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Hidden Golf Gems For the Recession

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By Lynn DeBruin

So you can’t afford to play Pebble Beach, don’t want to camp out all night at Torrey Pines and Sea Island has you seeing dollar signs with every green you hit. No worries. Even in this tough economy, there are plenty of hidden gems out there for golfers who don’t want to take out a second mortgage just to hit the sticks.

Some of them even come with views of the Monterey Peninsula, San Diego Harbor and Atlantic Ocean. And some can be had for as little $10. As one golf executive noted, the two companies that made money on the Dow last year were Wal-Mart and McDonald’s.

“So the McDonald’s of golf might be the big winners (in this economy),” said Ed Mate, executive director of the Colorado Golf Association. “(Golfers) are still going to play,” added Allen Walters, publisher of Colorado Avid Golfer. “But they may be more selective in where they play and certainly more value-conscious.”

While everyone has his own list of hidden gems, here’s one that takes in
both coasts, and several spots in between:

  • Jekyll Island. Just 20 miles down the road is Tom Fazio’s famous Seaside layout on Sea Island. But at $325 (and that’s only if you can play with a member or stay at the resort), it can break the bank on any vacation. On Jekyll Island, billed as Georgia’s jewel, one can play all day for less than half that. Jekyll features three 18-hole courses and a historic Great Dunes 9-hole course that originally was laid in 1910. Off-the-street rates for Pine Lakes, Indian Mound and Oleander are as little as $24 walking, Monday through Thursday, to $42 riding, on weekends and holidays. Ten bucks will get you on the 9-hole layout and $25 will cover the cart to play it once or twice.
  • On the Pacific Coast, Pebble Beach has consistently ranked at the top of every list imaginable. But it also costs $495 and that’s if you stay at the resort. On the same Monterey Peninsula, just 117 miles from San Francisco, there are a couple of options that offer the views without the hefty price tag. From the famous 17 Mile Drive, one can spot Pacific Grove, whose back nine was designed by the original designer of Pebble Beach Golf Links. While the front nine, which takes you through inland, forested terrain, may be nothing to write home about, the back nine is magnificent – enough to land the course on a recent Zagat Survey as one of America’s Best Golf Courses. What’s best is that the 18-hole non-resident weekend rate is $45 and just $20 twilight.
  • Another option, though hardly cheap and not so much hidden anymore, is Pasatiempo. A Dr. Alister McKenzie design, it sits on the hills looking south to Monterey Bay. At $220, it’s not cheap but it’s a less-pricey alternative to Pebble, Spanish Bay and Poppy Hills.
  • Few will forget the epic duel Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate waged in a Monday playoff at the 2008 U.S. Open. But getting onto Torrey Pines isn’t always that easy. Why not drive across the Coronado Bridge to play Coronado Island? It’s also a muni, but its greens are usually perfectly manicured and as far as scenery, what’s not to like? At $25 (walking), it’s been voted No. 1 best value in Southern California by greenskeeper.org the past few years. But it also provides an enjoyable experience with wide, inviting fairways and dramatic views of the Coronado Bridge, Hotel Del Coronado, and the San Diego Bay.
View of the 5th green at Wente Vineyards.View of the 5th green at Wente Vineyards.
  • If a trip to wine country is on the agenda, why not tee it up at Wente Vineyards The Greg Norman design regularly costs $85 to $110, but twilight rates can be had for $65. Located 45 minutes east of San Francisco, the 18 championship holes play through vineyards, rolling hills and natural grasslands of the scenic Livermore Valley. The course also has played host to a Nationwide Tour stop the past three years. There are Nine, Wine, and Dine specials, senior specials and even complimentary rounds on your birthday.
  • Colorado has some of the best values around when it comes to golf, and it just got better with the opening of CommonGround, a Tom Doak design that completely transformed an old military course. It preserves nearly 400 acres of open space and provides views of the Rocky Mountains and downtown Denver skyline. The cost to the general public is $50, with replay opportunities at just $25. An adjacent nine-hole short course is just $5 for juniors and $10 for adults. Doak, who designed world-renowned courses from Cape Kidnappers to Pacific Dunes in Oregon, signed on because he cut his teeth playing public golf courses and wanted to give back. “One of the things that makes the project so exciting is we look forward to showing the industry that a great golf course can be built for a budget like ($4 million). You don’t have to spend $20 million. All of the great golf courses in the world are built in the same vein that we approach this project,” Doak said.
The 18th hole at Willengers.The 18th hole at Willengers.
  • About 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities, Willengers has been drawing in golfers who don’t want to battle the crowds or worry about hitting houses lining fairways. The course recently ranked in Golf Digest’s 2009 Top 20 Courses in Minnesota and also appears on their list of Best Places to Play Golf in North America. There are lakes and marshland to negotiate and an abundance of trees, but it all fits together in a nice package that costs $48 plus cart.  An added bonus is a visit to the campus of nearby Carleton College.
  • Can’t play Augusta or Pine Valley? Try World Woods Golf, just north of Tampa. The 36-hole facility will never measure up to the famous private clubs aforementioned, but it features the best range in the world, pine and oak lined fairways and pretty white bunkering. Rolling Oaks has been rated by Golf Digest 24th best in a state of more than 1,200 courses and 53rd on the Top 100 You Can Play list. Pine Barrens rates even higher, with some of Tom Fazio’s best work on display here. While peak-season rates top $100, summer rates are in the $50 range, with plenty of twilight and junior specials.

Other hidden gems to check out: Lawsonia in Green Lake, Wisc. ($35 to $75); The Bull at Pinehurst Farms in Sheboygan Falls, Wisc., (a Jack Nicklaus design that features a $50 all you can play rate after 4 p.m.); and Papago Park in Phoenix (redesigned but just $44 for residents and $59-$119 for non-residents).

Home page and top photos: Two views of the 12th hole at CommonGround Golf Course, Aurora, Colorado.

Lynn DeBruin is a freelance writer/photographer based in Denver and former sportswriter for the Rocky Mountain News. She is an 8 handicap.

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