California Swingin'

The new lodge and South Course at Torrey Pines are as thrilling as their cliffside location.

From my dizzying vantage point on the third tee of the South Course at Torrey Pines, the world seemed to fall away beneath me. The ground sloped sharply down to the flag 173 yards below, then spilled into a deep canyon that slid all the way down to the Pacific Ocean. In the distance a red and orange paraglider drifted weightlessly, while breaking waves and the bleached white buildings of La Jolla shimmered in the sun. Below, the green looked painfully narrow. It didn't help that the pin was tucked into the far left side of the putting surface, behind a bunker and only a few feet away from the edge of the canyon. I took my time setting up my shot, focusing on the safe side of the green and trying to ignore the doubts in my mind. I needed to make a nice, easy swing, but all I could envision was a pull-hook, and a sure double bogey. I stepped back and tried to clear my head before addressing my ball again. When I cracked it with my eight iron, the ball seemed to hold steady in the air for a moment like a white stone against the cerulean sky before settling some 20 feet from the pin. Two members of my foursome murmured "nice shot" and began walking down to the green. But the third, Chris, who had been playing the course for years, didn't budge. Instead, he turned to me and beamed, "I love what they did with this hole!"

That's a common sentiment among Torrey Pines regulars. Before the South Course's major $3.3 million redesign last year by Rees Jones, the green on the third hole was set 30 yards farther inland, away from all the trouble. There wasn't any real fear off the tee; all you had to do was punch the ball with an easy short iron. But now, with the new green so close to the cliff, the hole is edgy, dangerous, and simply thrilling—much like the rest of the dramatically transformed track. Meanwhile, the new, elegant, 175-room Lodge at Torrey Pines has just opened—the final puzzle piece in what is now a first-rate golf destination.

The South Course at Torrey Pines, named for the rare tree that grows throughout the property and in the adjacent nature reserve, has been considered one of the best in the San Diego area since it opened in 1957. The same was true of the shorter but more scenic North Course. They even became the site of the PGA Tour event once known as the Andy Williams San Diego Open and now called the Buick Invitational. Pros compete on both layouts during the first two rounds and then fight it out on the South for the final 18.

But those courses stood out only because San Diego has long had only mediocre golf. And the holes on Torrey Pines, built on a vast mesa that once housed an old Army base, looked a lot better than they actually played. (The Army used to test mortars there, which resulted in some of the unique cliff formations you see today.) Some players likened it to having a shabby house on a spectacular piece of property. The general conditioning of the city-owned layouts was equally unimpressive—and forget about the prospect of holding a major championship there. None of the top professionals felt that either track, not even the superior South, was anywhere near ready for such an event. As recently as last December, longtime Torrey Pines player Tiger Woods, who had first teed up there as a six-year-old, derided its fitness for an Open.

The organizers of the Buick Invitational knew that only one designer could work the kind of magic on the South Course that would upgrade its middling layout into something memorable: Rees Jones. Son of Robert Trent Jones Sr., Rees is known as the Open Doctor for his frequent—and much praised—prepping of major championship venues. "My goal with the South Course was to take a magnificent piece of ground and optimize all it had to offer," Jones says. "I wanted to create new shot options, more surprising angles of play, and better green contours, while maximizing that wonderful terrain."

Jones added 550 yards to the par-72 layout, which now measures a staggering 7,606 yards from the back tees. He made the bunkers deeper, sometimes relocating them to more strategic positions. And he completely rethought each of the 18 greens, resculpting some and moving others to tougher locations. "I'd say my favorite holes are numbers three, four, and fourteen," Jones says, "because I was really able to incorporate the canyons. By moving the greens I brought the natural hazards much more into play." On the fourth hole, for instance, the fairway and the center of the green were shifted closer to the sandstone bluffs that rise some 400 feet above the Pacific. Although I hooked my drive out of bounds, I was soothed by the sight of dolphins rolling in and out of the water below us as they swam up the coast. (Some days you can even see gray whales.) Jones also enlarged the seventh green, which abuts yet another canyon, and lengthened the par-five 13th.

"I wanted to make the South Course long enough to host a major championship," Jones says. "But I also wanted enough flexibility so that the average golfer could still play and enjoy it." Sure enough, despite their earlier skepticism, Woods and other pros changed their tunes after they played in the 2002 Buick in February and saw Jones' redesign for the first time. "They can definitely host an Open here now," said Woods after his first round on the new South. (The North is slated to undergo a makeover of its own in the next few years.) "They've lengthened it enough, and I am sure that the USGA will come here and narrow the fairways, firm up the greens and hide the pins. All that would make for a wonderful Open."

Fellow PGA professional Phil Mickelson agreed. "I don't think that there's any question," he said when asked if the South was now Open-worthy. "It's exactly what the USGA has historically liked, which is a very difficult golf course that is long, tight and demanding on drives. The fact that it has length as well is something they are going to love."

I'm not sure the golfers in my group actually loved that length, because it only made the South Course tougher. We played from the blue markers, which were somewhat shorter than the back tees but still formidable at 7,227 yards. That was exhausting at times, but we felt rejuvenated each time we hit our drives into the salty breeze and then lingered on the tee boxes to absorb the views. The par-four fourth stretched to 471 yards, playing slightly uphill and into the prevailing wind, while the 12th and 15th came to 477 and 462 yards respectively. No one in my foursome was able to get to any of those greens in two, which is the general goal on any par four. I often found myself swinging too hard on both my drives and approach shots—a common symptom of anyone feeling challenged by the length of a course. But faster swings rarely translate into longer—or better—shots. I limped around the South, playing nowhere near my handicap of five. Chris lifted all our spirits when he reminded us that Woods had shot a five over par 77 on the South during the second day of this year's Buick—his worst tournament score in three years.

Distance may be the hardest punch thrown by the South Course, but it is by no means the only one. The majority of the greens are slightly elevated, which makes it difficult to run balls up on them. They demand precise approach shots that carry onto the putting surfaces and stop before rolling off—regular stuff for the likes of Tiger and Phil but very difficult work for everyone else. In addition, the rough along the fairways and greens seems to swallow balls. Since this is a difficult public course, play is sluggish at times, but the conditioning is now superb and the track is kept beautifully manicured. Even if you are having a bad day, you can always find solace in the windswept pines and mammoth eucalyptus trees that grow along the fairways. There are also lovely views of the North Course, with lush fairways winding up and down the hills across the canyon in the distance, and always the Pacific Ocean, stretching out to the west.

Many players find it surprising that a layout so close to the sea has only one major water hazard. You have to wait until the par-five 18th to see the greenside pond called Devlin's Billabong. A billabong is a kind of creek, and Devlin the name of a former Australian pro who parked several balls in that abyss during a PGA Tour event some 30 years ago. It was a meltdown of such epic proportions that locals still talk about it.

The South Course is not the only newsworthy renovation at Torrey Pines. Equally exciting is the new hotel that rises behind the 18th green. Once a Japanese-style motel, it is now one of the finest places to stay in that part of California. The Lodge at Torrey Pines, which opened in April, is the brainchild of Bill Evans. A third-generation San Diego resident and collector of antique automobiles and California Impressionist art, Evans is a veteran of the 21 Club, L'Hermitage, and Rosewood Hotels and Resorts. In 1995, he bought that old motel and the concession rights to the two adjacent golf courses.

"It felt like a phenomenal opportunity," Evans says. His goal from the start was to build a hotel that would be not only architecturally significant but also a true example of California style. Shortly after the sale, Evans came across a photograph of the Gamble House in Pasadena in a book and knew it had the exact feel he wanted to achieve. Designed and built for one of the Proctor & Gamble heirs by Greene and Greene architects (Charles and Henry), the house was a masterpiece of the Craftsman movement in the early 20th century.

"I went to see the house the next morning," Evans recalls, "and was so taken by it I called the man who had written the book and said I wanted to do something like that here." At first the author, Randell Makinson of the Gamble House Trust, said it would be impossible to re-create the house a century later—but soon he changed his mind and signed on as a consultant.

The new lodge was designed and constructed with great care and creativity. The rooms, which look out over the gardens or golf course, are trimmed in rich Jatoba (Brazilian cherrywood) and appointed with Stickley furniture and Tiffany-style lamps. The attention to detail is fastidious, right down to the custom-made sage-scented shampoo in each bathroom—a nod to the 17 types of sage that grow in the surrounding landscape. All of the Jatoba trim was matched exactly to the tone of the Honduran mahogany the Greenes used in the Gamble House. Evans also had artisans produce copies of light fixtures from various Greene and Greene homes, including one lamp that has 2,200 different pieces of stained glass. There is a wonderful integrity to the place; all the wood paneling in the building conforms to the Craftsman style, down to each ebony peg.

In many ways, the vision Evans had for the lodge and the work Jones did on the South Course are very much of a piece. Both are very new—and very fine—works of California art.

The Lodge at Torrey Pines is located at 11480 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, CA 92037; 800-656-0087 or 858-453-4420; Guestrooms facing the gardens start at $450; those facing the South Course start at $625 and run to $3,500.

Lodge Luxuries

Five things that make the Lodge at Torrey Pines first-rate:

SUPERB SUITES The room to get is the Thorsen Suite: spacious (800 square feet) with ocean views and three fireplaces, including one by the Jacuzzi in the bathroom and one on the wraparound sleeping porch.

THOUGHTFUL TOUCHES Custom-made Arts and Crafts furniture, deep soaking tubs, and special slots in the closet safe for a laptop and cell phone.

INVENTIVE DISHES from chef Jeff Jackson at A.R. Valentien, the lodge's restaurant, include braised veal cheeks and duck confit with ramps. The market-driven menu is pure California, as is the excellent wine list.

OUTDOOR YOGA, pilates, and tai chi classes at the chic new 9,500-square-foot spa, as well as massages, facials, wraps, and hydrotherapy. Steam rooms, saunas, 14 private treatment rooms, and men's and women's lounges.

ECO WOW! The Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana), the rarest pine tree in the Americas, is indigenous only to the area around La Jolla and the nearby island of Santa Rosa. Experts believe these ancient trees are remnants of a vast forest that flourished before the Ice Age. Today there are just a few thousand left. You can find them (along with sea lions, gray whales, snowy egrets, and unspoiled beaches) at the spectacular 2,000-acre Torrey Pines State Reserve adjacent to the lodge property.

John Steinbreder wrote about Scotty Cameron's putters for a recent issue of Departures.