Poppy Hills Golf Course in Pebble Beach, CA
Tee Time: May 23, 2014, 1:40, 63F, overcast and breezy
Designer: Robert Trent Jones, Jr. (1986)
Playing Partners: CJ Phelan, Andrew and Dave
Tees: 4 Poppies, Par 71 (72.1 rating/132 slope/6,672 yards)
Course Handicap: 10 (8.2 index)
Stats: 98 (39-42); 34 putts; 6/13 fairways; 3/18 greens; 3 penalty strokes
So I got to go home to the Bay Area for Memorial Day weekend. It just so happened that CJ would be visiting from Utah, so we decided to golf at the prime destination that is Pebble Beach, California. So all week I got to say I was golfing in Pebble Beach, though not at Pebble Beach. All they must have heard was “Pebble Beach”. I actually didn’t realize there were so many golf courses just on 17-Mile Drive: Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill, Spanish Bay, Poppy Hills and private clubs like Monterey Peninsula and Cypress Point. Not to mention places like Bayonet Black Horse and Pacific Grove just around the corner. This little slice of California is to golf what the Vatican is to religion. With such high demand, though, comes raised prices, especially at the Pebble Beach trio. Luckily, we were able to take advantage of an NCGA member rate at Poppy Hills and walk a freshly redesigned golf course. And I do mean fresh, as after a year-long renovation by original architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr., the place reopened just this past April 4th. Poppy Hills made for the second newly reopened course I’d played in less than a week (the other being Camelback’s Ambiente Course in Scottsdale, which reopened in November 2013). Just walking the course, being secluded among the majestic Monterey Pines that define the central coast of California, is an experience to cherish. The entire layout is as gorgeous as it gets, unfolding around each bend and over every hill with perfect green grass and a photo-worthy look from any angle.
That being said, the course needs another year or so to be golf ready. Because right now it’s about as fair as the McDonald’s Monopoly Contest (seriously, check that out). There is very little rough, instead replaced with sand traps and sandy waste areas. The fairways tend to hop and run, feeding good shots into the hazards. And the greens couldn’t hold a shot even if you coated your ball in super glue. Our entire foursome had multiple holes of well-struck, soft-landing approach shots that kept trickling and crawling all the way off the back, where more sand awaited. This may not have been as much a problem if the day’s pins weren’t all either in front or tucked behind a bunker. The greens still roll a bit slower than you think, but they are nice once you’re actually putting. Maybe they could raise the fringe a bit to keep some of these escaping Titleists on the edge of the putting surface at least. That’s enough venting. We’re talking about a course that’s gotten a major overhaul, not just a fresh coat of paint. Less than two months in, it’s not gonna be in mid-season form just yet. Taking the round in, especially hoofing it, which is as captivating a walk as there is, it’s clear that this place is special. But it won’t get any easier.
My main takeaway about actually playing this course is that there really is only one route to take. Now, every golf hole has that preferred line. But at Poppy Hills, there is no Plan B. With so many doglegs and bends around the course, naturally there are some looks at getting aggressive and maybe cutting corners. Trust me, it’s not possible. Perfect shots on those paths, landing center cut, still find their way into trouble, mainly via the numerous fairway sand traps. Take the dogleg-left 14th for example. A 369-yard par 4 that bends almost 90-degrees with sand traps guarding the corner. Obviously the safe line is straight out with a shorter club, which leaves about 160-170 yards to a tiny green with a false front and trouble right up against the fringe to the front and back. So there’s obviously the daredevil’s route, which leaves less than 100 yards to attack that tough target. Taking it between the two fairway bunkers requires about 230 or more yards of carry. Two guys did that and still kicked and rolled way back into the left trap. People have said Poppy Hills, like all great golf courses, will punish bad shots and reward great ones. I just saw too many great swings punished unjustly.
There are many great holes at Poppy Hills, and that’s the main takeaway. The par-4 1st is a dogleg right. The green hugs the lateral hazard on the right, so anything long will end up in a rabbit’s home. The 189-yard 2nd is a tricky shot with bunkers surrounding the large green. My ball mark was literally one inch right of the cup, but I missed the resulting 20-foot birdie putt and made par. The par-5 4th, by far the longest hole at 572 yards, is another one-line hole. Head left off the tee and then right on the second shot to avoid waste areas. From that angle the entire green is guarded on the front by sand, but it is a very deep putting surface to land on. After surviving that you’ll play the longest par-4 on the course, and the #1 handicap, the 439-yard 5th. It really isn’t too hard, just long. The fairway is pretty wide and there isn’t any dangerous trouble on the way in. That opening five hole stretch is as tough a start as I’ve seen. If you can weather it you’ve got a fighting chance because the next two holes, a short par 3 and gentle par 4, offer a chance to catch your breath. Actually, the par-4 8th is also pretty easy. Most of the fairway leaves a steep downhill approach into a flat green. Most of the fairway. I happened to find the one chunk of fairway behind a 60-foot tree. This tree had a 10-foot baby pine right next to it. I literally had an opening the size of a hockey net to shoot through. Unlike at the rink, I managed to put this shot on target. And the closing 9th, a long par 5, is a fun hole that requires three great shots to make par.
The back nine is not as tough as the front thanks to having three cupcake par 3s. The 11th, 15th and 17th rank as nos. 18, 14 and 16, respectively. The par-5 10th, however, is a beast. The second of back-to-back par-5s, this one plays to the top of a ridge off the tee. From the fairway near the sand trap it almost begs to be reached in two. It’s about 235 yards, slightly downhill with a generous bailout area on the right of the green. The catch is the big pond being fed golf balls by the shaved front on the left side of the green. The view from the ridge, looking at this stadium-like green area and the gorgeous trees surrounding it looks an awful lot like a scene out of Augusta. The 410-yard 12th shows that even the dead straight holes at Poppy Hills are steered in a certain direction. Carefully placed fairway bunkers dotting the edges dictate play here. I’ve already discussed my feelings on the 14th, so let’s move on. That final par 4, the 430-yard 16th, is a brute, especially after 15 long holes of hoofing it. By now you’ve learned not to bite too much of a corner off, so maybe you’re in the center of the fairway, 200 or so yards in. From there the green looks tiny and miles away, as you carry a large dip between you and the putting surface that looks more like a canyon than a gentle slope.
Poppy Hills is a great course, my brutal round notwithstanding. I do stick by my recommendation that it needs at least a year’s worth of golf played on it before it’s really ready, but every fancy new toy needs that breaking-in period. A new car needs 1,000 miles before you start gunning the engine, a new barbecue needs a bit of grease and seasoning to taste just right and a dog needs a few days to adjust to new food (which hopefully Bauer does soon so the house stops smelling). So most of my hard feelings from gnashing my teeth so much after every bad shot and kick will fade away pretty quick and I’ll be left remembering how great a place it really is. The setting really is heaven on Earth. The towering coastal pines and ever-present marine layer add to the mystique. It just proves once again there really is no place nicer than California’s Central Coast. Can you really go wrong playing golf on 17-Mile Drive? Sure, Poppy Hills isn’t as nice as Pebble Beach or Spyglass Hill, but that’s like saying John Smoltz wasn’t as good as Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine. On it’s own, it’s still a Hall of Famer.
#18, Par 5, 503 yards, 10-handicap, My Score: 6
Poppy Hills saves the best for last. At a golf course that serves as the home of the NCGA and many tournaments, including hopefully someday more rounds of the AT&T Pro-Am, the finishing hole sets up for lots of excitement. It’s short and snakes from right to left. From anywhere in the fairway the green is within range. Another large pine guards the flight path to the right side of the green. On the left, bunkers sit in front and directly behind the closest piece of green. It’s a nice risk-reward finish that’s tempting enough to get a lot of action coming to the end. I know I went for broke being down 1 with 1 to go in my match with CJ, and that was only with $5 on the line. The restaurant and clubhouse looking out over the green adds to the atmosphere. Roars and cheers echo off the cart barn and into the surrounding forest. It’s a place to go for that eagle, but still wind up, thanks to those delicate sand traps, with a double-bogey.
Layout: B; a fun layout, but the way there’s only one real route is kind of like playing a linear video game. Eventually it might get stale (I could still play here a dozen times in a row, though)
Amenities: A; it’s 17-Mile Drive and the home of the NCGA, of course it’s fully equipped
Staff: B; helpful staff, but this was one of the few courses I’ve played where upon finishing there was no one there to ask how my round went. Maybe that’s why had to vent so much here…
Difficulty: A; even once the newness wears off, it’ll still be one of the harder courses I can think of
Scenery: B; of course relative to some of the nearby courses, Poppy Hills can’t compare. There is a few of the water from the 12th on a clear day and the complete absence of homes on the course is awesome
Value: B; there’s an NCGA rate of $90 and guest rate of $120. The rack rate of $212 seems excessive, but again, relative to the other local tracks, it’s a bargain.
Overall GPA: 3.33 (B+); a great place to play golf, but make sure you’re at the top of your game because it is a test.The pace of play is nice, all the tourists are down the road, so enjoy a peaceful walk.