My outing to Maderas Golf Club this summer was far and away my favorite round of golf of 2016.
The beautiful desert canyon scenery, the fun but tough course, the fantastic hospitality from the staff, and the company of the best man in my wedding who has all but given up the game added up to a morning that I won’t soon forget.
Maderas is a high-end daily fee 18-hole golf club in Poway, California, with a relaxed country club feel that provides 5-star level hospitality and an amazing golf experience.
It’s one of a handful of super high-end golf courses (resort, daily fee, and private) north of the La Jolla area of San Diego that holds its own among such stiff competition.
Located 20 miles inland from Encinitas and the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Maderas is set in a desert canyon that simultaneously provides a truly serene backdrop and stark contrast to the lush green of Maderas’ playing surfaces.
The course was built as part of a luxury housing development, but the enormous homes are far removed not only from play on the course, but also from most sight lines while playing the course, so it definitely does not feel like a residential golf course.
Maderas was designed by World Golf Hall of Famer Johnny Miller and the late, great, primarily west coast architect Robert Muir Graves, and opened for public play in 2000.
The club is managed by Troon Golf, who made every aspect of the Maderas experience truly incredible, from the warm friendly hospitality and free morning coffee, to the top of the line rental clubs with a six-pack of Callaway balls included, to the immaculately adorned driving range.
I had to change my reservation three times, due to fluctuating flight schedules, multiple changes in the composition and number of golfers for my tee time, and on-again-off-again reservations of rental clubs and golf boards. The Maderas staff accommodated every request with calm and ease, going out of their way to make sure we got the experience that worked for everyone.
The clubhouse at Maderas is elegant in its simplicity, and perhaps undersized and understated when compared to other opulent clubs in the area, but it has all the charms and fine furnishings you’d expect to find at a top-notch facility.
The course at Maderas proved equal parts fun and challenge, striking a nice balance between the two. It’s certainly not the hardest luxury course I’ve played (see my thoughts on Cog Hill), but it isn’t a course that requires a ton of “local knowledge” in order to post a decent score.
The design emphasizes the use of the natural terrain to frame the holes, incorporating significant elevation changes from tee to green, rolling, tilted fairways, and natural hazards found in the form of ravines and creeks, plus three man-made lakes, creating an amazing aesthetic.
These layout challenges are smartly coupled with what I found were an appropriate number of strategic fairway and green-side bunkers that direct play and defend par.
Also, in contrast to the La Costa experience, Maderas being much further inland, mature trees played a larger role framing holes and punishing errant shots.
Part of the genius of the design is that course is an almost perfectly balanced golf course with regard to the shape of shots demanded.
The front nine, with several slight and severe doglegs left, primarily favors a draw, but playing partner and I can attest that one pays a steep penalty for overcooking it and hooking drives or approach shots.
That script is flipped on the back nine, as that side slightly favors a fade to correctly attack the greens and stay out of trouble. Yet, again, overdoing the lateral movement on any shot is penalized by some combination of trees, ravines, elevation change, and natural undergrowth.
Some golfers may critique Maderas as target golf, which would be fair to an extent, because what trouble exists is obvious, discouraging a grip-it-and-rip-it strategy.
However, it’s not a course that one necessarily has to drive great from the tee to score well, and there is enough room in most fairways to get away with a less than ideal shot shape (i.e., turning one over right-to-left even if the hole favors a fade, etc.).
To wit, I had awful stretch of hitting sharp hooks from the tee, but was able to get out of trouble more often than not with less than hero-level aggressiveness, which is perhaps an ode to Johnny Miller’s infamously aggressive style at his peak run in the 1970’s.
The large, multiple-contour greens were quick, especially after the sun broke through the morning cloud layer, but they weren’t so oppressively fast that they produce many true knee-knocking downhill putts. The putting surfaces were as smooth and lush as one would expect, and are large enough to support a variety of strategy-altering pin positions on each.
I don’t know that Maderas has a true signature hole or iconic sequence of holes, though it does have many holes that I specifically remember fondly. Instead, I think the entire aesthetic of the golf course, how it is naturally blended into its canyon setting, is the Maderas signature.
Of the most memorable holes, I think that the 3rd hole is a great risk-reward, downhill par 5, with a creek and a bunker dividing the end of the fairway from the green and approach at approximately 100 yards out from the hole.
The short par-4 ninth hole is another clever risk-reward opportunity. From an elevated tee, lakes guard the entire left side of the fairway, while the widest part of the fairway ends in another lake at approximately 250 yards from the tee, encouraging a conservative laying back strategy.
However, for the power player, on a straight line from the tee to the green, an approximately 265 yard carry will clear the lakes and leave an excellent scoring opportunity on a green that slopes severely from back to front, encouraging this exact super-aggressive play.
The par 5 15th hole plays uphill for 500+ yards to a blind, elevated green. A deep, narrow, tree-lined ravine guards the entire left side of the fairway, and fleshed out into a massive, gnarly ravine at the end of the fairway approximately 90 yards from the center of the green.
There’s an entire world to play from on the right side of the hole, but one pull, hook, or overcooked draw and the hole is what golf nightmares are made of. It’s a beautiful and memorable hole perhaps because it is so difficult.
The final three holes, all with elevated tee boxes, provide perhaps the best views of the surrounding canyon walls of the entire property. Perhaps the distraction of natural beauty is part of the course design strategy, cutting into a player’s focus as he or she tries to navigate three of Maderas’s toughest tee shots.
The 16th hole is a long, narrow par 4 with a ravine bisecting the fairway about 135 yards out from the green, with the green terraced into a large, elevated, left-to-right sloping hillside.
The short, par-3 17th hole requires one of longer forced carries at Maderas into a four-leafed clover green far below the elevated tee, while the long, par 5 finishing hole is a beastly long hole with a forced carry tee shot amidst the swirling winds from an elevated tee.
Even though my scorecard was a wreck by the time I reached the 18th hole, the beautiful views of the closing stretch of holes made it all somehow okay. Maderas isn’t a course that beats a player down, even though pars and birdies can prove elusive if a player isn’t on top of their game.
This was my first, and I hope not my only, trip to the San Diego area. The best compliment I can give Maderas is that if I’m ever in the area again, even with so many trophy courses in the area, I would make it a point to tee it up there at least one more time.
It is an expensive round of golf, with green fees ranging from $85 – $175 during the week and $105 – $210 on the weekends. However, having now played more than a handful of expensive rounds at big name courses, only the comparably priced Kapalua Plantation Course and Harbour Town exceeded what Maderas can offer in terms of the full golf experience.
Also, it should be noted that, while our group did not rent them, Maderas does have GolfBoards available for rent for rounds at their course. The Wife was thrilled that we didn’t end up renting them because she was afraid I’d go all Clark Griswald on one, but after witnessing a foursome with an average age in there late-50s riding the boards, we should have.
If that sort of new age fun is your thing, I’d think a highly contoured course like Maderas would be a great experience, and something to keep in mind if you are considering visiting the course.
It may not be a household name on the tips of the tongues of hackers everywhere, but Maderas delivers on providing a top-notch, memorable golf experience in one of the most beautiful settings found near a major metropolitan area.