I truly believe that if Poppy Hills was located anywhere else in the US, it would rank as one of the top public courses in the country. It’s a beautiful course with a great layout…the kind of place where you remember every hole after one round.
But Poppy Hills’ *problem* is that its located in Pebble Beach, the greatest golf region in the world. As a result, it gets overshadowed by top shelf courses like Pebble Beach and Spyglass. Poppy Hills is one of the best public courses I’ve ever played, but it’s probably the sixth or seventh best course in its area code.
Even though the other courses in the area are the big stars, I highly recommend squeezing in a visit to Poppy Hills during any trip to Pebble Beach. Here’s why…
Poppy Hills is located in the hills of Pebble Beach above the Pacific Ocean on California’s central coast. It was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and opened in 1986. The standard green fee for visitors is $225 dollars, which is pretty expensive (though cheaper than the other courses nearby). There’s a big exception though: members of the Northern California Golf Association (like yours truly), which is headquartered at Poppy Hills, can play for $75 during the week and $100 on weekends. It’s a steal for such a great course. What’s more is that guests of NCGA members can play for $102 during the week and $130 during the weekend. So if you’re visiting, try to find a NCGA member to play with.
What’s good about Poppy Hills?
The layout: Poppy Hills is far and away my favorite RTJII design. Three years ago, the course underwent a big renovation where, among other things, Jones got rid of the rough and made the course look more natural. One way to describe the course now is the Pinehurst of the west coast. The course weaves its way through forests of cypress and pine trees and blends in beautifully to the surrounding terrain. The fairways are wide and there is no rough, but instead large waste areas beyond the fairways. The aren’t too many forced carries either, so it’s a good course for the average golfer. It’s also a tough course for low handicappers. There are a lot of risk/reward shots, and several of the greens have wicked breaks to them. It’s simply an all-around great course.
The location: It’s in Pebble Beach! Perfect weather, beautiful trees, deer on the course, and even a glimpse of the ocean on a few holes. What else could you want?!?!
The price: At the NCGA rate, Poppy Hills is one of the best values that can be found in California, if not the country.
What’s bad about Poppy Hills?
The pace of play: On weekends, Poppy Hills can get crowded and slow, the byproduct of having an great course that is accessible and also a pleasure to walk. To add to matters, the course marshalls are real pests. I played early one weekend morning and on several holes on the front nine, the marshall would park and watch over us like a hawk, only to tell us we were playing at a good pace and to keep it up. It was a little annoying.
Here are my comments on several specific holes at Poppy Hills. All yardages are from the 6,672 “four poppy” tees, which have a rating/slope of 73.0 and 140. The course stretches out to a little over 7,000 yards from the championship tees (74.4/144). It may be tempting to play the tips, but I recommend that even low handicappers stick to the four poppy tees (or shorter). Their challenging enough, and it’s better to keep up the pace of play.
First hole, 416 yards: The greatness of Poppy Hills begins on its opening hole, a tough but awesome par-4. The hole doglegs to the right and the fairway slopes from left to right. There’s both a big bunker and deep ravine right of the fairway. So definitely favor the left side off the tee, but be careful not to go through the fairway. It’s a tough tee shot, and taking less than driver is not a bad idea. On the approach shot, there’s a downslope just in front of the green, so again, taking a club less and letting the ball run onto the green is a smart play.
Second hole, 189 yards: Another tough tee shot awaits on the beautiful but demanding par-3 second. Golfers must carry a deep ravine to get to the green. Anything short of the green risks running back toward the ravine. There’s also a deep bunker guarding the left side. It’s better to miss a little long than a little short. The green has different levels and makes for a tough two-putt if you’re in the wrong spot.
Third hole, 431 yards: The drive on this long par-4 looks tighter than it actually is, there is lots of room out there in the fairway. The green is long and skinny, so dialing in the right yardage on the approach shot is critical. Chasing an approach shot onto the green is not a bad option.
Ninth hole, 519 yards: Poppy Hills has four incredible par-5s. The second one you’ll encounter is the ninth, which has risk/reward shots the whole way and is about as entertaining as a golf hole can be. There are two fairway bunkers on the left part of the fairway, and the fairway slopes to the left, so aim well right off the tee. Alternatively, you can take a shorter club off the tee short of the bunkers and play the hole as a three-shotter. In front of the green runs a small creek that comes in diagonally from the right side. Any approach shot has to carry this creek. And if you’re laying up, you’ll want to favor the left side so you can get closer to the green without going into the creek. To the right of the green toward the back is a large slope, and it’s possible to play to the top of the slope and let your ball trickle down to the green.
10th hole, 514 yards: The 10th is another fabulous par-5. Like the ninth fairway, the fairway on 10 slopes to the left, but this time there’s a fairway bunker on the right side. As you approach the green, there’s a pond to the left and a lone, beautiful pine tree next to the pond. A single bunker guards the middle of a wide green. On your approach, either take an extra club to get over the bunker or aim to the right, since anything missing short and left of the green could run back into the pond.
12th hole, 410 yards: The 12th hole is a downhill, straightaway par-4 where it’s critical to keep it straight of the tee (right is OB). But what I really love about the hole is that it’s essentially a mirror image of the famous opening hole at Pasatiempo. Poppy’s 12th faces north with views over Monterey Bay to the Santa Cruz mountains, the nesting place of Pasatiempo. The first at Pasatiempo, in turn, is another straight, downhill par-4 that faces south over Monterey Bay with views of Monterey and the surrounding hills. If you had a good telescope, you could probably locate one hole while standing on the other. It’s very charming to see once you’ve played both courses.
14th hole, 369 yards: The 14th is one of the shorter par-4s at Poppy Hills, but also one of the trickiest. It’s a sharp dogleg to the left, with two fairway bunkers on the left side. There is a huge amount of room on the right side of the fairway, but that leaves a longer approach shot and worse angle to the shallow green.
18th hole, 503 yards: Poppy Hills’ closing hole provides a great chance to close with a birdie, but there’s lots of places where things can go wrong too. It’s a double dogleg par-5, first to the left, then back to the right toward the green. A good drive that avoids the fairway bunkers and waste areas on either side of the hole can make the hole reachable in two. If you layup, stay to the left or you might be stymied by perhaps the tallest pine tree on the course. The green is well fortified by bunkers on all sides. It’s a fun finish.
Miscellaneous thoughts – sound effects
Not only are the trees at Poppy Hills beautiful, but they amplify the sound of a purely struck golf shot. On some of the tee boxes, I felt like a pro with the sound my driver made — a nice “WHA-CHING!” Same with a few of my iron shots, a solid THWACK. Make sure to get a video or two and turn up the volume.
I know it’s easy to forget about Poppy Hills on a trip to Pebble Beach, but do your best to fit in a round. It is absolutely worth it.
Design: A. My favorite RTJII layout, beautiful and lots of fun holes.
Condition: A. Very well maintained.
Enjoyability: B+. Beautiful place, but can be slow with aggressive marshals.
Value: A. For NCGA members or guests, it’s a hard-to-beat deal.
Overall grade: A.