It was 2001 when I last made the one-hour trek from North San Diego County to the Barona Resort & Casino. A lot has changed in 16 years. Back then, the casino was housed in a circus-themed Big Top tent. The new casino, resort and 400-room hotel with five full-service restaurants didn’t even exist.
But the golf course did and what hasn’t changed much is the quality of the golf course. The Barona Creek Golf Club is still as spectacular and challenging as I remember. The 7,393-yard layout, designed by Gary Roger Baird, features several elevation changes and prominent boulders, 170-full-size oak trees and nearly 140 bunkers. The magnificent boulders sprinkled around the course and the surrounding mountains give Barona Creek a desert feel.
The course sits in a lush valley on the southwest corner of the Barona Indian Reservation, some 30 miles north east of downtown San Diego, off Highway 67. After crawling through the small town of Lakeside, there’s a six-mile drive up Wildcat Canyon, a two-lane country road.
“We know we are in a remote location so we provide the most amazing experience on the golf course, in the casino and throughout the entire resort so you don’t think twice about your drive to get here ever again,” said Don King, who has been executive director of golf operations at Barona Creek since the course opened in 2001.
Judging by the overflow crowds at the restaurants and the casino on a Wednesday night in mid-December, people must like what they see of the four-diamond resort. The line for Seasons Fresh Buffet spilled onto the casino floor, the blackjack tables were packed all night and the hotel was nearly full. King noted there was nothing unusual about the large weekday gathering.
“Our hotel is 95% full year-round,” he said. “We like to think this isn’t so much a business, but a gathering of friends and family.”
The resort is significantly expanding its casino floor with enough additional space for 500 new slot machines and 20 more table games in early 2018 to accommodate more friends and family.
Fortunately, there are no plans to update the golf course, consistently ranked as one of the top-10 resort and casino courses in the United States by Golfweek Magazine. Golf Digest recently ranked Barona as the best resort course in San Diego. Though it no longer stages professional events, Barona Creek has proven to be big-league course, hosting the Nationwide Tour Championship, six U.S. Open Qualifiers, an LPGA event and the Southern California Amateur Championship.
What sets Barona apart from most other courses in San Diego built within the last two decades?
“Most courses these days have to be built in housing districts,” King said. “The beauty of this course is it’s out in the middle of nowhere. You’re in a valley, it’s peaceful and you’re out here with nature.”
With wide-open fairways and slick, but true greens, professionals have a fairly easy time of it here—pro Richard Letzig once shot a 60 during the Nationwide event. But for amateurs who spray the ball off the tee, the streambeds, creeks, ponds and massive bunkers can create nightmares. For first-timers or high handicappers, it’s best to play from the silver tees, which only measure 6,231 yards.
The fairways are generous, like those at many resort courses, but the stream comes into play on the ninth, 13th and 17th holes. The 13th and 17th holes offer split fairways for different levels of play. The par-four, 472-yard 18th is a fun finishing hole, uphill with a lake hugging the left side of the fairway and a tricky green.
King’s favorite hole is the 14th, a 316-yard par 4 that is reachable from the silver tees at 275 yards.
“There’s so many different ways you can play it,” King said. “I’ve made everything from a 2 to a 10 on the 14th. That’s the beauty of it. This just proves that it doesn’t take length to make a hole tough.”
Strangely enough, my favorite hole was No. 4, rated as the No. 1 handicap hole. Realizing the course record wasn’t in play and still smarting from a rough night at the blackjack tables, I decided to take on the massive bunker that dissects the fairway. With a well-time draw, I managed clear the sand trap and roll in the middle of the fairway, 90 yards from the pin. After hitting a sand wedge to within 20 feet, I scored a par after an easy two-putt.
Unfortunately, the rest of the round wasn’t quite as satisfying, but it was thrilling. I spent quite a bit of time hacking out of bunkers, three-putting on the fast greens and marveling at the incredible views of the Barona Valley from the elevated tees. I don’t plan to wait 16 years before playing here again. In fact, I might be back this summer.
“People like playing here because the layout gives you a chance,” King said. “It doesn’t beat you up. Most of the damage happens around the greens, as you found out. You have to be on the right side of the hole and you have to be able to chip and putt to score.”
Golf and Resort Info: Barona Creek is a public, daily fee-course. Rates are $120 for 18 holes Monday-Friday, $160 on weekends. Twilight rates are $80 on weekdays, $100 on weekends. Ideal for a mid-week or weekend getaway, the hotel offers a full-service spa and gaming action that includes 2,100 loose slots and video poker, 90 table games including blackjack, craps, roulette, and poker. Full-service restaurants include Seasons Fresh Buffet, Barona Oaks Steakhouse, Italian Cucina, The Plaza Grill and The Sage Café. Gameside dining is also available for guests who don’t want to miss a minute of action and excitement on the casino floor. For more information, visit Barona.com.
Story by Dave McKibben