Cinnabar Hills GC a special place

By Adam Brady, Contributor

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The question that routinely arises when someone first hears of Cinnabar Hills GC in San Jose is this: What in the world is a Cinnabar? So, it's best to get that out of the way early.

A Cinnabar doesn't have chocolate or caramel or nougat. Rather, it is the rich, red ore that was mined in the mid-1800s in the San Jose area. So it's fitting that the course that bears the name of the ore remains (excuse the horrible metaphor) rock solid.

Although Cinnabar Hills is just a short drive from Silicon Valley's hustle, bustle and whirring of hard drives, its position among the natural hills and old oaks gives it a tranquil separation. Its unveiling in the summer of 1998 made it the first public course to open in San Jose in 30 years.

The facility's 27 holes came from the drawing board of acclaimed architect John Harbottle III, one of the few prominent designer whose designs have been relatively free of harsh critique. Cinnabar Hills is no exception, as the three nines -- Canyon, Lake and Mountain -- incorporate excellent shot challenge with views of flora and fauna. Some of the wildlife even includes the occasional red-tail hawk that can be seen soaring over the course, often enough that the bird has been incorporated into the course's logo.

Since its inception, Cinnabar Hills has combined the brilliant terrain of the courses with a level of service that offers an upscale, resort feel to the daily fee facility. That service is noticeable when you first step out of your car, as is the 25,000 square foot clubhouse, highlighted by a collection of golf memorabilia belonging to course owner Lee Brandenburg. Among the countless items are the clubs used by Chip Beck to shoot his 59 at the Las Vegas Invitational, along with a Masters jacket worn by Dwight D. Eisenhower. How the jacket got into the hands of Mr. Brandenburg is a mystery.

Luckily there is little uncertainty on the golf course, even to those seeing Cinnabar Hills for the first time. Although none of the combinations of nines tops 6,850 yards from the back tees (and two of the three are only 6,641), each is still is a tough but rational test. The beauty of the three is that they are distinct from one another, as the Canyon winds through the hills and a natural creek, the Mountain is blessed by splendid views and the Lake runs around ponds, creeks and wetlands. Many holes offer risk-reward opportunities and nearly all feature demanding tee shots. Selecting the proper tee among the four (Hawk, Cinnabar, Quicksilver and Oak) is critical, especially for first-timers.

The signature hole might by the wicked par-3 eighth, a healthy 222 yards from all the way back with distractions aplenty. The elevated setting of the hole allows views of the Calero lakes and Almaden Hills, not to mention a devious water hazard left of the green. The customary wind shoves everything at the hazard, but that is countered by a helpful slope right of the green that usually deflects slightly pushed tee shots back on target.

Conversely, one of the Mountain's best holes is its shortest par-4 but certainly not its easiest. The 373-yard fifth comes equipped with far-reaching views from the elevated tee. That's the good news. The bad news is that the drive is intimidated by no less than five fairway bunkers and large rock formations. Get past that and you're rewarded with a short approach to the large, sloping, well-protected putting surface. Meanwhile, the always-popular elevated tee shots can be found on two more holes on the nine, while many have roomy landing areas for the driver.

Eight of the nine holes on the aptly named Lake are guarded by either the 4-acre pond, two creeks or wetlands. High grasses also come into play on what is likely the toughest nine on the property. The par-3 eighth plays as short as any hole on the course a 172 yards and a prevailing wind coming from behind. But the broad green is tough to cling to even if you do carry the wetlands, and it looks even more shallow from the tee pad.

The greens are the great equalizers at Cinnabar Hills, where hitting one in regulation is no guarantee of par. Most of the large putting surfaces are replete with slopes, both subtle and dramatic. They are all glass smooth and are as well-kept as any in Northern California, if not the entire state. Fairways maintain the striped look that never seems to get old.

Cinnabar Hills' green fees are about what you would expect for Silicon Valley, but plenty of deals exist. That includes twilight rates, junior rates and "early bird" rates where you can play before 8:00 a.m., Monday through Thursday for $55 and Friday for $75 (cart included). Walking is also an option Monday through Thursday only and will cost you $60.

Adam Brady, Contributor

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