Balboa Park Golf Course. Photo by JW August

The U.S. Open at the Torrey Pines Golf Course earlier this year had one benefit you may not have heard about.

As part of the deal to bring the tournament to San Diego again, the city agreed to have an expert check out the Balboa Park Golf Course.

The course is run by the city, and its chief spokesperson, Tim Graham, cautions that the assessment by the United States Golf Association “provides recommendations to help improve all aspects of the golf course and the city is not required to adhere to all recommendations they receive.”

Already, though, some of the suggestions are being implemented, including a controversial decision to knock down mature trees on the course.

Brian Whitlark, a senior consulting agronomist for the USGA, prepared the report card and diplomatically told the city that the historic course “provides a wonderful golf experience,” but also shows its age.

Built in 1915, Balboa at one time had no grass, just dirt fairways and “greens” of oiled sand. It is considerably improved since then, but Whitlark says that the greens, bunkers and tee boxes are not in the best of shape. He makes numerous and detailed suggestions.

In the report, he says that with 80,000 players using the course every year, upgrades might not be possible right away but are needed over time. He gives in-depth explanations on how to improve the grass throughout the course, incorporating watering and fertilizing ideas from other courses across America. He also says the city needs to hire more people to help run and maintain the course.

The greens, he says, are too small and need to be rebuilt within the next five to 10 years. He singles out the 4th hole, universally disliked by many who play the course. It was redesigned over 20 years ago, so goes the story, because an influential neighbor complained about golf balls flying into her yard.

Whitlark suggests redesigning the 4th hole again and moving the green, noting that even though this will be expensive, it would “yield significant benefits.” Most golfers I’ve spoken with would agree with him.

As for the areas where golfers tee off, Whitlark says they “are grossly undersized for the play volume. This is especially apparent on par-3 tees.” He also points out that the tee set-up is unfair to slower swing-speed players.

“The slower swing-speed player is essentially laying up to almost all the holes on the 18-hole golf course,” he says, referring to golfers having to make at least two shots to reach the green.

As many golfers who have played Balboa can attest, the report finds “the bunkers on the golf course show their age and the bunker design looks old and tired.” These “volcano-style” sand traps detract from the course’s overall appearance, and Whitlark provides suggestions for dealing with sand “contaminated with rocks” and soils like clay and silt.

The USGA expert also suggests using recycled water to help cut costs and soil-moisture sensors to monitor the exact water needs for the turf. It’s technology now being used throughout the West, he says.

The 10th hole at Balboa Golf Course. Photo by JW August

The one visible change to the course are the trees knocked down around the 10th hole. It may look like a haircut on a Marine recruit now, but Whitlark says it will help the green and open up views to the city.

He explains that the USGA has taken data from thousands of golfers and is providing the report to the city to help “improve the pace of play and the ‘fun factor’ for golfers.” The complete report is available online.

All of this comes with a price tag, but there is $20.9 million in the city’s golf enterprise fund to cover some of the Balboa upgrades.

How long will it take to get the city working on the rehab for the course? Hopefully quicker than repairs to the horrendous restrooms that the Balboa course has now. As the Times of San Diego reported in August, this long planned upgrade has been dragging on for years.

Improvements to restrooms at the Balboa Park Golf Course. Photo by JW August

The good news on the public restroom upgrade is that it has finally started. Workers in protective suits were seen this week beginning to rip out the pipes, sinks and toilets.

JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist.

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