November 17, 2020 By: Tod Leonard — In his mind’s eye, University of Texas men’s golf coach John Fields can see it all so clearly. Just as college baseball looks to Omaha, Neb., each year for the College World Series, and women’s softball dreams of reaching Oklahoma City, Fields can see women’s and men’s golf teams packing up swim suits and beach towels—and their golf clubs, of course—with their sights set on being in Southern California each May.
In this case, it would be the “Road to La Costa”—the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, north of San Diego, where the PGA Tour staged tournaments from the late 1960s through the early 2000s.
On Tuesday, Omni La Costa and the NCAA announced that the resort will host the 2024, 2025 and 2026 Division I Men’s and Women’s Golf Championships after a major renovation of the Champions Course is performed by architect Gil Hanse.
Texas will be the host school for the championships, and if that seems strange given the 1,300-mile distance between Austin and the Southern California coast, there’s a reason for it: Fields and his athletic director, Chris Del Conte, along with Oklahoma State Athletic Director Mike Holder, are the point men behind the notion that La Costa could become the permanent site for the NCAA Championship. That’s right. They are looking much farther past the horizon.
“Truth be known, this is a dream of mine, and now it’s happening,” Fields said. “We’re hoping that this will become the ‘Road to La Costa’ on more than a three-year basis. If we do a good job and raise our validity with the NCAA and the Golf Channel, then we could do it for 10 years. And if we can do that, we can do it permanently. That’s what I’m excited about.”
It was Fields who first reached out to the executives he knows at Omni, which is based in Dallas, to gauge their interest in possibly hosting the NCAAs at La Costa. His selling points were these: Southern California is an ideal location for the men’s and women’s tournaments—staged in back-to-back weeks—because of its reliable weather and a time zone that allows Golf Channel to show the events in primetime in the East Coast; the site could be truly neutral because no college teams play there regularly; the tournament would bring La Costa back into the national spotlight; and identifying one course as a permanent site would provide a point of focus for young aspiring golfers.
“It could be our Augusta National,” Fields said. “Mike Holder made the statement to Omni: ‘If you guys decide to do this, there’s no telling the exponential impact this could have on the popularity of college golf.’ ”
Of course, for Fields’ vision to become a realty the NCAA golf committees for men and women would have to be onboard, and so far the Longhorns coach said he has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from his peers, many of whom watch golf at La Costa each year because it’s a host site of the IMG Academy Junior World Championships.
“This could be the best of everything,” said Bruce Heppler, the men’s head coach at Georgia Tech for the last 26 years. “This could turn out to be what we’ve been wanting for for 30 years.”
Heppler noted that the dynamics of the tournament have changed dramatically since television became a factor and the NCAA began putting the men and women at the same sites in 2015. Among the considerations: The NCAA tournament course must close for 18 days, limiting the options for venues; some facilities don’t play equally for the men and women; and the possibility of a home-course advantage has become a concern. In 2016, the Oregon men beat Texas on the Ducks’ home track, Eugene Country Club, and two years later, host Oklahoma State defeated Alabama at Karsten Creek in Stillwater. More recently, there has been concern that with the next three championships set for Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., Arizona State will have a distinct advantage in both the competition and recruiting.
That perception is the very reason, Fields said, why San Diego State and the University of San Diego declined to consider hosting at La Costa, where teams and individuals will be banned from playing leading into the NCAAs.
A significant piece of the La Costa puzzle was solved when Hanse got excited to do the architectural work there. He has developed a relationship with Omni, which is building a hotel on the site of the PGA Frisco development that will be headquarters for the PGA of America. Hanse designed the East Course at PGA Frisco, which was awarded the 2027 PGA Championship before ground was even broken.
Hanse, of course, has become one of golf’s most revered architects, having designed the Olympic course for both men and women competition in Rio in 2016, while performing restorations at Winged Foot, Merion and Los Angeles Country Club. His work on LACC’s North Course earned the venue the 2023 U.S. Open.
Hanse visited La Costa in January 2020, took some notes and showed up at Omni’s headquarters a couple of months later with his plans.
“He was brimming with enthusiasm,” said Dan Surette, the chief sales officer at Omni who is heading up the La Costa project. “He told us he was as enthusiastic about this course as he was about PGA Frisco. When he said that, we knew we were on the verge of something special.”
Interestingly, La Costa’s Champions Course underwent a renovation only nine years ago, with architect Damian Pascuzzo working with former PGA Tour player Steve Pate. In many cases, the work, limited by its budget, was more of a touch-up, and much of it focused on correcting the drainage problems that plagued the course when it hosted PGA Tour events. The Champions has hosted one significant event since the tour left—the 2014 California State Amateur, with Xander Schauffele beating Beau Hossler in the final.
Omni, which has operated the resort since 2013, and Hanse now see the original Dick Wilson design as an open canvas. There are nine interior holes, flanked by housing, that were part of the composite 18 the tour played, with another nine stretching out northward into open space. Hanse said he sees mixing influences from some prime Southern California tracks, including LACC, Riviera and the Valley Club of Montecito.
“We’ve got an opportunity to reimagine the canvas, because there are two very distinctive parts of the golf course,” Hanse told Golf Digest. “The one [north] side we imagine to big and bold with a lot of options and changes. The other side is a little more confined, and there we want to marry pedigree with history.”
Among the changes Hanse envisions: a driveable par 4 in the middle of the round, a reshaped par-3 green at the 16th that would more resemble Augusta National’s 12th, and a par-5 18th hole that is reachable in two, with the creek in front of the green serving as the risk.
“The finals [of the NCAAs] are match play, so we’re going to design this with match play in mind,” Hanse said. “We’re going to have a sequence of holes that we hope create dramatic results. Our hope is to create holes that require a lot of thought.”
Hanse said he will seek input from the college coaches and feels it’s critical that he design the course with both men and women in mind, as he did for the Olympic course in Rio de Janeiro.
The coaches, meantime, are excited that Hanse will make his mark at La Costa with the NCAAs as his inspiration.
“This has every chance,” Heppler said, “to be a home run.”