6/23/21

Municipal Golf in San Diego: Now What?

The more important question about the future of Torrey Pines (and its sister courses)

by

U.S. Open week often functions as the golf world’s Airing of Grievances, and the 2021 edition was no exception. Much of the bickering centered on the venue itself, the South Course at Torrey Pines. Geoff Shackelford wrote a critique of the course’s Rees Jones-rehabbed architecture for McKellar Magazine, as did Andy Johnson for this website. The rebuttals were numerous and sometimes angry.

The most common pro-Torrey case was essentially as follows. Sure, the design could be better, but Torrey South is a stout test of golfing ability that has a track record of producing exciting tournaments and worthy champions. Oh, and the course’s critics are a “woke mob” of petulant, snobbish hot-take artists and HEY, F&*% YOU, MAN!

Fine, I embellished that last part. Only a bit, though.

Believe it or not, there’s plenty of common ground here. Many people on both sides of the debate agree that the South Course could have more hole-to-hole variety, could be more fun to play for the average golfer, and could blend in more harmoniously with its natural environment. Equally, I doubt anyone denies that the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines was a classic, or that last week’s sequel was compelling down the stretch.

Consider this photo of the 7th hole at Torrey South an olive branch. There's no doubt it's beautiful out there! Photo: Andy Johnson

Still, for my part, I’d rather not see the U.S. Open return to Torrey South anytime soon. America has a number of viable championship venues, including municipally owned ones, that offer architectural intrigue and are located in areas that could use the business. Besides, Torrey Pines already gets its annual week in the limelight with the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open. That should be enough to keep the pro-shop cash registers ringing.

But let me stop there. The debate about whether the South Course should be part of the emerging U.S. Open rota is really a red herring. Now that the USGA has left town, San Diego faces bigger questions about its municipal golf system, the most pressing of which is what to do with the 2021 U.S. Open windfall.

It’s hard to quantify what exactly a major championship is worth, but here’s the gist: a lot. Even in Covid times. The week-of revenue is one thing ($25 million in on-site merchandise sales in 2008!), but the long-term status of being a U.S. Open host is even more significant. The South Course can continue to charge a non-resident weekend rate of $252, maybe even increase it, because tourists will gladly pay up for a chance to play where Tiger Woods won an 18-hole playoff on a broken leg, or where Jon Rahm finished with a one-two punch to snatch the U.S. Open trophy from Louis Oosthuizen. Torrey South’s popularity among moneyed out-of-towners is the main reason the facility turns a reported profit of $6 million annually.

The bad news is that a large portion of this surplus has historically gone right back into questionable renovations of the South Course. But the good news is that the money could be shared directly with San Diego’s other municipal golf courses. That’s because the three golf facilities that the city owns and operates—Torrey Pines, Balboa Park, and Mission Bay—belong to an enterprise fund that is independent of San Diego’s general budget. Effectively, Torrey can subsidize Balboa and Mission.

This is an important task. Balboa Park is a vintage gem with 27 holes designed by William P. Bell. Mission Bay, a lighted executive course, serves as a port of entry for many beginning golfers in San Diego. Both are in urban, easy-to-access locations and maintain cheap green fees in an area where almost nothing is cheap. Partly because of their commitment to affordability, Balboa and Mission make less money than they spend. Yet since they are yoked to Torrey Pines via the enterprise fund, they can reasonably hope to receive improvements. Both could use the attention, though for different reasons.

The potential of Balboa Park Golf Course is as tantalizing as that of any municipal golf course in the country. It began life in 1919 as Golden Hill Golf Links, a nine-hole 2,700-yard course with dirt fairways and sand greens. Today’s version of Balboa dates back to 1933, when William P. Bell’s 18-hole layout and nine-hole executive course both opened.

Balboa Park offers an alluring mixture of canyon golf, Golden Age design, and proximity to downtown San Diego. Photo: Patrick Koenig @pjkoenig (links to website and Instagram at the bottom of this post)

William Park Bell, better known as Billy Bell, is the father of William Francis Bell, who built Torrey Pines and many other well-routed, functional, if somewhat dull courses on excellent California sites. The father’s work was more elaborate and imaginative, in keeping with the “Golden Age” of golf course design in which he worked. Billy Bell is now best known as George C. Thomas Jr.’s right-hand man, the construction artist behind the ragged-edged bunkers that defined the 1920s and 30s look of Riviera, Bel-Air, and L.A. Country Club. “To [Bell],” Thomas wrote in his book Golf Architecture in America, “I owe much of the success of what I have done…. He has gone far and will go further in golf construction.” (For more on the Bells, check out Joe Passov’s piece on them for Morning Read.)

Indeed, Billy Bell went on to produce brilliant solo designs, though many of them, unfortunately, have either disappeared or been drastically altered. As a result, his name rarely comes up in discussions of top Golden Age golf architects.

So at Balboa Park, there’s a rare opportunity to pursue a historically authentic Billy Bell restoration. Granted, a note-for-note recreation of Bell’s early-1930s plans (below) would be impossible. The clubhouse was apparently relocated early on, forcing the course’s opening and closing holes to be rerouted. Also, because the surrounding neighborhoods have gotten busier since World War II—and because equipment technology has made golf balls travel higher and longer—several greens and fairways on the 18-hole course have had to be moved away from boundary fences. On top of that, a clumsy renovation in the mid-90s made some of the greens look like they had been built in… well, the mid-90s. Certainly not the mid-30s.

Yet several holes still occupy their original corridors, and the property itself, a network of canyons overlooking downtown San Diego, remains a treasure. A talented architect—one with knowledge of Billy Bell and access to a budget consisting of less than a year of Torrey Pines profits—could create a special, classic-feeling pair of courses there.

Mission Bay is a more complicated case. The 66-year-old executive course and practice center occupies a valuable, contested piece of land, and some San Diegans would like to see it closed down or reduced. In 2017, these tensions came to a head with the De Anza Revitalization Plan. Led by city officials and other community leaders, this project was part of a larger effort to “reimagine, repurpose, and revitalize” Mission Bay Park. Oddly, in the initial planning process, local golfers and golf-industry stakeholders were not included, according to current Municipal Golf Committee chair Kurt Carlson. “So we were a little irked that we weren’t able to sit on the committee,” Carlson told The Fried Egg, “because we kind of wanted to have a little bit of say.”

Early discussions of the De Anza plan involved various changes to Mission Bay Golf Course. “There was a plot—let’s just call it that,” Carlson said. “It’s politics, right? There was a plot to get rid of this golf course.” The local golf community sprang into action. Golfers argued that Mission Bay was a critical home base for junior, senior, and beginning players. Arrayed against the golf advocates were environmental groups that wanted to restore more of Mission Bay Park to marshland. “Then there were other people that came to these workshops who had their own ideas about recreational activities that could occur in the golf course area,” Carlson explained. “And so they were all trying to push their agendas.”

If you’re at all familiar with municipal golf in America, you know how complicated and bitter these land-use disputes can get. The one around Mission Bay Golf Course is ongoing. But two years ago, the De Anza Revitalization Plan moved out of the local-workshop stage under the assumption that the golf course would not be touched. The project is still under review by city planners, and further changes are possible, but Carlson is hopeful, if cautious.

“You know, Mission Bay Golf Course, it’s a local treasure,” he said. “It’s a treasure because of its practice facility and a layout that enables a complete golfing experience. It’s important to younger and older golfers because of its length and walkability and nighttime play. And it can’t really be ignored as a healthy recreational activity, which is what we’re trying to do, right? We’re trying to save open space. So it’s an important resource that really should be protected.”

All of this is true, but it’s also true that San Diegans have valid concerns about shrinking animal habitats, especially in a city that’s getting drier, hotter, and bigger. So golfers would do well to meet environmentalists halfway. Using the U.S. Open boost to the municipal golf enterprise fund, perhaps certain out-of-play sections of Mission Bay Golf Course could be converted to naturalized areas or small, optimized wildlife habitats. San Diego wouldn’t have to look far to see how this kind of cooperation works. In nearby Oceanside, California, Goat Hill Park Golf Course has adopted a promising bee-pollinator program.

When golfers and environmentalists are allies instead of opponents, everyone wins.

I’m aware that a Bell restoration at Balboa and a mini-habitat project at Mission are long-shot ideas. Municipal bureaucracies are the world’s strongest antidote to idealistic notions. That said, San Diego has something going for it that few, if any, other cities do: a dedicated golf fund continually replenished by profits from a world-famous course. Money isn’t the issue.

In fact, plenty of money has recently been going into updates at Balboa Park and Mission Bay, just not into the golf courses themselves. According to Kurt Carlson, both facilities are set to get new, multimillion-dollar clubhouses. Also, back in 2015, the Balboa 18 received a fresh set of cart paths, which, to this architecture geek’s eye, appear to have intruded awkwardly on some of the holes.

It’s possible that these are wise investments—that the clubhouses will bring in enough revenue to justify the expense of building, maintaining, and staffing them; and that Balboa’s cart paths will attract golfers who normally would have avoided the hilly course. But I hope San Diego’s decision-makers can learn at least this one constructive lesson from Torrey Pines’ success: golfers don’t come from around the world to see the clubhouse or enjoy the cart paths. They come to play the golf course.

The courses, not the stuff around them, will always be San Diego municipal golf’s greatest asset.

No, I don’t think Torrey South should be a regular U.S. Open host. But if it can help make the golf courses at Balboa Park and Mission Bay as healthy as they should be, Torrey Pines will have done something more important than anything we were fighting about last week.


Header photo by Patrick Koenig. Check out his website and Instagram page.