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Poppy Hills Redesigned: A Pebble Beach, California Course Review
21 Mar 2014
by Pete Wlodkowski of amateurgolf.com

see also: Poppy Hills Golf Course, All Course Reviews

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-- AmateurGolf.com photo
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- It's official. Poppy Hills Golf Course has just stolen the title of "best golf value on the Monterey Peninsula" from Pacific Grove Golf Links.

Blasphemy? No way.

While "Poppy" has always offered NCGA (Northern California Golf Association) and SCGA (Southern California G.A.) members sub $100 golf, the layout wasn't the fan favorite that nearby Spyglass (expensive) or Pacific Grove (under $50) have always been. The layout was a bit quirky in places, but it was the "tough comps" nearby that caused a harsher criticism than if Poppy was located almost anywhere else.

Poppy Hills' architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr., who also handled the redesign, acknowledged as much during a media presentation on opening day, saying the exclusive golf zip code forced everyone to step up their games.

And did they ever.

Before I get into a few of the changes and modifications, here's a bit of background. The NCGA has 150,000 members and was the first to have its own golf course (Spyglass, now part of Pebble Beach). They run an amazing tournament program that includes the most extensive list of affiliated (points) events in the country. Win player-of-the year in Northern California, and you've really accomplished something. The NCGA's championships are split between Spyglass, Poppy Hills, and other member clubs. That's quite a carrot when trying to qualify for the Four-Ball -- long played at Spyglass. Indeed, a chance to become intimate with a course they might not be able to afford otherwise.

At Poppy, the same beautiful Del Monte Forest setting still provides the backdrop, with the same deer roaming freely around the fairways. Quite frankly, I've always been surprised that Poppy Hills was a bit of an 'outsider'. Back to those tough comps I guess. Now that I've played it, I can tell you this -- the tee sheet is going to be full for a long while so get on it ASAP and if you're not a member of the NCGA, let us know and we will set you up. One round will pay for the membership.

PROJECT GOALS

Redesigning a course, according to Jones, is like "renewing your vows." That pretty much sums up Jones' feeling about Poppy Hills. (The name came from an NCGA member contest, by the way.)

At the top of the list of goals was saving California's most coveted resource.

"It's all about water conservation," says Jones' associate Bruce Charlton, matter-of-factly. The team relied on a high tech system from Toro to pinpoint water usage on the property and important statistics like salinity.

Another goal -- make it fun. "Firm. Fast. Fun." is the new mantra, embroidered on the commemorative opening day cap. The fairways are easy to hit if you play the right tees, and the ground game has been brought into play with the closely-mown areas and slopes around the greens. Like Bandon Dunes? You'll love Poppy. Don't worry -- there's plenty of challenge; try playing the 5th hole from the back tee for starters.  I hit a pretty solid drive and still had 200 yards left. Thankfully, the pond on the right that has stolen too many of my balls was removed.

The opener is still a nervous starter where the "steering committee" tends to grab a hold of the club at the top if you're not careful -- a hazard runs down the right side and as firm as Poppy now plays, there isn't much to stop a slice. On the par-5 9th hole, the second shot requires much more thought due to the stream that was exposed as part of the redesign. NCGA Executive Director Vaughn Kezirian told me it was always there, they just needed to expose it. He also told me that for his staff, not being able to play golf on the course outside their office window (hey, are they hiring?) was something akin to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Suffice to say, the cure is at hand and the best employee perk of any golf association just got better.

THE BIGGEST HOLE CHANGES - The 11th and 12th

Jones said that the 90-degree dogleg left 12th (a par 5) was constricted by a number of environmental issues when the course was built, as well as the desire to have a par of 72. Now, the 12th is a straightaway par 4 with a dramatic view of the Monterey Bay from the elevated tee. It's probably a three wood shot for many top players, as the O.B. stakes on the right still loom large. The 11th is still a par 3 but has been totally redesigned to accommodate the new 12th. It's awesome - I can hit my draw on the left front and have the big slope funnel it back to the middle of the green. The closing holes are as strong as ever. The tall Monterey Pine guarding the second shot shortcut to the green on the par 5 18th is a shotmaker's delight. And who doesn't like ending off with a par 5?

FINAL THOUGHTS

There isn't much I don't like about the new Poppy Hills. If I had to pick one thing, it would be the amount of wood chips used to fill in the non-planted areas - but usually if you're in there, you deserve it. Over time those wood chips will soften up and get filled in with pine straw and brush.

Poppy Hills really fires on all cylinders and is sure to get you pumped up to play golf from the minute you put a peg in the ground or hit balls on the practice range. And it's walkable - which always makes for a great twilight round.

From the big picture issues like environmental sustainability to the playability, fun, and even the wooden rakes, flagsticks, and tee markers, the Poppy Hills redesign was extremely well thought out. I believe it was worth every penny of the $7 million invested by the NCGA. This is a course that their members, visitors, and the Champions Tour (coming to Poppy for the Nature Valley First Tee Open in September) will immediately enjoy. I suggest you join the NCGA as soon as possible by becoming part of AmateurGolf.com’s NCGA Associate Club.

View our Poppy Hills 2014 Photo Gallery from Opening Day.

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