When I think of a golf trip to southern California, I envision the beaches and oceanfront cliffs of San Diego and L.A.'s swanky suburbs and the desert of Palm Springs, not flashing casino lights.
Turns out, great golf in SoCal isn't just found at the iconic golf resorts we've all grown up with on TV -- La Quinta, La Costa, Torrey Pines and more. It's also found at the most unlikely of places, two Indian reservations found farther inland.
Barona Creek Golf Club and The Journey at Pechanga are two of the country's best casino golf courses. Despite their locations -- an hour's drive from one another -- they couldn't be more different. Even golfers who aren't gamblers (like me) will enjoy a stay at either place.
The casino hotels
The 517-room Pechanga Resort & Casino, owned and operated by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, is the largest resort/casino in the western United States; yes, even Las Vegas. It recently completed a major renovation that changed the entire look and feel of its hotel grand entry and lobby, revamped three of its existing 10 restaurants, and added an 11th food and beverage option.
The casino/hotel, awarded AAA Four Diamond since 2003, sells action 24 hours a day, whether it be for gambling, going to see a show or concert, or its diverse restaurant scene. The Great Oak Steakhouse delivers a fine dining experience with a large menu of high-end cuts of meat, fresh fish and even a tasty rack of New Zealand lamb.
The 400-room Barona Casino & Resort, owned by the Barona Band of Mission Indians, doesn't quite feel as opulent as Pechanga. It's still plenty nice with a similar AAA Four Diamond rating. Its multiple restaurants, a spa, and modern rooms and suites are nearly on par with its competition. It just can't compete with Pechanga's concert venue and comedy shows.
Barona does tout its the V-PAC air purification system -- installed in late 2013 -- as creating the cleanest air in the industry on its casino floor. I like to find clean air the old fashioned way -- by going outside to play.
The golf courses
Barona Creek sits in the idyllic Barona Valley, framed by colossal rocks and surrounding hillsides in Lakeside, a half-hour's drive northeast of San Diego. Architect Gary Roger Baird designed a fun, 7,448-yard course playable for even the highest handicapper yet strong enough to host the 2007 Web.com Tour Championship. Fairways feel forgivingly wide. Gentle elevation changes on the front nine give way to more extremes on the back nine, which climbs to a short, drivable par 4 at no. 14 and climaxes at the elevated 15th tee overlooking the entire valley.
Barona Creek seems flat compared to The Journey at Pechanga in Temecula, a bedroom community northeast of Carlsbad. Arthur Hills and partner Steve Forrest routed some of their best holes into rocky foothills 300 feet above the Temecula Valley. The wild terrain turns golf into a target-shooting adventure. When golfers tee off from an extremely elevated perch on the par-4 sixth, their ball seems to hang in the air a good five seconds before finding earth again.
So many obstacles are encountered along The Journey. Ginormous trees sit in the middle of the seventh and ninth fairways. Ponds pinch the landing areas on three holes, and a creek impacts a fourth, the par-5 13th. The final two holes climb up into the hills for two intimidating tee shots: Over a ravine on the par-3 17th and over a cluster of trees on the par-4 finishing hole.
The service of the staff and decked-out Yamaha carts stocked with GPS and plush seats make The Journey more comfortable. The round concludes at "Journey's End," a lavish, 62,000-square-foot clubhouse with a great restaurant/bar. The Journey might be over, but with the casino waiting, the fun after dark has just begun.