Unless we’re talking about a fine red wine, not many things get better with age by sitting idol, particularly golf courses. It takes hard work, innovation and a willingness to not only maintain, but improve over time. This is why many courses actually get worse, whether it’s from overgrowth, complacency, or even evolving public perception as to what a “good” course is. Poppy Hills Golf Course, located along famed 17-mile drive in Pebble Beach, California, was a course that made a commitment to be better.
Originally constructed in 1986 by the Northern California Golf Association, Poppy Hills was born in an era when the more punishing a course was, the better. It’s the youngest course within the Pebble Beach area code, and although it was part of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am rotation from 1991 – 2009, it never seemed to live up to the other courses in it’s neighborhood. The Robert Trent Jones Jr. design featured narrow fairways, long rough, water hazards, and dense forest which proved tough enough to challenge the best in the world, and could be downright punishing for the public.
Well, times are a changin’. Water is becoming more precious. Cosmetic ideals of a golf course are evolving. The measure of a golf course isn’t how brutally hard it is, but how fun and interesting it can be while still challenging all skill levels. Width, options, strategy, and environmental stewardship are trademarks of the courses gaining in popularity.
When Robert Trent Jones Jr. got a second crack at Poppy Hills, he took advantage of the opportunity. A $10 million renovation later in 2014, and Poppy Hills is now batting in the same league as many of it’s iconic neighbors.
A big reason for the renovation was water conservation. The took out the lush rough and introduced native waste areas, just like the one shown above in front of the first tee box. Why would you need to have grass there, anyway? Plus, it looks pretty damn cool. These native waste areas have reduced irrigated turf by about 25 acres.
The removal of rough and widening of fairways, coupled with more efficient watering techniques promotes a golf course that typically plays firmer and faster.
From the moment I arrived at Poppy, the beautifully expansive property gave me a feeling that I was embarking on something special. By the time I was halfway down the first hole, I was literally giddy. All I could think about was how fun and interesting the course felt, and I’m not just saying that because I ended up making birdie out of the gates (signature humble brag).
I love the reversal of the 9’s that they recently implemented. If you’re not having fun after a reachable par-5 and short par-3 start, then you only have yourself to blame. Even though I blasted it over the 2nd green into a waste area, chipped on and three-putted for double, I was in love with the concept of the new Poppy.
The course is carved out of the beautiful Del Monte forest, which gives it a unique feel, but holes lined by forest is not what drives the challenge of this golf course. The playing corridors are plenty wide, and even if you do blast one in the forest, it is kept tidy so you can find your ball and play some kind of recovery shot. While you may need a bit of luck to find a good line out of the trees, there is no thick underbrush or low lying branches to impede an attempt at a recovery shot.
There are a lot of ways to play and enjoy the golf course, whether you hit it high and soft or are just happy when you get the ball 10 feet off the ground. While a missed green can look relatively innocent at first, you can be left with some extremely delicate shots that require a lot of touch.
The collection of par 3’s are fantastic, and mostly short to medium in length, making them a lot of fun. The enormous green complexes may help your GIR stats, but the tiers, undulations, and tricky reads can be tough on your putting stats.
Something interesting we noticed about Poppy was how many greens actually slope away from you as you approach them from the fairway. On a couple occasions it made me look rather foolish as it didn’t always look obvious to me that they sloped away.
The new waste bunker areas not only help reduce the amount of turf needing water, but have also made the course more playable in some cases. The large bunker complex and waste area on the 14th hole, pictured below, apparently used to be a water hazard. Not only does this make the hole slightly more player friendly, but it also looks way cooler than most water hazards ever could.
The round ends on a very reachable, slightly quirky par-5.
Most players will be going for the 18th in two shots after a good drive, but there isn’t much space to lay up, if needed, with a severe left-to-right sloping fairway in the layup zone where all balls funnel down towards the hazard. I would probably play this hole better the second time around.
The kicker at Poppy is how much value you get relative to the other extremely expensive courses in the area. For a course that’s as good or better than some of their pricey neighbors, NCGA members can play for as little as $80, and the general public can usually play for $150 or less if you’re flexible and look around for deals.
Poppy Hills checked all of my boxes for a great golf experience. The property was outstanding, perched way up in the Del Monte forest with distant ocean views through the tree tops. The staff were down to earth, welcoming and extremely friendly. The facilities were top notch and, most importantly, the golf course was fun, walkable, interesting, challenging, and approachable.
I have now played nearly all of the public courses on the Monterey Pensinsula and Poppy Hills would, without hesitation, be one of the first places I would send someone looking for recommendations on where to play. I am almost embarrassed that it took us multiple trips to the area to finally tee it up here, especially considering how quickly I fell in love with it.
It’s safe to say that Poppy Hills will be a staple in all future Monterey trip golf itineraries. A lot of golf courses could learn from the work they’ve done here.
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