Going Merlot

January 2010

Fans of the 2004 hit film "Sideways" have come from as far as Russia to get a table at the Hitching Post II. It's the family-owned roadside restaurant in the dusty Southern California town of Buellton and the inspiration for the movie about a buddies trip involving a little golf and a lot of wine. The Hitching Post II doesn't open until 4 o'clock, but there they were, well before noon, "Sideways" enthusiasts taking pictures in front of the mustard-yellow sign and scouring the perimeter looking for a way in.

Sensing a frenzied atmosphere, Hitching Post II owner Frank Ostini remembers calling an emergency meeting of his employees after the movie came out. "Our roots are the guiding light," he reminded them. "We offer hospitality, good food and over 50 years of service in the restaurant business. If we don't perform, they won't come back."

I was there recently, and "I'll be back." The Santa Barbara area, 90 miles up the coast from Los Angeles, makes for a great golf getaway. The food and wine are as exceptional as the scenery, and though the golf might not rival Pebble Beach or Torrey Pines, there are quality courses for a lot less money.

Santa Barbara Golf

My itinerary included the three best public golf options within a reasonable distance from downtown Santa Barbara: Glen Annie, Sandpiper and Rancho San Marcos. (The local muny, Santa Barbara Golf Club, remains open during a makeover that is scheduled to be completed after the first of the year.)

Glen Annie, $85 on weekends, is a good Santa Barbara starter course. I played it from 5,945 yards because it's narrow, with enough undulations and afternoon wind to make it feel as if it plays longer. The course, which survived some financial troubles in 2009, is set in the hills about 10 miles north of downtown Santa Barbara and offers some outstanding views of the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands.

The next day, on the coast just below Glen Annie, I played two rounds at Sandpiper. It was hard not to. Given the location, pristine condition and holes running along the water, Sandpiper understandably gets a lot of the area's golf buzz, but that comes at a price -- $175 on weekends. William F. Bell, who was brought in to build Torrey Pines after his father died, also designed Sandpiper, and there is a resemblance.

Sandpiper has some memorable holes, but it has too many generic ones to consider it a great course. Four out of the six holes that have ocean views were my favorites: the fifth, sixth, 11th and 13th. The starter told me about one guy who recently played the par-3 11th, with its elevated tee shot to an ocean-side green, and announced, "I now know where I want them to spread my ashes." A worthy spot, but a somber thought on a perfect October afternoon.

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