Westward Ho: San Diego

by Tod Leonard

Arizonans know all about snowbirds, the warm weather seekers who flock to the state in the winter to escape the frigid climates elsewhere.

In San Diego, there are birds of various feathers all year round. The snowbirds arrive in winter, and in the summer there is a steady caravan of westward-bound Arizona license plates on Interstate 8.

Call them “seagulls.” San Diego is an incredibly popular destination for Arizona residents. About 2.5 million Arizonans visited last year, according to San Diego tourism officials, and they continue to love and inhabit the beaches, parks, tourist attractions and golf courses.

San Diego golf has great appeal because of the relatively good pricing compared to other golf destinations and it also has a large variety of public courses. Not to be underestimated is the ability to play guilt-free with the family as long as other attractions include visits to the San Diego Zoo, Sea World and Legoland.

There are more than 50 public courses in San Diego and nearly all are well maintained, so it’s hard to go wrong regardless of the choice. Courses are like art — in the eye of the beholder — but there also are a few can’t-miss suggestions to try over the course of a visit.

Do as so many Arizonans do and find a hotel or bed and breakfast in Coronado for a base. A semi-island connected to the rest of San Diego by the Coronado Bridge and the Silver Strand, Coronado is a step back in time, with families strolling or biking past the ice cream shops, restaurants and boutiques along its main street, Orange Avenue. Coronado boasts a beach near the historic Hotel Del Coronado that annually ranks among the best in the country. The municipal golf course there falls into similarly lofty category and is a wonderful place to start a vacation and get into the laid-back San Diego vibe.

Opened on the edge of San Diego Bay in 1957, Coronado, flat and very walkable, has a vibrant history and features beautiful scenery at every turn.

The front nine hugs the western edge of the bay and offers pleasant views of the water, bridge and the San Diego skyline. On the back, the red spires of the hotel seem close enough to reach with a 7-iron, and the signature hole is the par-4 16th — a 370-yarder with its entire right side edged by the waters of the Coronado Yacht Club.

It was near the 16th green that a movie crew in 1958 built a temporary dock as Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon filmed “Some Like it Hot.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Coronado is its price. It is $30 to walk for all golfers, every day — making it a “2010 Pearls of Value” course by Golf Digest. The quality and value make it a popular place, of course, so for out-of town visitors, the best option is to make a starting time; they’re taken 3-14 days in advance.The cost is $30 per twosome.

Less than 15 minutes from Coronado are the highly acclaimed zoo, the museums of Balboa Park and the shopping and dining in downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter.

The terrain changes dramatically by going from Coronado to the East County hills of Barona Creek Golf Club in Lakeside. In the nearly 10 years since it opened, Barona has become a darling of golfers and architect buffs because of its natural beauty and dramatic styling.There is no course in Southern California remotely like it.

This year, Golfweek tabbed it No. 4 on its list of Best Courses You Can Play in California, behind only Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Pasatiempo. Barona has been the site of numerous top-quality college and pro events, including the 2007 Nationwide Tour Championship.

From the highest point in the course, every hole can be seen, with few structures around, other than the towering hotel and casino on the property.There is just a smattering of oak trees among tall native grasses, which give the layout a links feel that is further confirmed by the super hard and fast fairways and greens. The putting surfaces are enormous and gently undulated, much like a PGA Tour green speed.

The aesthetic is fully completed by more than 100 stark white, jagged-edged bunkers that are the signature of senior architect Todd Eckenrode.

The public rate for Barona is $120 Monday-Friday and $160 on weekends, with further discounts available by signing up for a free Club Barona card.The resort has a full casino, luxury guest rooms, spa and numerous dining options, including a buffet and steakhouse.

There are so many options in various directions.

To the north is the spectacular Mt. Woodson ($45-$65) in Ramona, a boulder strewn, target golf course that is unique and well worth the trip.

On the northern coast are two high-end options: La Costa ($175-$205), the longtime site of professional tournaments, and Park Hyatt Aviara ($215-$235), beloved for its flowers and eucalyptus groves. Both courses are 15 minutes from the Legoland theme park.

Or, driving east on the way out of town, there is a fine option in Santee’s Carlton Oaks ($49-$69), a wonderful Perry Dye design that is arguably the second-hardest course in San Diego behind Torrey South. Carlton Oaks was the site of this year’s NCAA Men’s West Regional.

One option for an entire trip to San Diego is the Sycuan Resort (formerly Singing Hills) in El Cajon.While staying at the full-service resort, with the Sycuan casino nearby, a golfer has access to 117 holes within a 10-minute drive.

Sycuan has 54 tree-lined holes — championship courses Oak Glen and Willow Glen ($57-$79 with cart) and the executive Pine Glen ($19-$26). The courses, longtime sites of the Junior World Championships, are impeccably maintained and accented with old-growth trees and flowers.

Down the street are 27 holes at Steele Canyon ($59-$139), which features dramatic elevation changes, and 36 holes at Cottonwood ($35-$59), an old-school course that is casual and fun.

It’s back to the coast and San Diego’s most famous courses, the North and South at Torrey Pines.

The complex already was well-known for hosting the PGA Tour for more than 40 years, but it took on a different aura after the South’s staging in 2008 of one of the greatest U.S. Opens in history — Tiger Woods’s playoff victory over Rocco Mediate.

One might think it’s impossible to get on Torrey Pines now, but the slumping economy and continued rise in green fees instituted by the city have made it more accessible than ever. Weekdays at midmorning are especially fruitful, with twosomes able to walk up with very little waiting time.

Torrey Pines is not the bargain it used to be. Non-residents pay $183 to walk the South on weekdays and $229 on weekends; the North is $100 and $125. To secure a reservation in advance, the fee is $43 per person for either course.

Ironically, the U.S. Open course is easier to get on because of the price. And if the South is not a “must-play” experience, the shorter and more forgiving North can be far more playable and enjoyable. In addition, the beach and hang gliders can be seen just as well.

Downtown La Jolla, meanwhile, with swanky shops and restaurants, is just minutes from Torrey Pines, as is the Birch Aquarium.