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The Summer of Golf examines the sport’s post-pandemic popularity boom at local courses in South Orange County and showcases the play of each course through the eyes of our resident normal, below-average new golfer. Click here to read previous entries in this series.

By Zach Cavanagh

Tee times at the San Clemente Municipal Golf Course have always been a hot commodity. One trip to the course, and it’s easy to understand why.

The “Muni,” as it’s affectionately known, offers a bit of everything, with several wide-open fairways, hills, valleys and several ocean views that are worth the greens fee alone. Those features—along with that attractively low greens fee of $39 for regular adults on weekdays—made the 92-year-old “Pride of the Pacific” a favorite throughout Orange County, especially for San Clemente residents who get the perk of first dibs on tee times.

“Location, and for the value, the price is not a lot, and it’s a good golf course,” Head Golf Professional Vinnie Poncino said of the Muni’s popularity. “When you look at the cost of San Juan Hills or Talega, I have to argue the course is in better condition and a better value.”

Ocean views beyond hole No. 11 at the San Clemente Municipal Golf Course. Photo: Zach Cavanagh

Now, in these high times that golf is experiencing, the Muni isn’t just a hot commodity. It’s the hottest ticket in Orange County golf.

“It’s always been harder to get a time here, but it just seems like we have three or four times more people trying to get those times,” Poncino said. “Then, what we’re seeing is people buying resident cards that don’t play golf but using their friends.”

Poncino said that pre-pandemic, the Muni would host 76,000-80,000 rounds in a year. Last year, the course hosted 89,000 rounds with anywhere from 320-360 players every day on the current tee sheets. Looking at tee times on a Monday morning, the course was completely booked for the upcoming Wednesday until 5:30 p.m.

Poncino said the twilight and super twilight rounds are becoming more popular, especially with newer or less experienced golfers. The Muni can play as a long course, as we’ll note in detail later, and those twilight rounds will be shorter, as the course and driving range close at sunset. Those rounds are also more popular because they’re usually the few times that are open.

San Clemente residents and those with resident cards can book tee times up to eight days in advance, and that’s usually when the prime real estate is snatched up. The rest of the golfing public gets access to the times seven days in advance. Those times go live online at 6 a.m. of that eighth or seventh day, so if you’re looking to go to the Muni, you’ve got to be ready to book.

Another way to snag a time at the course is to play as a walk-up single. There may be a longer wait depending on how the tee sheets lay out for the day, but if you have the time and the desire to play the Muni, it may be the way to go.

So, how did this vaunted and extremely popular course play?

The Round

This is an interesting case for the less-experienced/trying-to-improve golfer.

On the scorecard, it was another tough one. I shot a 50-over-par 123, which were worse numbers than last week’s round at Shorecliffs. While the Muni is definitely a tougher course than Shorecliffs—a 121 slope rating on the Muni’s 6,066-yard white tees compared to the 119 slope rating on Shorecliffs’ 5,012-yard white tees—I don’t blame my score purely on a more difficult track.

The Muni certainly throws more at you with its length, some fairway bunkers and undulating terrain that results in more than a handful of uphill shots at the green. However, in some ways, the Muni has several holes that are easier to play than Shorecliffs. The Muni boasts some sprawling fairways on the front nine that are pretty difficult not to hit. The ball won’t roll on these fairways as much, either, but there’s plenty of room to play.

Unfortunately, this week’s score is all on my shoulders, but as I said, it’s also an interesting case.

An important thing for all golfers—rookies and old hands—is consistency and repetition. If you’re going to play this game, you can’t come in and out every couple of months and expect to tear it up. You have to play or practice regularly to maintain your mechanics.

My round at the Muni was my third round in a week, which is more than I’ve ever played in that time. (My normal routine before this project was usually a round every two weeks, with a driving range session in between.) As a result, I was more confident with my driver than ever before. There were truly only two or three tee shots that I was unhappy with, and only one that was a total shank.

I felt as if I got the mechanics down, and I even felt as if I was able to make slight tweaks over the rounds to increase the distance. I owe that to simply playing a lot recently.

But where there’s the good, there is also the bad, and, friends, my short game was atrocious. My chip shots either didn’t pop up far enough to reach the green or were bladed and sent well past the target. My putts were too hard. My putts were too soft. It was a mess.

Even with that being said, I still felt as if I was able to dial in bits of that short game on the back nine. I navigated the hills better and even hit the hole with a chip on No. 12. Again, that I owe to playing regularly, knowing what these swings are supposed to feel like and having the opportunities to correct them in real time.

My score aside, if you can make your way through the system and get a round at the Muni, I couldn’t recommend it more. Even with my notes on the course’s length, the round still came in at a regular time of just over four hours. It’s a track that will test you, but every swing will be worth the experience.

Zach Cavanagh

Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is multiple California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at zcavanagh@picketfencemedia.com.

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