Golf in San Diego: A Brief History

Matt Beasley Matt Beasley
15 minute read

golf in san diego

I've been extremely lucky to call San Diego home for the last 18 years, a place on the coast with lots of sun, an average temperature of around seventy degrees, and some of the best golf courses in the world. San Diego is one of the best golf vacation destinations anywhere. It has evolved into a golfer's paradise with some of the most picturesque courses on the West coast. During the golf boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, San Diego jumped on the wave and really refined its golf scene, building sparkling new resorts and golf courses set among the mountains and residential communities.

San Diego wasn't always the golf mecca that it is today. Yes, classic golf course designs from the game's past eras can be found among the 90-plus golf courses in San Diego County. But it's the evolution and the history of golf in San Diego that fascinates me, so I decided to write the ultimate guide on San Diego's golf history. Of course, to get to well over 90+ courses today, you had to start with one, and that's where our journey through time begins, so hop in my golf way back machine, and let's start our adventure.

The year was 1896, Utah was admitted as the 45th U.S. state, actor George Burns was born, and in the 1896 U.S. presidential election, Republican William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan. But, more importantly, the idea of golf and creating the first golf course in San Diego, California, was born. Actually, it was a couple who had never heard of the game of golf who planted the seed that became the first course, eventually called the San Diego Country Club. According to San Diego Country Club records, Charles Douglas and his wife (recorded in the club's history only as Mrs. Douglas) were out foraging for mushrooms one fall day in 1896 when they stumbled upon an odd little ball that they could not identify. On their way back, the couple stopped by the home of Dr. and Mrs. William Edwards, who had moved to San Diego from the East, to show them the strange little object "that might have been some petrified shrub fruit." The Edwards "were highly amused" by the find. It was a golf ball, one of several they had lost while trying to play golf in the heavy brush on a University Heights mesa. So the Easterners introduced the Douglas' to golf and enrolled them in what became, in 1897, the San Diego Country Club. A dozen or so charter club members and some hired men cleaned off the brush and tumbleweeds on the Balboa Park land loaned to them by the City of San Diego and created a primitive 9-hole course with unimproved fairways and tamped-sand greens. The 495-yard second hole stretched from what is now the San Diego Zoo parking lot to the green situated on the site of the Old Globe Theatre.


It all began in 1897 when the club's first facility of nine holes was built in Balboa Park on land donated by the City of San Diego. The 495-yard second hole stretched from what is now the San Diego Zoo parking lot to the green situated on the site of the Old Globe Theatre. The original 300-square-foot clubhouse was enlarged in 1898, and equal-sized locker rooms were added, as there were as many women members as men. In 1904, the voting membership recorded 77 women and 77 men, and by 1910 the Club membership numbered 233 members. Further expansion was necessary, and the club built a two-story clubhouse complete with a ballroom, eating facilities, and 142 lockers for $11,300.  

As the club continued to grow and prosper into the early 1900s, there were a group of San Diego businessmen and officials started to plant the seed of hosting the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego instead of San Francisco. The Exposition was, in fact, granted to San Diego in 1912, and City officials notified the San Diego Country Club that it would need all of Balboa Park, including the golf course, for the Pan American Exposition in 1915. The final eviction notice was served in June 1913.


In 1914, the club was evicted due to construction for the 1915 Pan American Exposition in Balboa Park. It was then agreed to merge with sporting goods magnate A.G. Spaulding's Point Loma Golf Club, located in Loma Portal, just west of what now is the San Diego airport. The Loma Portal clubhouse was very grand, and there was an eighteen-hole course, part of which can still be seen as the Sail Ho Golf Course in Liberty Station. However, due to World War 1 and the influx of military, and the subsequent residential development of the area, the San Diego Country Club decided that a more permanent site was required.


So, in 1920, 157 acres were purchased in Chula Vista because of the reasonable price and the availability of an ample water supply. On September 3, 1921, the 23,000 square-foot clubhouse, designed by noted architect Richard S. Requa, and the golf course designed by a young William Watson were officially opened. The course featured the first grass greens in San Diego County when sand greens were the standard of the time. William Watson designed many great courses, including the site of multiple U.S. Opens, and many of the area's private clubs including the La Jolla Country Club.


In 1927, La Jolla Country Club was incorporated. It's layout, costing in total $84,000, rolled up and down through narrow coastal canyons. Its marked characteristic was its small, tilted greens.

La Jolla Country Club was a huge success, but the joy was short-lived because the Great Depression would hit in 1929. La Jolla CC struggled to stay afloat for the next decade until World War II brought golf royalty to La Jolla, with Sam Snead, Jimmy Demaret, and Jackie Burke Jr. frequently playing with members while serving in the military.


Both the Great Depression and World War II posed enormous challenges for golf in San Diego, as the same could be said for most of the country, many of the club's members enlisted in the war effort. However, there was one huge highlight in 1947, when the San Diego Country Club promoted and hosted a 36-hole match between Ben Hogan and Dai Rees, the British Open Champion.


The 1950s proved to be a mini-boom for golf in San Diego. Multiple golf courses started to take shape along the coast, including the Coronado Golf Course, Sycuan Resort's Willow Glen and Oak Glen courses, Riverwalk Golf Club, and the famous Torrey Pines North and South. But, most importantly, it was the creation of the PGA Tour's San Diego Open in 1952, created by San Diego Country Club member Andy Borthwick, that put San Diego on the map in the world of golf.


The San Diego Open was created and hosted by the San Diego Country Club. 

The club was the host of the first two events in 1952 (won by Ted Kroll) and in 1953 (won by Tommy Bolt). After that, the event moved around a bit as it was played at Mission Valley Country Club in 1955, then went to Singing Hills Country Club in El Cajon in October 1956. and in 1957 landed at Mission Valley C.C. where it stayed through 1963. Mission Valley changed its name to Stardust Country Club in 1962 (and is now known as Riverwalk Golf Club). Finally finding a permanent residence at Torrey Pines in 1968, it is now called the Farmers Insurance Open.

The first PGA Event on San Diego soil did not come without controversy, as this was a turbulent time for race relations between African Americans golfers and the PGA, which had denied them access to competition. Joe Louis competed as a sponsors invite and helped open the door for those behind.


You can't properly make a history of golf in San Diego without diving into one of the most famous courses in the world, Torrey Pines. This beautiful course has a history all its own and deserves a little extra attention.

The headline date of this section reads 1955, but the history of this land dates back to the 30s and '40s; before it was a world-class golf facility, the land that would become Torrey Pines Golf Course was called Camp Callan.

Camp Callan was used as a military training center, and with the advent of World War II, the U.S. Army leased 750 acres of Torrey Pines Mesa from the City of San Diego for training purposes. The Camp was created as an anti-aircraft artillery replacement training center. It extended from the southernmost boundaries of Torrey Pines Park towards the Muir Campus of UCSD. In return for an occupational permit to use the lower portion of the park, the military had to guarantee that no part of the park would be damaged. The park itself was kept open to the public. The Camp opened during January 1941 and closed in November 1945. The buildings were torn down and used for lumber to build homes for veterans.

Enter the Legendary William F. Bell, who submitted a plan to the city for an 18-hole golf course in 1950. Bell envisioned the design of a wind and sea-swept golf course that would afford golfers both rugged play and breathtaking surroundings, but he passed away in 1953 before construction could begin. A special city election in 1956 resulted in about 100 acres of what used to be Camp Callan being set aside for constructing a public golf course, with the rest of the land given to the State of California. Before the decade was out, Bell's son, William F., would ensure his father's vision was realized by overseeing the completion of the North and South courses at Torrey Pines on those 100 acres.


In 1964, the U.S. Women's Open Championship was held at San Diego Country Club and was won by Mickey Wright, a native San Diegan who was a junior member of the club as a teenager in the early fifties.


Johnny Miller held off Jack Nicklaus to win by one stroke in the Wickes-Andy Williams San Diego Open. Nicklaus, playing his first tournament of the four-week-old season, came storming back from seven strokes behind with a course record 64, eight under par on the south course of Torrey Pines. His card included two eagles, five birdies, and one bogey. 

In the 1970s and 1980s golf courses popped up all over the place, and by the 1990s, many of the older courses had undergone a redesign of some kind to freshen the courses up a bit, including Torrey Pines and the San Diego Country Club.


In August of 1993, the San Diego Country Club hosted the 93rd U.S. Women's Amateur Championship. Players from 35 states and 7 European countries compete in the National Championship. Jill McGill of USC defeated Sarah Ingram 1-up in a thrilling 36-hole match and won the Championship.


In the spring of 1999, the City of San Diego Parks & Recreation Department began a five-year program of planning and funding capital improvements to the Torrey Pines and Balboa Park golf courses. The goal was to improve the quality of the Torrey Pines courses and thus attract a better-quality field for the annual PGA Tour event. Each of the major golf associations recommended world-renowned designer Rees Jones.

Rees Jones has restored courses for major championships, including PGA Tour, USGA, and PGA of America competition courses. Rees Jones had a reputation for improving the course but leaving the original layout intact out of respect for the original course architect.

Torrey Pines' South course was selected to be the first of two courses restored because it was thought that the course needed to be updated in order to hold a U.S. Open, which is precisely what happened in 2008. The restoration included moving four green structures and adding ten new tees to lengthen the course from just over 7000 yards to a whopping 7600 yards.

Rees Jones and his team provided an incredibly competitive layout for the pros, incorporated the breathtaking beauty of Torrey Pines, and gave the golfing public a fair and memorable course to enjoy year around.


Tiger matched George Burns's scoring record at Torrey Pines with a blistering 266 (-22). It was his first of eight 1999 victories, including the PGA Championship, and set him on his way towards running the table on every major award that season.


The first United States Open Championship came to San Diego in 2008 and was played on the South Course at Torrey Pines from June 12th-16th. In the 108th playing of the U.S. Open Championship, Tiger Woods won his third U.S. Open and 14th major title, defeating Rocco Mediate on the first hole of sudden-death, following an 18-hole playoff. With the victory, Woods moved into elite company, as he joined Jack Nicklaus as the only two players to win the career grand slam three times.

The win for Woods and the accomplishment of winning the grand slam three times was sensational, but it's not the only reason the 2008 U.S. Open is one of the most famous events to be played on San Diego soil, as the win was more about how Tiger Woods did it.

Not many expected Woods to play, including Woods himself, as he entered the tournament with an ailing knee that left him unable to practice leading up to the event. At times Woods winced in pain but forged ahead to ultimately win and cement himself as a legend in the golfing world.

Two days after the Championship, Woods revealed that he would miss the remainder of the 2008 season after undergoing knee surgery, this was his last win in a major championship until the 2019 Masters.

2013 & 2017

The San Diego Country Club hosted the Southern California Amateur Championship in 2013, won by Beau Hossler over Xander Schauffele. Schauffelle became PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 2017.


The San Diego Country Club hosted the 117th U.S. Women's Amateur Championship in August 2017. Sophia Schubert of Tennessee and a rising senior at the University of Texas, prevailed over Albane Valenzuela of Switzerland and attending Stanford University.


For the second, and perhaps the final time, The United States Open Championship was held in San Diego at Torrey Pines.

In the 121st playing of this tournament, Jon Rahm made a birdie on each of the final two holes to become the first U.S. Open champion from Spain and to win his first major Championship. Rahm finished one shot ahead of South African Louis Oosthuizen, who had held a share of the lead going into the final round. 

San Diego has a rich history in golf and hosting some of the best golf events, but it's the courses you can play that will have you coming back. Many of the courses hold the old values and style of yesteryear. Golf course design has come a long way in the last century, but there is something to be said for playing a course built to embrace the beauty that is San Diego.

I have compiled a list of a few courses that are a must-play when visiting San Diego. Trust me, you won't be disappointed.

Rancho Bernardo Inn

rancho bernardo inn golf

Rancho Bernardo Inn is one of San Diego's classic golf retreats, debuting in 1962 and designed by William F. Bell; Rancho Bernardo Inn features big bunkers, a narrow fairway, and doglegs wrapping around trees and water. This is also one of the most scenic courses you will play, especially the short par-3s along the water.

Singing Hills Golf Resort at Sycuan

singing hills golf

Singing Hills Golf Resort is spread over 425 acres and offers 54 award-winning holes of golf including two Championship courses and an Executive course. You must show your refined short game, and superb course management to master this test of golf.

Carlton Oaks Lodge & Country Club

carlton oaks golf

Where do the pros play when they are not at Torrey Pines? Yup, Carlton Oaks Lodge & Country Club. It's a course that won't give up a shot at modern technology thanks to a redesign of the original 1958 layout by P.B. Dye. It now plays up to 7,400 yards.

Torrey Pines North and South

torrey pines golf

How could we have a list of golf courses in San Diego and not include the North and South Courses a Torrey Pines. They are a must-play.

Coronado Golf Course

coronado golf

This coveted, value-laden municipal course on the harbor dates back to the 1950s. It is a sunny, dead flat walk along harbor-front holes with ocean breezes. Coronado tops out less than 6,600 yards, and you'll have to shape some shots around palm trees.

Aviara Golf Club

aviara golf

This is scenic resort golf at its best, with beautifully manicured grounds that are expertly landscaped with native wildflowers. This course features a nice assortment of par 3s, a memorable downhill par 5 (No. 8), and a tough finishing hole—a dogleg par 4 that wraps around water. Also home to the LPGA Tour's Kia Classic, in March.

Omni La Costa Champions and Legends

omni la costa golf

There are two 18-hole courses at this classic Carlsbad resort, each with a distinct look and set of challenges. The Legends is a spacious, open layout that provides just the right level of difficulty. The Champions, dating to 1965, is an historic tournament venue that has hosted 37 PGA Tour events.

Balboa Park Municipal Golf Course

balboa golf

Balboa Park Municipal Golf Course is the oldest of the San Diego municipal courses, dating back to 1915 and set in the 1,200-acre city park. It's a William P. Bell design that has since been altered and tops out at 6,288 yards. 


Rich in history and rooted in idyllic weather conditions, San Diego is the perfect spot for your next golf vacation.

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