The view flying into most major airports is of thickening subdivisions and boulevards colliding below. But it’s different on the westbound descent into San Diego International. For most of the approach you gaze upon a moonscape of arid rubble with here and there a rooftop or a twist of road. The novice traveler would be excused for thinking: When this plane lands I should tell the authorities there are tiny settlements back there—and people who surely need our help!
Once on the ground, you forget all that and become one with San Diego’s wan contentment. Not to be confused with the blissed-out vibe of L.A., it’s more a Midwestern-style conviction that life is okey-doke. After several days of it, one may ponder anew the stony wilderness that enlivened those final minutes in seat 17C.
To view the backcountry badlands up close, rent a car and drive east on Interstate 8, then northeast on state highways 79 and 78. Most of the trip is through a stark, bleak boneyard called Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, ideal territory for exotic snake breeding. Motoring along, I realized I was deficient in my knowledge of cathartes aura, the desert turkey vulture.
It’s a two-hour passage through this mostly mineral environment, devoid of cell phone service but with blue Emergency Roadway Assistance phones posted every mile or so. If it’s dusk, or dark, a silence may gather in the car, until the most anxious passenger wonders aloud how many of those phones work. That sense of foreboding tells you the cure has worked—Cuyamaca has roused you from San Diego’s blue-sky banality. A few miles later you detour to the site of the now-closed Borrego Ranch Resort, no longer accommodating guests or treating them desert-style comfort and finery.
Not to mention superior golf on a course that was yet another pageant-winner from the design group at Tom Fazio Golf. Serving both Borrego Ranch and its residential real estate component—the gated community of Montesoro—this 7,247-yard course has just a few holes that are bordered by homes. Mostly its groomed fairways are thrust into the silence of the desert floor. Few golf environments I’ve played in have more satisfying acoustics than this one.
Seductive as opposed to intimidating, the Montesoro course (6,856 from its popular gold tees) follows an out-and-back routing. The furthest point from the clubhouse is number eleven green, which hunkers on the edge of a vast, heartbreaking mesa that’s ringed by ocher-hued, craggy mountains.
Playing 556 yards from the back tee, number eleven tumbles down to a huge, bowl-like fairway. Inside its walls, a golfers pounds his way toward a narrow, perched-up green, knowing that beyond this swath of cropped turf lies a thousand-some acres of barrel cacti and iguana skat. And more silence—which will hold until nighttime brings the plangent vocals of the javelina.
The course’s fairway bunkering style favors a terraced look, with irregular pools of white sand spilling down and away from the shelf-edge of each fairway. The seventeenth, at just 346 yards, is characteristic of the Montesoro experience. From the tee, a player sees the landing area for his drive up and to the right and even gets a good glimpse of the green across a shallow canyon to the left. The Anza-Borrego desert’s infinite scrub fills in the picture.
This layout was originally a twenty-seven-hole complex by another designer, and you can still see the fading corpses of an abandoned hole here and there. In routing his redesign, Fazio served up some old-world charm, ending the first nine in a par-3 and starting the back nine with another one.
Of the two, number ten is more memorable. Along its left side is a large, handsome desert pond and bunkers that spill down from a shoulder of the greensite in pretty flashes of white. My five-wood shot from 195 hung proudly over those bunkers for what seemed like forever before drifting a bit further and landing with a beautiful splash.
You wanted your fourball match on Montesoro go down to the wire, because the closing holes here were undeniably stout. The par-4 fourteenth and the 558-yard eighteenth hole require big swings and noisy smashes off the tee to get within attack range of the either green. The eighteenth has a power-alley landing zone between clusters of bunkers. If you don’t happen to make it through the alley, the lower sand traps on the right are a tough place to make par from. I suggested they install one of those blue emergency phones alongside the deepest one.
The resort’s guest rooms were designed with high, beamed ceilings and stucco walls in a cold shade of white that feels appropriate.
It is organized around central hacienda with reception, dining room, bar and a pool area shaded by palms. My dinner in the Fox Bar was a tender grilled skirt steak with poblano. It was enhanced by a conversation between two guests at the end of the bar, one of whom was, like me, on his first visit. The other had made the passage through Cuyamaca Rancho many times, in the years when he and the tavern we were sitting in were less upscale and less buttoned-up. Contemplating how removed the establishment is from staid San Diego, the newcomer nodded knowingly and theorized that “what happened here must have stayed here.”
His companion considered that remark, then winced briefly. “Yeah,” he answered, “not as often as it should have.”