Saturday, February 2, 2013

Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay – true links golf on The Ocean Course

Photo courtesy The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay

The Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links is the newer, companion course to the resort’s Arnold Palmer/Francis Duane-designed Old Course. The Old Course, as described in Part II of this series, is a traditional American Parkland-style layout, while the Arthur Hill-designed Ocean Course, its companion to the south, is a classic links layout. It is rare to find two courses as different from each other as these two are in the same resort; the variety they represent, combined in one location, is a real treat.

The Ocean Course is situated on a parcel of typical Central California coastal shelf land – a narrow, intermittent strip of rolling, flattish coastal plain lying between the Pacific Ocean and the rugged Coast Range hills – terrain which, in places, does a fair imitation of Scottish links land. If you have never played true links golf before, a round on the Ocean Course is the next best thing to boarding a flight to Scotland.

The view from the first tee gives you a hint of what you are in for, as the first fairway rolls away from the tee in subtle undulations of close-cropped grass, but as you ride out to your well-struck drive from the first tee (or walk – unlike The Old Course, carts are not required on the Ocean Course) the view opens up before you, and a good three-quarters of the course spreads out before your eyes.

The 1st and 18th holes of the Ocean Course are separated from the remainder of the layout by a tree-lined creek bed which forms the northern border of the area containing everything from the 2nd green through the 18th tee. As seen from the 1st hole, generously-sized fairways blend smoothly into the greens, in true links fashion, with between-hole waste areas covered in native grasses defining the playing areas. It’s a splendid sight.

With the exception of the four par-3 holes, a low, running approach to the green is nearly always a viable option on this course; and even at that, the 9th hole, a 182-yard par-3 which plays directly into the prevailing wind, has a runup area which will come in handy if a sudden gust knocks your tee shot down short of the green. I played Ocean on a calm morning, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how the exposed layout would be affected by the wind – if the breeze off the ocean kicks up during your round, you will want to have that low shot in your bag.

The open, inviting fairways ensure that only truly errant tee shots will miss the short grass, and when the wind is down, a wide-open layout like the Ocean Course may appear to be defenseless against the onslaught of titanium drivers and modern, multi-layer golf balls (
as the old Scots saying goes – “Nae wind, nae gowf.”). But the Ocean Course, like all classic links courses, has a second line of defense – the greens.

Well-contoured, and guarded by bunkers and mounding, the greens at the Ocean Course are true tests of not only your putting, but your approach shots. A well-laid approach shot – one that lands on the same tier or on the same side of a ridge as the hole – will leave you with a make-able putt. Land your approach on a different tier or on the opposite side of a ridge from the hole, however, and the resulting uphill or downhill putt, or roller-coaster ride over the ridge, will place your possible birdie, or “sure-fire” par in doubt.

The delights of the playing qualities of The Ocean Course are matched by the visual delights of the scenery that greets you as you move through your round.

Ocean vistas await you at #2 green, #15 green and all along the dramatic cliffside routing of holes 16, 17 and 18. The inner part of the course – the parallel-running hole pairs of 4 and 5, 6 and 13, where the fairways blend together and the paired holes share clusters of fairway bunkers, as well as holes 10, 14 and 15 – is the most classically links-style landscape on the course, immersing you in rolling grassland vistas from which the ocean is sensed, but not always seen.

The farthest reaches of the course – holes 7 through 9, and 11 and 12 – bring you close to the uplands that rise up to meet the Coast Range hills just across Highway 1; the stands of eucalyptus trees and waving native grasses lining the fairways are reminiscent of a classic plein-air landscape; a painter standing before an easel, brush and palette in hand, would not look out of place on this part of the course.

Some of the most compelling views on the Ocean Course, however, are glimpsed when viewing conditions are not necessarily the best. A few of the holes that run back toward the north – most notably #5, #13 and #16 – offer glimpses of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel complex in the distance, and when a grey Pacific overcast flattens the light and the ocean mist softens long views, the classic shingle-side styling of the hotel, with its multiple eaves and earth-toned colors, blurs into a vision of a distant Scottish castle. Add the faint skirling tones of the sunset piper who plays each evening on the outside terrace at the hotel, and a golfer on the Ocean Course might feel as if they have been transported 5,000 miles across land and sea to the ancient links where the game was first played.

Inviting to the beginner and mid-handicapper, yet capable of presenting a formidable test to the top amateur and professional golfers who have contested LPGA championships and U.S Open qualifiers over its classic Old World landscape, The Ocean Course is one of the Central California coast’s must-play golf experience for both residents and visitors alike. Combine rounds on The Ocean Course and The Old Course over a weekend, or longer, stay, and you will experience the best of two classic styles of golf in one convenient location.

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