LA JOLLA, Calif. -- New York's 90-hole Bethpage State Park on Long Island and San Diego's 36-hole Torrey Pines Golf Course make strong cases as the two jewels of municipal golf in the United States.
Both work triple-duty as a place for local residents, bucket-list chasing tourists and as venues for the best professional tournaments in golf.
But Torrey Pines' setting on bluffs high above the Pacific Ocean can't be matched by any other muni. Toss in the fact that Torrey Pines' South Course hosted an epic 2008 U.S. Open won by Tiger Woods over Rocco Mediate in dramatic, playoff fashion (the U.S. Open returns in 2021), it's one of the most desired tee times in public golf, and rightfully so.
2017 was an especially exciting year at Torrey Pines: The North Course has reopened after an extensive renovation by Tom Weiskopf completed last fall. In 2018, the South Course will begin renovations in preparation for the upcoming U.S. Open, but the course will remain open.
The most coveted municipal courses are always a little trickier to get a tee time than simply booking online or over the phone. So here are a few things you should know as you plan your San Diego golf trip and want to include a round or two at Torrey Pines:
The 'muni' side of Torrey Pines
San Diego is well known for its luxury golf and spa resorts, so thanks to properties such as the Fairmont Grand Del Mar, Park Hyatt Aviara and Omni La Costa, expectations for visitors are very high when it comes to service, conditions and amenities.
Torrey Pines has a few areas where it can't hang with the top shelf: The driving range is small, with beat up, limited-flight eggs, and there's not much of a short game area. (It was mats-only the two days I was there, too.) Electric golf carts are ordinary with no GPS or USB, and the clubhouse, halfway houses and on-course restrooms are pretty basic. You pay your green fees at a walk-up window designed for quick transactions and no chit-chat. The pro shop, however, is large with an ample collection of logo swag.
The courses serve a tremendous amount of traffic. More than 80,000 rounds annually are played on the North Course alone, while the South receives 60,000 (this traffic seems to show itself most on the middle tee boxes of par 3s). This figure is that much more incredible when you consider the fact both courses close a week prior to the staging of the Farmers. Dress code is pretty lax, and fivesomes are permitted. (We were behind a fivesome during my round on the South, which took about 4:40.)
That said, the staff at Torrey Pines was exceedingly friendly, which can also be said for much of the tourist and service industry around San Diego.
Torrey Pines tee times and stay-and-play packages
I just did my best to dissuade you from playing Torrey Pines. Still reading? Okay, here is what you'll need to pay:
2018 rates for Torrey Pines South: South are $202 weekday and $252 on holidays and weekends. You can save money during twilight ($122-151), which begins between 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. depending on the time of year.
Torrey Pines North: $110 weekday, $138 weekend. (Twilight: $66-$83)
Don't expect dynamic pricing or last-minute deals like most other courses in town. You can't book times online unless you are a resident. You'll have to call the reservation system direct. But the kicker is that in order to book an advanced tee time 8-90 days out, which you will in all likelihood do, it's another $45 (non-refundable) per golfer due up front. Ouch.
For more details, the city has set up this webpage with more booking and policy information.
Green fees are the same regardless of when you walk or ride. (There is no caddie service at the course, however.) Leading up to the Farmers, carts are kept on the path, and considering how thick the rough is, I'd highly recommend walking so you can keep a line on balls that end up buried in the rough.
Tee times can be made up to 90 days in advance, and if you're hoping to play on the weekend, we'd recommend calling ahead as much as you can. (That said, it's not as tough of a tee time to get as Bethpage Black or St. Andrews.)
So what happens if you call to make a tee time and they are sold out? Your next option is to book a stay-and-play package with two partner properties, the Lodge at Torrey Pines or the Hilton Torrey Pines. Course officials note that while the Lodge, located right next to the practice green, is the favorite among golf groups, the Hilton -- a fine hotel in its own right overlooking the South Course -- doesn't always use their allocated rounds, so check in with them, and you may get lucky.
Lastly, there are some walk-up times reserved each morning (the first 30-60 minutes) on a first-come, first-serve basis.
If you're planning a long weekend San Diego golf trip, consider making your Torrey Pines tee times for the weekdays and saving the resorts for the weekend. You should have an easier time getting out, and green fees will be lower.
When to play Torrey Pines
If you play Torrey Pines in January as I did, get ready for gnarly 3-plus-inch rough (when I played in early 2017, the local weather had been extremely wet as well, making the grass incredibly thick).
After the Farmers, the rough is shaved down a bit, and during the course of dry summer, gets thinner and trampled down. But officials say the greens generally stay fairly consistent until aeration occurs in the fall.
The brand new North Course
The North Course reopened in the fall of 2016 after an extensive renovation and redesign by golf course architect Tom Weiskopf.
Considering the North is already used as a Thursday-Friday PGA Tour venue, the bones for a great layout were already there. But Weiskopf's task was to modernize it a bit, install some enhancements to help with the traffic and attract more tourist play. Greens were enlarged, and compared to the South Course, approach shots are far less intimidating -- and it's a little shorter, too.
In terms of the overall experience -- if you set aside the Tiger-Rocco drama of the South -- the North, frankly, hangs pretty close, at least from the perspective of your average visiting golfer playing the middle tees. Ocean views are equally wonderful, highlighted by hole No. 14-No. 16. I'm not a course rater for the mags' Top 100 rankings, but I'd say the North is maybe a few filler holes short of being a Top 100 public candidate, but there are at least 10-12 really neat holes here.
Having said that, at just over $100 weekdays, it's an excellent value and one of the better deals among not just PGA Tour venues but also any Pacific Ocean-fronting course. If you either don't want to pay the South green fee or couldn't get a tee time, the North is still easily a Top 10 public (and probably closer to Top 5) layout in the destination. (Read Tucker's full Golf Advisor review for the North.)
Matt Ginella tours the new North with Tom Weiskopf
The South Course
Narrow fairways, plenty of bunkers, gnarly rough and smallish greens define the challenges of the South Course. It wastes little time getting good, as the first thole plays straight towards the ocean, and no hole is more photographed than the par-3 third.
The long, par-4 fourth then plays entirely along the bluffs. The good news for duffers is that it's pretty tough to earn a penalty stroke here, with the only real hazard in play coming on the approach to the 18th green. You simply can't take a shot off here, and three of the par 3s play pretty long. (Read Tucker's full review of the South.)
The 19th hole at the Lodge at Torrey Pines
All great rounds of golf must have a fabulous 19th hole. At Torrey Pines, it's the Lodge at Torrey Pines, a classy operation.
Be sure to pop into The Bar (you'll see it right next to the practice green) for drinks and a meal. About the only thing it's missing is a thrilling view of the course. But it's a wonderful indoor-outdoor space, and golfers are certainly welcome at the Lodge for a meal and drinks.