2/6/19

The Other Former Clambake Venue: Poppy Hills

Once called "Sloppy Poppy," the NCGA and RTJ II have reworked Poppy Hills Golf Course into one of Monterey's best values

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Poppy Hills Golf Course has always had trouble living up to its zip code. When the Robert Trent Jones Jr. design opened in 1986, it was the sixth golf course to claim a 93953 address. The previous five were Pebble Beach Golf Links, Cypress Point Club, the Dunes and Shore courses at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, and Spyglass Hill Golf Course. Unlike those courses, Poppy never visits the ocean. It sits about a mile inland and moves through an elevated forest of pine and cypress.

Looking down the 3rd hole. Credit: Garrett Ford

In 1991, Poppy Hills replaced Cypress Point as co-host of the Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Over the next 19 years, Poppy became the red-headed stepchild of the Clambake rota. The routing had a number of awkward doglegs and uphill green-to-tee walks. The greens were busy and severe, and almost always called for aerial approaches. Perhaps most significant to Poppy’s reputation among both Pro-Am competitors and retail golfers, the clayey soil, artificial mounding, and crude drainage caused soggy conditions, earning the course the nickname “Sloppy Poppy.”

The pros, as they are wont to do, complained incessantly behind the scenes. According to Geoff Shackelford, Tiger Woods went as far as to hint that he would restore the Pro-Am to his schedule if Poppy were dropped. (He did return in 2012 but has not been back since.) By 2010, the Great Recession had persuaded Monterey Peninsula Country Club to seek more publicity, and the Pro-Am moved to the Shore, which Mike Strantz had transformed into one of the most striking courses in the world. Aside from the Northern California Golf Association, which owns and operates Poppy, no one had reason to be unhappy with the change.

A mulligan for RTJ II

As soon as the Pro-Am left, Poppy Hills began making changes. Perhaps feeling less pressure to provide a stern test for the pros, the course widened some fairways and filled in a few bunkers. Soon, though, the NCGA saw that a more extensive renovation would be necessary. The drainage and irrigation systems needed to be overhauled, and in a time when Bill Coore and Tom Doak had emerged as the premier architects in the industry, the design had begun to seem like a relic of the 1980s. As the NCGA diplomatically put it, “Since [the course] needed to be dug up to replace the drainage and irrigation, it was appropriate to consider how else Poppy Hills could be improved.”

The NCGA talked to a number of firms, including Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design, but ultimately brought back Robert Trent Jones Jr. in 2013. With the help of contractor Frontier Golf, RTJ II sand-capped the entire site, eradicated the rough, rebuilt the tees, installed bent-grass greens, removed the containment mounding, rethought the strategy of every hole, and created waste areas that reduced the amount of maintained turf by 25%. Aside from the basic routing, it was new golf course: wide, firm, and more elegantly tied into the natural landscape.

Along with 2015 U.S. Open venue Chambers Bay, Poppy Hills 2.0 represented a change of direction for RTJ II. After decades of churning out courses that exemplified what Geoff Shackelford calls the “framing school” of golf architecture, the firm began in the mid-2000s to embrace strategic design and the ground game. The cynical take is that RTJ II simply adapted to trends, but the fact remains that Chambers Bay is a strong golf course, and so is today’s Poppy Hills.

The 9th green at Poppy Hills. Credit: Garrett Ford

It’s not a masterpiece. There are still several forced, arduous transitions between greens and tees, and the rerouting of holes 1-3 (formerly 10-12) has produced two additional walks that do not feel like instinctive ways to explore the property. In addition, the new waste areas, as shaped by Frontier Golf, fall short of the natural look to which they aspire. These expanses of sand, pine straw, and native vegetation are preferable to grassed-over mounds, but in some cases they are nearly as artificial looking. Above all, most of the holes lack the audacious touches of quirk and surprise that distinguish great from merely good architecture.

Still, RTJ II’s renovation improved the course’s conditions, aesthetics, playability, and strategy, making it an appealing option for both locals and tourists. At weekday rates of $110 on GolfNow, $85 for NCGA members, and $5 for members of the junior program Youth on Course, Poppy Hills offers the most affordable 18 holes of golf in Pebble Beach, a more compelling design than fellow 1980s product Spanish Bay, and a better value than Bayonet and Black Horse, a similarly priced facility in the neighboring city of Seaside.

A closer look at two much-improved holes
(Note: In 2016, Poppy Hills reversed its nines. The hole numbers below are the current ones.)

HOLE 5 — Par 4 — 369 Yards

Throughout Poppy Hills’ days as a Pebble Beach Pro-Am venue, the 5th hole was a fairly unmemorable short par 4. The primary strategic feature was a trio of fairway bunkers that guarded the inside of the dogleg. A drive that carried those bunkers resulted in a shorter approach but only a marginally better angle.

Today’s 5th hole has a more sophisticated tee-to-green design. RTJ II opened up the green on the left and defended it more fiercely on the right. As a result, the player would much prefer to approach the green from the left, but that side of the fairway is difficult—though not impossible—to hit. Beyond the centerline bunker and to the right of the left-hand bunker, there is a pocket of fairway that offers the ideal angle. You don’t need to be particularly long to reach this spot—just gutsy and accurate.

If you bail out right and the pin is on the right, your best play might be to the left half of the green or even father left, to the apron of short grass. From there, the putt or chip down the length of the green is not terribly difficult. In fact, the short or conservative player who uses this strategy may have an advantage over the aggressive player who attempts to attack the pin.

HOLE 18 — Par 5 — 519 Yards

The original 9th, now the 18th, was a decent hole. A reachable par 5, it offered a fun choice on the second shot after a good drive: lay up to the level stretch of fairway on the left or take aim at a narrow, pushed-up green across a valley. Serviceable as this hole was, the renovation enhanced it in a number of ways.

First, by widening the fairway and relocating the bunkers to the center, RTJ II increased the number of options from the tee. There are now at least three distinct lines: at the left-center bunker (maximum risk and reward), at the right-center bunker, and out to the right (minimum risk and reward).

Second, the rebuilt green sits at a different angle and plays like a Redan, complete with a lively kicker.

Third, RTJ II restored a seasonal creek that now runs in front of the green, diagonal to the line of play. That bears repeating: the RTJ II restored the creek—as in, it existed prior to 1986 but was buried during construction. Thankfully, over the past 33 years, the notion of erasing a natural water hazard while creating artificial ponds elsewhere on a course has become less popular.

Before 2014, Poppy Hills was not a must-play for golfers visiting the area, but today it is arguably the most underrated public course on the Monterey Peninsula. Especially as Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill, and Spanish Bay seem to be falling behind the times in architecture and maintenance, Poppy Hills’ commitment to wide corridors, firm conditions, and thoughtful design is a welcome addition to the most famous zip code in American golf.

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