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Poppy Hills reopens—the NCGA has polished a jewel in ‘Golf’s Greatest Zip Code’

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Poppy Hills Golf Course, the home course of the Northern California Golf Association, was reopened yesterday after a year-long makeover.

In a ceremony attended by golf media, NCGA members and operating personnel, and a number of past presidents of the 113-year-old golf association, the wholly-transformed layout in the heart of “Golf’s Greatest Zip Code” was ceremonially reopened for play. Public play on the course begins April 4, 2014 – tee times can be reserved now at http://www.poppyhillsgolf.com/.

Ceremonial first tee shots were hit from the 1st tee by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the architect for both editions of Poppy Hills, who also hit the first shot 28 years ago; Brian Morse, current president of the NCGA; Derrell Biddy, president of Poppy Holding Company, which oversees golf operations at Poppy Hills and its sister course, Poppy Ridge, in Livermore; and Patrick Moran, an 11-handicap golfer representing the 150,000 members of the NCGA (Patrick won a contest which was run by the NCGA over the last few weeks to determine the member representative for the ceremony).

Poppy Hills was closed down in March 2013, stripped to its bones (figuratively speaking) and rebuilt from the ground up. The revitalized layout, which casts aside design compromises that were made in the name of budget restrictions at the time of its initial construction in 1986, will allow Poppy Hills to step out of the shadow of its world-class neighbors in the Del Monte Forest – Monterey Peninsula Country Club, Spyglass Hill, Cypress Point, and Pebble Beach Golf Links – and assume a better-regarded position in the pantheon of Monterey Peninsula golf courses.

The makeover began as a long-needed update to the irrigation system. According to Bruce Charlton, Chief Design Officer for Robert Trent Jones II Golf Course Architects, the design firm retained for the makeover, “…the project was born out of a water conservation concept. Poppy Hills was looking at totally changing the irrigation system, looking at some of the newer technologies out there. We […] analyzed the existing course with the Toro Company, using a series of mapping techniques they use to analyze existing golf courses.”

The water-use mapping performed by Toro led not only to the modernization of the irrigation system, but also to design changes to the course to reduce water demands. The entire playable area of the layout was sand-capped to a depth of 5-1⁄2 inches to improve drainage, and areas of high, grassy rough were eliminated, leading to a 20-acre reduction in irrigated area. The rough was largely replaced by natural waste areas – sandy, but not considered hazards – and natural, pine straw- or wood chip-covered areas which give the course a natural look which is more in keeping with the forest environment.

The design changes to the course include general re-contouring to return the course to the natural elevations of the site, as well as comprehensive reworking of the following holes:

  • The 12th hole has been converted to straightaway par 4 (it was formerly a dogleg right par 5), and now features a commanding view across Monterey Bay (weather permitting).
  • The lake along the right side of the 5th hole has been replaced by a natural sand area with tall native fescue grasses.
  • The 11th hole remains a par 3, but has been reshaped to create a shorter shot to a green tucked into the forest.
  • The 9th hole has been given a streamlined fairway and a repositioned green, providing a more direct approach to the green.

As a result of the reduction in irrigated area, sand-capping and re-contouring, Poppy Hills has been transformed into a notable example of one of the prime design principles of Dr Alister Mackenzie, architect of Cypress Point, Augusta National, and Pasatiempo, among many other highly-regarded courses worldwide. Dr Mackenzie held that the goal of a golf course architect is to make a course playable, without undue frustration, by the less-skilled golfer, while at the same time offering a challenge to low-handicap or scratch players.

The revitalized Poppy Hills meets Dr Mackenzie’s criteria splendidly. The replacement of rough by natural waste areas means that off-line shots are generally findable – and more importantly, playable. Sixty acres of fairway (comparable to an average of twenty acres of fairway at most courses) provides an abundance of playable area. Along with the improved drainage resulting from the sand-capping, a wholesale reduction of grass height to ½-inch throughout the playable area of the course bears out the new Poppy Hills motto – “Firm. Fast. Fun.”

The remodeled layout combines risk, reward, and playability in a pristine Del Monte Forest setting. Most holes on the course present the option to play approach shots through the air or along the ground, and while well-hit tee shots reward the player with a favorable position for the next shot, the fast-running qualities of the fairways mean that shots which are long, but off-line, are likely to run into a waste area, presenting a less-than-ideal second shot.

In short, the new Poppy Hills is a dramatic re-imagining and reconfiguring of the NCGA’s flagship course, elevating the layout to an equal footing with its world-renowned neighbors in “Golf’s Greatest Zip Code”.

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