The Champions Course at the Omni Las Costa Resort in Carlsbad, CA, is a fantastic golf course. It contains lots of great, subtle architectural features that make it a challenging and memorable course.
The green complexes were superb, both in their strategic design and impeccable conditioning. The same can be said for the bunkers, which frame the bulk of the course and provide par’s primary defense.
However, playing a round as a daily fee guest was much more of a pure golf experience than I would have expected from such a high-end resort, as the lack of service and attention from the staff was conspicuous.
Also, while the valley that the course occupies is impressive in scale, the scenery surrounding the course lacks the visual “Wow” factor compared to other courses in the Carlsbad area.
The Champions Course was built in 1965 by Dick Wilson as part of a 27-hole golf complex. Joe Lee was updated the course and added an additional nine holes in 1973 and 1984, giving rise to separate North and South courses.
These two courses were partially re-routed and re-touched by Damian Pascuzzo, Steve Pate & Jeff Brauer in 2011, leaving the current incarnations of the Champions and Legends courses.
There is very little elevation change on the Champions Course, save for holes number 16 and 18, so the 7,172 yards from the back tees (course rating/slope of 75.1/140) is close to a true playing yardage.
I found the 6,747 yard blue tees to be plenty enough of a challenge at a course rating of 73.0 and slope of 135, without feeling like the course was too long for me or that I lacked sufficient power to score from those tees.
Despite its relative youth compared to its venerable Eastern and Midwestern brethren, the La Costa Resort is steeped in golf history of significance, as it has played host to 37 PGA Tour events, including the WGC Match Play Championship (now in Arizona) and the Tournament of Champions (now played at Kapalua’s Plantation Course.)
The Champions Course is one on which a golfer definitely gains an advantage if they can move the ball both left and right from the tee and the fairway. If you’re fighting a hook, like I was, it makes the struggle real.
The layout is fantastic in the classical sense, as the course utilizes bunkers and angles to frame most holes and draw a golfer’s eyes from the tee.
It would take uncanny skill and precision to use a ground game of chips and running the ball onto most greens given the narrow, bunkered approaches and slightly tangential angles to the front of many greens from the fairway.
One consistent, ingenious architectural feature was that each green presented multiple possible pin position options that on any given day could either be open to easy attack or very well protected by a hazard, be it one or more bunkers or a shallow water hazard.
The greens were big enough that they contained a fair amount of contour and elevation change, which put a premium on being below the hole. I felt fortunate to get around the course with only two 3-putts.
For the most part, the Champions Course is a grip-it-and-rip-it course from the tee. However, there were a few memorable holes where a sharp dogleg or a water hazard made discretion, or more aptly, caution, the better part of valor.
There are trees all over the course, but when compared to my native Kentucky hardwoods and massive white pines, they felt more like background decorations than part of the course’s defense system.
The signature holes on the Champions Course are definitely the television holes, or final four holes, that conclude the round.
At just 317 yards, the par-4 15th hole is temptingly short so as to encourage a blast from the tee that will nestle down by the green.
However, the green is surrounded by a devious collection of high-walled bunkers and a lake hidden just off the back of the green with a nice closely mown area to help speed a wayward golf ball to a watery death.
The medium length par-3 16th requires an all-carry, downhill tee shot over that lake to a massive green containing multiple latitudinal tiers on which there are no easy two putt pars.
It’s the marquee tee shot for scenic views, as the tee box is elevated up the hill next to the La Costa clubhouse, from which you have a great view of the entire valley and the horizon above it.
The seemingly straightforward par-4 17th hole has an impossible kidney-bean shaped bunker right in the middle of the approach a few yards from the front of the green.
Finally, the Champions Course concludes with an impossibly difficult par-5 that back up from the valley floor toward the massive La Costa clubhouse.
Among the challenges, it’s a 566-yard hole that requires, among other things, a long forced carry from the tee to a narrow fairway with water short, left, right, and long on the left-hand side. That’s just the tee shot.
The lake on the left side runs the length of the entire fairway, which ends in a deep creek about 50 yards short of the front of the green.
There is a collection area on the green-side of the creek, which gives a player to catch his breath before attacking the massive, severely sloping, multi-tiered green. It’s a soul-sapping finish to the round for all but the player that is on top of their game.
During my mid-July visit, the greens were covered with rich, deep green grass that rolled fast, smooth, and true, and very consistent from one green to the next.
This was in stark contrast to the full, but almost scruffy-looking turf that covered the fairways and rough (though those fairway and rough grasses were in great playing condition).
The quality of the course is what I expected to find in a big-name course at a famous destination like La Costa and I would certainly recommend it from a player’s perspective.
However, as a customer, there were several things missing from the overall experience in an area with so many top-notch courses.
The La Costa Resort definitely had the feel of an older, old money resort with a sense of entitlement and a slight air of condescension.
There’s about a quarter-mile walk from the public parking lot to the golf clubhouse with almost no signage or direction to speak of. No shuttle to ferry one back and forth, and not much of a cart staff highlighting the bag drop. Strike One.
I can certainly understand how people from the south or the Midwest can mistake the Californians’ laid-back, relaxed attitudes for being rude or aloof. My interactions with the staff were brief, to be kind.
Because I didn’t know any better, because there weren’t any directional signs, and because there was no one else out front to tell me differently, I walked right through the clubhouse and dining area with my golf bag over my shoulder. I might as well have been invisible. Strike Two.
I hated that I wasn’t allowed to walk the course, even for my mid-late afternoon round. I was told walking the course was reserved for “members” even if I paid the cart fee. Guh, Strike Three. At least my starter, though a little brisk, at least demonstrated a sense of humor.
Mine was a SLOW afternoon round despite the course not looking all that crowded at any particular time. I let others play up with me, including two high school kids on vacation who were either incredibly non-self aware or just plain rude (ugh…Millenials) and a former army helicopter pilot turned surgeon whose company I very much enjoyed.
After the round, the song remained the same with regard to the staff. There were plenty of kids and young men wearing La Costa uniform shirts, but none of them ever looked at me or said a word to me.
I couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to pick up a souvenir beyond my used scorecard.
I suppose the course itself was worth the $135 twilight rate, by Southern California standards anyway, but the venerable La Costa “experience” was definitely lacking, both before and after the round.
La Costa’s Champions Course is a tough, fun, smart, and memorable golf course. However, with so many other great options in the Carlsbad/San Diego area, I doubt I’ll ever have a reason to play it again.