SAN JOSE, Calif. - Do you know the way ... to San Jose?
It's a question Dionne Warwick has asked radio listeners millions of times since the hit song debuted in 1968. When people find out where I live, it's usually the first cheeky response I get back. I had never heard the song until it popped up on Siruis XM during a recent vacation. My wife and I listened, trying hard to enjoy what felt like a kitschy attempt to celebrate Silicon Valley's least-loved city. It wasn't no New York, New York or I Love L.A., that's for sure.
As strange as this may sound, I think the song reflects the issues facing the city I call home. Most tourists have no idea the way to San Jose, nor do they care. Living here, San Jose seems like America's biggest little city. It also feels like it's the most overlooked major U.S. city.
When I moved from Michigan in 2014, I had no idea San Jose was the 10th-largest city in America, and actually much larger, size- and population-wise, than San Francisco. I just knew it was the most affordable choice to buy a house in the valley. By affordable, I mean the average home price is only $950,000. The problem is San Jose is surrounded by sizzle ... the fame of San Francisco, the grit (and Raiders) of Oakland, the money of Los Gatos, the cool surfer vibe of Santa Cruz and the brains and clout of Palo Alto (and Stanford). There are only so many seats with the cool kids at lunch. The response from locals is usually a shrug of the shoulders and the comment: "Hey, we have the Sharks!" Too bad I'm only a casual hockey fan.
But I would like to throw this bone to my San Jose peeps: The golf is pretty darn good. Of course, San Francisco's scene is better. San Jose doesn't have major championship venues like TPC Harding Park and The Olympic Club or courses on the ocean like Half Moon Bay Golf Links. But dollar for dollar, I'm spending my money here, not there. (I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Oakland's golf scene is decent and getting better).
San Jose can claim some glamour in its golf with CordeValle, home to a high-end Rosewood resort and a scenic former PGA Tour venue in San Martin, and The Institute in Morgan Hill, one of the most exclusive private courses in the world. Both lie in the middle of nowhere just south of the city. The Silver Creek Valley Country Club, a private, gated community and club where many of the Sharks and other professional athletes live and play, also has the distinction of being a rare Mike Strantz redesign. The venerable San Jose Country Club, the fourth oldest course in California, has a long history of producing top junior players from Roger Maltbie and Ken Venturi to current pros Mark Hubbard (San Jose State University); Joseph Bramlett (Stanford) and Justin Suh (USC), a San Jose native who was the world's top-ranked amateur before turning pro in 2019.
But first and foremost, let's focus where regular Joes like you and me can tee it up around San Jose, often without pretentiousness or a second mortgage.
Golf at San Jose's munis
Unfortunately, San Jose's municipal golf courses have been under siege for some time. There has been chatter about eventually closing at least one course among the San Jose Municipal Golf Course, Los Lagos and Rancho Del Pueblo. In 2018, the city surveyed residents on what to do with the struggling Los Lagos. Positive feedback helps it persist, according to the San Jose Mercury News. As the article notes, the 5,393-yard course isn't in the best area ("near a sizable homeless population"). Despite its challenges, Golf Advisor reviews are solid with the 4.1 star-rating, a sign that it is priced right and kept in sufficient shape.
This is a perfectly average muni course that suffers from the same problems as the rest of the Bay Area, tight quarters and homelessness.
I've played the 6,700-yard San Jose Muni (3.6 star rating) once. It's the most regulation of the three facilities. There's nothing wrong with it, but there's nothing inspiring, either. Probably its best attribute is the double-decker driving range where golfers can practice. Rancho Del Pueblo is a simple nine-hole executive course (par 28, 1,338 yards).
Thankfully, a Santa Clara County muni fills the void left by the city. I've fallen for Santa Teresa Golf Club for many reasons - convenience (walkable from my house), price (the $27 twilight allows a stress-free 12-14 holes after work), ambiance (always bustling, especially with juniors) and the additional nine-hole par 3 (great for footgolf with the family or a solid iron-game workout).
It's always in good shape with green, firm fairways and consistent green speeds. That's quite an accomplishment considering it doesn't rain a single day from May to October and sometimes longer. The front nine is only average with a back-nine stretch from holes 11-16 that's twice as nice. Its lower 3.9-star Golf Advisor rating probably comes from pace-of-play issues now and then and golfers who pay higher green fees during peak times.
A golf hotbed south of San Jose
San Francisco's legendary golf pocket consists of a fab foursome of clubs - the 27-hole TPC Harding Park and three privates: Lake Merced Golf Club, The Olympic Club (36 holes plus the nine-hole par 3 Cliffs course) and the uber-exclusive San Francisco Golf Club all within four miles of one another near Lake Merced.
San Jose counters with a public foursome all within 14 miles of one other scattered within the undeveloped hills south of the city: The Jack Nicklaus-designed Valley and Tournament courses at Coyote Creek Golf Club in Morgan Hill, the 27-hole Cinnabar Hills Golf Club in San Jose and CordeValle by Robert Trent Jones II in San Martin. Millions of golfers have probably almost crashed driving south on Highway 101 by straining their neck to see the visible holes of Coyote Creek en route to the Monterey Peninsula. If they were wise, they would stop to play this quartet.
Each facility sports a solid claim to fame. Coyote Creek's Tournament course hosted the Siebel Classic on the PGA Tour Champions circuit from 2001-02. CordeValle was the venue of the PGA Tour's Frys.com Open from 2010-13 and the 2016 U.S. Women's Open.
Cinnabar, meanwhile, boasts the best collection of golf memorabilia of any public course clubhouse in America. The Brandenburg Historical Golf Museum was created from the personal collection of former course owner Lee Brandenburg, who passed away in 2018. The most interesting pieces are full-size replicas of golf's major trophies, including the claret jug; a Masters green jacket, and two sets of clubs used to shoot 59, one from Chip Beck and another from Al Geiberger. Outside, Cinnabar's 27 holes are dramatically hilly and rugged, filled with forced carries over cross hazards. It's beautiful but demanding.
Coyote Creek's Tournament course has tried to go private under new owners in recent years, but golfers can still find tee times on GolfNow. The Valley course probably nudges out the Tournament course (4.2 star rating to 4.1) because it's slightly more affordable.
If you really want to continue to push the borders of San Jose south, Eagle Ridge Golf Club in Gilroy (3.7 stars) and San Juan Oaks in Hollister (4.3) are both pleasant gems few outside of the region know about. Be aware, though, that all of these south-side courses can get scorched in summer and sometimes suffer a brownout.
Sightseeing in San Jose
I'd be remiss if I didn't at least try to convince you to hang around San Jose instead of fighting all that Bay Area traffic to get somewhere else cool. The SAP Center, home of the Sharks, hosts its share of big concerts and events. San Jose's trendiest spot is Santana Row, an outdoor mall of sorts with restaurants, bars and shopping. Families with children under 12 will enjoy the Tech Interactive, Silicon Valley's only tech-themed museum and IMAX Dome theater in the heart of downtown. Willow Glen's main street (Lincoln Avenue) is a hub of shopping and restaurants. The supposedly haunted Winchester House, featured in a recent movie, might be the oddest and most unique tourist trap in America.
San Jose's future seems intriguingly bright if the economy can survive the pandemic. The city is looking into building its "Golden Gate Bridge" or "Eiffel Tower" to find a symbol that would be recognized world-wide. A non-profit, the San Jose Light Tower Corp., hopes to create a "new, distinctive, and world-class public landmark (that) will be a gathering place that produces civic pride, spurs economic development, and is a 'must see' for visitors and locals alike", according to this article in the Mercury News. Some of the 963 submissions include a waterfall bridge or a giant shaped bear. Coupled with Google's expansion plans to build a new mixed-use campus downtown, this new attraction could help San Jose finally carve out some space on the map in Silicon Valley. Maybe. Hopefully.
It would be nice if San Jose wasn't just an airport to fly into anymore.
Have you found the way to San Jose - for golf, work or pleasure? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.