Play on the coast overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Tee it up on a desert course in the shadows of the Santa Rosa Mountains. Or finally get fit for new clubs at the headquarters of the top golf equipment companies. Odds are you will be doing any of those on a sunny day in the 70s.
While Southern California might be better known for Hollywood, paparazzi hounding celebrities around every corner and unbearable traffic, it’s also a sneaky good golf destination. Numerous courses in the region host a PGA Tour event each year, with San Diego’s Torrey Pines being the site of Tiger’s last major win in 2008.
It’s also home to some of the most exclusive private clubs in the country, including a trio on Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the U.S. (Los Angeles Country Club North Course comes in at 19th, Riviera Country Club is ranked 21st; and Bel-Air Country is 83rd), not to mention The Madison Club in Palm Springs and Phil Mickelson’s home club, the Bridges at Rancho Sante Fe. But those require connections that most visitors can’t call upon. Fortunately, there’s a fairly deep roster of resort and public courses from Los Angeles to San Diego to Palm Springs.
Torrey Pines South (877-581-7171, $110-$229)
Best known as the site of the most recent major win for Tiger Woods (the 2008 U.S. Open), the South course comes in at 98th on Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the U.S. Since Rees Jones gave this layout a steroid boost in 2001, it's unclear which is tougher: playing the course or just getting a tee time. You have three options: get lucky on the telephone lottery system, walk on, or stay at the Lodge at Torrey Pines or the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines. When you've gone through all that, prepare to be flagellated. To an already punishing layout, Jones added 28 bunkers and more than 500 yards. The PGA Tour stops here annually in January, with recent winners including Tiger (2013, his seventh non-major win here), Brandt Snedeker (2012) and Bubba Watson (2011).
Trump National Los Angeles (310-303-3240; $160-$280)
Donald Trump is all about making memorable, lasting impressions, and this asset in his growing golf portfolio does just that in spectacular fashion. While the 7,200-yard track is a tad claustrophobic in spots, its bluff-top location overlooking the Pacific Ocean, some 25 minutes south of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Rancho Palos Verdes, is unforgettable -- as are the service, clubhouse decor, and dining. The ocean views impress while Trump's 7,242-yard track brutalizes, with ball-swallowing environmental areas and smack-down par 4s.
PGA West TPC Stadium Course (800-742-9378; $69-$239)
After almost three decades of horror stories, Pete Dye's West Coast answer to Sawgrass retains a high profile -- ranked seventh on Golf Magazine’s Best Public Courses in California -- if not its previous high degree of terror. Technology has eased the pain of this layout somewhat, but for less proficient ballstrikers, it's absolutely relentless with insanely deep bunkers, ski-hill moguls and demanding carries over water and desert. Surviving the 20-foot-deep bunker left of the 16th green allows you the privilege of tackling the island-green 17th, of which Lee Trevino once said, “If there's any wind and the green is firm, it's damn near impossible. You've got to hit the front portion of the green and pray like hell it doesn't run into those rocks.” That's from a guy who once aced it in the Skins Game.
LaQuinta – Mountain Course (760-564-5729, $69-$199)
Opened in 1985, this layout sits in the shadows of the Santa Rosa Mountains and comes with all challenge you would expect from a Pete Dye design, especially if the wind is up. The action gets more interesting on the back nine, thanks to the memorably scenic trio of the 14th, 15th, and 16th holes, the latter a par 3 with an elevated tee that provides sweeping Valley views, with and a hard to hit, kidney-shaped green far below.
BEST OF THE REST
Indian Wells Golf Resort (760-346-4653, $70-$180)
The Players Course, ranked 12th on Golf Magazine’s Best Public Courses in California, offers the tougher challenge at this 36-hole complex in Palm Springs thanks to narrow fairways and smaller greens. Seven spots behind in that ranking is The Celebrity Course, which opened in late 2006, a year before its sibling. Designed by Clive Clark, it offers a more picturesque landscape with plenty of fragrant flowers lining fairways and serving as backdrops on many greens. Both courses were used during filming of The Big Break in 2011.
Desert Willow (760-346-0015, $65-$155)
The Firecliff course at this 36-hole Palm Desert facility is the one to play, especially if you are skilled at avoiding bunkers. There are more than 100 of those, plus massive waste areas, on this Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry design. Owned by the city of Palm Desert, Firecliff and its sister course -- Mountain View -- are among the region's most expensive munis, but it's money well spent. The environmental kaleidoscope of desert flora plantings and gorgeous bunkering help this 1997 design meld into the landscape, so much so that Firecliff is the only course ever featured on the cover of Smithsonian magazine.
Barona Creek (619-387-7018, $120-$160)
Take the winding, 40-minute drive inland from the San Diego coast to Barona Creek Resort and Casino and the golf rewards are immediately apparent: the personal service and immaculate course conditions are impressive, and the Lakeside design is an entertaining and challenging romp right from the start. The first hole, a 541-yard par 5, has a strategy-infused fairway, some tough ragged-edged bunkers and inspired contouring on the green. And those qualities last throughout. No. 14, an uphill 338-yarder, is one of the prettiest short par 4s anywhere.
Aviara Golf Club (760-603-6900, $160-$245)
Praised as much for its flower-laden scenery as for the challenges presented by noticeably undulating fairways, this Arnold Palmer design at the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort in Carlsbad is better suited for family outings than a buddy trip. But a visit to the on-site, high-tech Taylor Made Performance Lab for pre- or post-round club tweaking is for everyone, as are lessons from Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher Kip Puterbaugh who runs the Aviara Golf Academy.
The Grand Golf Club (858-314-1930, $230-$270)
This 1999 Tom Fazio design is open only to guests at the The Grand Del Mar, an opulent luxury resort 21 miles northeast of San Diego’s airport and just east of Interstate 5. This inland course winds through the Los Penasquitos Canyon and requires accurate tee shots to score well. The 242-yard 17th requires a carry over water, while flying the 18th green could put your ball into a newly-installed waterfall just below the clubhouse. Consider playing after 3 p.m., when twilight rates between March and October can save you up to $120 (plus rental clubs are complimentary).
Maderas Golf Club (858-451-8100, $170-$210)
San Diego's premier inland golf experience is in Poway, 30 minutes northeast of La Jolla. Maderas offers the whole package: rolling terrain, tournament-worthy conditioning and great service. That goes some way toward justifying the hefty price tag. Trees or environmentally sensitive areas frame most holes, and jaw-dropping mansions ring the canyon tops, like the former home of San Diego Charger LaDainian Tomlinson at the 15th hole, a par 3 that plays 253 yards from the tips. A few design quirks detract from the overall feel, but the canyon-laced stretch of holes from Nos. 14 to 17 will bring you back.