By Dave McKibben
I had launched a towering eight-iron shot over a pond and onto the back of the green on the downhill 162-yard par-3 11th hole at the Aviara Golf Club, but I knew there was little time for celebration. Having played this magnificent 7,007-yard Arnold Palmer-designed layout in Carlsbad several times since it opened 30 years ago, I knew I had a lot of work left to make par.
Standing over a nearly 90-foot downhill putt, I saw two breaks, possibly three and remembered the advice I’d offered to my playing partners a week earlier: “Better practice your long putts. The greens here are massive.”
Naturally, I three-putted, missing a comeback 15-footer for par. There were several three-putts in our group and even a four-putt. Renny Brown, Aviara’s director of golf since 2012, wasn’t surprised.
“For the mid-level handicapper, you’re going to hit a few more greens than what you’re normally used to,” he said. “But you’re also going to be faced with some difficult long putts. You’ll probably have some three and four-putt greens.”
Brown said the size and undulation in the greens are even an issue for the top women’s players in the world at the LPGA’s Kia Classic, which Aviara has hosted the last nine years and typically attracts over 90% of the tour’s best players.
“Other than tee shot on hole number 10 (a tight dogleg-par 4), it’s a straightforward course,” said Brown, who’s been at Aviara for 24 years, the first 15 as an assistant pro. “What you see is what you get. But the greens, even for a high-level player, are the defense of the golf course.”
Sprawling greens weren’t supposed to be one of the calling cards on this rolling par-72 course that overlooks the Batiquitos Lagoon nature preserve and is part of the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort, which recently completed a $50 million transformation. But a funny thing happened during construction of the course in 1989.
“The greens were doubled in size and the mistake was not caught until the front nine greens had been built,” Brown said. “It would have been very costly to start over on the front nine, with the bunkers and green surrounds already in place, so they continued with the doubling of size of the greens on the back nine.”
In golf terms, the misread construction plans have turned into a “good miss.”
“It’s become something we’re known for,” Kevin Kienast, Aviara’s course superintendent, said of the enormous greens. “You’ll end up with some really fun putts to talk about over beers with your buddies. It puts a lot of emphasis on reading putts and landing your ball in the right place.”
Of course, it’s not all about the size of greens at Aviara. Palmer’s masterful design takes golfers on a tour through three valleys, rolling hillsides, dynamic waterfalls, and native wildflowers. Multi-million-dollar homes hover well above the fairway, but don’t creep into golfer’s sightlines.
“It’s pretty secluded, so you’ll always have a peaceful round,” Kienast said. “The tranquility of the course gives you the feeling that you have the place to yourself, so you can shoot a bad score and still come away with a great experience.”
Kienast and his grounds crew are responsible for maintaining hundreds of plant species that frame the fairways and greens. The star attractions are the orange and red coral trees and the stocky purple and pink Pride of Madeira shrub.
“People say that playing golf at Aviara is like playing golf in a botanical garden,” Brown said. “And I think there’s some truth to that with the variety of plants we have.”
The Aviara experience is fascinating, but it can be costly to play “one of the best resort courses in the U.S.,” according to Golf Digest and Golf Magazine. Green fees range from $130 to $275–a dynamic pricing structure ensures that the best rates are always available at www.golfaviara.com
From the tips, Aviara plays over 7,000 yards and it’s nearly 6,600 from the blue tees. My group of mid-level players found the blue/white combo tees, measuring 6,340 yards, were well-suited for our games. The eighth hole, a 519-yard downhill par 5, is one of Brown’s favorites. The fairway is expansive, but there’s danger lurking with water and bunkers nearly surrounding the green.
“A better player can go for the green in two and make eagle or birdie,” Brown said. “But if you hit it in the water, you could be walking away with a six, seven or eight pretty easily.”
I became familiar with latter scenario during my round, dumping my lob wedge into the water after a perfect drive and layup. The 18th, a 413-yard par four, is one of the tougher finishing holes in golf-rich San Diego County. The fairway is bordered by a lake on the right and two hefty bunkers on the left. The lake stretches all the way to green, making for a treacherous approach shot.
“You have to hit a good drive and then a really good second shot too,” Brown said. “There’s no in-between and there’s not much room for error.”
The Aviara Golf Club Package offers the best value for tourists or even locals: it includes two rounds of golf per night reserved at the Park Hyatt Hotel, extended twilight rate for tee times after 12 p.m. on the day of arrival, golf carts, unlimited use of practice facilities, overnight golf club storage, a 25% discount on full priced golf retail merchandise and a $50 discount at the TaylorMade Performance Lab club fitting. After a round, the hottest spot at the resort is Ember & Rye, the final piece of the Park Hyatt’s extensive renovation. The restaurant, which has been called a “modern day country club steakhouse, opened in March in partnership with celebrity chef Richard Blais.