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.
Rustic Canyon (805-530-0221, $36-$66)
The best bang for the buck in Southern California, and possibly in the entire country, this Gil Hanse/Jim Wagner/Geoff Shackelford design 45 minutes north of Los Angeles engages at every turn, thanks to an easy-to-walk routing with tremendous variety that allows for run-up shots galore. Creative green complexes and chipping areas are stars of the show; shaggy-fringed bunkers and sagebrush-framed fairways crisscrossed by barrancas are added highlights. Rustic can be had for the low price of $36 Monday through Thursday, $39 on Friday and $59 on the weekend — all after 11:00 am. Before then, you’ll pay $43-$66 to walk. A cart with GPS will set you back another $15. Twilight and replay rates for all are significantly lower still. That’s great value for a course consistently ranked in Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses You Can Play list.
WORTH THE MONEY
Pelican Hill (855-315-8214, $275-$290)
If it's possible to feel underdressed at a 19th hole, it's here at this oh-so-posh resort where a bevy of attractive locals flock to happy hour and gaze at both the ocean and each other. Pelican Hill is located between two of the state’s poshest towns, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, so it’s no surprise that both the Ocean North and Ocean South courses here run nearly $300 apiece, seven days a week. Even the twilight rate of $160 isn’t cheap. That said, you get what you pay for. Its two superb Tom Fazio courses are absolutely worth the splurge. Both date to the early 1990s and feature wide fairways and the usual artful Fazio shaping. First-timers and middle handicappers will gravitate to the elder sibling, Ocean South, which sports back-to-back oceanside par-3s at 12 and 13, plus a stellar finish, highlighted by a double canyon crossing at the 453-yard, par-4 18th. Ocean North doesn’t get as close to the sea, but it’s the players’ course, longer by 400 yards, with more forced carries. The 558-yard, par-5 17th that climbs to a bluff overlooking the Pacific is unforgettable. Toss in a superior forecaddie, world-class service and facilities and nearly unbeatable weather, and it’s easy to see why Pelican Hill serves up special occasion golf at its finest.
TRAVELIN’ JOE SAYS:
“If you like to play in famous footsteps, you’re in luck when you come to Southern California. If you’re somewhat ambitious, the triangle of LA/Palm Springs/San Diego can be comfortably navigated in one trip. Your reward is an unparalleled variety of tournament tracks that you can play. San Diego is the obvious hit, with Torrey Pines South the must-play, thanks to its Tiger Woods-at-the-2008 U.S. Open pedigree, as well as being an annual PGA Tour stop, but don’t neglect its shorter but more scenic sibling, the North, which co-hosts the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance event each year. Nearby La Costa boasts a sterling tournament history as well, with winners that include Woods, Mickelson, Nicklaus and Watson. Most of L.A.’s top tracks are strictly private, but Rancho Park, one of the nation’s busiest munis, played home to 18 L.A. Opens. Jack Nicklaus cashed his first check (for $33.33) as a professional there in 1962. Arnold Palmer won there as well. Finally, in Palm Springs and its environs, every time you turn around you bump into a public access PGA Tour venue. Tops among them is the PGA West TPC Stadium Course in La Quinta, Pete Dye’s sadistically fun romp through the desert that was deemed so difficult as host to the Bob Hope Desert Classic in the late 1980s that the pros refused to return. These days the Humana Challenge is played over LaQuinta Country Club and private courses by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus at PGA West. Famous footsteps indeed.”
• San Diego native and five-time major winner Phil Mickelson has been hired to renovate the North Course at Torrey Pines. Although used during the PGA Tour’s annual stop each January, the shorter North is often overlooked by visiting golfers even though it’s less expensive and a bit more accessible and playable than its counterpart. The work should be completed by early 2016. You won't find better views along this coastline, particularly at the seventh tee. Be sure to linger a while there, because that's the end of the appeal — the rest of the round is strictly mediocre municipal golf with conditions to match. Phil’s project should change that. Still, the lower price tag (it might be worth $80, but certainly not the $132 peak rate), friendlier challenges and extra photo ops make the North every bit as tough a tee time to obtain as the South.
• While it’s not always just a beer and pretzels in the clubhouse anymore, few resort courses can offer a post-round dining option like The Grand Del Mar’s Addison. The region’s only Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond restaurant is one of the country’s ultimate intimate fine dining experiences.
• Carlsbad, just north of San Diego, is the epicenter of golf equipment companies. Headquarters for Titleist, Callaway and TaylorMade are all in the area, with fittings available at each usually by appointment.
• Only time for a quick nine holes? Check out one of the country’s best par-3 courses at The Links at Terranea (310-265-2751, $40-$48) in Ranchos Palos Verdes, 20 miles south of Los Angeles International Airport and three miles north of Trump National Los Angeles. Holes range from 104 yards to 173 yards and the coastal views are very memorable.
Omni La Costa Resort & Spa (800-854-5000)
The only Golf Magazine Gold Medal Premier Resort in Southern California has undergone much needed and well-received renovations in recent years. Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson own wins on the Champions Course, which was redesigned in 2011. The adjoining South Course is currently closed for its own renovations and expected to reopen in late 2013. The San Diego resort is only about a mile away from Interstate 5, making it convenient to get to any of the area's coastal courses. At green fees that range from $185-$240, La Costa isn't cheap, but packages can help bring the prices down.
St. Regis Monarch Beach, Dana Point (949-234-3200)
Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa, Indian Wells (760-773-4444)
Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, Ojai (888-697-8780)
Park Hyatt Aviara, Carlsbad (760-448-1234)
La Quinta Resort & Club, La Quinta (800-598-3828)
Champions Resort, Indian Wells (760-341-1000)
The Resort at Pelican Hill, Newport Coast (949-467-6800)
FROM THE EXPERT
“You can play year round in Southern California, with little concern for rain or other weather issues. But there is the traffic, which is as bad as you have heard (avoid the 405 whenever possible, but especially at rush hour), so get good directions to the course you are playing and plan your route carefully. As for green fees, you can get particularly good deals in the desert (how us locals refer to the Palm Springs area) as long as you’re willing to brave the serious summer heat. You can play 18 or even 36 for less than half the high-season price. You’ll also find some discount lodging options during the hot weather. The Los Angeles and San Diego areas are known for some fantastic private courses, but you’ll need to get connected to a member for access. On the muni side, Torrey Pines in San Diego and Rancho Park in Los Angeles are worth a round. While there is plenty of sunshine throughout the region, bring a few sweaters or wind shirts. SoCal is not the tropics, and from November through February you’ll get temperatures in the 50s and 60s with an occasional bit of drizzle.”
— Mike Chwasky, Deputy Editor (Equipment), Golf Magazine
“In sunny Southern California we get to enjoy great weather, beautiful sunsets and amazing beaches. Most of the courses here also have lots of sand so odds are you are going to have to play out of a few sand traps. Here are a few tips on how to improve your greenside bunker game. First, open the clubface of your sand wedge slightly so that the leading edge of the clubface points at your forward ankle. That creates bounce and allows the club to skid, rather than dig, through the sand. Second, you need to hit two inches behind the ball in a greenside bunker. Because the sand acts as a cushion, you need to use a 3x multiplier for distance control. For a 10-yard bunker shot, you will need to make a 30-yard swing to offset that sand cushion. Finally, don't try to help the ball up over the bunker lip. Focus on hitting the sand with a full follow through so that the sand is thrown forward out on to the green instead of up in the air. When the sand goes out on the green the ball will follow there.”
—Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher Glenn Deck is director of instruction at Pelican Hill Resort.