ups and downs since the 1950s, although things seem to be trending positive, according to recent reviews at Golf Advisor.
There is still work to be done, especially with the bunkers and some aesthetics. All in all, the playing surfaces were excellent during my round.
One of the San Diego area's toughest courses looks dramatically different from other area courses. A redesign by Perry Dye in 1989 introduced the boarded bunker faces and wild mounding. Carlton Oaks has hosted the first stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying School in 2010; U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur qualifiers and a Canadian Tour qualifier in addition to the San Diego Junior Masters.
After golf, I settled into life at the 51-room Carlton Oaks Lodge. The spacious room was impressively updated with nice furnishings. An outdoor pool/hot tub and a restaurant/bar in the clubhouse offered everything I needed for an overnight stay.
Day two: Take a gamble on Sycuan Golf Resort
Let me drop a bomb on you: Torrey Pines in La Jolla and La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad have hogged the area spotlight by hosting PGA Tour events over the years, but they're not the most "complete" golf resort in greater San Diego. That honor belongs to Sycuan Golf Resort (pronounced "se quan") in El Cajon, home to 54 holes of Ted Robinson Sr. golf, including an 18-hole, par-3 course, multiple restaurants, a popular golf academy, the Primrose Spa and a casino in the beautiful Dehesa Valley.
It's a good thing I had so many options. A freak all-day storm -- a rarity in drought-stricken California -- derailed my round on Sycuan's Willow Glen Course. Instead of golf, I explored the casino, a short shuttle ride three miles away. Owned by the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, the casino has grown from a small "Bingo Palace" founded in 1983 into a major gaming hotspot of more than 2,000 slots or video poker machines, more than 40 gaming tables, numerous restaurants and a 457-seat entertainment venue that hosts national musical performers and comedians (Sinbad and Blue Oyster Cult are coming in January).
Back at the room, I watched a movie on HBO (something Carlton Oaks didn't offer). My room (one of 100) was bigger and even more luxurious with a small balcony overlooking the outdoor pool.
The next morning, motivated by the sun rising over the mountains, I toured the 6,651-yard course by cart, finding enough signature holes (especially the fourth and 12th) to see why it's so popular with the locals.
Day three: Get spoiled at Maderas Golf Club
Maderas Golf Club, which has gotten top-100 recognition from both Golf Magazine (2012) and Golf Digest (2015-16), sets the gold standard for daily-fee golf in SoCal. The standalone facility is the centerpiece of a community of palatial homes that attracts professional athletes and the like.
Johnny Miller and Robert Muir Graves routed a fun and scenic golf course on an extremely hilly site with a minefield of creeks, rocky outcroppings, arroyos and ponds. It's a thrill ride that's well cared for by Troon Golf.
Day four: Play at Pala Mesa
Pala Mesa Resort in Fallbrook -- 60 miles north of San Diego -- was perhaps the biggest surprise of the trip.
I enjoyed every aspect -- my room was the biggest yet, and dinner at the Aquaterra restaurant off the main lobby was the best meal of the trip. The restaurant/bar -- and all 132 rooms located in a cluster of buildings tucked into the hills and along the first fairway -- are being renovated next year, so they'll get even better.
As first impressions go, the 6,502-yard golf course at Pala Mesa was underwhelming with the first two holes as flat as the parking lot. From the sixth hole on, however, everything improves -- the land, the scenery, the shape and challenge of the holes. Due to an early morning frost delay, I only had time to play 14 holes before an early departure back to the airport. I wasn't too bummed. I figured I'll come back to see the new rooms and finish my round. That's the best endorsement I can give any golf resort: If it's worth a return visit, it was worth your money in the first place.