CARLSBAD, CALIFORNIA | Ever since 1999, the year I began writing full-time about golf, I have traveled regularly to this coastal city of roughly 120,000 residents to meet with people from the equipment companies that have offices and, in some cases, manufacturing and assembly facilities here. Cobra Puma, TaylorMade, Titleist and Topgolf Callaway, to name a few. It is a pleasing place to visit, with seven miles of beaches on the Pacific Ocean and a Mediterranean-like climate that translates into lots of sunshine and minimal rain.
And I have long been enamored with Carlsbad’s ethos, which combines surfer-dude chill with the energy one would expect from a place full of engineers and entrepreneurs trying to create the next big thing in golf. But I never had much of a chance to savor the town outside of the meetings and new-product presentations that occupied most of my days and nights on those trips. And while I enjoyed the drinks and dinners with my sources here, there was a formality to them because they were mostly about business.
So, it was with a certain amount of glee that I accepted an invitation last year to acquaint myself with Carlsbad for the first time as a tourist destination. The itinerary included rounds of golf on local layouts (among them the Park Hyatt Aviara and the Omni La Costa), a stop at a local oyster farm (where I shucked and sampled bivalves) and meals at a few of the roughly 400 restaurants in town. I even found time for a club fitting with Honma Golf, the premium Japanese clubmaker whose U.S. offices are located here.
One of the dirty little secrets of the golf industry is that the people who toil in the game generally are unable to tee it up very often because work always seems to get in the way. Which explains why I had played here so infrequently in years past. In fact, I rarely even brought my clubs when I traveled to Carlsbad.
But the business at hand this time was writing about the place as a getaway. That meant I needed to check out courses of this community some 35 miles north of San Diego as diligently as I deciphered sales and marketing strategies from my hosts in previous visits – and to sample some of its other attractions.
The golf in this burg, which was settled in the late 1800s, is good. Not top-100 great, mind you, but good enough to charm and enthrall players of all ages and abilities. Among the best of the offerings is Aviara, an Arnold Palmer design that came on line in 1991 and until this year served as the home of the LPGA’s JTBC Classic. Routed across rolling hills that surround the upscale Park Hyatt, the layout overlooks the Batiquitos Lagoon nature preserve and boasts a botanical garden-like feel thanks to its many flower beds, ponds and waterfalls.
The course also features four sets of markers as well as two combo tees, which gives golfers a nice range of options. The Palmer tees stretch to some 7,000 yards, for example, while the Golds are the shortest, at roughly 5,000. My group opted for the Whites, just a tick above 6,000 yards, and I found that distance to be just right, especially considering how heavy oceanside air and Pacific breezes make it play longer than the scorecard yardages. I hit lots of irons into greens but still needed to pull a fairway wood from my bag for some of the approaches into the longer par-4s.
Not surprising given its name, Champions also has a reputation for being big, brawny and well-bunkered. And on this trip, it once again brought me to my knees.
Another must-play in Carlsbad is the Champions Course at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa. One of two tracks at that historic retreat (the other being the Legends Course) and the host of a number of PGA Tour and LPGA Tour tournaments through the years, it is notable for its canyon-like locale and how the holes run through a verdant valley that is surrounded on both sides by scrubby hills. Not surprising given its name, Champions also has a reputation for being big, brawny and well-bunkered. And on this trip, it once again brought me to my knees.
Architect Dick Wilson designed the original La Costa courses in 1965, and they were redesigned nearly half a century later by Damian Pascuzzo and former PGA Tour professional Steve Pate. Shortly after my visit, Hanse Golf Design began revamping Champions in preparation for hosting the NCAA Division I Women’s and Men’s Golf Championships for the next three years, beginning in May 2024. Around the same time, Beau Welling started “reimagining” the resort’s golf practice facility, an endeavor that will include lengthening the driving range and expanding the short-game area.
Much of the conversation in my foursome during my round on Champions focused on what Hanse and his associate, Jim Wagner, are going to do on that layout. The routing is remaining the same, we were told, but the architects are tweaking the design in a number of ways, the idea being to challenge the NCAA players by posing more risk-reward decisions.
Specifically, Hanse and Wagner are creating a drivable par-4 on the 11th hole, repositioning the green on the par-3 16th and bringing the putting surface on No. 18, a 5-par that is often reachable in two for elite amateurs, closer to an existing creek.
When finished, the par-72 track will feature tees that give it the flexibility to play from 4,300 to 7,500 yards.
“The setting and surrounds of the Champions Course lend themselves to a golf experience that looks and feels authentic to Southern California,” Hanse said at the time the resort announced his involvement in this restoration. “Our design work will bring a bit more simplicity and elegance to course aesthetics. This will be accompanied by a strategic focus balancing everyday play for members and resort guests with shot-making requirements that test the best of collegiate golf.”
The Crossings will not be hosting any NCAA championships. But this city-owned, 18-hole layout with five sets of tees, seven miles of cart paths and five bridges that cross environmentally sensitive areas (hence the course name) is also a good test of golf. In addition, it is one of the most interesting layouts I have ever played – from a design standpoint, to be sure, and also for its terrain, which is so rugged in places that golfers must sign an insurance release before play, lest they lose control of their golf carts on one of the hills or curves. The views of the Pacific Ocean give the course a sense of the singular, too, and so does the near-constant humming from nearby power lines and the sights of planes on final approach to the McClellan-Palomar Airport.
Opened in the summer of 2007 and designed by Greg Nash, The Crossings is also noteworthy for taking 17 years to build and costing roughly $70 million to complete, an amount that was reported at the time to be a record for the building of a U.S. golf course. Part of that was no doubt the result of the construction challenges the site presented. But the overruns in time and money also were due to the ecological concerns of the community. In the end, Carlsbad preserved a tad more than 200 acres of open space (with walking trails) on the property while also allocating a bit less than that for the golf course and associated grounds, including a 28,000-square-foot clubhouse.
As for the course itself, it boasted an intriguing mix of holes as well as generous fairways, large greens and the chance to hit a lot of different shots. I also was glad finally to have made my way to a layout I had seen from afar during past trips here but had never actually visited.
Another pleasant surprise on this journey was an afternoon at the Carlsbad Aquafarm, which has been operating since 1952 but has only recently opened to public tours and events such as twilight barbecue oyster tastings. Our visit started with an explanation about how oysters and mussels are nurtured in arrays of trays that are submerged in a sort of lagoon that is separated from the Pacific Ocean only by U.S. Route 101 and then farmed. Oysters were our focus this day, specifically a variety dubbed Pinnacle Points, which run anywhere from 2 to 5 inches in size, and Carlsbad Blonds, which are slightly bigger (3 to 6 inches) and brinier. And much to my delight, the experience also included a chance to shuck a bunch of these mollusks and then slurp down their sweet meat and somewhat salty “liquor” from their shells.
From there, we made our way to the rooftop of an Italian eatery called 264 Fresco. We drank wine and sampled plates of antipasto that included everything from marinated artichoke hearts and fried calamari to slices of fresh tomatoes and slabs of mozzarella. The fronds of nearby palm trees rustled in the wind and waters of the Pacific glistened under the moonlight as we supped.
Who knew that a place that heretofore had been all about business could be so fun?
Top: The par-4 finishing hole at Aviara
Background: La Costa Champions Course
PHOTOS COURTESY OF VISIT CARLSBAD