SAN DIEGO -- Few things are sweeter in golf travel than discovering a course with an affordable green fee and putting greens that roll like an exclusive country club.
Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club is one such golf course in San Diego that fits the bill. Located just off I-15 north of San Diego, it's a daily-fee course with a small membership that consistently has some of the area's purest putting surfaces.
The bentgrass greens run a firm 10 on the Stimpmeter, but they have been as high as 12 in the past. But 10 is plenty quick, especially when you find yourself above the hole.
"Stay below the hole, the greenskeeper is evil!" warned Loy, the friendly starter. Sure enough, both times I was above the hole on the front nine, I three-putted, including a spectacularly horrendous effort on the par-5 eighth hole that found myself with about a 30-footer on the comeback attempt.
Ronald Fream designed Carmel Mountain Ranch. It's a rare design by Fream in the United States, as his Golfplan firm is much more prolific in Asia. The course has four sets of tees, the longest playing 6,627 yards (73.2 rating), and is a pretty demanding play for most skill levels.
"The better players in the area like playing here because it's challenging, and the greens are consistently the best in the area," said Kenny Park, head professional at Carmel Mountain Ranch.
The club has changed which nine serves as the front side several times since it opened in 1986. As it stands now, the first is a short, gentle hole that heads slightly downhill. The second hole is a long par 5 that heads steeply downhill. The second is not the only par 5 that blesses golfers with a downhill roll. The 10th is a similarly downhill play that is a good birdie chance with a good drive.
Some holes come back up, too. The par-3 sixth trudges uphill and can play as long as 240 yards from the back tee box. The most strategic hole is the seventh, a short par 4 that is drivable at 339 yards. But a bunker and boulders guard the front of the green, which is the coolest on the property with three different tiers.
The club is also in the process of reinvention. Owned by a Korean businessman for the past four years, he ditched the club's management company in February. He hired a new superintendent and plans to revamp the club's maintenance and customer service.
"He has deep pockets," said Park of the owner's commitment. "And he wants to invest in the course and bring it to its potential."
The course isn't in bad shape by any means, especially for what they're currently charging (between $35-$69). But there are some areas where the beautification has fallen short, and some fairways could use a little more growth.
The superintendent doesn't have to worry about the greens. They're as good as it gets.
Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club: The verdict
Carmel Mountain Ranch C.C. serves a mostly local golf market in San Diego, but the course can be a good option for out-of-town players in search of a tough golf course at a low price. Fream's design is tough enough to challenge low handicappers, and it has solid hole variety with pleasant mountain views on some of the downhill holes.
There is a strong real estate presence that requires some long drives between holes and across some streets (traffic doesn't have stop signs, so be careful), but the course never really feels all that cramped. In fact, some holes are void of housing.
Also, there is no driving range on the property, just a couple of practice greens. Golf carts feature GPS, and the clubhouse is large and features a lot of banquet space, plus a grill and bar.
Stay and play near Carmel Mountain Ranch at DoubleTree Golf Resort
Located right on the other side of I-15 from Carmel Mountain Ranch is the DoubleTree Golf Resort. Along with golf, it offers tennis, swimming and a fitness center, plus a good sports bar next to the golf shop. Rooms have modern furnishings such as HD TV, and golf groups may want to inquire about one of the resort's suites that feature a lot of space and two bedrooms.
The resort is home to its own 18-hole golf course that sits on rolling, parkland terrain with no residential component. It also has a short game practice center, where you can hit shots up to about 100 yards, or warm up on some hitting nets, which may come in handy if you're headed to Carmel Mountain Ranch, which doesn't have a range.