Sandpiper, Santa Barbara. William F. Bell, 1972.
I think it was Tom Doak who said Sandpiper wasn’t so much the Pebble Beach of the south but the Torrey Pines of the north. Frankly, that’s overrating it.
The biggest problem Sandpiper cannot overcome is that, though it is seaside in location, from most of the course you cannot actually see the ocean. There are some good holes here— but also some completely indifferent ones. In that way, it is a lot like Torrey Pines. But every hole at Torrey Pines has incredible views. At Sandpiper you get ocean views for maybe half the round.
This isn’t Bell’s fault at all. The landforms at Sandpiper are odd. One of the high points on the property is the hill right of the 14th fairway, past which is the edge of the cliff. That’s unusual, but nature is weird. 13 and 14 play straight down the same coastline and 13 is a beautiful clifftop hole with a green set out on the far edge of a ravine. From the scorecard you’d expect 14 to be another stunner, but in fact you won’t see any waves unless you turn around and look back down the 13th.
Now, it’s not all about seeing the ocean. But, the 14th isn’t a very good hole on its merits, either. And, more broadly, the green fee you pay at Sandpiper is clearly significantly higher because the course is oceanside. So, this matters.
There is good golf here. The fifth is a par 5 that plays downhill off the tee and bends left, then plays way uphill to an infinity green that eventually brings you out to the cliffs. It’s a wild, natural hole and a great reveal once you reach the green.
The seventh hole, which takes you away from the ocean, is a hard dogleg left, but the tee shot is downhill and the green tempts you, peeking out from behind a clump of trees. There’s no value in aiming that way, but the line of charm tempts the player to take on more than is advisable.
The most famous stretch of the course is the run from the 10th to the 13th, with good reason. The 10th is a short dogleg left, naturally draped over a hill to a green that juts out onto a point that makes it look, from the fairway, as if it’s sitting out in the Pacific. It’s a narrow and tricky driving hole, but you can hit anything from a mid iron to driver. The day’s hole position has a lot to say about how tough the approach shot plays. The deep green has a back shelf that is simply diabolical, as it is very difficult to get any shot all the way back onto the shelf, knowing how steep the punishment is for any shot that misses left, right, or long.
The 11th is a drop shot par 3 from the hill right of the 10th green down essentially onto the beach. It’s a great spot, but the hole doesn’t totally live up to its setting. There’s nothing artful or natural about the narrow green set between bunkers and this is all the more glaring in such a natural spot.
The 12th tee set back in beach sand (maybe not authentic, but still cool) is a great spot. The hole is an awkward uphill hard dogleg right. But the tee location looking down the coast as you essentially tee off from the beach, well, that can’t be beat.
And then you have the 13th, a par 5 that plays along the coast line with the green set on the far side of a deep ravine. A big drive can catch something like a speed slot that runs downhill and will give you a chance to go for the green in two, but even though the hole is listed at 535 yards it takes two big shots to make the green on this hole.
Other standouts on the way in are the 16th, a hole that plays back toward the coast and doglegs around a stand of trees, and the 17th, which turns right around a deep ravine.
But so many of the other holes are really indifferent. The sixth hole, which sits along the edge of the cliff, would appear to have the same problem that apparently keeps Torrey Pines from greatness. The hole is near the cliff but doesn’t really interact with it. There’s 15 yards of turf between the left edge of the green and the cliff’s edge. I’ll assume this was due to concern over erosion and safety issues. Fine, but the view from the tee isn’t much, again due to the unusual tilt of the land, and the golf hole is as bland as a par 3 can be.
Holes like the fourth, eighth, ninth, and 15th are entirely pedestrian. Worse, you have the 14th, which ends the course’s best run of holes with decided thud. 14 is a long and uphill hole with a hard right-to-left banking fairway that is steep enough that it kills most tee shots and deposits them in the left rough.
The finisher is also a real let down. I’m often charmed by a par 3 18th hole but it has to be worthy and Sandpiper’s does nothing for me. This hole plays over an artificial-looking pond to a green that slopes decidedly from back to font. The hole was built in 1972 and feels like it.
There’s also something incongruous about the fee you pay here and the maintenance of the place. Though the greens have always been excellent (indeed they generally are lightning quick) I’ve found the fairways spotty and the rough chopped. The range is spread through the middle of the course and balls spill out onto the 9th and 16th fairways. None of this is a deal breaker by any means. It’s all very in line with a classic muni aesthetic that I quite like. Except that Sandpiper isn’t a muni. It’s a destination course charging a green fee that, at times, gets over $200.
For that kind of money I just expect more, from the course, from the conditions, from the views, everything.
Give ’em this though—the logo is hard to beat.
California 4th Quintile