As with most critics of anything, my planned review of Torrey Pines was written in my head before even stepping out of the car in the parking lot, or at least within 30 seconds of taking in the relatively flat, uninteresting, and treeless terrain behind the clubhouse. The cost, the look, the lack of any sort of crowd… the place was going to get eviscerated.
And of course, it was going to be compared unfavorably to its NY State equivalent, its older cousin on the east coast, the first true public course to host a US Open, maybe the most successful Works Project Administration project ever — the Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, built in the 1930s in Farmingdale on Long Island.
Long ago, in a time when golf’s glossy magazines actually published articles with more than 75 words that didn’t involve sex, scantily-clad women, or drugs, Jim Murray (or Frank Hannigan, or Dave Kindred, or someone of that ilk) took a shot or two at Seve Ballesteros for favorably comparing Augusta National to his home course in Pedrena, Spain. Murhandred adroitly making the point that no-one’s immune from romanticizing their youth, and, paraphrasing a certain Czech author in exile, even Seve the great is (was) unable to give a shit about the future.
And so it is with me and that complex in Farmingdale, where, without knowing it, at the age of 12 or so I experienced what it was like to be a German walking though the Black Forest in the late 18th century. The state park wasn’t so much a series of golf courses as an extremely dense thicket of woods, in which you often wouldn’t see other players – well, excluding the 4 to 8 hackers you’d approach killing time on every tee after putting out on the preceding green – let alone adjacent holes. There were spots as well — I’m thinking the walk from the tee to the fairway on 11 of the Black, such as it existed in the late 1980s — where you couldn’t help but think of Lear on the heath, railing away while wondering what the hell had gone wrong. Samuel Clemens might have died 20 or so years before it came into existence, but it’s hard to imagine that he was thinking of anything but Bethpage when he called the game a good walk spoiled. (Or didn’t.)
Regardless, he certainly wasn’t thinking of Torrey Pines, which upon first glance looks like, well, a golf course, albeit one with the benefit of the Pacific ocean as a backdrop. But if it’s a walk along the Pacific you’re looking for, you – and your pocket book – would do much better five minutes down the road either way.
Nevertheless, I was stuck in Southern California for a bit longer, I had a day free, and exploring La Jolla’s other tourist attraction — office parks, apparently — didn’t appear particularly enticing. So I held my nose, woke up early, and drove to the course with a couple of books, hoping they and the putting green would be able to keep my attention for the inevitable 3 to 4 hour wait that lay ahead.
Now, initiating a round at Bethpage requires a bit of… courage. Yes, that is the right word, as you sift through an enormous parking lot, navigate a serpentine line, and confront cashiers who greet you with, if you’re lucky, indifference, but more often something approaching disdain. In the old days a helpful state employee might bark out a few numbers and colors (usually, something like, “at least 3 (hours) on everything but the Black; 20 mins there — a point, I’m assuming, that strikes you as discordant if you’ve read the mythology written about the 2002 US Open, and one I’m sure I’ll address again) and you’d shell out your $12-17 and go play tennis or basketball for a few hours. Or, you’d watch the one buffoon in your foursome run out and hit bunker shots on the 18th of the Green in between groups putting out, before heading to confront, the starters, another exercise in futility.
Not so at Torrey. First of all, the staff — the front desk and those manning the two starter shacks (why two? I don’t know, but at least both guys were more interested in assisting than getting my notarized signature on an official document — as is custom at Bethpage, presumably for liability purposes) — were not only helpful but could even be described as… welcoming:
“yes, we can get you right out… if views are what you’re looking for, no need to shell out the $350 for the South… we did, i’m afraid, just aerate the North, so set your expectations accordingly… try putting on the larger of the two practice greens before heading out; it’ll better approximate what you’ll find out there… holes? yes, of course we cut holes in our practice greens; what kind of idiot course doesn’t do that? “
So, here’s the deal. On a Sunday morning, with 75 degree weather, I walked out onto a course, which hosts the PGA tour every year, along the Pacific Ocean for $100 or so. The front 9 of the North indeed does have some very pretty vistas, and you’ll hit approaches towards the ocean, tee off a few times with it as a backdrop, and hit over chasms with bluffs off to the distance on your left. The back 9 is entirely nondescript — it probably makes the White Course at Eisenhower Park look interesting — but you’ll still be playing golf in shirtsleeves and shorts in October. And you’ll be doing so much faster than you would out on any of the five courses at Bethpage, long the home of the 6 hour round.
Now, you won’t find yourself contemplating Goethe or Hegel, while traversing Torrey Pines, it’s true. But unlike at Bethpage, you might actually enjoy your round. The courses — and this includes the South from the appropriate tees — are… easy. Or easy enough. You’re not going to be hitting 4 woods uphill all day into par 4s and you won’t lose your ball 10 yards off the fairway. In 25 to 30 years of playing at Bethpage, I’ve had maybe a handful of enjoyable rounds, and those had nothing to do with hitting the ball or making a score; on the contrary, even while playing relatively poorly at Torrey I was in the game with something to play for.
And about that walk in the woods on Long Island… the sturm und drang, the romanticism that confronted a pre-teen trudging up its hills alone on a random summer evening? It’s gone. And has been for sometime. NY State took the money and killed it, preferring instead to run a cash register. The golf industry has for some time now labeled the tree — that gluttonous beast sucking up precious water and oxygen — an enemy that must be eliminated, lest you want a course stricken bumpy greens and sparse tees. How are you going to charge 17 handicappers $150 if their four-footers are going to bump off line all day? (Well Torrey does, although maybe somewhat unsuccessfully judging from my ability to walk right out on a beautiful day.) And you’re certainly not going to host a professional event of any kind with dirt patches littering your tee boxes. This isn’t your father’s British Open.
So, while I don’t recommend making it a destination— you’re bound to be disappointed if you make Torrey the central stop on a buddies trip — by all means spend some time there if you happen to be traveling through Southern California. What do you have to lose? You can’t go home again anyway,