Road Holes — 22 September 2014 by Bob Sherwin
Poppy Hills: A repolished treasure

MONTEREY, Ca. – When it comes to golf courses, renown golf architect Robert Trent Jones II believes a certain exulted status has been achieved by those on the Monterey Peninsula.

The beauty of these courses, he believes, is in the eye of the beholder of the driver.

“I would describe Pebble Beach as the Vatican of golf. It is where the Pope lives,” said Jones, whose company has designed more than 270 courses worldwide. “By that I mean the Vatican has extraordinary art treasures. It has the Sistine Chapel at Cypress Point. It has Bernini Statues at Spyglass Hills. It has the Great Colonnade at Pebble Beach. It even has a forest sanctuary at Poppy Hills.

“So you choose which piece of art you want, Rembrandt, Bernini, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, they’re all right where you are. So there should be no comparison among them. They’re all great pieces of golf art.”

Poppy Hills, one of those venerable Monterey art treasures, has earned the right for another appraisal. The woodlands layout just off Seventeen-Mile Drive has been updated and enhanced by the same artist who did the original, Robert Trent Jones II’s company. It opened in 1986 under the operation of the Northern California Golf Association.

After a recent 13-month shutdown to restore, revive and reorient the course, it reopened on April 4 this year. It sparkles brightly among these brilliant jewels.

“We did that in the 1980s so it was a period piece,”  Jones said. “At that point, the golf magazines, and Jack Nicklaus in particular, were asking for harder and harder courses. Target courses. Hit it to greens surrounded by various hazards, bunkers, water.”

What the designers did back then, Jones chief among them, was create challenging courses. They were praised for their difficulty, used for professional events and lauded for staying true to the essence of the game. The unintended consequence, however, was the game that consistently lost its patrons. The vast majority of golfers just aren’t that good and the courses were just too hard. They didn’t want to continue to play courses that did not give them enough opportunities for birdies or enjoyment.

“People are leaving the game,” Jones said. “Players are getting older and want encouragement. The youth, women, we want to appeal to all of them.”

The reason for Poppy’s renovation was primarily driven by the need for water conservation. California has been endured a sustained drought and water bills for golf courses can be enormous. This new design has been able to shave about 25 percent off the water usage.

But as the project developed, it became more than just about saving water. The project, which cost between $12 million and $13 million, was about saving par and shaving time on the course. It was about restoring fun to the game.

“It was a chance to retool, recreate,” said Bruce Charlton, RTJ’s chief design executive. He is the big guy’s right-hand man. “We thought it was an opportunity for more fun, to get people around a little faster while sustaining firm-and-fast wide fairways.”

A 5 1/2-inch topping of sand was applied to the course for better drainage and to maintain a fast surface. Greens were replanted with bent grass.

The fairways are wider, or at least give that appearance compared to the previous design. The fescue rough on the edges of the fairways has been removed. Much of it has been replaced by fairway grass right to the tree line or waste areas that feature wood chips, pine straw or sand that Charlton calls NSAs – natural sandy areas.

The NSAs accomplish several things. They reduce the grasses that need to be watered, thus reducing the water bills. Course pro Brad Shupe said about 20 acres of turf was taken out. He said that could save about $600,000 to $700,000 a year in water costs.

Without the rough, play picks up because golfers won’t be spending 10 minutes foraging through the thick grasses looking for errant shots.

The idea for the roughless fairways is a direct result of how Jones conceived one of his most prized designs, Chambers Bay, a links course in Tacoma, Wa. Chambers, just 7-years-old, already has hosted the 2010 U.S. Amateur and will host the 2015 U.S. Open, the first ‘Major’ for a Jones-designed course.

“No rough at all. That’s what we learned  from Chambers that we applied to Poppy,” Jones said. “And we have the roughless fairways very wide and we have the kicker hills. So you have many different ways to play it. You don’t have to go directly at the hole, very much in the tradition of the game when the ball didn’t go very far.”

Thinking your way around also comes into play. You can’t just blast stingers because balls can run out into waste areas, bunkers or the trees. You have to have a plan for every shot, how far you can roll and what section of a hole gives you the best opportunity.

In many places along the fairways, the slopes were reduced and shaped to provide better routes to the greens. As Jones would say, “we popped the hills.” This allows for another way to reach greens in regulation, by using the terrain in a links-style fashion to advance the ball. Of course, aerial accuracy still works.

The greens also have been somewhat leveled to the point that all of them can handle as many as 10 tee positions, offering regulars plenty of variety and varying challenges.

How they did that to the greens was to invite a company called EZLocator to give the course some precision slope measurements (one of Jones’ trademarks is ample-sized greens). Through a series of strategically placed devices that rotate around to provide measurements to the centimeter, the company was able to show how the greens could be shaped for various hole locations.

So what you get at Poppy Hills is a course that looks like Pinehurst No. 2, seen by millions this summer during TV coverage of the U.S. Open. Pinehurst, which also recently underwent a similar renovation, eliminated much of the long rough and has shorter grass and NSAs stretched to the fairway edges.

Jones doesn’t go with that.

“Pinehurst No. 2 is very flat. The fairways are dead level, the greens are rounded and humped,” Jones said. “It may have the look of Pinehurst but in terms playability, it’s nothing like Pinehurst. It’s more like Pine Valley in New Jersey.

“Poppy Hills, by definition, is a three dimensional golf course, it’s going up and down with quite strong contours. If it was inspired by anything it was Pine Valley. And since I’m a Jersey boy, I’m not going to give any notice to North Carolina.”

Charlton keeps it simple.

“It’s been compared to Augusta National,” he said.

Among the more dramatic changes in the new Poppy is the stretch from No. 9 through No. 12.

The par-5 ninth has a dry creek in front that must be negotiated

The par-5 ninth has a dry creek in front that must be negotiated

A creek, dry most of the year, was revitalized in front of the par-5, 535-yard ninth hole. It will now give pause to the golfer trying to reach the green from distance.

The subsequent par-5, the 527-yard 10th hole, “has the only water hole on the course and we put it up the hill (near the green) like No. 15 at Augusta,” Jones said.

His team reversed the par-3 11th hole. Instead of the tee behind the 10th green shooting north. The tee is now a short walk where the green used to be. It’s a 161-yard shot to a slopey green guarded by bunkers, NSAs and a thick forest to the right.

By reversing the 11th, Jones’ team was able to convert a previous dogleg par-5 into a arrow straight 421-yard par-4. That dropped the par to 71, a measure of 7,002 yards from the back tees, a gain of 139 yards.

The par-3 11th green is surrounded by trouble

The par-3 11th green is surrounded by trouble

“For everyone who comes on a pilgrimage to Pebble, once they get there they hear the buzz around town,” Charlton said. “You got to play Poppy.’

“It’s fun to watch their faces and their reaction to how much bigger and wider the course feels.  Poppy still has all the hills, but it got wider.”

Poppy also is one of the best deals on the Peninsula. While you’re going to pay more than $400 and $500 – in addition to a required two-night hotel stay – to play Pebble or Spyglass Hills, you can get on Poppy for $210. If you become a NCGA member, the green fees drop to just $70 during the week and $90 on the weekend.

“It’s the best zip code for American golf,” Jones added. “So many good courses there in one location. You can pick and choose. They are very different. They are reflections of the architect and the land in which they are located.”

And who knows, maybe you’ll run into the Pope looking for a game.

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Bob Sherwin

Bob grew up in Cleveland, an underdog city with perennial underdog teams, and that gave him an appreciation and an affinity for the grinders in golf, guys such as Rocco Mediate, Jhonattan Vegas and star-crossed John Daly. This is the 44th year for Bob as a sportswriter, the first 34 working for newspapers throughout the west, Tucson (Daily Star), San Francisco (Examiner) and Seattle (Times), and the past 10 years as a freelancer. He has covered just about every sport, including golf tournaments, Tucson Open, Bing Crosby/AT&T Pro-Am, the 1998 PGA Championship, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open, the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the annual Champions Tour Boeing Classic. He also writes articles for golf magazines. For most of his 20 years at the Seattle Times his primary beat was the Mariners. He then picked up Washington men's basketball in the winter. He also was the beat writer for the Sonics, including 1996 when they played the Bulls for the NBA title. After a lifetime hacking on public courses, he finally gave in and joined a country club in 2011, the Members Club of Aldarra near Seattle. He won't win the club championship any time soon with his 14 handicap and default-swing slice but he does have a pair of aces – 37 years apart – and in 2009 came agonizingly close to his ultimate golf goal of scoring in the 70s when he finished with an even 80. He lives in Seattle, and spends part of his winters in Marco Island, Fla.

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