Experiencing golden moments in Southern California

Barona Creek Golf Club in Lakeside, Calif.

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- A while back, ESPN anchor Mike Tirico was calling an NFL game from San Diego when he became swept up in an apparent moment of euphoria as he considered his surroundings. “Why doesn’t everybody live here?” Tirico blurted out in a spontaneous expression of affection for the scenic, famously temperate region. Who hasn’t had a similar experience, particularly when cruising the Pacific Coast Highway through beach towns such as Del Mar and Dana Point on yet another sun-drenched afternoon?

The answer to Tirico’s question, as Phil Mickelson surely could explain, is that it costs so blasted much. Over the past two decades, The Wall Street Journal reported last year, roughly 4 million more residents have left the state than have moved there. California, here I come? Well, not so much.

But if you can’t live there, perhaps that only serves to make the occasional visits toSouthern California all the more appealing.The dependable daily forecast – sunny and 75 degrees – is ideal for vacations, but wouldn’t waking up in Pleasantville 300-plus days per year get a bit tedious? No? OK, perhaps not. But for those of us who muddle through in the real world, those too-infrequent visits to California never fail to remind us why demographer Joel Kotkin described the Golden State as “God’s best moment.”

In deference to Tirico and all of those who still look at California and see the best of America, we give you a few moments from a recent trip that started in San Diego and ended a bit south of Los Angeles.

• Shawn Cox, director of golf at The Grand Del Mar just north of San Diego, is walking briskly around a practice green, giving a visitor an impromptu putting lesson. The resort’s name is appropriately auspicious. In this affluent region, it’s perhaps not surprising that The Grand has a AAA Five Diamond rating; what is rare is that its Addison restaurant separately secured the same status. (“World-class” is how one envious local described Addison to a visitor.) In a state where land is more precious than a double eagle, The Grand has an expansive, secluded feel, in part because it borders the 4,000-acre Los Peñasquitos Canyon.

The canyon serves as a natural hazard for The Grand Golf Club, a Tom Fazio design. The approach to the fourth hole, where the green dangles on the edge of the canyon, is an attention-getter, as is the subsequent tee shot on the fifth, with a landing area that looks skinnier than a supermodel. It’s unlikely there’s a more uncomfortable par 3 in the San Diego area than the 17th, with a stream cutting diagonally along the length of the hole. But on the whole, there is plenty of width, as the course sits on 378 acres, roughly twice the land used for a typical layout.

Cox still teaches regularly, and it’s evident that The Grand’s commitment to instruction flows from the top down. Nearby, three of the area’s top juniors are beating balls on the back of the range, while Derek Uyeda, the Southern California PGA Section’s 2009 Teacher of the Year, reviews video with a student. Phil Rodgers also is on staff, and Dave Pelz drops in regularly for a short-game school. An onsite custom club-fitter attends to the needs of the club’s 175 members and resort guests.

“When I saw this place, I knew this is where we needed to be,” says short-game instructor Dave Stockton Jr., who also makes The Grand his home base when he’s not teaching in Palm Springs.

That night, the waitress at Addisonarrives bearing a question from chef William Bradley: Would we prefer the six-course dinner or the eight-course lollapalooza?

If six is good, we reasoned that eight must be better. Besides, who were we to deny Bradley, whose boyish looks belie his showman’s flair, the chance to entertain us?

• It’s unlikely that many teachers deliver more “aha” moments per lesson than Glenn Deck, who occupies one of golf’s loveliest offices – on a hill at the back of the practice range at The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast.

Deck has the quiet, unassuming manner of a country doctor. On this day, he studied a perpetually troubled student slapping at wedges, then illustrated a couple of flaws on video. Deck often talks in questions: You get the club back here (too far around the body) and what happens? Student: I come over the top. Deck: Right. And where does the ball go? Student: Dead left. Deck nodded sagely; his hapless pupil was learning. Deck demonstrated three simple drills, then sent the student on his way with that rare commodity we all want from a teacher: optimism.

Pelican Hill and The Grand Del Mar are natural rivals: Each opened in the late 2000s, Pelican Hill has two Fazio layouts, and each holds Five Diamond status. (In case it’s not evident, this affluent region is lousy with uber-luxe properties.) The Grand and Pelican Hill also have a knack for delivering luxury without crossing the threshold into stuffiness.

One day last month, spoiled local weathermen were fretting about “arctic” conditions as temperatures plunged into the high 40s. On the flip side, it was one of those rare days when Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands – the latter is some 60 miles off the coast – were plainly visible, making some of the long views from Pelican Hill’s elevated tees all the more spectacular.

Far less obvious to infrequent visitorsis the secret to putting Pelican Hill’s greens; the elevation and the ocean put a premium on local knowledge. On this day, the forecaddie would earn his pay.

• Patrick Roper, head professional at Aviara Golf Club, tapped the eighth green as he walked off with a disappointing par after reaching the risk-reward par 5, which is fronted by a stream, in two. “This will be the key for the ladies,” he said, referring to the Poa annua greens.

“The ladies” would be the LPGA, which next month is bringing the itinerant Kia Classic to Aviara. For many golf fans, that will be their first look at the Park Hyatt Resort, another (ho-hum) Five Diamond property. Located in Carlsbad, the capital of the golf equipment industry, Aviara has a TaylorMade Performance Lab on the back of the practice range.

That eighth hole is part of the layout’s best stretch. It begins with a pair of uphill holes that are resistant to scoring – the par-5 fifth and par-3 sixth – counterbalanced by some really fun birdie opportunities on Nos. 7-9.

• You’re standing on the third tee at Monarch Beach Golf Links in Dana Point, and frankly, the last thing you want to do is hit your drive.

It’s not a difficult shot; the short par 4 is reachable for many, and there’s ample room to lay up. But what’s the rush? You’ve heard of an infinity green? This is an infinity hole: The backdrop of this dogleg left is a panorama of the Pacific.

Sixteen of Monarch Beach’s holes play on the inland side of the Pacific Coast Highway, along a perfectly pleasant routing. But the third? Well, that one is pure Southern California eye candy.

The St. Regis (yes, it also holds AAA’s highest rating) was rocking the previous night. The staff and guests, 800 strong, had their Christmas party, which wouldn’t be noteworthy except that it came nine days after Christmas because business had been so brisk.

The scenic setting is a major reason the St. Regis attracted 115 weddings in 2012. The combination of upscale accommodations, 100,000 square feet of meeting space and golf also makes it a popular destination for business groups.

• It’s high noon on a brilliant Saturday afternoon in Lakeside, and the rugged landscape at Barona Creek Golf Club could have served as the setting for an old-style Western movie. The course rests in a valley surrounded by rocky hills that exert more influence on putts than one might expect. The Western theme is accentuated by native grasses and large, rough-hewn bunkering.

The course is busy, and it’s not just populated with high-handicap resort guests getting in a round before returning to the blackjack tables at Barona’s casino. A quick survey suggests there are a lot of serious sticks on the range and practice green.

Barona Creek, about 20 miles northeast of San Diego, has been a fixture on the list of Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in California, and currently sits at No. 5.

That ranking seems to be supported anecdotally: During an eight-day Southern California tour, no course drew more effusive praise from locals than Barona Creek.

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