Sandpiper Golf Course in Santa Barbara, CA
Tee Time: June 28, 2015, 8:20, 75F, sunny
Designer: William Bell (1972)
Playing Partners: assorted (tournament)
Tees: Gold, Par 72 (72.8 rating/131 slope/6,646 yards)
Course Handicap: 9 (7.7 index)
Stats: 91 (48-43); 34 putts; 6/13 fairways; 3/18 greens; 4 penalty strokes
Best I recall, there are two spots on the California coast for golf that everyone agrees are the best. Obviously the trio at Pebble Beach and then the south course at Torrey Pines in San Diego. In between, in Santa Barbara, is a coastal course that is worthy of the same praise the others get. Sandpiper Golf Course, just north of Santa Barbara on the 101, features six holes that take you right up to the cliffs or beach of the Pacific Ocean, and another with an approach that fills the viewfinder with pristine blue ocean. Well, once they clean up the oil…
When I signed up for the Golf Channel tour, I entered this tournament first. Two days in June to get out of the Phoenix summer and onto the central coast? No wonder there was a waitlist. About a week before the tournament, I injured my back leg playing hockey and was on a crutch for two weeks total. But at this point, I wasn’t going to drop out. Two rounds on a golf course with this atmosphere is well worth having to use my putter as a cane. Even a wheelchair if it came to that. I asked my dad, the Santa Barbara City College alum, if he had ever played it. Of course he had, but sadly he did not offer to caddy. He says he’s too old, and my leg was too messed up to have us both walking. Thank God for the golf cart.
Sandpiper opens with a par 5 of 511 yards, a blind tee shot over a ridge to a tough back-to-front sloped green. To me, the 447-yard par-4 2nd is the toughest hole on the course. It’s tight, with trees blocking the left and hazard to the right. The fairway drops way down in the landing zone and leaves a tough uphill approach. Laying up short of the gully leaves quite a distance but takes the hazard out of play. Good thing this hole doesn’t provide an ocean view, because you’ll need all your focus on keeping your ball headed the right direction. The 407-yard 3rd heads back in the opposite direction and the 226-yard 4th is a long, nasty par 3 with a greenside bunker guarding the front. The 5th is a crazy, uphill par 5 of 495 yards that saves the first dramatic view at Sandpiper for the green. From the tee, it doglegs to the left a bit and then there is a second shot that is as blind as they get, so don’t aim too far left and end up at the Mission. The 173-yard 6th is the most picturesque spot on the course. A panorama half-filled with the ocean and the other half of a golf course framed by distant mountains is pretty dramatic. Take a second on the tee here and enjoy the crashing waves on the shore forty feet below before hooking one into the deep blue sea.
The 368-yard 7th is the most dramatic elevation drop on the course. It is a 90-degree dogleg but from the fairway, is not a tough hole. The best non-ocean view at Sandpiper is from the tee and fairway of the 370-yard 8th. A simple, straight hole that should never be bogeyed, this par 4 has the gorgeous Santa Ynez mountains dominating the eye beyond the green. The 9th is a lengthy par 4 of 401 yards that plays uphill and into some wind.
The back nine is what you’ll remember most at Sandpiper. You’ll have barely finished your fish tacos at the turn when you get a nasty, sloping, downhill par-4 tee shot that isn’t friendly to misses. The approach is the most dangerous here, because on three sides of this peninsula, the ball will roll into steep hills that will find vegetation and never the cup. It’s an intimidating but unforgettable shot. To go from having the dramatic backdrop of the Santa Ynez mountains to the Pacific Ocean in just three holes is pretty amazing. The par-4 12th is a hole you’d have to play half-a-dozen times before figuring out what the heck to do. The conservative play is to the visible fairway, and leaves a longer, blind approach shot. The right play is basically over the 13th tee box, just left of a tree and over a lot of trouble into some fairway with an easy pitch into the green. If you listen to no other advice from this blog ever, at least remember that it’s okay to aim at a cliff. The hole most likely to result in penalty strokes is the par-5 13th. There are actually two greens for this one, and we played the surface closest to the ocean, over a thicket of brush and trouble. Going for two is a dumb idea, and that right-most green is so sloped that a three-putt is actually a best possible outcome. I actually got a penalty here, in the least likely way (I’ll get to that later).
The 425-yard 14th is a long, straight par 4 with a fairway that kicks sharply left. The approach will most likely be a long-iron over a bunker to a big green. And that is the last you’ll see of the ocean from the golf course. The 582-yard 15th is the longest hole on the course. At the dogleg to the right, it’s still over 300 yards to the green. But it’s not too tough with any length at all. The par-4 16th doglegs back to the left but at only 373 yards this time. A tough tee shot over a big canyon with a narrow landing area. Too far right and you’re in a grove of trees that isn’t easy to get away from, too far left and that approach is going to be a long one. The rare par-3 closing 18th is 167 yards of all carry over a pond to a very wide and shallow green.
Sandpiper Golf Course is the nicest public access course in the 430 miles between Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines. There are some fun courses in and around San Luis Obispo, 90 minutes north of Santa Barbara and where I went to college at Cal Poly. But I wish I’d made the trip down here at least once in a while I was still in school. It’s memorable, and always enjoyable. The golf might not be easy, but it’s easy on the eyes and relatively soft on the wallet. As for those penalty strokes… In this tournament, we were playing gold tees all day, one set up from the blacks. At the 13th, I had honors and teed off and hit. It was the second day and I was in a group that would all finish 20 shots off the leader, so it’s not like we were really playing for dollars here. I mistakenly teed off from the blacks, set about 10 feet behind the golds. No one noticed, and I was oblivious as well until a member of our group mentioned they were the wrong tees. No one knew the actual rule, so I hit a second provisional and played both out until we found a rules official. Turns out, my 5 turned into an 8. The rule is you must tee off within two club lengths of the markers (my driver came up literally three inches short [that’s what she said]). Penalty is two strokes and also counting the tee shot. So I effectively hit my 4th shot off the tee. All this because I was too busy looking at the beautiful California Brown Pelicans gliding majestically over the coast instead of what color the little wooden stakes were. I never willingly break rules, but this is a pretty petty one. At least just call it one stroke. Why two?
#11, Par 3, 202 yards, 18-handicap, My Score: 3.
The most exciting hole at Sandpiper also presents a dilemma. The lowest point on the golf course, the green is literally on the beach. While reading your putt, you can also see all the paw prints in the sand from ecstatic beach dogs, hear the constant roar of the coming waves and smell that sea air as strong as ever. So it’s very hard, especially when it’s sunny and 75 like is often the case in beautiful Santa Barbara, to not just call it a day after 11 and walk straight to the beach with a towel and take a nap. Especially the way I was playing, it was tempting. Take it in, there are not many places in golf quite like it.
Layout: A; 1/3 of the course is along the ocean, and the remaining 2/3 is pretty awesome as well
Amenities: B; everything you need is there. Also nice that they didn’t shut down on-course bathrooms to conserve water, as is policy in California these days
Staff: B; friendly and available
Difficulty: B; tough greens, since everything breaks toward the coast, it creates confusion when you watch a putt seem to break uphill
Scenery: A; the best views at an oceanside golf-course I’ve seen yet
Value: B; well, relative to its cousins to the north and south, Sandpiper is a bargain at $180. Still, $180 is never a “value”
Overall GPA: 3.33 (B+); a great place to play golf