The Ocean Course, designed by Arthur Hills, opened in 1997, and has always been a personal favorite because of its three spectacular closing holes above the crashing Pacific. My one quibble had been the longish, rye rough that grabbed errant drives and snagged recovery attempts. Such turf robbed recoveries, and seemed a shame on a course with such rolling terrain and hard-'n-fast links-style potential.
More than a decade later, course management cut down the grass, raising possibilities for quirky bounces and exciting outcomes. Now, the fairways fit those large, rolling, and sometimes mystifying greens.
It's not so much a renovation as a 'funification'. The work, which includes some new teeing grounds, is not, yet, complete. For a hint of the Ocean Course's future, however, look no further than a new, deep, hidden pot bunker that will eagerly gobble your second shot on the formerly simple, dogleg left, 433-500 yard, par-5, 8th. Management built it as an experiment that appears to have succeeded. Seven more similar bunkers will follow, plus long, wispy, British style grass in the rough.
In any round, a good golfer faces more than enough drama. Beginners will find plenty of room to spray errant shots from five sets of tees. The course features several stout, into-the-wind, tests , including the 398-481, par-5, 5th. We had several long hitters in our group, but with the breeze that day, none of us reached the green.
The front nine opens with two memorable holes. The 316--394 yard, par-4, 1st rollicks right, down a hill, leaving an appealing approach to a green that appears propped above the Pacific Ocean. Between the rolling terrain, green grass, and blue water, it reminded me, a bit, of Bandon Dunes in Oregon.
Other holes do, too, including the 147-332 yard, 2nd. From the teeing ground, this is a visually daunting, but simple short par-4. Your tee shot requires a forced carry, downhill, to an upwardly slanting fairway pinched by bunkers on either side approaching the green. Hit a fairway metal, hybrid, or long iron, and you won't need more than a wedge or short iron into the green.
Overall, the front nine offers enough challenges to keep a player interested, but as we hinted earlier, the back nine creates more lasting memories, especially with those last three holes. They play to the north, into the wind, and parallel to the ocean.
The par-4, 281-391 yard, 16th requires a solid tee shot, downhill between pot bunkers right and left, followed by a forced carry across a deep creek, to a wide, 25-yard deep green.
The 74-184 yard 17th can be a simple par-3, assuming you reach the green, but if you hit your shot short and left, or just plain left, forget ever seeing that ball, again. Try not to delay play as you photograph this hole.
The 397-533 yard, par-5, 18th, requires a forced carry up a cliff to an elevated fairway. A large bunker protects the inside left elbow, followed by five more on that side, through the green. It's a good hole, but not a great one. Because of the wind, many players will be challenged to reach in two shots, eliminating the thrills of a last-hole charge.
The Ocean Course has received numerous awards. Golf Digest named it as a Top Ten Best Upscale New Course, but that was quite a while ago. I am one of those Golf Digest panelists, and for now, at least, the course does not qualify for voting in any of our categories, including Top Ten in State. Depending on how the course executes these new design features, that status could certainly improve.
Meantime, The Ocean Course may be a perfect resort experience, and with its fast, well-draining fairways, it is also an excellent option for players who need a fix in the otherwise soggy rainy season.
When finished, visit the Ritz-Carlton and enjoy a libation on the back veranda, overlooking the 18th of The Old Course.
THE OLD COURSE:
Half Moon Bay's venerable Old Course is one of the region's best open secrets. While its younger sibling, The Ocean Course, gets most of the raves and attention from tourists and one-timers, The Old Course, designed originally by Arnold Palmer and Francis Duane, has earned loyalty and adoration from educated locals.
In terms of pure golf, it is the better test. "I liked it before they put the houses in," commented my friend and golf course aficionado, Joel Stewart. "Before the houses, it was sensational."
True, but they are very nice houses, and despite a redesign by Arthur Hills in 1999, most of the holes on this Parkland-style course play as they always have, which makes a fun round. From the proper tees, The Old Course requires strategy, execution, and patience. A good player will hit the quintessential 'every shot in his bag'. The USGA has held more than a few US Open qualifiers, here. And, with its famous 18th along the picturesque sandstone cliffs, there are no more spectacular or scenic closing holes in Northern California.
The 18th provides the perfect climax to a quintet of demanding final holes that can make or break a round. The par-5, 458-571 yard, 15th, doglegs left around a lake to a semi-cape style green. It requires three good shots, or two bold ones.
The 255-410 yard, par-4, 16th, requires a good drive followed by a do-or-die, dramatic approach across a steep ravine, to a wide, but shallow, green that cants, severely, from back to front. You will want an uphill putt, but the closer the pin sets to the front, the more risky your shot, especially if it spins.
The 121-167 yard, par-3, 17th is simple on paper, but wind can play havoc with the shot. After sixteen parkland holes, the treeless 17th, with its four large bunkers surrounding the green, brings a player into his first contact with the ocean.
The 345-405 yard, par-4, 18th, as hinted, is worth the price of admission, and one of the world's most photographed holes. It plays downhill to a challenging, diagonal, meandering, deep creek running across the fairway, and then up to a green beneath the Ritz Carlton's back patio and bar, which almost always guarantees the presence of a large benevolent gallery. In order to properly execute this hole, most players will hit a play a fairway metal or hybrid to the left side of the fairway.
It makes one of the game's great pars, and an exceptional birdie.