Using Nature’s Hazards

A simple design change that would instantly improve Torrey Pines


Torrey Pines checks almost every box as an ideal U.S. Open venue. The 36-hole complex has ample space for infrastructure and staging; June in Southern California affords almost no threat of weather delays; it has stunning views of the Pacific Ocean; it’s accessible from numerous metro areas… I could go on and on. But the strongest suit of Torrey Pines is that it’s a municipal facility. The U.S. Open should regularly go to courses that anyone can see on TV and say, “Hey, I could play there!”

Unfortunately, when you stack the design credentials of the South Course at Torrey Pines up against those of other U.S. Open hosts, it falls short. Way short. And not for a lack of trying.

Riding the wave of the 2002 “People’s Open” at municipal Bethpage Black, Torrey Pines South was tapped for the 2008 U.S. Open. Not surprisingly, Torrey had already been following the Bethpage playbook, hiring “Open Doctor” Rees Jones to carry out a big renovation in 2001. (The title of “Open Doctor” had been passed down to Rees from his revered father Robert Trent Jones, who partnered with the USGA to modernize a number of historic courses in the 1950s and 60s.) Unlike Bethpage, however, Torrey did not receive a “restoration” guided by the principles of a Golden Age architect. The South Course had been built in 1957 by William F. Bell, but it really became Rees’s baby, a place for him to leave a lasting imprint on golf. 

Through renovations in 2001 and 2019 totaling around $17.5 million, Rees Jones created a difficult golf course, but not exactly an inspiring one.

The 18th hole at Torrey Pines South and its artificial pond. Credit: Andy Johnson

Now, before everyone jumps on me, I am not arguing that spending a day at Torrey Pines is unenjoyable. It’s right on the coast, after all. No matter how poor the architecture is, you can still look up and see the ocean, or the hang-gliders, or the F-18s and military helicopters, or—on most days—sun and clear skies. It’s a wonderful place! But the golf course is not as fun to play as it should be.

There’s a reason why Torrey Pines was not immediately mentioned as one of the U.S. Open’s potential “anchor sites.” The design of the South Course, as updated by Rees Jones, isn’t just bad. It’s offensive.

The most maddening thing about Torrey South is its failure to capitalize on the site’s incredible natural features—namely, the seaside cliffs and the epic canyons that cut into the property. These features give Torrey the opportunity to be not just one of the best municipal courses in America, but one of the best courses, period. All that was needed was an architect who could use them wisely. William F. Bell was not that architect. Neither was Rees Jones, despite getting multiple well-funded cracks at it.

The 4th hole at Torrey South, which runs alongside an ocean cliff, has long been a prime example of a great location poorly used. I even wrote about it in 2017. Thankfully, in Jones’s recent $14-million round of renovations, he moved the fairway closer to the cliff’s edge. Why this wasn’t done in 2001 is a mystery, but it’s progress. Unfortunately, the South Course’s many other strategic issues remain.

So let’s look at a few other changes that could make Torrey South a more fun, thrilling, and strategically sound golf course.

Using the canyons

Like Torrey Pines, Seth Raynor’s Shoreacres has an outstanding natural asset: a ravine system that crisscrosses the property. Raynor knew what he had and used it fully, routing as many holes as possible next to the watercourses, often employing them as the sole fairway hazard rather than bunkering the landing zones.

The back nine at Shoreacres. Credit: Andy Johnson

The South Course at Torrey Pines goes the opposite direction. On hole after hole, there’s a bunker left, a bunker right, and green rough all around. These manmade hazards, not the amazing natural cliffs and canyons, are the main obstacles players are asked to overcome.

Imagine this instead: open space on one side, a canyon on the other, and a green designed to receive approaches from certain angles. Very few bunkers would be needed, particularly off the tee, increasing playability for regular golfers and reducing maintenance costs. But most importantly, the holes would become exciting and strategically compelling—something they are not today.

No. 14 – Par 4 – 434 yards

The 14th hole on the left vs. proposed changes on the right. Credit: Andy Johnson

This hole exemplifies Rees Jones’s disregard for basic strategic principles. He came close to getting it right, moving Bell’s original green closer to the edge of the cliff—but then Jones went and turned one fairway bunker on the left into two, encouraging players to hedge away from the canyon off the tee.

The changes would be simple: remove the fairway bunkers and the left greenside bunkers, and widen the right side of the fairway. Those who find the left side, near the canyon’s edge, would reap the reward of a clean entry into the green. The more timid player could avoid disaster by going right but would have to confront either the canyon or the bunker on the second shot.

These changes would take the 14th from a test of execution—hit it straight, hit it close—to an assessment of the player’s appetite for risk. The closer to the canyon you play, the more of an advantage you gain. Even lower-trajectory players could get in on the fun: the risky tee shot would open up a running shot into the green. Today, that option is afforded to no one, making the hole drudgery for anyone who can’t keep the ball in the air for very long.

What if the USGA setup experts think the fairway is too wide? Let them narrow it when a championship comes to town. They’ll enjoy it! And when they leave, push that mowing line back out.

No. 7 – Par 4 – 460 yards

The 7th hole on the left vs. proposed changes on the right. Credit: Andy Johnson

The 7th green site is one of the best on the course, sitting out on a point with the canyon wrapping around it. Unfortunately, until it gets to the green, the hole completely ignores the natural hazard.

Making the 7th an iconic hole wouldn’t be hard. Simply shift the fairway to the right, along the canyon edge, and change the orientation of the green. As on the 14th hole, players could find a shorter approach and a better angle by hitting the risky portion of the fairway.

But the 7th hole’s primary feature would be the slope of the land from left to right, toward the canyon. If the green were canted with the terrain, the safe left side of the fairway, although free of bunkers, would become even less attractive. Up there, players would face an approach from a hanging lie into a green running away from them. So while the hole would be wider and more playable for the everyday golfer, it would still pose a tough strategic question to skilled players.

As a bonus, a new tee box could be added on the edge of the canyon to the right of the 6th green, creating an option for a spectacular short par 4.

No. 13 – Par 5 – 612 yards

The 13th hole today on the left vs. proposed changes on the right. Credit: Andy Johnson

You guessed it, another hole that leads players away from the canyon. In this case, it’s possible that the trees on the left are endangered, which would explain why the fairway avoids them. But how about keeping the trees where they are and expanding the short grass under them? If trees in the fairway are good enough for No. 18 at Pebble Beach and No. 17 at Cypress Point, they’re good enough for No. 13 at Torrey Pines.

In addition to shifting the fairway, you could move the green toward the canyon and reorient the greenside bunkers to create a line of charm up the left side, enticing long hitters to go for this par 5 in two. A centerline bunker would give players something to think about when attacking this absurdly wide fairway and offer the USGA a reference point for a championship mowing line.

The green sits on a big, beautiful ridge, but right now Rees Jones’s normal-sized bunkers mask the scale of the land. A single huge greenside bunker would create an intimidating, thrilling visual for players of all skill levels.

That’s enough for now. I can provide more thoughts upon request of the San Diego Municipal Golf Committee.

No doubt Torrey Pines is a special place and a standout municipal venue. Sadly, the design of the South Course doesn’t measure up to its property. That’s a shame and a missed opportunity, especially considering how much money the city has spent on Rees Jones renovations over the past 20 years. Maybe one day another architect will get a chance to meld the course properly with its stunning location. Until then, we’ll keep one eye on the hang-gliders and the surfers, who might be having more fun than the golfers.