Last Update :1/30/2006

January 27, 2006- Santa Maria Times

How many holes can we sustain?

By Vern Ahrendes

Even before most local golfers could test the South County’s first new golf course in a decade, the buzz has started about 27 more holes to come at Monarch Dunes — the 45-hole golf resort taking shape in the massive

Woodlands complex at Willow Road and Highway 1 in Nipomo — and Cypress Ridge’s request for nine more holes at its 18-hole complex near Mesa Middle School in rural Arroyo Grande. n How many more golf holes can this region support? The availability of resources, such as water, might be the only limiting factor, according to representatives of the area’s four golf resorts. n “Are there too many holes? That is a good question,” said Damian Pascuzzo of Graves & Pascuzzo, the co-designer and architect of Monarch Dunes’ first 18 holes. “I don’t have the definitive answer. You have to look forward 10 to 15 years. It will take that long to get these projects (Monarch’s next 18 holes and the addition at Cypress Ridge) built.” in The South County — with 80 holes now available at Monarch Dunes, Cypress Ridge, Blacklake,

Avila Beach and Pismo State Beach — could be the next golf mecca for baby boomers seeking a great golf getaway. Within 30 miles, two country clubs with 36 holes of play are available, and 82 more holes beckon in San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria and Morro Bay. “If you look at golf destinations like Myrtle Beach (South Carolina), they have hundreds of golf courses,” Pascuzzo said. “If you look at a place like Palm Springs, they are still building more golf courses there.”

Widen the scope, and at least another 80 holes are within reach from Paso Robles to Lompoc and Santa Ynez.

“Golf can be a valuable resource to San Luis Obispo County,” said Mike Brabenec, a Professional Golf Association member and director of golf operations for Avila Beach and Blacklake golf resorts.

Denis Sullivan, president of the Cypress Ridge Partnership, agreed.

“If Monarch Dunes proves to be as good as they say it is, it will attract more golf-oriented vacationers to the Central Coast, which is good for all of us,” Sullivan said. “If we get to be known as a golf destination, that is all the better.”

Sullivan added, “Right now, if you look at the opportunities for where people go to play golf, Pebble Beach and Carmel (are) probably the premiere spot(s) in the world for a collection of golf courses. If we are a stopping point for people on the way there, that is a good thing.”

Sullivan said most of the nonlocal play at his facility is from visitors from the San Joaquin Valley. If this region can begin tapping the Southern California market, it could be a great first step.

The arrival of Monarch Dunes, Brabenec believes, will be a boon for existing golf operators in the area and to ongoing regionwide efforts through the San Luis Obispo County Visitors and Conference Bureau’s Golf Trails Committee.

“In the 15 or 16 years I been around here, I’ve never seen all of the operations come together for a common goal,” Brabenec said. “In this business, you can go it alone, but you won’t succeed. Collectively, we will now have the economic buying power to help golf in this area to move forward.”

Brabenec added, “The nation will need to know that there are top-notch courses here.”

And the amenities the Central Coast offers will just add to the area’s allure, Pascuzzo said.

“I absolutely think this area will be the next great golf destination,” Pascuzzo said. “Geographically, it is an easy getaway from San Francisco or Los Angeles.”

He added, “And, think about it: Where would you rather go in June or July to play golf? In South Carolina, where it is 90 degrees out with 90-percent humidity, or the Central Coast?”

Add other attractions like wineries, Hearst Castle and the beach, and the Central Coast could reap big tourist dividends.

Monarch takes flight

The showcase of the national pitch for Central Coast golf could be Monarch Dunes.

It will be the region’s first “old-style” golf course.

Marketing and advertising material claims Monarch Dunes is a tribute to the origins and tradition of golf. Surrounded by windswept dunes and eucalyptus trees, it is reminiscent of the true links-style courses found in Scotland.

And it will be a true test for all skill levels.

The course layout ranges from a 4,702-yard, par-71 layout from the women’s tees to a whopping 6,810-yard, par-71 grinder from the tips. It offers three other tee boxes to fit the weekend hacker to the standout high school player.

“In designing the course, we wanted to be generous to the golfer in the fairways but make you work on the greens,” Pascuzzo said. “I had a couple of 25-handicappers playing with me last week and, with the exception of hitting one ball into (one of five lakes on the course), they didn’t lose any other balls.”

He added, “I still haven’t figured out some of the greens. It is impossible to know, at this point, which way some of the putts are going to break.”

Drama, danger, desire

In designing the layout, Pascuzzo said he tried to incorporate drama, danger and desire.

“They are the three Ds of effective golf-course design,” he said.

And there will be plenty of all three at Monarch Dunes.

“Those are the three qualities of a good golf hole,” he said.

In the rounds he’s played there in recent weeks, he has seen all sorts of manifestations of all three.

“We have plenty of hidden surprises for the golfer,” he said. “And all of those surprises aren’t bad. There are some places where a shot appears to be headed for trouble, but it will kick back into the middle of the fairway.

“In the last two rounds we have played there, we are starting to see those caroms, bounces and quirks — the rub of the green,” Pascuzzo said.

In particular, he remembers a tee shot on the downhill par-3 No. 8 hole.

“The flag was cut in the right-center of the green, and when this guy hit his tee shot, he thought he had hit it long and right,” he said. “That was the illusion. It rolled to within 6 feet of the flag. He was tickled pink and laughing. That is the emotional responses we are looking for.”

Still to come

The next milestone for Monarch Dunes will be its official opening in April. The driving range is not expected to open until then, either. So, if you go out to play the course, you might want to wander over to Blacklake to hit a bucket of balls to warm up.

“The driving range was the last thing we grassed in December,” Pascuzzo said. “The turf is just too young right now.”

As the year unfolds, work is expected to begin on the next nine holes, an executive layout that will have at least seven par-3 holes.

“We are in with the engineers designing the grading and drainage of the executive nine,” Pascuzzo said. “The routing is done.”

And like its older brother, the next nine holes will breaking new ground. It is expected to open in about 13 months.

“We are thinking of putting two holes on the oversized greens,” he said. “These greens will be 1 1/2 to 2 times the normal-sized greens. One section of the green will be well-defended (by bunkers and other natural hazards) and tougher to attack. The other half of the green will be more open and easily accessible.”

It is all designed to appeal to the widest spectrum of players, he said.

“The better golfers can go for the tougher hole locations,” he said. “The beginners can just try to hit the other half of the green.”

The next nine holes at Cypress Ridge also will be an executive layout, featuring shorter holes than can be played in a fraction of time it takes to play a full nine holes.

“We have to go through another county approval process,” Sullivan said. “Our best-case scenario would be to have the next nine holes open in three years. There is a residential component that is part of it, and we have to work out some issues with supplemental water.”

Sullivan added, “The executive nine will be another opportunity for more people to play in less time.”

New territory

The executive nine holes planned at Monarch Dunes could be a trend for future golf courses around the country.

“Our purpose is to break new ground,” Pascuzzo said. “We all in the golf industry understand the challenges golf is facing in appealing to new players.

“Every survey tells us that the reason more people don’t play golf is because of the perceived difficulty and the time it takes,” he said. “This course appeals to those challenges. This will be a nine-hole course you can play in an hour and a half and hit a wide variety of clubs in your bag.”

And it is that groundbreaking notion that appeals most to Brabenec at Blacklake.

“That kind of a golf course will be very unique and appeal to a larger segment of golfers,” Brabenec said. “And we plan to work together if our tee times are all booked up to refer golfers to other golf courses in the area like Avila, Monarch Dunes and Cypress Ridge.

“The more we co-op together, it will send a message to the community and nationally that we are both working on the common goal to build this area into a better golf destination,” Brabenec said.

For his part, Brabenec and fellow pro Billy Gibbs are building one of the most successful First Tee programs in the state. That is a trend that will help all of the area golf courses.

“The PGA motto is to promote the game of golf,” Brabenec said. “And we are doing our part with the First Tee program at Blacklake and Avila. It is the second-largest First Tee program in California. That is golf’s future. And because of this program, many parents are being introduced to the game of golf.”

Vern Ahrendes is a former associate editor with Lee Central Coast Newspapers. He currently lives in Grover Beach and can be reached by calling 474-1348.

January 27, 2006

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