Balboa Park Golf Course
Balboa Park is the oldest golf course in San Diego. PGA Tour all-time wins leader Sam Snead still holds the course record to indicate just how deep history runs at Balboa. Tiger Woods and Ernie Els won the Junior World tournament at Balboa, and Phil Mickelson has been playing the course for decades.
Built in 1915, Balboa Park Golf Course is one of the most divisive in the region. Some people love it, and some people hate it. I understand both viewpoints. The fact is that Balboa has been flying under the radar as San Diego’s other muni but has seen some renewed interest from golf course architectural buffs. This course is filled with unique holes.
Balboa is one of three municipal courses in San Diego and has been unprofitable for many years. It has a lot of untapped potential and has been propped up by the surplus that Torrey Pines brings in. The course is located just minutes from Downtown and the San Diego Zoo.
The 2021 U.S. Open brought in $3.5 million from the USGA alone. Seven times the amount it received for the 2008 U.S. Open, Torrey Pines will continue to benefit from its exposure. There is hope that some of that money will make its way towards the Balboa golf course so it can live up to the beloved reputation of the park that it neighbors.
Following the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, Balboa had a USGA representative review the course and give recommendations, some of which have already taken shape – cutting down the eucalyptus trees behind the 10th green to open up more skyline views. The course also got a few knocks for its outdated bunkers. However, there are mountains of sand behind the 13th green, so it looks like the course is taking these suggestions seriously.
The clubhouse was deemed a historic landmark in 2000 but desperately needs renovation. A brand new club could propel this place to new heights. Unfortunately, a $12 million clubhouse renovation plan was recently denied. The food at Tobey’s restaurant is still excellent; it’s like going into a time machine.
The opening tee is a steep downhill with downtown San Diego skyline views as the course dives directly into a canyon for the first six holes.
Hole number 4 is notorious and virtually universally unliked. A 371-yard par 4 with a sharp dogleg left goes up a hill with a steep bank. The hole was rerouted years ago when an influential neighbor complained of golf balls hitting their house. I am still unsure what the original hole layout was, but its current design is makeshift and may change again.
A rope hook three wood plays exceptionally well, fitting into a narrow fairway severely elevated to the green. The approach shot is partially blind even in the best circumstances; you must hit a high shot up left off the pin and let gravity take it right. A false front plus an uphill means getting the proper distance is tricky. If you miss right of the green, the ball falls off a cliff, and a double is likely.
Hole 6 is a solid 210-yard uphill par three that would test even the tour pros. Par is always a good score here. Balboa climbs out of the canyon, and you start seeing some enjoyable but traditionally routed holes. The course begins to get exciting again at hole 13, a postage stamp of a par 3, just 134 yards from the tips. You’ll want to fire at this downhill pin where a hole in one feels possible — I’ve seen it before.
Balboa has some of the strongest finishing holes in San Diego. 16 is one of the most well-known, infamous par 5s around. The drive is beautiful, with one lone tree and a giant fence, which is an ugly/charming feature of this hole. The canyon runs along this hole’s entire right and left sides, meaning if you get through the stressful first shot, the second one is as tense. If you stay safe after the first two shots, you can walk away with a par here.
Number 17 is a steep downhill signature hole type par 3, similar to Torrey North #15, with downtown skyline views instead of the ocean. The short par 4 Number 18 is a favorite, unlike anything you’ll see on a modern course. The fairway shapes fade perfectly and are exceptionally incredibly narrow. Shots hit to the right will sometimes kick down off the hill, but anything missed left, you are back to the first hole and might as well go around for another loop.