Most of the two-hour drive into the Anza-Borrego Desert outside San Diego—first east on Interstate 8, then northeast on state highways 79 and 78—is through the backcountry badland called Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Here ridges and fields are strewn with boulders in a manner suggesting long-ago tectonic violence, but all that ancient noise and motion has yielded a stillness that feels eternal. This moonscape of arid rubble is devoid of cell-phone service: The only lifelines to the rest of the world are the blue emergency phones posted every mile or so, and especially if it’s dusk or dark, anxious drivers may begin to wonder how many of them actually work. So it’s a relief and a bit of a shock when the low-slung buildings and lush greenery of Borrego Ranch Resort & Spa come into view.
Though Borrego Ranch is just celebrating its first anniversary, a resort has graced this site since 1960, when Copley Press, the owner of the San Diego Union-Tribune, bought a small 1937 lodge and turned it into a romantic retreat named La Casa del Zorro. It remained as such for more than 40 years, until Los Angeles–based developer Gregory Perlman purchased the property in 2007. Perlman’s company spent $12 million reinventing the place, and it shows. Done in early-California style inspired by the original hacienda (which is still in use), the 44 guest rooms and 19 private guesthouses are spacious, with high-beamed ceilings and cool-white walls. With their glassed-in showers, the bathrooms are big enough for roaming. The stand-alone spa offers holistic treatments like acupuncture, aromatherapy massage, and herbal medicine, and there are breathtaking 360-degree desert views from its rooftop deck.
But the real draw here is the brand-new 7,247-yard Tom Fazio golf course. There was a course, Rams Hill, adjacent to La Casa del Zorro. Designed by California architect Ted Robinson, it was built in 1982 and eventually extended with a third nine. Despite its popularity with the locals, new owner Perlman wanted to give Fazio a clean slate, and so the entire 27-hole course was plowed under to allow the designer to create something in keeping with the updated surroundings. It was a worthwhile investment: Montesoro, as the course is now called, was named one of the best remodels of 2008 by Golf Digest.
Serving both Borrego Ranch and its adjacent gated community, Fazio’s layout has just a few holes that are bordered by homes. Most of its groomed fairways are thrust into the silence of the desert floor. Few golf environments have more satisfying acoustics than this one. Like many desert courses, Montesoro gets most of its summer-season play in the early morning. In the winter months, when even San Diego is chilled by Pacific wind and moisture, desert warmth envelops Borrego Ranch until dramatic evening shadows stretch across the fairways.
Seductive as opposed to intimidating, the course (6,856 yards from its popular gold tees) follows an out-and-back routing. The farthest point from the clubhouse is the no. 11 green, which hunkers on the edge of a vast mesa ringed by craggy, ocher-hued mountains.
In plotting his redesign, Fazio served up some old-world charm, ending the front nine in a par three and starting the back nine with another one. Of the two, no. ten is more memorable. Along its left side are a large, handsome desert pond and bunkers that spill down from a shoulder of the green site in pretty flashes of white. My five-wood shot from 195 hung proudly over those bunkers for what seemed like forever before drifting a bit farther and landing in the water with a beautiful splash.
The course’s fairway bunkering style favors a terraced look, with irregular pools of white sand running down and away from the shelf edge of each fairway. The 17th, at just 346 yards, is characteristic of the Montesoro experience. From the tee a player sees the landing area for his drive up and to the right and even gets a good glimpse of the green across a shallow canyon to the left. The Anza-Borrego Desert’s infinite scrub fills in the picture.
Playing 556 yards from the back tee, no. 11 tumbles down to a huge, bowl-like fairway. From within its walls, a golfer pounds his way toward a narrow, perched-up green, knowing that beyond this swath of cropped turf lie a thousand-some acres of barrel cacti. And more silence—which will hold until nighttime brings the calls of the javelina, the wild swine native to the area.
The closing holes here are undeniably stout. The par-four 14th and the 558-yard 18th require big swings and noisy smashes off the tee to get within attack range of their greens. The 18th has a power-alley landing zone between clusters of bunkers. If you don’t make it through the alley, you end up in the lower sand traps on the right, a tough place to make par from. In fact, alongside the deepest one would be a perfect place for another of those blue emergency phones.
Rooms at Borrego Ranch Resort & Spa run from $180; greens fees at Montesoro are $125 (800-824-1884; borregoranchresort.com).
High and Dry
Maintaining a golf course in a region that averages little more than five inches of rain a year calls for careful environmental stewardship. “We have a computerized irrigation system that measures gallon use and prevents overwatering,” says Steven Gregory, the course superintendent at the Borrego Ranch Golf Club. But to a certain extent, Gregory is able to work the arid conditions in his favor. “Our big advantage is airflow and lack of humidity, which means very little dew, and therefore very little disease.” Montesoro is able to go an entire year without even one blanket application of fungicide—a tactic practically unheard of in golf-course maintenance. The Anza-Borrego environment is also beneficial for its paucity of turf-harming insects. When insect damage does occur, Gregory and his crew use a scout-and-spot-treat approach, again avoiding blanket spraying—another cost-saving and ecologically friendly approach.