Ron Agostini

April 8, 2014

Agostini: Renovated Poppy Hills on par with vaunted neighbor golf courses

Poppy Hills, the flagship course of the Northern California Golf Association, has reopened after a 13-month overhaul. It’s better in every way.

Poppy Hills’ biggest problem over the years always was its ZIP code.

It’s located in the “93953,” hallowed numbers in the game of golf. Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill, Cypress Point, Spanish Bay and Monterey Peninsula Country Club are located there along 17-Mile Drive. Poppy Hills, opened in 1986, couldn’t have matched up with his neighbors because it was simply impossible.

That thankless fact always has worked against Poppy Hills, the flagship course of the Northern California Golf Association and its membership of more than 150,000. The pros, accustomed to the scenic majesty of Pebble and Spyglass, criticized Poppy during its run in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am from 1991 to 2009.

Everyone from Tiger Woods to Phil Mickelson to Hale Irwin ripped the property for its soft fairways and greens, awkward doglegs and hard edges. Golfers praised AT&T’s switch from Poppy to the remodeled Shore course at Monterey CC, another hit to Poppy’s pride.

Which brings us to some good news about Poppy, which reopened two weeks ago after an expansive 13-month overhaul. Not only is the Robert Trent Jones Jr. design back in business, it’s receiving rave reviews. If you have been deemed born-again “relevant” with Pebble Beach not far away, you have passed a major test.

“It’s player-friendly now,” said Ripon’s Gary Fox, a member of the NCGA’s board of directors. “Firm, fast and fun are the buzz-words.”

Jones was given a re-do of Poppy and, according to most observers, delivered a refreshing and improved product. Even the redone clubhouse, pro shop and restaurant match the surroundings. Course-wise, the upgrades in design, maintenance and conditioning are stunning.

“It’s a renaissance more than a renovation,” Jones said. “It’s really a brand new golf course. The new conceptions have reinvigorated the golf course. They will bring the course back in all its glory.”

Three basic facts:

• Par has been reduced from 72 to 71.
• Yardage has been increased from 6,863 yards to 7,002 due to the addition of the new “Jones Trail” tees.
• Five sets of tees, an increase of one, lend more flexibility. It can play as short as 5,215 yards.

The routing hasn’t changed, with the exception of the par-3 11th. The direction of the hole was reversed.

One of the major changes happened at the par-4 12th, which used to be a much-chided right-angle par-5 around an environmentally protected area. Today, it’s a gorgeous straightaway par-4 featuring a wonderful view of Monterey Bay. The par-5 ninth still is reachable in two, but it’s guarded in front by a creek.

“The 12th went from one of the least favorite holes to maybe the signature hole,” Fox said.

It’s no surprise that much attention was given to water needs. Poppy Hills eliminated 20 acres of irrigated surface via the addition of sandy waste areas. The cost of water has jumped to about $8 per player per round, Fox noted, hence the budget-oriented change. A new approach was mandatory for an area where water is extremely precious.

The changes were not subtle. Ponds were filled. Between 115,000 and 120,000 cubic yards of dirt were moved, and some areas elevated or dropped by as much as 10 feet.

Here’s one of the best improvements: Poppy dropped some irrigated surface while adding about 60 acres of fairway size. Virtually all rough has been eliminated as the edges of the fairways transition easily into the bordering forests, not unlike Augusta National.

Another thing: Poppy treated its fairways with a process called “sand-capping,” an idea borrowed from Monterey Peninsula CC. The turf was stripped and 6 to 8 inches of sand was applied, resulting in a more dry, firm and playable course year-round. A state-of-the-art irrigation system will direct water in a more precise and efficient way. Drainage, always an issue at Poppy, should be dramatically improved.

All 18 greens were redone in bent grass. They’re flatter and, again, more playable than Jones’ often radical designs nearly three decades ago. Updated bunkering lends a more natural feel to the course.

The result is Poppy’s return to the same level of its nearby colleagues. Indeed, Poppy already will replace Del Monte on the rotation of the First Tee Open scheduled for Sept. 26-28. Yes, the Champions Tour pros will get a new look at the course they never much liked on the PGA Tour.

It’s all good, in fact, for Poppy Hills. The NCGA, the only regional golf association in the country to own two golf courses (the other is the 27-hole Poppy Ridge near Livermore), deserved a better facility. We’re also happy for people like Fox, NCGA President Brian Morse of Merced, Executive Director Vaughn Kezirian of Fresno and the longtime Poppy Hills superintendent Manny Sousa (he was raised near Los Banos).

All told, Poppy’s comeback shows that it again belongs in the 93953.

HOLE-IN-ONE – Ronald Kinchloe, Modesto, 127-yard 11th at Jack Tone Golf Ripon, 9-iron.

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