Southern California is blessed with top tier weather year round and there is a slew of golf options. The sad part, unlike the weather, the menu of golf options often features non-descript layouts where compelling architecture is in short supply. Compounding the issue is the high costs many of these empty designs charge. Greens fees can easily exceed $100 for many of the highly touted public courses. But far too often these specific courses are simply vanilla designed cookie cutter layouts. Yet, two specific courses have demonstrated a clear exception. For those coming to the greater Los Angeles and San Diego areas, it pays to book a tee time at the two mentioned below.
Rustic Canyon Golf Course
7,044 Yards / Par-72
73.4 CR / 133 SL
Architect: Gil Hanse with Jim Wagner and Geoff Shackelford (2002)
Located on a 350-acre site in a broad canyon roughly one hour from downtown Los Angeles is Rustic Canyon. Since the course opened in 2001 there has been a constant flow of golfers who relish what this superb layout provides. When Rustic Canyon first opened, the name of Gil Hanse was likely an unknown person to most golfers. Fast forward to 2017 and his name is among the very top of the design profession. Hanse and his team moved less than 20,000 cubic yards of earth to create the 18 holes.
By no means can one say Rustic Canyon is a simple design. There is plenty of complexity and the range of decisions golfer confront is a constant factor throughout the round.
The routing of the course is especially well done. The holes have a consistent change of pace - there are no patterns for golfers to rely upon for comfort. Being able to shape shots and get to the preferred landing areas is essential. What adds to the quality of the layout is how the course plays on a daily basis. Firm and fast condition are generally present. Golfers must calculate the nature of what will happen when the ball lands.
The opening hole is a great example. The par-5 can be reached in two strokes by strong players, but there is a pesky channel that hugs the front of the green on a diagonal. Those who are a bit greedy will feel the sting of the hole right away. Birdies are possible for those who execute, but anything short of a well thought out play will be thwarted.
Hanse has included a range of short par-4 holes that tempt players to take bold actions at the tee. Once again it is crucial to realise your ability level and gauge the situations correctly.
What is hard to realise is that Rustic Canyon provides for nearly 250 feet of elevation change. It is not abrupt in any serious manner, but you begin to move noticeably uphill as the inward nine begins. Hanse mixes up matters constantly. There is plenty of fairway width but there is always a preferred side to play from on the approaches. The greens contoured sufficiently, but rarely do you get massive movements that overstate their situation.
Three long par-4’s are part of the closing nine and each is a stellar hole. At the 498-yard 14th you play a cape hole - how much one decides to take on the dog-leg is central to one’s success. At the 479-yard 16th you play downhill to a fairway that continually tapers down on both sides. For those who can manage a long and accurate tee shot, the reward is a far shorter approach. For those failing to do so the net result will be some serious pain reflected on the scorecard. The closing hole ends the round in fine fashion. At 456 yards the par-4 moves slightly to the right on the tee shot those able to finish on the right side of the fairway will be left with a far easier angle into the green. There is sufficient contours to ensure that nothing is ever finished at the closing hole until one’s ball finds the bottom of the cup.
Rustic Canyon is available for less than $50 from Monday thru Friday and less than $70 on weekends and holidays. Without joking, there are valet services in the immediate LA area that cost as much! The greater Los Angeles area has some of the finest private layouts in all of America with the likes of Riviera, Los Angeles CC / North and Bel-Air leading the way. There is nothing on the public side which matches what Rustic Canyon so wonderfully provides both on the architecture front and most certainly on the costs fronts. A true must play for anyone coming to the area.
Barona Creek Golf Club
7,393 Yards / Par-72
75.8 CR / 144 SL
Architect: Gary Roger Baird and Todd Eckenrode (2001)
So much of what calls itself “golf” in the Southern California area is loaded with an endless assortment of vapid golf designs. Many were quickly linked to housing developments during the go-go days of the 1990’s. The architecture usually consisting of non-descript holes that would not raise the pulse level of a corpse.
However, there are a few notable courses in which the architecture is exceptional - clearly providing a rich mixture of holes and for shotmaking to be thoroughly analysed before pulling the trigger.
Located under an hour from the downtown San Diego area is Barona Creek. The facility is owned and operated by the Barona Band of Mission Indians and is one of the best Native-American owned courses one can play featuring an on-site casino and hotel complex.
The main attribute of the course is the land. The course is not hemmed in by inane housing clusters or other diversions. The land features the golf course as the star attraction and the actual terrain is quite good. There is enough pitch but never to excess and although power carts are available one can clearly walk the layout and the tees and greens are positioned appropriately so one does not have to walk excessively between the holes.
Barona is modelled with wide fairways – there is more than enough room - but there is a preferred side to play one’s approach shots throughout the round. The golf begins with a par-5 - long enough to stretch the muscles and get the day started. Do not be misled into thinking the hole is easy simply because of the fairway width. The green is angled very well with a large bunker to the right of the green. Getting into position for a birdie requires blending the physical and mental sides together as a solitary tree is placed to make sure any second attempt to get to the green has to be thoroughly thought out. Go too far left and the tree becomes a major issue. Go too far right and the bunker must be dealt with directly.
Barona is a layout that adroitly incorporates the ground game option so well. The bounce of the ball is an inherent element and credit must go to the course superintendent and his hard working team. So many courses are watered incessantly and, as a result, the architecture is then limited to simply a flight option. Take for example the 260-yard par-3rd hole. On the surface the yardage would seem to be excessive. But the design and course preparation fosters a ground game option where one can funnel the approach to the target.
At the par-4 4th you face a critical decision at the tee. How much do you attempt to cut the corner on this superb dog-leg left hole. The bunker complex is both massive and impressive for its presentation and strategic qualities. The more left you go the better the angle into the green for the approach. There is a bailout to the right for the weak-kneed player but the downside is that the approach angles become infinitely more demanding.
This is the pattern at Barona - different angles are used for all the holes. The key? Knowing what to decide which one works best for your game. The routing is also exceptional - you are constantly moving in different directions - thereby the wind pattern is always shifting.
At the long par-4 8th you encounter another top tier hole. Bending left in the drive zone requires a carefully calculated tee shot. The putting surface is quite devilish, bending hard from left-to-right and fortified by a frontal bunker on the right which must be avoided. There are bailout areas, but none of them permits an easier next shot in the overall process.
The inward side is no less compelling. The par-3 11th is a gem, with the green banked around a colossal front right bunker. There is more room than it appears from the tee, but complicating matters is that the prevailing wind is usually in the player’s face, so ample club selection is a must. The par-4 12th is an exquisite hole. The tee shot is blind and those favouring the right side receive the better approach angle. At the short par-4 14th you climb uphill to a green bracketed by bunkers and with a contour that requires careful calculation on the approach.
The ending quarter brings the round to a quality conclusion. Two long par-4’s - at the 15th and 18th - are balanced by a terrific par-3 at the 16th which requires a deft touch to hold the green when generally played downwind. The par-5 17th is no less vintage stuff. Golfers need to think carefully with their second shots, as the fairway is split by a creek bed, which runs in a parallel manner to the hole. Those taking on the more demanding right side will receive a much simpler approach. Interestingly, with the exception of the 16th - all of the other three concluding holes generally play into the prevailing wind. The closing hole seals the round in a first rate manner. Again, a quality tee shot is needed followed by a highly proficient approach shot to a green protected to the left by water with demanding chipping areas for those who bail too far right.
Barona Creek works in so many ways. Playability is always emphasised, but to score well the player has to calculate carefully their abilities and then execute smartly. Fun golf is a concept that is bandied about like a tired slogan, but so often fails to connect the gaps between varying handicap levels. It is never an easy task, but the design at Barona Creek accomplishes that in a big time way. There are plenty of risky wagers to make when staying at the casino at Barona Creek - the golf side is the one sure bet.
Given all the available course options in California there is little question Barona Creek and Rustic Canyon rightly deserves to be among the elite ten public courses in the State.