Talk about apropos: A well-known golf course reborn on the first day of spring.
The timing wasn’t lost on Robert Trent Jones II on March 20 as he basked in morning sunshine on the patio of Poppy Hills, the Northern California Golf Association’s flagship course on the Monterey Peninsula. It’s pretty much a brand new layout, shedding its former “Sloppy Hills” reputation in favor of a “firm, fast and fun” approach — with an Easter basket’s worth of pleasant surprises every step of the way, starting with the very first tee shot to a wider, less severely sloped landing area, with no rough in sight.
In short, it’s now a must-play, as the first public players will discover on April 4.
“The original course was very good; our chance was to make it great,” Jones told me as we, and a full field of invited guests and media, glanced out at new No. 1 tees and a slightly reworked 18th green. “When you’re in the best golf zip code in America, you’ve got a challenge. If you’re a jazz musician, and a guy is riffing on his trumpet very fast and beautifully, you’ve got to react to it. As any artist would, we took that challenge. We took a fresh look.”
Jones kept the musical metaphor intact to compare the new Poppy to his father’s masterpiece just down 17-Mile Drive, Spyglass Hill: “If it starts out like Beethoven’s 5th symphony, this starts like ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ — a clarinet, seductive, come and get me.’ It gets more complex, then finishes strong.”
To Jones and his lead designers on this project, Bruce Charlton and Mike Gorman, employing the recent trend toward more naturalistic, fit-the-land designs grew out the NCGA’s desire to rid Poppy of its main issue — drainage. Low spots on fairways and ever-thickening rough would lead to plugged lies or worse, spurring years of disdain from PGA Tour players who considered it the weakest link in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am chain (it’s since been replaced by Monterey Peninsula Country Club's Shore Course).
“They said, ‘This is a very popular course among our membership. We’d like it to play easier here and there, get people around here quicker,’” Charlton said. “There were some things they wanted to correct, so we looked at how we could make this place drain a lot better. You’ve got a handful of soil types, on a hillside leading down to the ocean, in a forest with a lot of fog. It’s tough to grow grass. We thought we could solve a lot of things by introducing a consistent soil medium and create good drainage.”
And that meant sand-capping, a technique Jones says his group introduced on a course in Philippines in 1990. “That concept is universally used today on sites where the soil is clay-like, so you can play in firm conditions year-round.
“The game has changed, times change,” Jones said. “We’ve learned some things over 25 years,working on many courses including two that will host national championships back-to-back [the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in 2015], Chambers Bay and CordeValle. So we said, ‘Let’s see what we can do.’ This is a course built for the 175,000 members of the NCGA, so we wanted to make it accessible to them. As a player you have more options. Before you had to play away from mounds, to the side of the fairway. That was a tactic of the ’80s. Today it’s, ‘let all players of all levels, all age groups, either sex, find their way.’ That’s strategic golf.”
It’s also far more enjoyable golf, whether or not you played the previous Poppy. At certain points it feels like Pinehurst, other times like Augusta, with dashes of Pine Valley peppered in thanks to broad, brown-sand waste bunkering that, like the fairways themselves, transitions into wood chips and pine straw rather than ankle-deep gunch. Sightliness from tees and into greens are far more attractive; to eliminate the old sharp doglegs and hanging lies, Charlton and Gorman moved dozens of fairway mounds and nudged several greens from atop knolls and into clearer view (such as at No. 8, now one of the best par 4s on the course). Bunkering is still plentiful but not abusive; on virtually every hole there’s now a run-up option from the fairway if you’re on the proper side, which gives links fans like me a jolt of joy. And thanks to the removal of hundreds of trees, the whole place feels more open and airy — on a clear day, from the tee on No. 12 (one of two brand new holes, a straightaway, downhill par ), you can see all the way across Monterey Bay to the Santa Cruz Mountains.
But it’s the shortest hole on the new Poppy, No. 11, that has the Trent team beaming with pride. The old par 3 was an awkward, slightly uphill mid-iron to an elevated green jammed into what Gorman called a “dead spot.” So they literally pulled a 180, turning the hole around (and moving the par 5 10th green slightly to the right in the process, creating a much better hole there, too). “We wanted to make sure on par 3s you’re hitting different clubs,” Charlton said. “So when we reversed 11 we did a Pasatiempo-style, postage stamp green [referring to the famed Santa Cruz course authored by Alister Mackenzie]. Now you play to what used to be the beginning of the 12 fairway. We wanted a short club in people’s hands. It’s no more than an 8-iron.”
Added Gorman, “Now it’s a stunning hole. It’s come to life.”
Poppy’s final stretch truly begins there and just gains momentum. No. 14 is now a standout thanks to a wider fairway and smaller but more accessible green, while No. 17 is the perfect final three-par, complete with a huge waste bunker framing the tee shot, trees to the left and a ravine to the right. No. 18 is no longer one last slog to the clubhouse, but a delightful, reachable par 5 unveiling several options from the fairway. And you can recover from the right-side waste bunker rather than getting lost in deep rough or begin stymied behind a tall pine.
Overall the Jones team — and the lead construction company, Frontier Golf — added a couple hundred yards to Poppy Hills, tucking new tee boxes back in the trees or along an old riding trail. The longest hole is No. 4 at 629 yards; whereas the previous par 5 asked for a sidehill hopscotch to a green half-hidden behind trees, the new hole is virtually straightaway, with one cross bunker pointing the way to a proper lay-up and clear shot at the green. And No. 9 — perhaps the worst hole on the course in the old days — is now a cool “par four-and-a-half,” its new green further down the hill and a previously tunneled creek now exposed to full visual and strategic effect.
Before, this course fought the land on which it was born. Now the two get along just fine, moving through some of America’s most revered golf landscape in perfect rhythm. As Jones says, “We made the hills pop at Poppy Hills.” And that means a friendship reborn for golfers of every type, from pro to beginner.
“They still want this golf course to be a test for the their championships,” Charlton said of the NCGA. “We weren’t thinking about the PGA Tour [though the course has already been named to the Champions Tour’s First Tee Open rotation, beginning this September]. We wanted to create a course that would suit the NCGA and their members, and the rest will take care of itself. That was fun. And we want those people to have fun.”