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Whole New Approach

Now firm, fast, and fun after an extensive renovation, Robert Trent Jones Jr. has put the pop back in Poppy

By: Tom Cunneff

93953 might not look too good on a scorecard, unless it happens to be part of the address of the course on the back flap. That means it would be located in Pebble Beach, Calif.—“the best zip code in golf,” as the saying goes.

Well, with the reopening of Poppy Hills on April 4th, the neighborhood is about to get even better. Owned by the Northern California Golf Association, the forested layout designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. used to be the fixer-upper down the street because of its poor drainage and dated design, but the curb appeal has improved quite a bit after the remodel by Jones, who made the most of his mulligan. Thanks to hi-tech water mapping, a state-of-the-art irrigation system, and eight inches of sand capping, the course now plays firm and fast—balls actually bounce in the fairway. Jones also vastly improved the design by removing the mounding that was in vogue when he built the course in the mid-'80s, clearing trees to open lines of play, and redoing all the bunkers and greens. Other changes include uncovering a seasonal creek in front of the par-five 9th; building a new 11th, a short par three; and creating a view of Monterey Bay for the first time, on the downhill 12th.

“I call it Poppy 2.o,” says Jones, who lives in the Silicon Valley where every upgrade is a point something. “The only thing you’ll recognize is the corridor of trees and they’re much more revealed now. Everything has changed—bunker patterns, the fairways are much wider. The whole idea was to reveal beautiful Del Monte Forest and occasionally see Monterey Bay off in the distance in a place that is the Vatican of golf where there’s an unbelievable variety of great art. We’re just very proud to do it again.”

The golf world has certainly taken notice. The redo has already attracted the Champions Tour, which just announced it will hold its Nature Valley First Tee Open at Poppy, in addition to Pebble Beach Golf Links, on Sept. 22–28, bringing Poppy back into the PGA Tour fold after serving as part of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am rota from 1991 to 2009. Poppy 10The soggy conditions were a big reason why the Tour left Poppy for Monterey Peninsula Country Club, so it’s a little ironic that the genesis for the renovation was water conservation. It’s an acute issue everywhere but particularly in California (the superintendents of the other six courses in Pebble kindly gave up some of their water allotment so Poppy had enough supply for the grown-in period). The first step in Poppy’s sustainability efforts was to have the Toro Co. conduct an irrigation audit of the entire course with its new GPS soil-assessment service, PrecisionSense, to identify wet and dry spots, the results of which the architects incorporated into the redesign.

“That was an extremely useful tool, something that we didn't have on any other project,” says Bruce Charlton, RTJ II's chief design officer. “It also allowed us to apply that to the golf shots. Wherever water goes, the golf ball follows, so we were able to help the golfer with the way their ball feeds into prime positions and fairways.”

To also save on water, they introduced native waste areas that reduced irrigated turf by 25 percent yet still leaves 60 acres of fairway—more than double a typical course. There’s no rough, either, so golfers can leave the head cover off the driver on the par-71, 7,002-yard layout. It’s a fun test for both the higher handicapper, who will be in the short stuff a lot more, as well as the better player, who will be challenged by trying to find the correct side of the fairway for the best angle into the undulating, bentgrass greens, where the real challenge of the course lies.

“As golfers age, they don't hit the ball as far, but their short game usually doesn't go away,” says Charlton. “One of the things we've really tried to accomplish here at Poppy is really make a player that has great imagination around the green surfaces, bring that player to the forefront and let him or her have the ability to score really, really well.  It may take one more shot to get there, but if they're crafty, got good skills around the greens, they're going to love it.”

The clubhouse also underwent an extensive renovation and serves as the headquarters for the NCGA. Clearly, some office zip codes are better than others.

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