Making La Costa the permanent home for the NCAA championship remains a hot topic as a Gil Hanse rebuild begins
Golf architect Gil Hanse speaks at a groundbreaking cermeony for his redesign of the La Costa Champions Course in advance of it hosting the NCAA men's and women's golf champonships starting in 2024.
CARLSBAD, Calif. — As a kid who grew up in New York and loved golf, Gil Hanse happily anticipated the start of the PGA Tour season and the West Coast Swing. Like many hunkered down in the cold and snow, the tournaments in Hawaii and Southern California stirred in him the soon-to-come sun and warmth and long afternoons spent with a club in hand.
Stamped deep in those memories is the La Costa Resort & Spa, which hosted the Tournament of Champions and later the WGC-Match Play from 1969 through 2006. Those events drew the world’s best players, and any course could build a sizable reputation when the champions roll is filled with major winners, including Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
That is the La Costa Hanse once knew. But now, after being disappointed to see the course fade into the background of the golf consciousness for much of the past two decades, the renowned architect finds himself with an opportunity to not just restore La Costa’s aura and reputation but re-imagine it.
Hanse has plenty of interesting projects in the works but being tasked with a complete redesign of Omni La Costa’s Champions Course ranks high on his to-do list. In only 17 months, La Costa is scheduled to host the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s golf championships. There is a three-year contract in place to hold the 2024, ’25 and ’26 tournaments, but earnest discussions continue about making the San Diego-area site the permanent home of the championships with a “Road to La Costa” theme.
“The fact that this place is going to be at the forefront of the golf world’s mind again is exciting to us,” Hanse told Golf Digest last month at a ceremonial groundbreaking for the Champions Course work that began a few weeks earlier.
“We all knew La Costa as having the best players in the world come here. And now the people who are going to become the best players in the world will be a part of the history of this place.”
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The work at La Costa won’t be a light touch-up of a previous facelift done on the original Dick Wilson design more than a decade ago by architect Damian Pascuzzo and pro golfer Steve Pate. In fact, Hanse said the Champions Course (with some of its holes previously blended with those on the Legends Course for PGA Tour events) won’t be recognizable, other than the setting that older generations will recall.
While the basic routing will remain the same, most of the man-made ponds are being removed and replaced with what Hanse calls “plausible and believable” Southern California features of barranca, dry washes and native vegetation. Picture Hanse’s work at the North Course at Los Angeles Country Club (host of this year's U.S. Open), along with some touches of Riviera, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the architect and business partner Jim Wagner are shooting for.
“Our attempt is to get the golf course to sit in the landscape instead of being on top of it,” Hanse said.
The par-5 10th hole on La Costa Champions is an example of how Gil Hanse will remove man-made water hazards (the current 10th has a pond up the left side of the hole) and replace them with barranca and natural areas.
The project has been years in planning. John Fields, the longtime men’s golf coach at the University of Texas, first started the brainstorming while attending the 2017 Walker Cup at LACC. As Fields watched the competition on Hanse’s much-praised redesign, which will host the U.S. Open for this first time this summer, he talked to golf writer and architecture aficionado Geoff Shackelford, who contributed to the LACC project with his knowledge of original designer George C. Thomas’ philosophy and work.
Fields had a question: With the NCAA Championship now regularly televised on Golf Channel, and with potential primetime coverage on the East Coast, with nearly guaranteed good weather in May, where would be a good place in Southern California to play the tournament? (Understand, the championships have only been held once in California in the last 21 years, with Riviera hosting the men in 2012.) Shackelford mentioned La Costa … with the caveat that it would have to be significantly refurbished.
Fields bit. It so happens that one of the Longhorns’ biggest financial supporters is Bob Rowling, a billionaire who founded the company that owns the Omni properties and its numerous golf courses. Those layouts now include a Hanse-designed course at the Omni PGA Frisco Resort in Texas that will host the PGA Championship twice in the next 12 years. Fields and Mike Holder, the former Oklahoma State Athletic Director and legendary golf coach, went to Rowling and pitched him on a Hanse redo at La Costa, specifically so that it could host the NCAAs. Rowling signed off, Hanse began the design work, and now they’re all watching bulldozers scrape the Champions Course down to its bare bones.
The Omni La Costa Resort and Spa hosted PGA Tour events from the late 1960s to early 2000s. Brian Walters Photography
“I’m super excited about this,” said Fields, who attended the La Costa groundbreaking. Texas is officially listed as the tournament host at La Costa, and Fields noted that Hanse recently did a presentation for several NCAA men’s and women’s coaches telling them that they will compete on a course comparable to L.A. North and Riviera. “We were taken aback by that,” Fields said. “It was, like, ‘Well, golly, if he comes close to doing something like that, we’ll have a place that would be remarkable.’”
Fields is among those leading the movement to make La Costa the permanent site for the men’s and women’s championships, much the same way baseball teams play the College World Series each year in Omaha, Neb., and softball squads dream of reaching Oklahoma City for their championship. Beyond the quality of the golf course, the weather and TV considerations, Fields is among a group of coaches who want the championship site to be at a facility that isn't the home to a specific college program.
“It truly does need to be a neutral site,” said Mary Lou Mulflur, the University of Washington women’s coach who also serves on the NCAA Women’s Golf Committee. “I’m saying that as an individual, not as representing the committee. People can say whatever, but if you’ve been on a golf course 200 times, and a person you’re playing has been on it once or five times, that’s a marked difference.”
A number of the prominent Power Five schools have hosted the NCAA Championships in the past, and Fields is among those who feels a bit burned by the arrangement, considering his Longhorns lost in the match-play final to Oregon on the Ducks’ home track in 2016. (Oklahoma State won on its home course in 2018.) Currently, the NCAA is a on a three-year run at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale and, as Mulflur notes, Arizona State has regular access to the facility.
Both Fields and Mulflur acknowledge that not all coaches agree on having a permanent site, or that La Costa should be that choice. But Fields believes he has a strong case for a Masters-like tradition at a recognizable venue that would be the signature of the tournament for years to come.
“You think about junior golf right now ... if I’m a dad with a couple of kids, I’m going to come out here and watch this,” Fields said. “You start to establish some records. You’re in people’s homes [on TV] twice a year. Maybe someday they’ll be 10,000 people out here watching men’s and women’s college golf. And you get to enjoy San Diego … take them to the zoo and SeaWorld.”
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With his experience renovating some of the greatest courses in America, Hanse was an attractive choice to do the work, and his résumé was all the better for having designed the course in Rio de Janeiro that hosted the men’s and women’s tournaments in the 2016 Olympics. Major winners Justin Rose and Inbee Park were the gold medalists, and Hanse is understandably proud of the symmetry in the results: Both champions won with a 16-under total, both the men’s and women’s fields had three players finish at double-digits under par, and six different nations reached the podium.
Obviously, Hanse did a lot right to produce that equality, and the goal is the same for La Costa.
“The natural reaction is to just move the women up and the men back [on the tees],” Hanse said. “But that’s not right. If they’re all landing in the same place, they’re not hitting the same club into the green. If we’re asking the men to hit a 7-iron into a green, then we should be asking the women to hit 7. And it’s about how do you stagger the hazards so that they come into play for everyone? It’s an interesting puzzle.”
Mulflur points out, for example, that it’s important for Hanse to know in advance that he’s designing for men and women because there are more hole placements required on the greens over the course of the NCAAs than in a four-round pro tour event. In designing the putting surfaces, Hanse said the emphasis will be on tilt and subtle breaks rather than large undulations. The setting of green speeds will have a large factor in how difficult they play for everyone, including the public.
With an insight into a great architect’s thinking, Hanse cited seeing a mountain in the background coming at a player from right to left, but then tilting the green from left to right. “All we want—and not in a mean way—is for the best players in the world to miss a putt by an inch,” Hanse said. “If we can accomplish that subtlety—dare I say trickery—then the best players in the world are going to be rewarded for thoughtful study and appreciate them.”
As for the bulk of the layout, Hanse said he will use the knowledge he’s gleaned from Thomas’ “course within a course” approach at L.A. North and some of Alister Mackenzie’s short-grassed runoff areas at The Valley Club.
The rendering of Gil Hanse's work on the par-3 16th at La Costa, including the replacement of bunkers at the right of the green with an expanded approach area to the right.
Speaking of Mackenzie, Hanse does have a bit of Augusta National influence planned. The most recognizable hole at La Costa is the Champions’ par-3 16th over water that is the site of the property’s most famous shot—Woods sticking a dart in close in the rain to beat Tom Lehman in the 1997 TOC playoff, three months before he won his first Masters.
Though not a spot-on replica, Hanse said the 16th’s current straight-on look will be altered to an angle that will play more like Augusta’s par-3 12th, making club selection much more precise. And, yes, the current plans call for one bunker fronting the green and two in the back, just like the Masters model.
Take all of this in and it's no wonder that the prospect of playing the NCAA golf championships at La Costa in perpetuity has some coaches buzzing.
“If Gil does what he says he’s going to do with the course, I think it’s going to happen,” Fields said. “I think major tours are going to want to play here. It’s such a magnificent site with a great hotel and spa. It’s just a no-brainer.”