Coronado Municipal Golf Course
History of Golf on California’s Coronado Island
by Trey Greenwood
Underneath the myriad of tourist attractions and the famed Hotel Del Coronado lies an ideal setting for world-class golf. Today, one would be hard-pressed to find the remnants of the rolling sand dunes present on the island in 1885, when the island was first “colonized.”
Elisha Babcock, Hampton Story, and several other investors purchased the island for $110,000 in November 1885; they envisioned a bustling tourist hotspot, complete with a grand hotel, a railroad system, businesses, and more. Construction on the iconic Hotel Del Coronado began in 1887; the grand resort was finished and subsequently opened in February 1888. After the hotel’s grand opening, the island’s investors continued to develop their tourism-driven plan with Tent City, a vacation area consisting of a conglomeration of tents and, later, cottages near the Hotel Del. With its idyllic sand dunes demolished, Coronado has persisted into modern times as a prominent tourist destination thanks to the vision and plan of Babcock and his group of investors.
Where was the golf in the investment group’s grand plan? A private nine-hole routing opened in 1898, near the current location of the Coronado Municipal Golf Course, but development quickly overtook the course. By 1903, little evidence of the course remained underneath the new residential subdivision. The island’s first eighteen-hole course—opened in 1903—was, like the demolished nine-hole course, private, and it was shoved between three bustling avenues and the Naval Air Station. It, too, saw a quick death, as the expansion of the military base and the construction of more homes washed away the course for good.
Granted, golf courses were just beginning to pop up in the United States, particularly the East Coast, at the time of Babcock’s purchase of Coronado Island, and the first golf club on the West Coast would come in the form of Tacoma Golf Club in 1894—almost a decade after the purchase. However, it is a shame that the rolling, sandy terrain of Coronado Island—ideal for world-class golf—was bulldozed to make way for lavish beach resorts and residential developments. It is also a shame that the island’s original courses played out along noisy streets and away from the stunning sand dunes. If they had been routed along the shoreline where the sand dunes were most prominent, both play and reverence might have increased and have saved the courses from destruction. The ocean view coupled with the incredible terrain could have paved the way for world-class golf on the island; one can only imagine how Alister Mackenzie or another Golden Age architect could have massaged the sandy landscape into natural, imaginative golf courses.
Jack Daray, an architect of courses in California, Illinois, and Mississippi, among other states, designed Coronado’s only truly public golf course—Coronado Municipal—in 1957. Opened on December 19, 1957, the course began as a 6146-yard, par-75 layout; Billy Casper, a member of the inaugural foursome at the course, maneuvered his way to a 69 during the initial round at Coronado. Daray’s son and current vice-president of the Halsey Design Group, Jack Daray Jr., took the reigns from his father when the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge was built in 1966. Construction of the bridge required some of the golf course’s land; as a result, Daray Jr. redesigned the front nine into its current routing. Finally, Daray Jr. and the Halsey Design Group reworked the 9th and 18th holes after a new clubhouse took shape in 1997.
Despite its inception in 1957, Coronado features little evidence of any Dark Ages architectural features. Long it is not—a mere 6590 yards from the back tees. Strategic, sub 400-yard par fours replace the long grind of the tough, uninteresting 450-yard two-shotters of the period. Shallow, boring, circular-shaped bunkers are nowhere to be found on Coronado; instead, curving sand traps with steep lips prove to be penal and often determine the strategic options of each hole. On top of the course’s strategic merit, its idyllic and inspiring setting makes for a round of golf worth remembering.
HOLES TO NOTE
Fifth Hole, 163 yards: The fifth at Coronado is the first in a set of four fair and interesting par threes, a characteristic absent in most Dark Ages courses. Despite bunkers left and right, ample room is available for a run-up shot. The steep back-to-front slope of the green—the main defense for this short-ish one-shotter—is evident from the teebox and demands an accurate tee shot in order to avoid a three-putt.
Sixth Hole, 396 yards: The sixth is an example of a classic strategic par four: hug the trouble on one side of the fairway in order to gain a better angle into the green. Here, placement of one’s tee shot close to the lone fairway bunker on the right affords the most open view of the green, which is slightly raised and is fronted by a relatively deep bunker at its front left side. A tee ball that ends up left of the fairway means nothing but trouble: trees will likely hamper an aerial approach to the green, which is needed to carry the greenside bunker from the left side.
Eighth Hole, 404 yards: Both the par-four eighth hole and the one-shot ninth holes offer a myriad of lessons in golf course design. Once again, the eighth is a fine example of a strategic hole; one must hug the right-hand fairway bunker in order to gain easier access to the water-fronted green. Players who find the left-hand portion of the fairway must carry the lake with their approach shots, especially when hitting to a back hole location. Feel like bailing out to the right away from the lake at the front left? Not so fast; Daray utilized exceptional disguise tactics—grassy mounding and a large tree—to hide a second lake to the right of the green. This is just another reason to hug the right fairway bunker off the tee; a player who hits a misclubbed approach from the left side could end up seeing their ball splash short and left or could be completely oblivious to their ball splashing long and right. Despite the fact that the lakes are man made, they work extremely well in providing the eighth with ample playing interest.
Ninth Hole, 175 yards: The lakes that lent so much playing interest to the captivating eighth hole do the same for the outstanding one-shot ninth. From the tee, it appears that the water hugs the green at the front and offers no room for a shot struck slightly heavy; however, Daray once again ingeniously deceives the golfer, as there is at least twenty-five yards of short grass from the front of the green to where the water juts inward. Another back-to-front sloping green, water left, and bunkers long and to the right of the green call for a precise iron shot to end Coronado’s front nine.
Twelfth Hole, 300 yards: Coronado’s twelfth hole offers the best and the worst of golf course design techniques. An extensive forest of tall trees on the inside of this dogleg infringes on the hole’s design merit; the lack of the opportunity to drive the green eliminates the fun and the risk-reward nature of a good short par-four. If the trees did not exist, the hole would improve drastically; golfers could then take a stab at driving the green, having to maneuver a precise tee shot between the left greenside bunker and the long, winding bunker guarding the approach to and the front right corner of the green in order to have a putt for eagle. Despite the lack of options from the tee, the twelfth does exhibit great design merit. Recovery from a tee shot missed to the right (if not outside the margin of the in-course out of bounds, which I will discuss shortly) is difficult due to the right-hand bunker that leads up to the green; thus, a tee ball that flirts with the trees to the left of the fairway helps to take said bunker out of play. In addition, the backside of the built-up lip of the left-hand greenside bunker works nicely as a mound to feed approach shots onto the green.
Thirteenth Hole, 543 yards: The three-shot thirteenth hole showcases Coronado’s quirky side. A severe dogleg to the right, the hole wraps all the way around the twelfth hole and then some; in fact, if one were to draw a straight line from the thirteenth tee to the thirteenth green, it would measure only 390 yards! To keep the tiger golfer from carrying the trees and taking this shorter route, the course installed in-course out of bounds down the entire right side of the hole. While the merit of this out of bounds is debatable, it forces the golfer to maneuver an accurate tee shot—optimally a fade—between the left-hand fairway bunker and the tree-lined out of bounds stakes. From the fairway, the tiger golfer must remain wary of the in-course O.B. if going for the green in two, which takes a mighty hit. If the golfer found the first half of the thirteenth to be of little design merit, his mind will likely change when looking at the grand green complex. From fifty yards or so short of the two-tiered green, the top tier seems like a mere sliver of green; however, closer inspection reveals that plenty of room exists beyond the ridge, invisible only because of the top tier’s gentle slope toward the back of the green. A brute of a par five, the thirteenth houses one of the best and most difficult greens on the course.
Fourteenth Hole, 391 yards: Like the other roadside holes on the golf course (nos. 6 and 10), Daray puts the golfer’s mind at ease on the fourteenth tee; he pointed the hole’s tee shot away from Glorietta Boulevard thanks to penal right-hand fairway bunkers. The fourteenth green is the most open in front of all the greens at Coronado; ample room abounds for a running approach shot.
Fifteenth Hole, 175 yards: The last of Coronado’s one-shotters, the fifteenth may look the same as the other par threes (except the ninth hole)—open entrance to the green, bunkers left and right; however, this hole is strikingly different. With the beautiful Coronado Yacht Club in the background, the fifteenth green is a rarity in Dark Age architecture: once past the front quarter of the putting surface, the green slopes away gently toward the back of the green. This is markedly different from the par-three fifth and eleventh holes, whose greens tilt sharply from back to front. The fifteenth green only adds variety to an already varied set of great golf holes.
Sixteenth Hole, 370 yards: Coronado’s impressive closing stretch begins with the sixteenth, the best hole in terms of design and strategy on the course. Glorietta Bay juts into the sixteenth hole, giving the golfer great strategic options: take his tee shot down the left side and away from the water, or take the aggressive line directly over the bay. The latter option (if executed perfectly) affords a shorter, easier approach into the raised, sloping green, whereas the former choice yields a much longer approach with the left-hand greenside bunker—nearly out of play from the right portion of the fairway—encroaching upon the golfer’s angle into the green. With its inspiring setting and outstanding strategic options, the sixteenth is a favorite of many who walk Coronado’s fairways.
Seventeenth Hole, 427 yards: The longest two-shotter on the course, the bayside seventeenth doglegs sharply to the left around the boomerang thirteenth hole. Thus, the course, once again, installed in-course out of bounds down the left side of the seventeenth in order to keep the tiger golfer from carrying the trees and playing a short wedge approach from the thirteenth fairway. Like many of the greens at Coronado, the seventeenth green is fronted by plenty of short grass that accepts a running approach shot.
Eighteenth Hole, 493 yards: A fitting end to a charming set of holes, the eighteenth lends the golfer one last opportunity for a birdie or even an eagle. However, trouble lurks at every corner. One must hug the small bunker to the left of the fairway off the tee for the best angle into the well-bunkered green; a drive to the right of the fairway will find the bay. The green is surrounded by five bunkers, including a long, winding one at the front right of the green, appropriate for a reachable three-shotter. The backside of said bunker’s built-up face creates a mound that will kick slightly mishit approach shots onto the green; otherwise, an accurate shot is needed to avoid the four other greenside bunkers.
If you come to Coronado Municipal expecting a monotonous stretch of holes with little strategic merit; sandless, circular bunkers; and grueling, 450-yard two-shotters; be prepared for a pleasant surprise. Coronado Golf Course is not a typical Dark Age golf course. Yes, most of the greens slope sharply from back to front, but that is the only evidence that this course took shape in the era of blah bunkers and monotonous layouts. Strategy takes precedent at Coronado, whether it comes at the hands of Glorietta Bay or the refreshingly interesting bunkers. Most pleasantly surprising about Coronado is its ability to cater to all levels of player; vast areas of short grass fronting each green welcome running tee and approach shots, yet the undulating greens and deep bunkers provide challenge to the scratch golfer. No wonder locals make Coronado Golf Course a tougher round to book than Torrey Pines!