Still hard to beat the show-stopping finish at La Costa's Champions golf course
CARLSBAD, Calif. -- All the rest are preliminaries. There are some nice holes to be sure among the first 12 of the La Costa Champions Course. A few might even be considered outstanding, particularly the devilish No. 10, where blasting out of a sand trap often means blasting into water.
But no matter how nice any of these holes are, no matter how tirelessly they've been toiled over, this collection is forever doomed to go down as the unfortunate dozen. For they're consigned to be compared to the finishing six at La Costa Champions, a fate few golf holes could ever withstand. This is the equivalent of a local beauty queen being held up against Miss Universe or the smuggest guy in your workplace being compared with Donald Trump.
No matter how good looking or smug these characters may be, there's no way they are outshining the real things.
And there lies the scenario for La Costa Champions' first 12. No golfer is going to be talking about these holes after a round. For once you get into this closing stretch, everything that came before it sort of fades away.
You play La Costa Champions for the 13th through 18th stretch. It's been that way for 40 years and it remains that way now, through multi-million dollar facelifts and corporate changeovers on the resort itself.
There are few things in life that are truly timeless, but this stretch of golf comes awfully close.
"Thirteen through 18, that stretch of holes, is about as good of a stretch as you'll find on any golf course," said La Costa Director of Golf Jeff Minton.
Dick Wilson, the architect who designed the Blue Monster at Doral, brought his best on this venture west. Wilson's La Costa course opened in 1961, including the 13-through-18 stretch on the Champions (there are two courses now, each possessing nine holes from Wilson's original design), and it's more than held up through the years.
Even with the explosion of high-end, high-dollar golf courses in southern California, the Champions finish that Wilson put down at La Costa still challenges as one of the best.
The run begins with a 387-yard, par-4 that makes golfers feel like they're playing in a bread bowl. You shoot down from an elevated tee and then up to a raised green on a ridge. Trees guard the approach up to the green, but the real round killers are the deep, deep, detailed bunkers that are typical of a Wilson design.
Wilson's bunkers look almost beautiful with their varied, sloping looks. Until you land in one that is. Then, you'll quickly realize just how good (or bad) a sand player you really are. There's nothing mini or minor about this wedge challenge.
You'll either love the test or curse the frustration. There is little fence sitting when it comes to La Costa Champions' finish.
"It's a nice course for a single-digit handicapper," Jim Orrcorcutt of Cranbury, N.J. said.
La Costa Champions does carry a 141 slope rating from the back tees. Still, based on handicap ratings, the finish is not considered the most difficult part of the course. The money stretch includes the 10th (No. 13), 12th (No. 15), 16th (No. 17) and 18th (No. 16) handicap-rated holes on the course.
Consider this another case when handicap ratings lie.
No. 15 as the 12th-toughest hole on the course is a particular joke. This 389-yard, par-4 features a nice-sized body of water dissecting the fairway right before the green, but the real challenge here is the delayed dogleg. This hole starts off straight and then takes the sharp dogleg right.
A lot of golfers make the mistake of trying to play the dogleg right off the tee. Experienced La Costa players will tell you to take it straight off the tee, ignoring the dogleg until your second shot.
Decisions like this add to the closing mystique. La Costa Champions' stretch run doesn't just deliver picturesque holes, it confronts golfers with pretty holes that force them to think. And then think some more.
This is one time you might wish you had a caddy. If only to blame someone else for that ill-advised club selection.
No. 14 causes consistent consternation. This 447-yard, par-4 is arguably the most beautiful hole on La Costa Champions and unarguably the most deadly.
A long creek cleanly cuts the fairway not once, but twice. The first time is almost 200 yards into the fairway, the second about 125 yards in front of the green. This is a par 4 where you could actually be well advised to lay up twice, as threatening to your manhood as that may be.
Not even going that route provides insurance against a big number however. The fairway target between creek crossings is significantly narrowed by a cluster of five to six (one's so huge it looks like a mutant) Wilson-special bunkers to the right side opposite the creek.
"If I get a (triple-bogey) 7 on No. 14, I just pick up my ball and walk away happy," golfer Jonathan Sutterson said. "Any double-digit handicapper should. Because if you know the hole, you know it could get much worse."
No. 14 does feature good views of the valley though and a series of neat little bridges running across its various gullies and creek crossings. Hey, sometimes its best to appreciate the details other than the ones on your scorecard.
"Golfers want to play the course they've seen on TV for 30 years," Minton said. "Well, I tell them once they've gone through that 13-18 stretch on Champions, they've got a good taste of the course they've seen on TV year after year."
No one ever guaranteed there wouldn't be an aftertaste.
The Champions Course at La Costa: The verdict
While the closing stretch steals the show, La Costa Champions provides more than enough to keep you interested for all 18 holes. Joe Lee, the architect who added on 18 holes to the resort in the 1970s, creating La Costa Champions and Legends from Wilson's original design, did a nice job of melding the new with the old.
No. 10 and No. 11 are two Lee add-ons that challenge with many of Wilson's best. In fact, if it wasn't for the dazzling finish, No. 10 and its long, narrow dogleg with water right around a small green might stand out as a star. As it is, it doesn't even qualify as the best par 5 on the course. That honor goes to Wilson's deceptively uphill No. 18.
This is the thing about La Costa Champions: It doesn't allow for instant gratification, at least, not on the scorecard. The course is filled with touches like the slightly uphill 18 (if you don't know any better, you're liable to be asking yourself why your shots keep coming up shorter than expected). These almost imperceptible touches greatly affect strategy and take some time to learn.
Still, the Champions Course is worth playing even if it's only going to be a befuddled, one-time treat.
To make sure you get the most for your dollar, ask for a tee time away from that day's tournament shotgun start. La Costa is a very popular resort in San Diego's shadow and it can produce the tee jams to prove it.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: In the summer of 2011, La Costa re-named the North Course as the Champions Course.]
April 10, 2005