Torrey Pines is situated on cliff tops some 20 minutes to the north of San Diego and is one of the best municipal golf facilities in the USA. The name Torrey Pines is derived from the trees on the two courses, which are the rarest pines trees in the country and can only be found at a few locations – Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara and here in San Diego at the course and within the State Reserve.
There are two courses at Torrey Pines, which are owned and maintained by the City of San Diego, and they are both used to host the Farmers Insurance Open (formerly the Buick Invitational) each year at the start of the Tour season. The North and South courses are used for the first two rounds before play reverts to the South course for the final two rounds over the weekend.
It is said when comparing both courses that the South course is longer and more difficult whilst the North is more scenic though both are pretty tight with penal rough – they are also said to contain elements of Pebble Beach which is praise indeed!
With mountains to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Torrey Pines was created on the site of a former military training centre. It was designed by William F. Bell and completed in 1957. The course was renovated by local hero Billy Casper and his design partner David Rainville in the late 1970s. Rees Jones then completely rejuvenated the South course in 2001 at a cost of $3.5 million, moving four greens, almost doubling the number of bunkers and adding ten new tees, taking the championship yardage to a staggering 7,607 yards.
Panoramic views from the course are thrown in for free when you pay a very modest green fee but beware of the elements – it is not always sunny in California and adverse weather conditions in the shape of fog, wind and rain can sometimes spoil your round.
It is widely known that Tiger Woods won four consecutive Buick titles between 2005 and 2008 and that Phil Mickelson lifted the trophy three times (1993, 2000 and 2001). Less well known is that, Ernie Els and Nick Price have also won here before turning professional at the Junior World Championship which is held every July.
The Torrey Pines South course is held in such esteem that the US Open was staged here in 2008, only the second municipal course ever to hold the event. Tiger Woods won the event, claiming his 14th major title, after defeating fellow American Rocco Mediate at the first sudden-death hole of a thrilling US Open play-off. The championship will also be remembered for his battle through the pain barrier… this was Tiger’s first tournament since undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee two months earlier. Tiger claims his 14th Major
Both Torrey Pines courses are available for public play although getting tee times can be a problem. Most tee times are only available via a telephone tee time lottery which takes place every day at 7.00 p.m. for tee times 7 days ahead. In theory, all phones in the world have an equal chance of a “lucky ring" and a confirmed tee time in this unique Torrey Pines lottery.
I had the opportunity to play the South Course on New Year’s morning at 7:30, which was probably one of the better times to walk on Torrey Pines. The course can be extremely busy. Many golfers sleep in their car just for an opportunity to get on the list. When there, you notice all golfers walking around the clubhouse, practicing putting or hitting balls at the range. An then, they hear their name: "Dexter single to the starter!". Then the light jog begins; partly giddy about the opportunity to play and partly excited at their names finally being called, the golfers want to make sure they don't miss their tee-times.
As is the case with the North Course, the landing areas are fairly forgiving, but that is where the similarities end. The South Course is much longer with its championship tees measuring 7628yards, and that's at sea level. The weird part is that the front tees play about 650 yards shorter than they do on its partner to the north. Not only is length an issue but with the rough grown out and fairly narrow fairways, a premium is placed on accuracy off the tee. The other aspect I noticed is the well placed fairway bunkers that should come into play on most holes, if one is playing from the appropriate tee boxes. The greens are also guarded, but can be hit if one is on the fairway. Most greens are sloped, and hitting proper spots on the green can make a big difference between a 10-15 footer and one that rolls into the scary three-putt range.
My favourite two holes were the signature 3rd, a downhill par-3 measuring two hundred yards from the championship tees, and the par-5 13th. The 3rd hole has a huge bunker protecting the front, and the cliffs bookend the green on the back side. A wide green, that slopes heavily from left to right, requires a golfer to really trust his distance control. The approach on the 13th is uphill with bunkers lining the fairways from about seventy-five yards out, and a huge slope which brings back balls that land just short of the putting surface. A big drive gives one the hope to reach it in two but the second shot has to be long and precise for any chance at an eagle putt. Players can also put up some big numbers on both of these holes, but these are only two of a score of holes that require the golfer to stay focussed. One thing I noted was the number of driver, long iron holes I had to negotiate, and I was merely playing from the 6628-yard white tees. It really made me appreciate how long and accurate tour players have to be.
I really enjoyed my experience at Torrey Pines. I lodged at the Hilton, one of the two high-end hotels in the resort. It was a nice hotel with rooms overlooking the south course whose 18th hole stretched to the hotel’s entrance. The Hilton has an outdoor hot tub and pool, which I definitely took advantage of on those warm winter California days. Torrey Pines South is a great municipal course and one of the few public golf facilities to host a major PGA Tour Championship.