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Jay Skurski: Golf fantasies come true at Torrey Pines, Mayakoba

Bucket lists can be a tricky thing for golfers.

There are hundreds of courses across the globe that would qualify for once-in-a-lifetime status.

Some of those, like Augusta, Pine Valley and Cyprus Point here in the U.S., are pretty much impossible to get on unless you really know the right people. Others, like Pebble Beach or the Old Course at St. Andrews, are accessible to the public, but come at a premium price and with a lottery-like availability.

The Old Course, for example, is completely booked from March through October of this year. As in, there’s not a single tee time available.

Pebble Beach, meanwhile, will set you back $495 for the round itself – but guaranteeing a tee time requires a two-night minimum stay in one of three hotels nearby, with the cheapest room checking in at $670 per night. Add it up for you and a playing partner, and that’s more than $2,300 for 18 holes, glorious as they may be.

That’s understandably not feasible for many people.

The simple allure of a well-struck golf shot, however, can be an intoxicating motivator. Tucking a 7-iron tight to the pin just one time in a round is usually enough to bring most golfers back out. Getting a chance to do so on the same courses where the best players in the world go to work is one of the great parts of the game.

Eventually, that bucket list demands your attention. That time came for me – twice – in the last couple of months. In late January, a high school friend was over during the Farmers Insurance Open broadcast from Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif.

When he casually mentioned he was heading to San Diego for work the following month, the wheels were in motion. Why not fly out a day early and try to play Torrey Pines’ famous South Course, home of the 2008 U.S. Open won by Tiger Woods (on a torn ACL, no less) and one of the most famous municipal courses in the country?

Maybe it was the natural beauty of the course from the TV, or the loosened inhibitions that come from a good gin and tonic, but a plan was hatched.

Thanks to an understanding wife and the redemption of airline miles, a ticket was secured. Torrey Pines it would be – provided we could land a tee time.

That’s not always easy. Both of Torrey Pines’ courses, the North and South, are owned and operated by the city of San Diego Recreation Department. San Diego residents can book tee times up to a week in advance over the phone. Non-residents can book a tee time up to 90 days in advance over the phone – for an additional booking fee.

After making flight reservations, we found out the North Course closed nine holes after the PGA stop for a renovation led by Tom Weiskopf. The other nine is open for play, but anything less than the South Course after a cross-country flight would have been a disappointment.

As a muni, rates on the South Course for San Diego residents are a steal – $61 during the week and $76 on the weekend, with the rates dropping to $37 and $46, respectively, for the twilight fee. Non-residents pay about triple that, $183 and $229 during regular hours, and $110 and $137 for the twilight rate. Compare that to Pebble, however, and things don’t look so bad.

With flights booked and fingers crossed, the golfing gods were shining down on us and we were able to land a Sunday afternoon tee time, just as the twilight rate kicked in.

Checking in at No. 39 on Golf Digest’s list of the top 100 public courses in the country, the South Course sits atop the coastal bluffs of La Jolla. It’s hard to imagine many better views anywhere in the world, with the waves of the Pacific Ocean crashing onto the beaches below the cliffs. For those who might be in the area and are unsuccessful at booking a tee time over the phone, it’s worth heading over to the course and trying to get on as a single player. When we arrived, things seemed quiet for a Sunday afternoon and it appeared a single player could get out with some patience. If that doesn’t work, the views themselves are worth a stop at the course, even without playing.

While the South Course may be open to everyone, it’s not necessarily for everyone. The first thing that struck me about the course was the scorecard, which had a note next to the tournament yardage of 7,628: “Permission Only.”

That distance, in a word, is insane, so it makes sense why the course doesn’t want Joe 15-handicap trying to tackle the tips.

The blue tees checked in at a still-mammoth 7,051 yards, while the whites measure 6,628. That would be our calling.

After scanning the gift shop and snapping some pictures, we were up: “Next on the tee, Skurski twosome.”

The first hole is a 419-yard par-4 heading directly toward the Pacific. While the fairway itself is somewhat narrow, a wayward tee shot isn’t impossible to overcome – provided you can find your ball. As we quickly learned, that was a theme throughout the round. There is room to miss, but the rough on a course that so recently had hosted a PGA event is no joke. Even a shot that eluded the fairway or green by a couple of yards could be difficult to find.

That, along with the massive length of the course itself, can lead to a lengthy round. After a short par-4 second, the South’s true magnificence shines on the par-3 third hole. Featuring a dramatic elevation change from tee to green and a striking view of the Pacific, this is the hole people leave Torrey talking about. It also helps justify a cross-country flight.

From there, the par-4 fourth hole runs directly along the Pacific, before the course turns inland. The par-5 sixth and par-4 seventh holes have dramatic canyon views to the right.

After making the turn, the course heads back to the ocean, with the par-3 11th hole offering the best view of the Torrey Pines Municipal Hang Glider Port, where brave souls run off a cliff before the sea breezes lift them into the air.

After hitting what felt like my best tee shot of the round on the par-5 13th, I couldn’t find my drive, even if it had only missed the fairway by a few feet. Normally, that would lead to plenty of frustration, but at that point, it simply didn’t matter. The natural beauty of Torrey Pines outweighed any frustration that golf could ever provide.

That same feeling came again during a trip to Cancun, Mexico during Easter week. With our wives perfectly content to spend the day at the pool, my friend (the same one who played Torrey Pines) and I booked a round at Mayakoba.

Home to Mexico’s only PGA Tour stop, the OHL Classic, the Greg Norman-designed El Camaleon course is so named for how diverse it is from hole to hole. It’s hard to come up with a more apt moniker.

The par-5 first hole sets the tone with one of the Yucatan’s famous cenotes – a natural sinkhole that results from the collapse of limestone bedrock and exposes the groundwater underneath – directly in the fairway. From there, Mayakoba is part jungle tour, part journey through the mangroves, and for two spectacular par-3 holes, a trip to the beach.

As part of a resort that features three five-star hotels, pristine is the best way to describe El Camaleon. At some points on the course, it’s hard to believe this actually exists and is not a Disney-designed set. At least part of the beauty is man-made, as the limestone canals that cut through the course and flow with turquoise waters were carved during the resort’s construction.

All that beauty comes at a price, which can range from $179 to $299 depending on what time you tee off (cheaper rates may be available for those who stay at the resorts). Getting a tee time on a Tuesday morning was easy enough, even during tourism season.

Measuring 7,024 yards from the tips, El Camaleon isn’t overpowering in length, but demands precision. Bring plenty of balls, because wayward shots that drift into the jungle or mangroves that line the course will not be found.

Thanks to the different landscapes, each hole at Mayakoba feels new. For example, the par-4 fourth hole goes through thick forest, while the par-4 fifth opens up and by the sixth hole, mangroves line the fairway on both sides. The short, par-3 seventh hole has glorious, unobstructed views of the Caribbean Sea behind the green.

The back nine is more of the same, with a perfect mix of long and short holes, with some demanding precision and others requiring length. The course’s signature hole is the camera-worthy par-3 15th, another one with the green just steps from the beach.

That starts an excellent final four holes, which includes a drivable par-5, a shorter par-4 and a lengthy finishing par-4.

El Camaleon ranked fifth on Golf Digest’s list of the top 15 courses in Mexico, which makes me wonder just how spectacular the four ahead of it can really be.

That’s the great thing about keeping a bucket list, though.

Scratching two courses off just makes room for a couple more.