Southern California is a vast area of land, covering a wide range of landscapes, the Pacific Ocean, inland areas, mountains and desert. The weather almost always cooperates year round and even though the congestion can mean near gridlock conditions on the vast sprawl of freeways during certain times of day, SoCal still provides much in so many ways. Golf is clearly on the agenda when in the area - but one has to pick wisely as major disparities exist in terms of costs to play and the benefits derived.
The breath and scale of Southern California is simply too large an area to encompass in one visit. I have been coming to the area for over 40+ years and have seen the nature of the golf market expand in a range of ways - some good - others far less so. The Great Recession of ‘08-’09 clearly had an impact, providing a much needed wake-up call for a range of courses not really investing back into their product and foolishly believing customers would continue to keep coming as they had in the past.
However, those facilities that have reinvested in themselves have gained significant traction over their various competitors. The courses mentioned below are clear examples of key golf options providing a number of core ingredients worth exploring. Not all of the four mentioned courses are equals across the board but they each provide key attributes separating themselves from their competition.
RAMS HILL GOLF CLUB
7,247 Yards / Par-72
75.1 CR / 141 SL
Architect: Tom Fazio
Borrego Springs / San Diego County
The most compelling reason to head to Borrego Springs, located in the far northeast corner of San Diego County is its sheer desert beauty. Borrego Springs is not cluttered with the overwhelming congestion often found throughout Southern California. The locale is totally low key - the vibe oozes total relaxation - rejuvenation of the body and mind from the daily grind of ordinary life.
Rams Hill is a two-part story. The original 1983 design was a 27-hole from architect Ted Robinson Sr. and while that layout had its share of interesting holes it was formulaic in its overall presentation. Fast track to a number of years later and renowned designer Tom Fazio was hired by the new ownership - creating an 18-hole layout that not only eclipses the original layout, but also has now become one of the most exciting and fun courses to play in the entire region.
Rams Hill is in the centre of the Anza Borrego State Park, providing eye-catching vistas of the enchanting desert landscape. The Fazio layout works its way throughout the rolling terrain. At Rams Hill there is sufficient room without being overly draconian, giving both the advanced and intermediate players a venue that is striking visually and sufficiently challenging. Superior turf conditions are first rate with putting surfaces that rival any found throughout California. There is housing adjacent to a few of the holes, but not the claustrophobic variety found with so many of the courses in the Coachella Valley area encompassing Palm Springs, which is roughly an hour away from Rams Hill.
The issue for Rams Hill is that, while awareness of the course is certainly high on the radar screen for golfers who call home in the SoCal area, it is often overlooked by many coming from outside the area. Do not let that happen when making plans to be in the area. If you wish to spend more than one day in town be sure to book lodging at the adjacent La Casa del Zorro Resort & Spa. First rate in the same manner as the golf. Borrego Springs is truly an outdoors enthusiasts paradise in a wide range of ways.
MONARCH BEACH RESORT
6,645 Yards / Par-70
72.5 CR / 135 SL
Architect: Robert Trent Jones, Jr.
Dana Point / Orange County
Location is often cited in real estate assessments and Monarch Beach Resort is certainly rich in that regard. Located in Dana Point the resort abuts the Pacific Ocean briefly early on the outward half of holes. The key attribute is the smart and ever efficient routing of the course by veteran architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr. Usually when golf courses feature tight corners, it is not uncommon for certain holes to be nothing more than “filler” as the architect attempts to get out of one portion of the property in order to get to the other better areas.
Monarch Beach starts with a very demanding opening par-4 hole of 437 yards. Usually played with a right-to-left wind off the Pacific Ocean, the hole features a small gap between two punishing fairway bunkers. The target is keenly located above the fairway, so the approach play must be particularly well-played. The course heads towards the ocean early on and the short par-4 3rd is a fine risk/reward hole with a devilish green.
Monarch Beach then heads into the interior of its property and the quality of the holes only picks up in terms of execution demands. The final trio on the outward half is first rate. The 7th is a long par-5 of 612 yards of uncompromising quality. The long par-4 8th plays in the reverse direction and features a wonderfully contoured putting surface. The final hole for the front is another par-5 that provides a risk/reward option for the bold play - just be mindful of the fronting water hazard.
The inward nine is less in terms of the shot making requirements, although holes such as the par-4 14th and 16th are well designed. The concluding par-4 18th provides a stunning view with the shimmering Pacific Ocean in the background. Be ever aware of the pesky pond that zealously guards the putting surface.
Monarch Beach provides total attention to customer service and as good as all its offerings are - most notably the guest rooms - the only real troubling aspect deals with the lack of a practice facility to complement the golf course. Players can only hit into nets adjacent to the practice putting green. How such a feature was missed when the facility was being contemplated is mystifying, because practice facilities are clearly a must item. Nonetheless, Monarch Beach provides a fun and challenging design, one where you will be booking a second round soon after you hole your putt at the 18th hole.
PECHANGA RESORT & CASINO
The Journey at Pechanga Golf Club
7,219 Yards / Par-72
74.8 CR / 142 SL
Architects: Arthur Hills and Steve Forrest
Temecula / Riverside County
The amazing ascendancy of Pechanga Resort & Casino is truly a remarkable story. What was at one time nothing but empty land opened as a hotel and casino in 2002. Six years later the 18-hole course named The Journey at Pechanga opened.
The Arthur Hills and Steve Forrest design takes golfers on a wild ride - quite literally. The course requires the usage of a power cart given the lengthy rides between a few of the holes. The hike from the 5th green to the 6th tee is especially long and for golf purists may be a bit off putting. The good news is that once you get to the 6th tee you stand on the highest point of the course, gazing out onto the vast scenery in front of you and wondering how you will handle the awesome tee shot that plunges well over 200 feet below to a twisting fairway, with a putting surface tucked gently down a steep hillside. This long par-4 of 488 yards will clearly be etched in one’s memory.
Despite the sensory overload the 6th provides it is the preceding hole - the short par-4 5th - which is very well done. A major decision needs to be made on the tee - you can play cautious or aggressive - but the execution must be sound as a water carry is required for the boldest of plays.
Of the two sides at the course, it is the inner half of holes that is more consistently routed and provides a superior array of differing holes. Water does come into play at several critical moments, none more so than the superb 16th hole. This cape hole entices the player to go for the bold play at the tee. Water lurks down the left side and one has to be keenly aware of your shot making abilities - or limitations.
Turf conditions when I played were a work in progress, especially on tees and fairways, with grass being grown in for a much denser and tighter lies combination. Pechanga is also undergoing major building additions and likely in a year’s time the facility will be even more comprehensive than it is now. The practice facility is beyond peer and one of the more interesting aspects when staying at the resort is that guests can use the practice facility at any time with no additional charge. There are other Native-American owned resorts where golf is a big time item, but the scale of what Pechanga offers across the board is indeed impressive and sets the standard for others to follow.
OMNI LACOSTA RESORT & SPA
Champions Course - 7,172 Yards / Par-72 (former North Course - updated 2011)
75.1 CR / 140 SL
Legends Course - 6,996 Yards / Par-72 (former South Course - updated 2013)
74.2 / 133 SL
Architects: Dick Wilson (1965), Joe Lee (1973, 1984) and Damian Pascuzzo, Steve Pate and Jeff Brauer (2011 / 2013)
Carlsbad, Sand Diego County
Starting almost from its inception in 1965, LaCosta created an identity not only interwoven with top tier golf in SoCal but was an annual fixture for many years as host site for the Tournament of Champions on the PGA Tour from 1969 to 1998. In addition, LaCosta served as host venue for the inaugural Tour’s Match-Play event. In 1999 the facility hosted the WGC-Accenture World Match Play Championship for seven of eight years. A wide array of golf’s who’s who have won here: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Tom Watson to name just three.
Over the course of time the facility began to lose its standing, but in the last few years the luster has returned with recent ownership by Omni Hotels & Resorts out of Dallas, TX. The 700+ room facility has clearly made strides in re-establishing its considerable golf credentials. The two 18-hole layouts have been renamed - the Champions is the former North Course. The Legends is the former South Course.
The Spanish-Colonial style resort sits majestically on the high point overlooking the property. Originally, designed by the famed architect Dick Wilson - both courses have been updated and the work has clearly helped bring to life the many interesting design features. The Champions is especially noteworthy. An array of deep bunkers needs to be avoided throughout the round and there are a series of clear challenges that are especially well done with the dog-leg par-4 9th is especially noteworthy - ditto the final two holes - commanding top tier execution. Candidly, the North is vastly underrated and is actually the superior of the two courses, even though Legends has been a perennial host site for major professional events.
The Legends has also been bolstered by the updating but the main drawback was the shortening of the classic par-5 17th, formerly playing to just under 600 yards and often into the westerly winds blowing in from the nearby Pacific Ocean. The hole was shortened to provide a location to special activities and events. It is not used for that purpose now and the new hole - while still fun to play - is no longer what the original did so well.
It is important to point out that before the inclusion of spas became a common feature for many golf resorts - LaCosta was the leader in providing a comprehensive spa that still delivers in a big time way. LaCosta is no longer a memory bank of past achievements - the foundation for future success is clearly present today.