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 (originally the San Diego Open) 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
The U.S. Open returns to a renovated Torrey Pines in 2021. In 2019, fairways and bunkers were shifted on holes #4, #9, #10,
#12 and #17 and all bunkers refurbished.
Television exposure has helped a good number of courses gain wide global visibility. The South Course at Torrey Pines is one of the leading beneficiaries. There's little doubt golfers throughout the globe will long remember the incredible putt Tiger Woods holed at the 72nd hole of the '08 US Open to tie Rocco Mediate. The event was indeed memorable but the totality of compelling architecture at the South is lacking.
Anyone who has seen events from Torrey on television is immediately shown the majestic views of the adjoining cliffs that overlook the Pacific Ocean. There's no doubt the scenery is sweeping in its grandeur. One would think any golf course design with such close proximity would take advantage of such a setting. The South fails to do so.
Torrey Pines succeeds because of its location - the greater San Diego area. The year round weather is almost always cooperative and having a metro base population that clearly is interested in golf helps matters considerably. It also helps that Torrey Pines has the logistics to stage major events. Since 1968 the facility has been the annual host site for the San Diego PGA Tour event -- the Farmer's Insurance Open. Hosting the US Open in '08 and having Woods win the event only bolstered the facility from a visibility standpoint. The South will hold the US Open again in '21.
Architect Rees Jones played a major role in toughening up the South prior to the '08 US Open. Extensive lengthening took place -- playing over 7,600 yards from the tips and with turf usually less than firm -- the wherewithal to carry one's ball is almost always a necessity.
The other element that's been added is dense rough lining each fairway. Failure to drive the ball long and straight -- over and over again -- can mean a slashing out of the heavy stuff.
The sad part is that the South should have been far better given its setting. You are hoping for the cliffs to play an integral role and they are simply nearby bystanders. Hard to believe -- but true.
What many people presume erroneously is that courses capable in hosting big time professional events are chosen for a whole host of reasons. The architecture dynamic is in the mixture but it can be relegated to the back of the bus. That's the case with the South Course.
The heavy emphasis on difficulty is certainly present. When you have major length and narrow fairways lined with moist lush rough you can be sure it will take a toll on even the best of players.
But difficulty alone is not stirring architecture. One can look at other notable demanding courses such as Oakmont, Winged Foot / West and Oakland Hills / South, to name just three and see the richness of design elements which go beyond just overdosing with sheer length and unrelenting rough.
The greensites at the South are fairly routine -- there's little really in terms of special qualities that add much to the steady drumbeat of sheer demands from tee-to-green. Slog golf gets old very quickly -- save for the players capable in hitting the ball consistently long and straight.
I can't help but feel for the person who finally gets to the area and is thinking the South must be something to play given the host role it continually plays for big time golf events. The letdown has to be a big time disappointment. I equate the South in so many ways with the The Belfry and its Brabazon Course.
Top tier architecture contains a consummate mixture of engrossing details. The South simply does not have such depth to merit the acclaim it gets simply from hosting big time events. It saddens me because the layout should have been far better.
by M. James Ward
I'm sensing a little nose in-the-air, private-club feedback here, and a native of the East coast, with no appreciation for the beauty of California.
Appreciate your comments. As an FYI -- I have been playing Torrey off and on -- both courses including the pre-Rees Jones efforts on the South and those carried out by Tom Weiskopf with the North -- for over 25 years.
In regards to your comments -- I grew up in the NY metro area and my genesis with golf started in playing on courses where grass grew by accident -- not by design. My early days in golf were spent playing such public venues such as Van Cortlandt, Dyker Beach and Bethpage (prior to all the hype that came years later),
My "nose" -- as you pointed out I might add incorrectly -- has always been ensconced with public golf.
You also mentioned my lack of "appreciation for the beauty of California" which is not correct either. As someone who has had the good fortune in playing a myriad of courses throughout the Golden State I am also quite familiar with nearly all of the key courses worthy of time and attention. I have posted reviews via this site, and, if you wish, you can analyze them as well.
Torrey South is clearly an eyeful and my opinion on the course has never stated anything short on the eye candy dimension the layout provides. Frankly, you could have a third rate pitch and putt course and the views would still be noteworthy.
Let me point out the last sentence architect Tom Doak provided on his assessment of the South via his updated "Confidential Guide" series --
"But you still walk off the 18th green wishing that the course had made more use of the coastline and the ravines."
In sum -- the South misses the "engrossing details" I opined. It was supersized by Rees Jones to be mega-long layout capable in testing the top players. The facility has reaped the benefit in having an annual PGA TOUR stop and no doubt having Tiger Woods win the 2008 US Open on a broken leg will forever be in the annals of golf history. But hosting events is one thing -- having architectural heft is quite another.
If you read with care my comments -- I mentioned several other demanding courses that have hosted major events and have clear design elements that translate into far more than slog courses. Places such as Oakmont, Winged Foot West and Oakland Hills South are clear examples. I mentioned earlier my involvement in playing Bethpage Black numerous times. All of the aforementioned are miles beyond Torrey Pines South when it comes down to the totality of the design elements included -- although I wish the Black would have had at least the inclusion of 1-2 under 400 yard holes in its presentation.
Doak himself says, "Strategy appears to have been less of a consideration; fourteen out of eighteen greens are bracketed by bunkers left and right, including every hole on the back nine."
What's interesting to point out is how much more enjoyable and detailed oriented the adjoining North Course is by Weiskopf.
I have always enjoyed the intrinsic beauty of California -- but my opinions on architecture do not rest solely on that important -- but singular dimension. The South could have added a variety of elements but given the close proximity to the coast and the likely need for various permits which are likely too difficult to secure in this day and age -- the changes made were in keeping with the original routing -- with a ton of yardage added.
I trust my additional comments will assist your understanding of my rationale. Thanks.
@ M. James Ward
That is a very well written response and exactly how I feel about TPS. Much appreciated
I was fortunate to knock another course off my bucket list. I played the South course at Torrey Pines on March 6, 2015.
I read on their website about showing up early and putting your golf bag in line. I arrived at 5:45am that morning and was the second bag in line. The starters station was open and welcomed me and put me in the second group off, a three-some. The weather that day was beautiful, a little crisp (55F) to begin with and I took off my windshirt on the hole 3. The Farmers Insurance Open had been played there a few weeks earlier so the rough was a little tall still and the greens were running a 12 (perfect!). I played the blue tee’s and thoroughly enjoyed the golf with the others in the group (2 men who lived locally and 1 who visited La Jolla area once per year). The views of the ocean during the round were fabulous, breathtaking at times. I had to just stop and gather the scene in a few times before I could go on to the next shot. Amazing! I loved playing in the morning with the calm seas and the eastern rising sun. Beautiful! The course was very well maintained. The gift shop had items that were reasonably priced. Very good! They even had two different putting green’s, one for the South course and one for the North since the speed of the greens were different on each. It was well worth the money. If you get to play there sometime I’d recommend playing in the early morning and walking the course so you can enjoy every step and view. If you have any specific memories of putts that you saw on TV during past tournaments I’d suggest that you drop a ball or two in those spots and roll the putts to see & experience them for yourself. I did this on holes 15 and 18 (Rocco’s 2 putt for par on 15 from above the front pin hole location, and Tiger’s birdie putt to get into the playoff).
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.