A Playing Review of the New Poppy Hills
March 25, 2014
Poppy Hills Renovation Blog editor Kevin Merfeld was invited to play the newest course in Pebble Beach on Friday. After tracking the course renovation for the past 13 months, he shared his thoughts about playing the new Poppy Hills for the first time. Poppy Hills opens to the public April 4.
We’ve been asked throughout the renovation if Poppy Hills will be tougher or easier when it opens.
It’s more fun. That’s your first takeaway when you play the new course. And I absolutely believe Poppy Hills is a much more forgiving golf course for higher handicaps. By eliminating rough (as well as doglegs), the area of fairway has nearly tripled to a whopping 60 acres. The golf course seems so much wider standing on each tee, yet the forest feels closer to you. It’s quite the design accomplishment.
The forest floor seeps into the course via pine straw, native waste areas and wood chips, and the simple detail that you can actually see the bottoms of trees (mounding and elevated greens previously obstructed those views) creates a new experience. You just feel a much better sense of place, and the serene and quiet forest setting is very comforting and relaxing. It feels like a special nature walk on a remote trail.
Certain holes remind me of the Northwest and Bandon Trails, while others have a tinge of the old Augusta National. The blanket of unencumbered green fairway running into the forest floor is one of my favorite looks in golf. But most of all, it just fits here. It’s a unique style that can’t be recreated anywhere else, because the beautiful blend of Monterey Pines and Gowen Cypress is exclusive to this corner of the Del Monte Forest. It’s even a different feeling than the inland holes at Spyglass Hill or Cypress Point or Pebble Beach or the Dunes Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club.
It’s Poppy Hills.
Here’s another look indigenous to Poppy Hills: a little white ball popping from the brown pine straw like a lightbulb:
By eliminating rough, short game play can be simplified for higher handicaps. Instead of hacking out of a bunker 6 feet below the green, or trying to chip or figure out how to chop through heavy rough, there are so many more low-risk options. There is still the ability to automatically reach for a lob wedge and chip, but you can also grab your 3-wood or hybrid, a 7-iron or 9-iron or whatever fits your eye, or putt from well off the green.
No rough is also a fun challenge for the better player. While the fairways are much wider, there’s no buffer of rough to act as a guard rail and prevent your offline shot from reaching the forest. And trying to nip a lob wedge from a tight lie 6 feet below the green is a much more precise shot than splashing out of a greenside bunker, or flopping from of a fluffy lie. Get used to playing the ball on the ground, and figuring out how much the fairway is going to take off the scooting little 7-iron chip you have. Judging shots is just as much a part of the new Poppy Hills as hitting them. And that’s fun.
The course really does play firm and fast, thanks to the miracle of sand capping. Drives hit and release, and it was a pleasant surprise to see a high drive bound 10 yards forward on the first bounce in Pebble Beach. While Poppy Hills measures 139 yards longer from the back tees than previously, you can make up most of that distance with drives that actually release, instead of backing up.
But beware, firm and fast fairways everywhere also mean a loose drive running toward a bunker isn’t going to conveniently hit the brakes, as it would have circa 2012.
You notice the positive effects of sand capping right out of the gate, as the first hole added yardage, but can play shorter if you take advantage of the flattened fairway and a helpful kicker slope short and left of the green, which ushers balls toward the putting surface. Just aim down the left side of the fairway, away from the bunker and ravine, and watch a running shot bleed safely right and onto the green.
I do have to admit that as I’ve played golf around Northern California the past three months leading up to the Opening, I’ve imagined each course without rough. And each time, I’ve concluded that no rough would be a massive improvement. No rough makes each hole more inviting off the tee, and provides a variety of options on approach shots and around the green. Sometimes choosing which option to commit to is the hardest — and most important — part about the shot.
Many of the new holes at Poppy Hills favor a certain side of the fairway, and it’s fun to figure out yourself what angles give you the best looks into greens, as well as what slopes will carry your ball toward or away from the putting surface. You really have to survey the shot in front of you to determine what line to attack the green. And sometimes, that line isn’t on the green at all.
The bentgrass greens themselves are incredibly fun, and rank up there with the nicest I’ve ever putted. The wild contouring of AT&Ts past has been reconsidered, and the steep decks and tiers have been wiped out. No more sucking 7-irons back 30 feet on soft and treacherous poa annua greens. Now approaches are met by firm greens with smooth and subtle contours. The bentgrass greens track right where you hit them, and everything feels much more makable than before. There is very noticeable grain now (look for the shiny stuff to see where the grain is pointing), which is certainly something to calculate when reading greens and judging speed.
There are also many more hole location options, since the strong slopes (i.e. unpinnable parts of the putting surface) in the middle of greens have been removed. In short, putts traversing 40 or 50 feet aren’t nearly as daunting as before, and almost every look inside 20 feet feels makable.
But the greens at Poppy Hills are far from sitting ducks. Each green was designed to maximize hole locations, especially along the edge of hazards. The firmness of the greens makes it very important to plan where you want to land your ball, as even wedges will roll out 5-10 feet. Don’t expect to throw a dart pin-high and have your shot finish where it landed. But it’s very rewarding to discover the internal contours and currents in the greens, and have them sweep your ball toward the hole.
Here is a heat map of the new ninth hole, with black dots depicting all of the available hole locations. Notice how many are available on the left and back sides of the green, which conveniently line the edge of a creek. The green flows front right to back left: So is Poppy Hills easier than before? The start here reminds me of the daunting opening stretch of the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, and how players were fighting to survive Nos. 1-6.
We played from the 4 Poppies set of tees, a 6,672-yard layout with a 10- mph wind puffing at us all day. And it was plenty long. Poppy Hills still has some interesting changes in elevation to negotiate. Removing the artificial mounding that previously existed only brings the natural flow of the land on this unique property more into focus.
A 416-yard opening hole with intruding trees and a hazard to the right greets you, followed by a 189-yard par 3 over a ravine to one of the most active greens on the course, then an uphill 431-yard partially blind par 4, a stout 572-yard par 5, and finally, a 439-yarder lined by trees and a hillside waste area. Oh, and No. 5 almost always plays into the wind.
I would say that the first eight holes are every bit as challenging as either nine at Spyglass Hill (my old high school stomping ground). In fact, I’d argue that the front nine has five of the toughest seven par 4s at Poppy Hills, the toughest par 3 and the toughest par 5.
But even though the first eight holes are taxing, there are some very fun and memorable shots. Every green has a helpful slope flanking it, and the approaches into Nos. 6 and 8 are tucked into beautiful new forest settings previously obstructed by unnecessarily raised putting surfaces.
But it’s the last 10 holes where you will experience the most variety and risk-reward shots, and get away from the beastly par 4s. (No. 16 is still 430, but the putting surface is much more reasonable, and the one bunker fronting the semi-bowled green creates an interesting and thoughtful approach shot.)
The three remaining par 5s are reachable when the conditions are right, and two of them include gut-check shots that challenge hazards. Poppy Hills finally has a short par 3 in No. 11, and it’s probably my favorite shot on the course. But the 200-yard Redan-style 15th is close behind it, as you have to imaginatively send your tee shot well right of the hole to get it close.
The new 12th hole with its spectacular ocean view is a wonderfully surprising vista at Poppy Hills, but the tee shot is one of the most strategic on the course, as you must decide which one of four bunkers to take on, while out-of-bounds lurks right:
So the question I’ve been trying to answer this whole time: Is the new par 71 easier than the old par 72 Poppy Hills?
On the surface, Poppy Hills should play much easier. The fairways are bigger and easier to hit, the approaches are more forgiving and accept a wider variety of shots, and the greens are simpler and smoother.
But the beauty of this redesign is the flexibility it gave the course. The par 3s all play a different yardage (148-200 from 4 Poppies; 161-223 from the back tees), and tournaments have five sets of tees to choose from instead of four. Even the 2 Poppies and 1 Poppy tees will be sprinkled into scratch events.
But the real secret to Poppy Hills is flexibility in the redesigned greens. There are easy pins on every green, in flat areas that slopes dump into. But there are also so many more sucker pins that require a true understanding of each green. If Poppy Hills wants to bunker down and board up against par, it can do so easily — and fairly. No high-and-dry stuff. Just very well protected portions of the green.
Poppy Hills can toy with your ego and test your machismo. A devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other is advising you on every approach. (Pebble Beach is golf heaven, right?) The safe shot is always there, but you might have to aim away from the flag to do so. Want to hit that hero shot? It’s there too, but you will pay with par if you miss.
And it’s that continuing education that makes me want to play Poppy Hills again and again. I think you will find that, too.
I tweeted photos from every hole of my first round at Poppy Hills on Friday. See below for a first-person look at the course, plus some notes longer than 140 characters. The round appears with me starting on the back nine. You can also see the Poppy Hills Course Tour here.
Just like the fairways at Poppy Hills, the driving range was also flattened out. It used to be a steep canyon where you couldn’t see shots land short of about 150 yards. It’s a very nice facility with seven green targets now.
The right side of the hole is more inviting because a giant hillside catches drives and water is left on the approach. But a layup right creates a challenging angle across a slightly crowned green, bringing the water more into play than you might think.
I enjoyed the wood sticks and red flags. They really pop against the forest backdrop. No more red, white and blue flags, but there will be daily in sheets available in the pro shop. The hole locations will also be uploaded to the app EZ Locator ePinsheet.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a green setting like this one. The sharp slope falling from the tree line on the right is unique, and if you block it right, you will find one of three deep bunkers. It’s a great looking hole with a skinny green that slopes more left-to-right than it looks.
The old 12th green always stood out to me because it was a pretty crazy optical illusion that actually ran front to back. The new green still does that. It’s the Mystery Spot of Poppy Hills. (The slope of the land also falls away pretty sharply to the Monterey Bay behind the green.)
The 13th green is the most undulating on the course, but you can access the left side by actually missing left and using the fairway to funnel on. The green works left-to-right overall, so playing toward the middle of the putting surface might be the best way to reach a right hole location.
There are four bunkers around the green, and a false front left. But you should have a short iron into this par 4. Still a challenging approach. It was somewhat modeled after No. 17 at Spyglass Hill.
A fun shot. There’s a strong bank short right that most shots will utilize, but a ball that reaches the middle of the green on that line falls off into a fairway swale. Short left is a deep bunker, and a ball that lands on the green is difficult to hold.
This is right of the 16th green, with the 17th tee in the background.
The tee shot is largely unchanged, but the green is subtler, and protected by just one bunker now. Left of the green feeds back down to the putting surface.
Learned this from project architect Mike Gorman. To get close to a front hole location, you can kill your shot in the fairway just over the bunkers and have it trickle on. From the tee, it looks like the bunkers come right up to the green’s edge. It’s the only time RTJ II did this at the new Poppy Hills.
Went for this in two and rolled it just off the back edge with a middle pin. That used to be a treacherous putt, from one tier to another that was lucky to stay on the green. It was still quick, but I was able to cozy it down there, an illustration of how much gentler this 18th green has become.
That’s the play now. You can get blocked out from seeing the green if you drive it down the right side of the fairway, but a second shot at that left bank will work its way down to the putting surface.
A flag tucked left over the bunker is simply a very difficult shot. Start it at the right half of the green and try and draw it in there. You can catch a nice bowl if you do it right, but finish above the hole and good luck two-putting.
The new green is much more accommodating (it had a steep top shelf before), but it’s still at the end of a 431-yard uphill dogleg left. I’d rank it the second toughest hole at the new Poppy Hills, only behind No. 5.
When you start Poppy Hills from No. 1, this is where you first feel the influence of the native waste areas. It’s 629 from the Jones Trail, and 572 from 4 Poppies. Have to imagine this is a three-shotter for everyone, although the former double dogleg plays much straighter than before.
I thought this was definitely the toughest hole at Poppy Hills. The drive feels tight, but there’s more room than it looks. But even if you hit the fairway, it’s a long second shot (into the wind) to a green bracketed by bunkers. Past the green, the fairway falls away sharply toward the sixth tee.
Big improvement to what was a wild green with three dramatic sections. It was lowered substantially, bringing the forest into play for those who miss long.
This hole is sneaky tough, as the 400-yard par 4 climbs 50 feet to a two-tiered green. While the green is softer than before, it feels more like the old greens than any other at Poppy Hills. (And that’s OK, two-tiered greens haven’t been banned from the game of golf.)
A beautiful downhill approach shot that was one of my favorites on the course. It feels like a Tahoe hole the way the green sneaks out of the forest.
If I have the chance to go for this green in two, I can’t see myself passing it up. It is such a fun drop-shot, and the green was designed for 10 different hole locations to be marched along the creek’s edge.