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Review of The Old Course at Monarch Dunes

By: Jeff Shelley


While in California visiting my daughter and friends, my wife and I played a new course in central California. The Old Course at Monarch Dunes is part of a large-scale housing development called The Woodlands on the outskirts of Nipomo, a small city south of San Luis Obispo. The 6,810-yard track, which opened in January of this year, was designed by Damian Pascuzzo, an associate of the late golf course architect, Robert Muir Graves. Twenty-seven more holes are part of the project’s entitlements.

Pascuzzo partnered in Monarch Dunes’ design with Steve Pate, the PGA Tour player who now dabbles in golf course architecture. The duo focused almost as much as on the course’s “function” – having it serve as an engineering counterpart to the surrounding development – as its “form” – a playfield for golfers.

Their efforts are admirable, as the course managed to assuage the concerns of local officials (it is in environmentally-minded California after all) and it’s enjoyable to play. Though the “residential factor” is unmistakable on many holes, Pascuzzo and Pate were able to maximize setbacks from the homes to keep the golf experience mostly discreet. The two also crafted an interesting course, one with plenty of water hazards – particularly on the front nine, large and rolling greens containing many pin placements, and deep bunkers with long fescue grass engirding their peripheries. The western holes nearest to the Pacific Ocean successfully duplicate a links feel, even though a forested buffer shields the holes from the saltwater. The result is a fine test that begs to be played more than once.

The golf course required considerable subsurface engineering due to stringent runoff and drainage guidelines established by San Luis Obispo County officials, who put the developer, Woodland Ventures, through a complicated review and permit process that began several years ago. Such concerns are perhaps warranted, as the course will be surrounded by over a thousand homes, with residential streets and backyards, along with some commercial and resort components, integrated into the 1,000-acre project’s master plan.

The golf course houses several big ponds that serve as storage and holding tanks for all the stormwater created by the new community. According to Pascuzzuo, “One of the reasons the project received its permits was our ability to assure the county that not a drop of runoff from the homes or streets would leave the site . . . we really had to work closely with the engineering group to find the appropriate amount of storage while still maintaining the earthwork balance, sightlines from the residential pads, and keeping a high degree of playability to the course for the golfers.”

Another factor in the design and engineering process is that the course is irrigated by treated effluent, all of which is generated by The Woodlands residents. “We use all of the effluent produced by the project to irrigate the golf course,” says Pascuzzo. “In the winter, when golf course irrigation demand is low to nonexistent, we must dispose of the effluent by spraying it over a portion of the secondary rough area. However, when it rains, no irrigation is allowed, and therefore it must be stored in a non-permeable location.

“Interestingly, you can spray effluent over a wide area as a means of disposal but you cannot collect it in a basin and let it percolate into the very sandy soil . . . go figure. The county calculated that we needed to hold about 48 acre-feet of effluent in the event that it continually rained for about three weeks . . . We created a ‘seasonal wetland’ along the 16th hole that will hold the first 17 acre feet of effluent. The only other storage place we had left was the practice range. So the range was excavated to a depth of 21 feet, a PVC-liner was installed, and three feet of soil was placed back over the top. This gave us the storage we needed, and the three feet of cover let us install irrigation laterals without fear of ripping the liner. Pumps were installed to both bring in the effluent during a massive storm and to take it back out when it was time to spray it over the roughs.”

One of the toughest holes on the course is the opener, a 453-yard par-4 that winds around one of those holding ponds, many of which are steep-sided. The second shot is played into the prevailing wind, with the ideal target being to the right as the green slopes left. I found the water with a poor 4-iron from 180 yards. I later mentioned to Pascuzzo that I prefer courses where I can “ease” into a round of golf, encountering tougher holes further in after I’m warmed up. Rightfully, he disagreed.

“Your comments about the nines are interesting,” he said. “Maybe you see things differently or just had an off-day [I did, especially at the beginning of the round], but you are the first person of the dozens I’ve spoken with who thinks the front nine is harder than the back nine. The first hole plays longer than originally planned. Once we started laying things out in the field, we found that we had more room than expected by the clubhouse, so the tees got pushed back a bit. While the first hole is a tough one out of the blocks, the second and third holes are both good birdie opportunities to balance things out. As a sidebar, the revered Chicago Golf Club probably has its four toughest holes at the start of the round.”

Once past the opening hole, there are birdie opportunities as well as plenty of enjoyment for everyone. Perhaps the most visually distinctive hole is the 14th, a 400-yard par-4 that starts with a blind tee shot. OB lurks on the right of the left-tilting fairway, which is crossed by bunkers and rough 125 yards from a wide but shallow green.

Pascuzzo again: “Our overall design philosophy was to focus the difficulty of the golf course in and around the greens. Steve [Pate] and I spent a lot of time talking about different types of approach and recovery shots that we wanted players to execute. The fairways are as generous as possible, even if you can’t see the entire fairway from the tee, so as not to beat the player up with the tee shot.

“I’m a firm believer in designing a course that does not fully reveal itself the first time it’s played. A good golf course requires analysis which can only be achieved by playing it multiple times. The smart player will seek to learn the nuances built in by the designer because it may mean the difference between birdie and par. That’s my way of saying that I’m glad you want to come back again.”

And I will, preferably with a better approach to that water-guarded first hole.

For more information or a tee time at Monarch Dunes, call 805/343-9459 or visit www.monarchdunes.com.