Re­trac­ing My Steps Back To . . .

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It was 2001 when I last made the one-hour trek from North San Diego County to the Barona Re­sort & Casino. A lot has changed in 16 years. Back then, the casino was housed in a cir­cus-themed Big Top tent. The new casino, re­sort and 400-room ho­tel with five full-ser­vice restau­rants didn’t even ex­ist.

But the golf course did and what hasn’t changed much is the qual­ity of the golf course. The Barona Creek Golf Club is still as spec­tac­u­lar and chal­leng­ing as I re­mem­ber. The 7,393-yard lay­out, de­signed by Gary Roger Baird, fea­tures sev­eral el­e­va­tion changes and prom­i­nent boul­ders, 170-full­size oak trees and nearly 140 bunkers. The mag­nif­i­cent boul­ders sprin­kled around the course and the sur­round­ing moun­tains give Barona Creek a desert feel.

The course sits in a lush val­ley on the south­west cor­ner of the Barona In­dian Reser­va­tion, some 30 miles north east of down­town San Diego, off High­way 67. After crawl­ing through the small town of Lake­side, there’s a six-mile drive up Wild­cat Canyon, a two-lane coun­try road.

“We know we are in a re­mote lo­ca­tion so we pro­vide the most amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence on the golf course, in the casino and through­out the en­tire re­sort so you don’t think twice about your drive to get here ever again,” said Don King, who has been ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of golf op­er­a­tions at Barona Creek since the course opened in 2001.

Judg­ing by the over­flow crowds at the restau­rants and the casino on a Wed­nes­day night in mid-De­cem­ber, peo­ple must like what they see of the four-di­a­mond re­sort. The line for Sea­sons Fresh Buf­fet spilled onto the casino floor, the black­jack ta­bles were packed all night and the ho­tel was nearly full. King noted there was noth­ing un­usual about the large week­day gath­er­ing.

“Our ho­tel is 95% full year-round,” he said. “We like to think this isn’t so much a busi­ness, but a gath­er­ing of friends and fam­ily.”

The re­sort is sig­nif­i­cantly ex­pand­ing its casino floor with enough ad­di­tional space for 500 new slot ma­chines and 20 more ta­ble games in early 2018 to ac­com­mo­date more friends and fam­ily.

For­tu­nately, there are no plans to up­date the golf course, con­sis­tently ranked as one of the top-10 re­sort and casino cour­ses in the United States by Golfweek Mag­a­zine. Golf Di­gest re­cently ranked Barona as the best re­sort course in San Diego. Though it no longer stages pro­fes­sional events, Barona Creek has proven to be big-league course, host­ing the Na­tion­wide Tour Cham­pi­onship, six U.S. Open Qual­i­fiers, an LPGA event and the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Am­a­teur Cham­pi­onship. What sets Barona apart from most other cour­ses in San Diego built within the last two decades? “Most cour­ses th­ese days have to be built in hous­ing dis­tricts,” King said. “The beauty of this course is it’s out in

the mid­dle of nowhere. You’re in a val­ley, it’s peace­ful and you’re out here with na­ture.”

With wide-open fair­ways and slick, but true greens, pro­fes­sion­als have a fairly easy time of it here—pro Richard Let­zig once shot a 60 dur­ing the Na­tion­wide event. But for am­a­teurs who spray the ball off the tee, the streambeds, creeks, ponds and mas­sive bunkers can cre­ate night­mares. For first-timers or high hand­i­cap­pers, it’s best to play from the sil­ver tees, which only mea­sure 6,231 yards.

The fair­ways are gen­er­ous, like those at many re­sort cour­ses, but the stream comes into play on the ninth, 13th and 17th holes. The 13th and 17th holes of­fer split fair­ways for dif­fer­ent lev­els of play. The par-four, 472-yard 18th is a fun fin­ish­ing hole, up­hill with a lake hug­ging the left side of the fair­way and a tricky green. King’s fa­vorite hole is the 14th, a 316-yard par 4 that is reach­able from the sil­ver tees at 275 yards.

“There’s so many dif­fer­ent ways you can play it,” King said. “I’ve made ev­ery­thing from a 2 to a 10 on the 14th. That’s the beauty of it. This just proves that it doesn’t take length to make a hole tough.”

Strangely enough, my fa­vorite hole was No. 4, rated as the No. 1 hand­i­cap hole. Re­al­iz­ing the course record wasn’t in play and still smart­ing from a rough night at the black­jack ta­bles, I de­cided to take on the mas­sive bunker that dis­sects the fair­way. With a well-time draw, I man­aged clear the sand trap and roll in the mid­dle of the fair­way, 90 yards from the pin. After hit­ting a sand wedge to within 20 feet, I scored a par after an easy two-putt.

Un­for­tu­nately, the rest of the round wasn’t quite as sat­is­fy­ing, but it was thrilling. I spent quite a bit of time hack­ing out of bunkers, three-putting on the fast greens and mar­veling at the in­cred­i­ble views of the Barona Val­ley from the el­e­vated tees. I don’t plan to wait 16 years be­fore play­ing here again. In fact, I might be back this sum­mer.

“Peo­ple like play­ing here be­cause the lay­out gives you a chance,” King said. “It doesn’t beat you up. Most of the dam­age hap­pens around the greens, as you found out. You have to be on the right side of the hole and you have to be able to chip and putt to score.”

Golf and Re­sort Info: Barona Creek is a pub­lic, daily feecourse. Rates are $120 for 18 holes Mon­day-Fri­day, $160 on week­ends. Twi­light rates are $80 on week­days, $100 on week­ends. Ideal for a mid-week or week­end get­away, the ho­tel of­fers a full-ser­vice spa and gam­ing ac­tion that in­cludes 2,100 loose slots and video poker, 90 ta­ble games in­clud­ing black­jack, craps, roulette, and poker. Full-ser­vice restau­rants in­clude Sea­sons Fresh Buf­fet, Barona Oaks Steak­house, Ital­ian Cucina, The Plaza Grill and The Sage Café. Game­side din­ing is also avail­able for guests who don’t want to miss a minute of ac­tion and ex­cite­ment on the casino floor. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit

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