From Golf Digest Architecture Editor emeritus Ron Whitten:
When I first toured Encinitas Ranch Golf Course, on a coastal plateau some 30 minutes up the California coastline from San Diego, it was still under construction. I was joined by golf architect Cary Bickler and his wife, Judy, for the tour. It had rained, so we worked our way carefully around muddy fairways and just-planted greens. Judy brought sandwiches, and we picked a spot on a hillside above what is now the fourth green for lunch. As we ate, we viewed the shimmering Pacific Ocean to the west, and Cary told me how he'd learned to surf as a kid up in Venice Beach alongside a couple of guys named Wilson. They went on to form The Beach Boys.
He also spoke of his longstanding tie with the Encinitas property. He'd known about the site for 30 years. After graduating in 1968 from San Diego State, where he'd played on the golf team, Cary went to work on a construction crew for golf architect Larry Hughes and moved to a house across the street from this very property. Back then it was called the Paul Ecke Flower Ranch, and it was covered with flowers. Cary lived there until 1983. Many an evening he'd view its fields of poinsettias and Bird of Paradise from his porch and envision fairways running alongside them.
In 1994, he got a chance to make his dream a reality. The city of Encinitas, in partnership with a private home builder, announced it would create a public course and adjacent residential development from the old flower farm. After several rounds of interviews, Cary got the job.
We finished our lunch and tour of the course, highlighted by inspection of climatic 16th and 17th holes (now holes 7 and 8), which weave along red sandstone bluffs overlooking the La Costa resort (now Omni La Costa Resort and Spa) about a mile down the slopes to the north. Half a year later, I returned and played the completed course with Cary. It was still immature but enjoyable.
Several years later, I returned for another round. The first thing that struck me was that the rows of vibrant flowers that had bracketed the par-3 second near the entry drive were gone. It had been Cary's reminder of the old Ecke Ranch. But out on the course, there are still clusters of flowering bushes serving as accents.
With its broad swaths of manicured turf dotted with windswept trees, the entire course has the look and feel of a very good Billy Bell course (Bell Sr. and Jr. being the premier public course designers in Southern California for half a century), and I mean that as a compliment. The shaping is more pronounced than on a Bell design. I remember Cary telling me that he wanted it to appear that all the mounds and bunkers were shaped by the wind, and they do, especially when the sun begins to set. Overall, Encinitas Ranch has an appealing landscape that promises playability and delivers a decent score.
Perhaps its most distinctive feature involves its graceful fairway bunkers. All are set in mounds and are raised slightly above the level of the fairways. I remember asking Cary if that was for drainage. Yes, he said, plus the fact that he didn't want average golfers' drives rolling off a fairway and into his bunkers. If a golfer flies a shot into one of his bunkers, that's okay.
Encinitas Ranch is not a perfect course. It definitely favors a cart and is not an easy walk. Plus, there's its controversial seventh hole. Having thoroughly examined it three times now, I'm still not sure whether I like that short par 4 or not. It plays uphill and somewhat blind off the tee (reminiscent of the tee shot on the eighth at Pebble Beach) then downhill over the corner of a red sandstone canyon to a green positioned on a bluff sitting high over the surrounding cities. The correct play is to treat it as two par 3s, which I guess is the reason why they once had a regular flagstick as a target flag at the top of the hill less than 200 yards off the tee. Still, too many of us try to carry the hill crest with a driver and end up with a lost ball down in the canyon on the left. That doesn't make it bad architecture, just quirky. And prone to slowing up play.