Poppy Hills: Third AT&T layout getting no respect

By David R. Holland, Contributor

No one's ever going to dispute the fact that some PGA Tour pros are a spoiled, pampered group of elite athletes.

So when you hear them bad-mouth a golf course, you can bet there's a pretty good chance why. It's too difficult. They have to work too hard to score well and they would prefer an easier five hours, like the treatment they get off the course on any given day on the tour.

Poppy Hills, the 6,833-yard, par-72 layout, is a Robert Trent Jones II design that opened in 1986 and is home to the Northern California Golf Association. It is the first course in the United States to be owned and operated by an amateur golf association and is the third course that's played during the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

It is a beautiful walk in the Del Monte Forest, where towering cypress and pines saturate salty breezes from the Pacific Ocean, and deer dash across lush fairways, just minutes from where world-famous Pebble Beach and Cypress Point grace the Monterey Peninsula, and Spanish Bay and Spyglass Hill thrill thousands of affluent golfers each year.

But perhaps the main reason Poppy Hills gets no respect from the pros, is that it replaced Cypress Point on the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am rotation in 1991. Cypress Point is one of the most revered courses in the world, even more famous than Pebble Beach, and an easier course to score on. It's also one of the most exclusive and cherished rounds of golf in the game's history -- a scenic layout skirting the rocky beaches of the Pacific Ocean designed by Alister MacKenzie in 1928. Bobby Jones visited during construction, tugged at MacKenzie's sleeve and said, "next I want you to come to Augusta, Georgia and design a course for me."

So that's the No. 1 reason pros don't like Poppy Hills. Next on the list? Over the past 13 years the scoring average of the tour pros has been higher on Poppy Hills -- except in 2004. Why this year's change? Tyler Jones, head pro, says one reason was Spyglass was set up more difficult this year -- with extreme pin placements for this tournament.

The pros say Poppy Hills has too many doglegs, the greens are too tricky with many swales and contours, and there are "goofy" holes. No. 9 is the most dissed -- it's a 555-yard par 5 that is a roller-coaster ride. A giant ravine swallows the right side, with a tiny sliver of fairway to the extreme left. Finding a target to hit where you don't have a downhill or side hill lie on the approach is paramount. For novices, anything hit weakly toward the green will just be gobbled up by the severity of the slope.

Common comments from the pros include "it just isn't a very good course." Another story comes from the last time Tiger Woods played it -- he was overheard making a sarcastic comment about how much he loved Poppy Hills, sporting that cat-like grin on his face, and a twinkle in his eye meaning his comment was actually cynical and flippant.

And there's Sports Illustrated, which surveyed a group of players about the worst courses on the PGA Tour. The good news is Poppy Hills wasn't deemed worst -- it came in third. Most hated course on tour was given to La Cantera, the hilly track in San Antonio.

But there is a tour pro who loves Poppy Hills. In 2001 he won the tournament and set the course record of 62. "I think it is a neat course," said Matt Gogel. "It's the balance of three different courses." Since Poppy Hills has five par 5s it is also a good place to score when you are playing well. ""If you need a good round, Poppy is the place to go low," he said. "And if the weather is miserable, Poppy's the course to be on." The Del Monte Forest will shelter some of the stiff ocean breezes.

The average hack knows from No. 1 that this is going to be a challenging day. It's a 413-yard par 4 that doglegs right and anything hit crooked will spell bogey or higher. It is a wicked beginning. The forest swallows many shots, but approaches from the fairway are no bargains either. Red stakes haunt the right side and bunkers flank the front of this two-tiered green. Too long? Suffer a fate in deep rough.

No. 18 is memorable, perhaps, because you see on TV during the early rounds of the tournament. It's only 500 yards and a par 5 for the pros, so eagles are registered here. The toughest part of the hole is the green. It has three tiers and anything far right is guarded by a skyscraper pine on the approach. And the green breaks a humongous amount left to right should you be left with a chip on the left side to the right pin placement.

The verdict

So what are the positives about Poppy Hills? Northern California Golf Association members get a reduced rate and even a break on golf shop merchandise. That means that many golfers who can't afford Pebble Beach, Spyglass or Spanish Bay can play in the famous forest and enjoy some of the same atmosphere and scenery. The Pacific Ocean does come into view several times during your trip around Poppy Hills.

I have never been one to shun a course just because it is difficult. I like the challenge. It would be a boring game if every course was easy. In fact, on this trip my lineup included other mean layouts like La Purisma and Bayonet. And I played Pebble Beach and Cypress Point on days when a stiff wind made them more challenging.

But thankfully, average golfers like Poppy Hills for the affordability and ambience. "I really like the course layout," said Dave Riney of Salinas. "It is protected somewhat from the wind due to the forest, but narrow fairways lined by trees demand good drives. The bunkers also make this a strong test of your game."

Bottom line? Poppy Hills demands bravery. How good are you? It's also an opportunity to play on the famous Monterey Peninsula and walk the fairways where the pampered pros walk. It is host to almost 60,000 rounds per year and carries a 2002 Golf Digest 4½-star rating.

Stay and play

Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa
400 Cannery Row, Monterey
(831) 646-1700

The premier hotel on Cannery Row, the Monterey Plaza has ocean views and award-winning luxury. Check out the web site for golf packages, including Bayonet and Black Horse. Dine in the hotel at The Duck Club or Schooners Bistro by the Bay.

Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Marina
189 Seaside Circle, Marina
(831) 884-2500 or (800) 228-7555

Sign up for golf packages to nearby Bayonet and Black Horse and enjoy comfortable rooms with data-port phones, in-room coffee, continental breakfast and welcome fresh-baked cookies. Marina is just minutes north of Monterey on Highway 1 with pristine beaches and towering sand dunes.

Marina Dunes Resort
3295 Dunes Drive, Marina
(831) 883-6478

Marina Dunes was the first oceanfront development approved by the California Coastal Commission in 24 years when it was planned in 1994. Churning surf is within sight and sound of your private building and deck. Pick a suite or a single room. The Resort includes spa services and AJ Spuds Restaurant, specializing in steaks, ribs, seafood and poultry. Marina is 10 minutes north of Monterey on Highway 1.

Dining out -- seafood anyone?

Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, Monterey, (831) 373-1884
Chart House, Monterey, (831) 372-3362 or (831) 372-3363
Fish Hopper, Monterey, (831) 372-8543
Monterey's Fish House, Monterey, (831) 373-4647
Sardine Factory, Monterey, (831) 373-3775
The Tap Room, Lodge at Pebble Beach, (800) 654-9300

Monterey highlights

History buffs will enjoy walking Monterey's Path of History, looking for landmarks like Custom House, Cooper-Molera Adobe, and The House of the Blue Gate just a few steps from Fisherman's Wharf. Ready for a hike? Jack's Peak is 2.5 miles east of Monterey, south of Highway 68. At 1,068 feet, the summit is the highest peak on the Monterey Peninsula. You can hike or ride horseback through the park's 525 acres, enjoying wildflower meadows, forests of oak and pine, and grasslands.

A self-guided nature trail offers panoramic views of Carmel Bay and Point Lobos. There are picnic areas with barbecues; dogs must be leashed. There are free entrance days. Call Monterey County Parks Administration at (831) 755-4899. Log on to gomonterey.org for more things to do.

Fast Fact

Who says this course is hard? Matt Gogel, winner of the 2001 AT&T, set Poppy Hills' course record with a remarkable 62. "The scenery is wooded and serene and I like that," Gogel said.

David R. HollandDavid R. Holland, Contributor

David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter @David_R_Holland.

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