Barona Creek Golf Club combines great golf, gaming at high-end resort
Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino is one of Southern California's most distinct golf resorts. The resort's Barona Creek Golf Club will host the 2007 and 2010 Nationwide Tour Championship, and the casino is over 300,000 square feet.
LAKESIDE, Calif. - It's funny how golf resorts can sort of blend together in one's memory, even when it is your job to visit, play, and write about them. (Hey, someone's got to do it.) But then you stumble upon a golf resort with a unique personality, like that gorgeous blonde in college everyone thought was an airhead until you discovered she spoke Russian, danced ballet and could change her own oil.
Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino, some 30 minutes northeast of San Diego, is precisely the singular, enchanting sort of place that might just make you fall in love all over again with golf resorts, especially if you like a little gambling and gourmet cuisine to go with your golf.
Located on the Barona Band of Mission Indians Reservation outside of sleepy Lakeside, just 30 minutes from downtown San Diego, Barona Resort & Casino has no competition. Literally. I mean there's nothing else within miles.
Fortunately, the true gaming and golfing aficionado requires nothing else. You won't find gaudy floorshows here, but you will find an outstanding staff and a clientele who are serious about their golf, their gaming and their food. No matter how you count that - straight flush, or hole in one - it's a jackpot.
Barona Creek Golf Club
What strikes the newcomer about the 7,088-yard Barona Creek Golf Club is that it looks almost too perfect. If you were a film director and wanted to shoot a Western-golf movie, this course would be the perfect set. It's almost as if every rock, every stick, and every scrub sage was placed meticulously in exactly the right spot. Just imagine the pristine conditions of the actual playing surfaces.
In fact, according to Director of Golf Don King, "The course was simply cut into the rock. We transplanted some oaks from other parts of the reservation, but that's it."
A few other recent additions have also been made to prepare for the 2007 Nationwide Tour Championship, which will be held here Oct. 29-Nov. 4 (and again in 2010). Twelve new tees have been added to beef up the length to a brutish 7,588 yards.
For most of us mere mortals, however, the 6,596 gold or 6,231 silver tees will do just fine. Just remember that you're at 1,500 feet, so the ball will fly about 10-15 yards farther than usual (so use the GPS on your cart wisely). One hundred and fourteen bunkers are scattered around 90 acres of turf, so there's plenty to aim at and plenty of trouble if you miss.
There is not a single weak hole on this course, and choosing favorites is like choosing a date at the Playboy Mansion. Still, a few holes are so spectacular to stand out among the pedigree at Barona.
The 449-yard par-4 fourth hole presents players all sorts of options off the elevated tee. The split fairway is divided by a beach-worth of sand down the middle. On the tee, the hotel is off to the left, the mountains rise behind you, and all is right with the world (unless hail is pelting down, as it was when I teed off here).
The 406-yard eighth begins with another stunning tee shot from elevated tees. The fairway doglegs left around a pond and an amorphous bunker, and then climbs slowly back up toward a green guarded by a stand of oaks on the left and another small beach on the right.
On the back nine, from the 534-yard, par-5 13th onward, you may just feel like you've died and gone to heaven. A new tee box and new bunkers make the drive formidable, touring pro or not. A creek and sand bisect the fairway right down the middle near the green, forcing a tricky approach to a semi-blind green. Playing to the left from the tee is longer, but it offers a better view of the green when you finally get there.
The 316-yard14th is a superb drivable par 4. Bunkers front the green, and trouble resides on both the right and left, but the green is receptive to big hitters. The 417-yard 15th is the best driving hole, though, with elevated tees approximately 80 feet above the wide fairway. Just hitting the fairway doesn't ensure success, though, as the elevated green is very difficult to hit, hold, and read.
In fact, the greens are all challenging to read, especially as they are lightning fast, normally running between 11 and 12.5 on the Stimp Meter. I had more three-putts on the front nine than I had in my last two rounds combined. PGA Tour pro Notah Begay III played Barona Creek when it opened and commented that the only greens faster than these were at the U.S. Open.
Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino
As at most casinos, the staff here knows how to make everyone feel like a high roller. Heaven knows they've had enough practice. A private elevator hidden in the back of the high-stakes room takes a lucky few down beneath the main gaming floor, to two private rooms for high-rolling VIPs. These rooms come complete with their own butler service, $5,000 slots that can connect directly to electronic transfer accounts, and private limo entrance, with walls that open up like the Bat Cave to allow easy, undetected entrance.
All you need to reserve one of these luxurious rooms is a minimum of $100,000.
For the rest of us, the 310,000-square-foot casino floor with 2,000 slots, 70 table games, a large poker room and off-track horse race betting will have to suffice. The current casino building opened in 2003, so it still has that new casino smell. And the 3,500-person staff handles almost 200 weddings a year and corporate and private events for up to 1,000 people.
The only quirk is that the casino is completely dry - no alcohol is served in the resort other than in the Barona Oaks Steakhouse (see below), and on the golf course, where beer is sold on the front nine only, and no more than two at a time.
The paucity of booze aside, the resort is every bit the oasis in the desert. There's a fitness center with complimentary personal trainers at the ready (and an arcade across the hall to entertain the kids while their parents work out), locker rooms and showers in the golf clubhouse and by the pool, a business center and rooms ranging from standard to the three El Capitan Grande Suites (each of which measures 2,600 sq. ft.). Rates are not published, in general, because so many varieties of discounts and frequent player specials exist.
No matter what sort of room you require, however, be sure to plan in advance, as occupancy runs at 80 percent, with weekends and holidays always booked solid.
Barona Oaks Steakhouse
The fine dining restaurant will be moving soon into the old bingo hall to make way for a sushi or oyster bar (perhaps), but the menu will remain consistent, and consistently amazing. This is the first-class option at the resort; reservations are required, and are well worth it. Because it is the only place in the resort where alcohol is served, there is a burly doorman stationed at the closed doors, but as you enter, you feel immediately welcome.
The wine list is outstanding, though the lack of pinots or zinfandels by the glass is disappointing; however, if you ask, certain bottles can be opened for you and sold by the glass. Unfortunately, the serving staff are not allowed to taste any of the wines on site (ever), so unless you happen to get a server like mine who had spent time off site tasting the various offerings, you'll need to know your stuff. There's also a great list of 18 original martinis ($10) on offer.
The prices are definitely upscale, but not outrageous. Appetizers run from $8 to $16, and entrees from $24 to $75 (Maine lobster). The osso bucco on parmesan polenta with steamed, locally grown root veggies ($34) simply melted in my mouth, and paired perfectly with the Sonoma zin that Chef d'Cuisine Duncan Firth was gracious enough to open for me.
If fine dining is not your thing, the Ranch House Buffet is highly recommended (but quite crowded), and the Sage Café is great for breakfast and desserts. Most surprising is the high quality of the food court, which offers wonderful Mexican, Asian, Italian, and American food with no fuss but lots of flavor.
Seriously. Golf, gambling, and gastronomy. How could anyone not fall in love with this one-of-a-kind beauty?
Be careful looking for your golf ball off the fairways. One of the grounds crew told me of a five-foot rattlesnake he'd seen the week before on the seventh hole.
September 17, 2007