Barona Creek Golf Club: The Sounds of Silence in San Diego

By Art Stricklin, Contributor

LAKESIDE, CA - The musical hit, "The Sounds of Silence," sold millions of copies when it was released in the 1960s, but recently the hit has been re-released, not as a song, but as a golf course.

When you play the recently-opened Barona Creek Golf Club just outside San Diego, one of the first positive impressions you get is the silence surrounding the course.

Not total silence, just a lack of sounds golfers don't want to hear on a golf course. There is no noise from passing traffic, no hammering or sawing or radios from nearby home construction sites. In fact, the only sounds on this public access course are the native wildlife, the water rushing through the namesake creek and the sounds of pleasure or displeasure over a recently hit shot.

In fact, Barona Creek, which bills itself as a, "Course of Nature," is a wonderful golf layout that actually features golf and only golf as its main attraction. The par 72 course is laid out over 255 acres of Barona Indian Reservation land some 35 minutes northwest of downtown San Diego.

While it was built to complement the nearby Barona Casino and a 400-room resort hotel, which will open early next year, the course is good enough to merit a solo trip, even if you never put a quarter in the always hungry casino trough or spend a night in the hotel.

Barona Creek is an outstanding example of what happens when good architecture meets good course topography with good space and a lack of restrictions. That means there is no business reason to squeeze in an average course as an excuse to sell pricey real estate.

"We like to do minimalistic architecture and our style fits perfectly with the Indians' respect for the land and nature," architect Charles Davison said. "A lot of people (architects) talk about taking what the land gives them, but we really work very hard at doing that on this course and I think it shows."

Consider it mission accomplished, as the course was laid on a gently rolling piece of land which rises and falls a few hundred feet during its 18-hole journey, but looks as if it has been there for years instead of just opening in January of this year.

The story behind the course opening is almost as interesting as the course itself. Davison's uncle lived in the small nearby town of Lakeside, which adjoins the property. He was a regular for the Wednesday night prime rib night at the Barona Casino, but would always mention to his nephew that the surrounding land would be prime property for a golf course.

When Davison got around to following up with the tribal leadership, he found they had been thinking much the same thing and were interested in exploring the idea of a course on tribal land.

Because of the regulation overload in California, courses can take years from drawing board to construction just to get all the necessary permits, but because the tribe operates as a sovereign nation, they were able to dramatically cut all the government red tape while still maintaining strict environmental controls.

Construction was begun in early 2000 and finished almost a year later, making it the first tribal golf course anywhere in the state and one of the only courses in California without any housing on it and with none planned for the future.

"We don't get many projects like this, so it was really a treat to get to work on something like this," Davison said.

While the course gives the impression of a wide open layout, there is plenty of places to get in trouble including large, mature oak trees, native grasses- some allowed to grow to 4-5 feet high, stream beds - dry and wet, and massive rock formations which dot the course.

Another unique feature to the course is the nearly 100 bunkers, which dot the landscape. Davison and his design associate Todd Eckenrode, a former college golfer at Arizona and medallist in the U.S. Public Links Championship, have brought back the often-ignored concept that bunkers are actually supposed to penalize golfers who get into them.

Almost all the bunkers are large in size, have thick sides all the way around them and are irregularly shaped which can allow misplaced shots to wind up in the narrow fingers of the trap making escape even more difficult.

"Something we work very hard on is shaping the bunkers with the irregular feature, which takes a great deal of time and work," Eckenrode said. "They're supposed to be called hazards for a reason."

The first hole, a par 5 that plays 541 yards from the back tees, is a good example of the Barona Creek "less is more" philosophy. The hole curves slightly left to right, moving sharply right at the green with a large bunker to the right of the landing area and another bunker protecting the right side of the green. A huge oak tree sits in the middle of the fairway, about 100 yards in front of the green, forcing golfers hitting their second shots to go over or around the tree to have a clear path to the green.

The greens are extremely undulated in many places and can also be extremely fast. In fact, there are some hole locations on the course which border on unfair because of the steep angle they are cut onto, but will be moved as the course matures.

Another unique Barona touch is that each individual hole carries a different tribal brand, dating back to the days when each family was given an unique brand to protect their cattle, their most valuable possession and means of survival.

Among the best holes on the front nine are the extremely challenging par 3 third hole which plays slightly downhill and downwind, but measures 260 yards from the back tees and 200 even from the middle markers. There is a very long and large green with bunkers on each side and a ridge running through the middle of the green which can mean the difference between two-putt par and three or four-putt disaster.

The fifth hole is the number one handicap with a stream running all along the left side, a series of bunkers and trees on the right with a narrow green surrounded by more sand. The par 4 ninth features a manmade lake on the left with a small stream which cuts right in front of the green with more sand behind the hole.

The back nine has more in the same of gentle elevation changes up and down with the huge El Capitan Mountains dominating the backdrop on one side of the course and the small, rolling foothills on the other. There is a lone two-lane road which leads in and out of the property, but it's far enough away that golfers rarely see any cars and are even less likely to hear them.

The par 3 11th hole is a spectacular one-shooter with an elevated tee to a wide green with huge bunkers and rock formations on both sides and tall native grasses surrounding the green. It's basically all or nothing off the tee, but a great challenge at 189 yards from the back tee.

The 14th hole employs another seldom-used design technique which is very popular in Europe, the drivable par 4. At 316 yards from the back tees, 275 yards from the middle markers, the distance is just close enough to tempt the big hitters, but the challenge is great as the hole is decidedly uphill and often plays into the wind.

Both the par 5 17th with its crossing stream and the par 4 18th, which features a large lake all along the left, bring water decidedly into play, but are a great finish to a course visually appealing and fundamentally challenging.

It's almost as much of a treat to view the course, as it is to play it.

This is one of the first solo efforts by Davison and Eckenrode (along with Gary Roger Baird Design International, Ltd.), but if they have more like Barona Creek, bring them on as golf for purely golf's sake is celebrated and the sounds of silence never sounded so sweet.

Barona Creek Golf Club
1000 Wildcat Canyon Road
Lakeside, California
Phone: (619)387-7018
Par: 72
Yardage: 7, 0XX? (from the back tees)
Director of Golf: Don King
Green Fees: $75 (every day) includes cart and range balls
Facilities offered: 18 holes of championship golf, practice facilities, golf school, casino, lodging under construction.

Art Stricklin, Contributor

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