Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay – classic parkland golf on The Old Course

The dramatic closing hole of The Old Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links provides a picture-postcard finish to your round of golf on the Arnold Palmer-designed course.

Photo Credit: 
The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay

The Old Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links is a classic example of an American Parkland course set within an accompanying real estate development. It was designed and built in the early 1970s, a period in which golf course housing developments were very much the going thing, but you will find few courses of this type, from that period, which are so skillfully integrated into the landscape.

Winding between neighborhoods of handsome custom homes that back onto the fairways, the 6,610-yard (from the blues) par-72 Old Course gives an initial impression of being somewhat narrow, but the fairways are actually quite generous in size. Trees line the fairways in typical parkland-course style, sheltering golf shots from the ocean breezes and protecting the adjacent homes from errant golf shots.

Given its location on the coastal shelf that rises gently inland from the coast before leaping up to become the Coast Range hills, holes running east-west on The Old Course are either uphill or downhill to various degrees. The prevailing wind is off the coast, so your slope/wind mantra becomes “uphill/downwind; downhill/upwind”.

The Old Course opens with a longish, but not difficult, par-5, the course’s #13-handicap hole. At 529 yards from the blues and slightly uphill, Hole #1 is a gentle lead-in to your round. A good drive and second shot around the mild left-to-right double-dogleg will leave you with an uphill wedge shot to the moderately back-to-front sloping green. Overshooting the green on your approach will find you in light rough on uphill lies – prime real estate for those who are handy with a chip shot, but still tricky because the green is now sloping away.

The second hole on the Old Course will quicken your pulse a bit. Ranked #3 in difficulty, the 402-yard par-4 was one of the beneficiaries of the Arthur Hill remodeling work that took place on the front nine in 2000 – a major component of which was reshaping and repositioning bunkers, and eliminating bunkers that served no strategic purpose.

Hill’s rework of #2 repositioned a pair of bunkers on the left side of the fairway to pinch in the landing area, and though the effect appears negligible at first, their position ups the ante on your tee shot considerably. Shy to the right off the tee, as the bunkers encourage you to do, and you will find yourself with a less-than-ideal angle for your approach to the left-to-right-angled green. Take on the bunkers, which requires an uphill drive of considerable length, and you will be rewarded with a more comfortable approach to the green, and no complications from the left-front greenside bunker. It is a classic risk/reward par-4 of subtle but effective design.

The third hole is the first of The Old Course’s four par-3’s, and one of two in which water comes into play – #13 is the other. The water is more a visual than an actual hazard at #3, as even from the blues and the tips there is little carry over water, but it lies there on the left awaiting a pulled tee shot, and if the hole is cut well left a ball that overshoots the putting surface will find the pond where it curls around behind the left-hand lobe of the green. The remaining par-3’s on the course – numbers 7 and 17 – are dry, but both face west, into the prevailing wind; a breezy day will toughen your tee shot on these “one-shotters”.

The variety of the holes on The Old Course make for an entertaining and challenging round of golf. A couple of sharp dogleg par-4s on the front side – numbers 4 and 6 – will test your distance control off the tee, as you will want to lay a well-placed tee ball at the corner in order to leave yourself the best approach to the green. The par-5s test your mettle with more than just raw length: #5 is a left-swooping downhill run with bunkers guarding the inside of the corner and water right of the green; #10 is an uphill dogleg-right with an inviting first shot, but a strategically-placed bunker that turns your second into a risk-reward proposition; #15, the final par-5, is another left-trending downhill hole – it also presents an inviting tee shot, but water lines the left side of the fairway and pinches in to guard the left side of the green.

With all the variety and interesting challenges that holes 1 through 17 on the Old Course present, the big payoff of your round is the justly-famed 18th hole. Several holes on the upper section of the course offer glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, and at 17, the last par-3, the ocean bursts fully into view as the backdrop for the green, but it is 18, running alongside the cliffs back toward the hotel, that summons the full drama of the oceanside setting.

The Old Course’s 18th hole is a beauty at any time of day, but for my money, the westering sun that shines in your eyes for the tee shot at #17 turns the 18th hole into a picture postcard – illuminated by the the golden glow of the late-afternoon sun, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel provides a dramatic backdrop as you tee off on #18.

Sloping away downhill from the string of tee boxes behind the 17th green, the 18th’s main fairway terminates at an unassuming barranca which marks the low point of the course – and perhaps the low point of your round should you challenge it in an effort to reach the approach area below the green with an heroic carry. Legend has it that when Arnold Palmer was laying out this hole, he backed further and further up the bluff, hitting balls as he went, until even he couldn’t carry the barranca – and that’s where the back tees were placed.

Keep your tee shot left, away from that big blue lateral hazard to your right – the Pacific Ocean – and allow for the downhill carry, and maybe some roll, when you pull a club for this shot. Sharp play around the green at the 18th may be awarded with applause, especially in the late afternoon, as the green is overlooked by the common-area patio and lawn in the crook of the building, and a number of ground-level rooms with firepit patios facing the sunset. Hotel guests gathering for afternoon refreshments and a view of the setting sun will be your gallery as you close out your round on The Old Course.

A round of golf on the Old Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links is an experience that you will long remember (especially if you earn some applause at the 18th green…), and one that you will want to repeat. The quality and variety of the course, and the gracious and attentive treatment you receive from the staff, will tempt you back to the the Old Course again and again.

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