Many golfers assume they can’t afford to have an interest in golf course design. “Well, I’m not getting on Cypress Point,” they might say, “and I’d rather not spend my savings at Pebble Beach, so what’s the point?”
But great design isn’t solely the domain of private clubs and ultra-upscale daily-fee courses. At its core, the best golf architecture is simple, rooted in the principle of less is more. So it’s possible that your humble local course has a better design than whatever fantasyland is currently on your TV.
Of course, what constitutes good architecture is a matter of personal preference. What you’re reading here is simply my opinion; whether you find it persuasive is up to you.
One key to recognizing strong design is looking past a course’s skin—that is, its conditioning—and seeing its bones. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy luxurious fairways and greens as much as the next guy. But excellent architecture shines through even at courses in rough shape.
Here are a few questions you can ask of any course you play, no matter the green fee:
- Do the holes seem at home in the landscape and respect the spirit of the place, or do they clash with their surroundings?
- Does the routing lead you to the most compelling natural features of the property, whether views or landforms?
- After your round, how easily can you remember each hole?
- Off the tee, do at least some of the holes give options for different lines of play? Are there hazards that create strategic dilemmas by guarding the best angles into greens?
- Do the green sites have a variety of shapes, contours, and hazard arrangements?
- Above all, after you finish, do you feel the urge to go around again?
The trick is finding golf courses that both excel in those categories and have reasonable rates for public play. Below, I’ve identified three regions on the West Coast where a handful of such unicorns exist.
Pacific Coast Price Guide:
$: Peak 18-hole walking rate $60 or under
$$: Peak rate between $60 and $125
$$$: Peak rate $125+
This is the mecca of cheap golf on the West Coast, and it’s still something of a secret. Wedged between the more heralded destinations of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Ventura County has one of the finest collections of municipal courses in the country.
Buenaventura Golf Course (Ventura, CA) $
Olivas Links (Ventura, CA) $$
These neighboring city courses received deft makeovers by Forrest Richardson in the 2000s, and both summon fun, varied golf from relatively flat ground.
Rustic Canyon Golf Course (Moorpark, CA) $$
A collaborative design by Hanse Golf Course Design and Geoff Shackelford, Rustic Canyon sits lightly on the land, plays as firm as a Scottish links, and poses one strategic quandary after another.
Soule Park Golf Course (Ojai, CA) $
This mid-20th-century Billy Bell Jr. course nearly succumbed to floods in 2005. Luckily, Hanse Golf Course Design was able not only to save it but to transform it into a tribute to the classic California golf architecture of George Thomas and Alister MacKenzie.
The Oregon coast
At some point, you need to go to Bandon Dunes. Sorry, you don’t have a choice. When you make your pilgrimage, carve out some time to visit the charming local courses along Highway 101.
Bandon Crossings Golf Course (Bandon, OR) $$
Crestview Golf Club (Waldport, OR) $
Tip: if you look a course up and see Dan Hixson listed as the designer, go play it. One of the most underrated architects in the business, Hixson has two delightful courses on the Oregon coast, the 18-hole Bandon Crossings and the nine-hole Crestview.
Gearhart Golf Links (Gearhart, OR) $$
Among the oldest courses in the West, Gearhart received an unfortunate facelift in 1999, but recent tree removal and native-area cultivation has brought back some of its links-like feel. It’s a fun, peaceful getaway—and within day-trip range for Portland residents.
Sunset Bay Golf Course (Coos Bay, OR) $
This scruffy nine-hole gem winds through a river valley 20 miles north of Bandon, and its quirky, minimalist design will transport you back to the roots of the game.
San Diego County
The San Diego area doesn’t have as much well-preserved (or well-renovated) golf architecture as Ventura County or the Oregon coast, but it’s a more common tourist spot, and it has a few courses that should grab a design geek’s attention.
Balboa Park Golf Course $
North Course at Torrey Pines $$$
These, not the more famous Torrey South, are the jewels in the City of San Diego’s crown. Balboa Park, built in 1921 by Billy Bell Sr., has a terrific routing over dramatic terrain, and Torrey North, after a savvy renovation by Tom Weiskopf, is more fun to play than its big brother.
Barona Creek Golf Club $$$
A slight stretch price-wise (the peak rate is $160), this casino course delivers high-grade architecture from Gary Roger Baird and SoCal stalwart Todd Eckenrode.
Coronado Municipal Golf Course $
While a few holes are awkward and a couple of others unmemorable, Coronado Municipal offers a pleasurable bayside walk, and the tee shot on No. 16, which asks how much of the coastline you’re willing to bite off, is a thrill.
Goat Hill Park $
The gnarly terrain makes for an enjoyable romp, but Goat Hill Park’s most admirable trait is its ethos: casual, family friendly, and focused on serving its community.
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