Plenty has been said and written about the South Course at Torrey Pines already this week. The U.S. Open host has been praised for its accessibility to the public as well as criticized for its architectural failings.
The South Course’s sister, meanwhile, is a parking lot:
Not all parking lots are created equal.
— Garrett Johnston (@JohnstonGarrett) June 16, 2021
This makes logistical sense, but it’s still hard to stomach.
The North Course at Torrey Pines looked much different when I saw it in 2019, booking a twilight round in mid-July for $70 (it would be $76 today). Playing summer golf with Pacific Ocean views for $70 is almost unheard of. Playing an annual PGA Tour host for $70 is equally unusual. Torrey North offers all of that in one package, and it’s even more affordable for local residents.
None of that would make much difference if the course sucked.
Rees Jones infamously redesigned the South Course in pursuit of U.S. Open visits. I haven’t played it, but it seems very hard for anyone who isn’t really good at golf. The North Course is not that.
I’ve never played another PGA Tour venue, but I have a feeling there aren’t many like Torrey North. For example: anyone who has ever paid a $25 greens fee on a Saturday morning would be familiar with a stretch like No. 5-7, tucked into a tight corner of the property, bordered by chain-link fence, the holes running parallel to each other like lanes in an Olympic pool. Slicing my tee shot on the 6th back into the 5th fairway and then waiting to avoid the group behind us who were playing up the 5th, I felt like I was in high school again, playing 10-12 at South Shore in Syracuse, Indiana (R.I.P.), right down to the busy road nearby.
From a pure design perspective, the North Course is not going to win any international awards. Aside from the severe elevation change on the 15th, none of the par 3s stand out. A lot of holes play straight ahead; even the ostensible doglegs have minimal angles. It’s tough to envision Tiger or Phil playing here at all, much less in an actual competitive round.
That’s not necessarily a criticism.
For the average visitor, the course is eminently playable. The firm conditions allow lower-trajectory shots to run out nicely. The less-than-penal rough may cost you some distance off the tee, but you can always advance the ball out of it. There’s no water unless you veer over a cliff (I did this once). It played 6,700-ish yards that day but never felt punishingly long; I hit everything from hybrids to wedges into greens.
That the North Course can offer this kind of playability to amateurs while also holding up to two rounds of PGA Tour golf per year is a real accomplishment.
There are fun holes, too: a setup crew could find multiple short-par-four options, and if the downhill tee shot at the 15th with the coast stretching out in the distance doesn’t elicit a smile, you might as well give up the game.
But in the end, golfers from around the world aren’t coming to Torrey Pines for the firm conditions or the short par 4s. They’re coming for views. And while the South Course has more oceanfront, the North Course makes the most of a spectacular trident of canyon tongues. You’ll never forget you’re on one of the most beautiful pieces of land anywhere.
One of Torrey Pines' famous canyons. Photo: Jay Rigdon
My twilight round ended up literal. An encroaching marine layer had been threatening to take over the sky all afternoon, playing with the light and shrouding distant corners of the course in a thin fog. It lent the day an ethereal feel, albeit one punctured occasionally by country music from the cart of one of my playing partners.
My group included a married Danish couple, two of the nicest and most interesting people I’ve ever met anywhere, much less on a golf course. Anders was about to set out on a cross-country cycling trip. When he learned I wrote, he asked for tips on how to start a blog to chronicle his journey. (I searched in vain for it for months after; hopefully he found what he was looking for.)
There was also a man from Utah, visiting via a victorious raffle ticket, there with his wife, who played the aforementioned country music when she wasn’t on FaceTime. The man spent a lot of the round cracking open beers (totally fine and encouraged) while wondering aloud why the course wasn’t nicer and why everyone else was walking (not as fine, but whatever.) On the 5th hole, I caught a bunker shot fat, and after raking I saw him walking back toward me with my own ball, encouraging me to hit the shot again and “this time, aim about an inch farther back.” (Not acceptable at all.) The Utahn and his wife gave up after the 15th, declaring it too dark to finish.
The Danes and I played on, despite the daylight losing the battle to the marine layer, guaranteeing a finish in the gloaming.
It was darker than our camera makes it look. Photo: Jay Rigdon
And that’s what really makes an experience like this: the connections forged between strangers who show up at the same place on Earth at the same time to spend some of their finite hours together for no reason beyond the love of golf. This is not unique to Torrey Pines, but you find a different, more refreshing mixture of people at a world-famous course that somehow manages to keep the barrier to entry low.
On the 16th, I hit a drive I’ll never forget, a fade that took the natural swing of the uphill fairway to the right. I then flushed an 8-iron, landing near the pin but rolling out, leaving a 40-foot putt for a very scenic birdie.
The putt on No. 16. Photo: Jay Rigdon
It lipped out on the high side.
I fell to my knees with the over-dramatic flair the setting seemed to invite, if not demand. When I mentioned that I was disappointed, as it would have been one of my favorite birdies, Anders replied with Scandinavian sincerity:
“Well, now it’s one of your favorite pars.”
He was right.
We did finish, one of the last groups to complete 18 before the dark made it impossible. I shook their hands, fumbled to collapse my push cart in the dark parking lot, and steered my car back to the freeway. It was a golf experience I’ll never forget; this was two years ago, and the memories feel as fresh as last week.
All for $70.
This U.S. Open might end up being a fantastic championship, and I’m glad Torrey South exists, despite its flaws. But if you’re making me choose, I’m playing this week’s parking lot every time.
Jay Rigdon has written for Awful Announcing, The Golfer’s Journal, and The Comeback. He’s probably thinking about Ted Lasso right now.