Barona Creek ranks among America's best courses

The elements of a fine golf course design don’t emerge suddenly; they evolve, and only during repeated site visits and reworking of the original plan. Daily-fee golfers at Barona Creek Golf Club, 25 miles northeast of downtown San Diego, can be excused for thinking that the daily-fee/resort course they play earned its ranking of No. 82 on Golfweek’s America’s Best Modern Courses list thanks to its native site features. But the design team that created the course in the late 1990s knows better.

Veteran architect Gary Roger Baird had some concerns when he first visited the large valley that the Barona Band of Mission Indians had destined for a casino and golf resort.

“I like to see gently undulating terrain,” Baird said. “But that was lacking. What we did see was a lot of exposed rock and good, mature oak trees. But I knew it would not be easy fitting holes into a long, gentle slope that didn’t have interior contours. It was a big canvas to fill.”

The 240-acre parcel of the Barona Valley offered dramatic long views and plenty of slope – almost 200 feet along its northeast to southwest axis.

A creek bed ran down part of the land, and this would ultimately be enhanced to provide lateral strategy on a half-dozen holes. The key was to alter the directions of the holes so that golfers didn’t feel they were either slogging steeply uphill or downhill.

Baird is quick to share credit for the success of the design with his associate at the time, Todd Eckenrode. A former golfer at the University of Arizona and the University of California, Santa Barbara, Eckenrode has qualified for several U.S. Amateurs and British Amateurs and was medalist at the 1998 U.S. Amateur Public Links – the latter while he was working on Barona Creek. The course opened in 2000, by which time Eckenrode had started his own design firm, Origins Golf Design in Irvine, Calif. He’s heavily influenced by the deep, artfully sculpted California bunker style of Alister Mackenzie and George C. Thomas Jr. and stamped every hole at Barona with it.

Baird and Eckenrode acknowledge the crucial support provided by Barona chairman Clifford LaChappa, who allowed for considerable field adjustment of the design and who has since become an avid golfer.

Too bad the same design sensitivities didn’t go into the monolithic resort building that looms over the lower-lying south side of the property and is in view when playing more than half of the holes. It looks like a hybrid of Disneyland and Soviet brutalism and is wildly out of sorts with the course.

One other setback, though a temporary one, was suffered in late October 2003, when canyon fires raced into the valley and threatened to engulf the course. The irrigation system prevented direct damage to the course and to the casino grounds, but the native roughs and hillsides (mainly covered with California chaparral) were seared. In due time, the grasses will grow back.

With five sets of tees, ranging from 5,296 to 7,088 yards, the par-72 Barona Creek course offers resort guests and daily-fee golfers impressive flexibility. Not that forced carries over hazards are an issue here; all of the trouble is arrayed diagonally, so that anybody can play this course without directly courting trouble.

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