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From ocean to desert marvels: The top 10 golf courses in southern California

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

LOS ANGELES -- Southern California's golf courses are as wide ranging as the region's land and people. From the cool ocean breezes of San Diego, to the smoggy vistas of Los Angeles, to the towering mountains and swaying trees of Palm Springs, your SoCal golfing scenery can dramatically change in a 90-minute drive.

La Costa North golf course
La Costa North's showstopping closing run pushes it into the Top 10.
La Costa North golf courseBarona Creek golf course - hole 9Indian Wells Country ClubLa Quinta - Pete Dye's Mountain golf course

The vibe is just as malleable, going from the uptight entitlement of a course that caters to those whose shopping isn't confined to the window variety in Beverly Hills, to the laid-back, why-fuss feel of an oceanside dweller, to the almost Midwestern politeness of longtime Coachella Valley desert residents.

Picking any set of courses from this far-flung, often culture-clashing region would not be easy. Selecting a top 10 for all of SoCal qualifies as almost Howard Dean lunacy. Yet, that's just what TravelGolf.com has done.

This list comes from the experiences of head professionals, travel industry insiders, architects, personal play and most important, regular golfers. These are all courses you can play whether Donald Trump returns your phone calls or not. (By the way, the Donald's new Trump National didn't make the cut). It's no doubt the start of great debate, libel to be as cozy warm as most of Southern California.

After all, who wouldn't rather talk about golf than mudslides?

No. 1: Mountain Course at La Quinta

Don't get drawn into the hype over PGA West TPC Stadium. Those in the know, know this is Pete Dye's best work in the Palm Springs valley, some of his best work anywhere.

The Mountain Course has you playing right up against the Santa Rosa rocks. The way Dye manages to make the houses on the course disappear is seriously satisfying slight of bulldozer.

This is the rare resort course that seems better the second time you play it. And so on.

"It's incredible," Apple Valley, Calif., golfer Daniel Rincon said. "Best course in California."

No. 2: Pelican Hill (Ocean North)

Designer Tom Fazio went with a links style look at this second Pelican Hill design and it's paid off with gorgeous views and the feeling of playing golf with sea mist in your face. Located in the wonderland of Newport Beach, Pelican Hill is the Los Angeles area public course you have to play.

Sometimes called the Pebble Beach of Southern California, Pelican Hill holds its spot, while its devotees wonder if the resort will take away from a marvel.

No. 3: Torrey Pines (South Course)

Its reputation may be a little overblown, but not by much. The lengthening to 7,607 yards by Rees Jones a few years ago was really only necessary in the USGA's eyes, but the coastline views remain dramatic at this La Jolla institution.

There's still something special about playing Torrey Pines South, even if those waits on the tee can test your ocean-soothed nerves.

No. 4: PGA West (TPC Stadium Course)

Designed by Pete Dye to be the toughest golf course in the world, this Palm Springs area legend is actually hacker fun. As long as you're not playing it from those back tees.

The TPC Stadium Course has several memorable holes, with the famous 17th island green, arguably outdone by the largely unrecognized 16th hole that precedes it. Yet, there isn't enough scenery to go with the design wonder to earn it a spot in the top three.

No. 5: Indian Wells Country Club (Classic Course)

This is old-style Palm Springs golf with some spectacular twists. You really do get a sense of history playing out on this course where the houses and mountains seem equally close. You get the fun from the chance to cut a corner on a mountain that's protruding into the fairway, a hole where you must cross a plunging hill in the middle of the fairway and several inventive par 3s.

At 6,478 yards, Indian Wells' Classic Course could be considered almost puny by modern standards, which just shows how unimaginative modern golf design standards are. This is a course that will challenge, while keeping you marveling at how relaxed and fun old time golf could be.

No. 6: Oak Quarry Golf Club

This Brian Curley/Lee Schmidt/Gil Morgan design built into a rock quarry in the much-maligned L.A. suburb of Riverside is visually stunning with the rock framing holes. It's hard to imagine that golf could be this dramatic in an inland SoCal course.

Yet, the par-3 14th is an unforgettable showman with tee boxes on a ledge, ponds below and the smallest green on the course framed by a 400-foot tall white limestone rock wall. Golf Professional Jerry Crowell told TravelGolf.com, "It's the best inland par 3 I've ever seen."

That may be a stretch, but Oak Quarry's place in the top 10 is anything but.

No. 7: Desert Willow (Firecliff Course)

The first hole has you facing so many bunkers that you may end up wondering if there's any green at all on this Michael Hurdzan design. It's all forced desert carries and tucked away greens from there. Firecliff is tough enough that some of the Palm Springs area seniors run from it to play its sister Mountain View Course.

Avoid getting visually intimidated though and this is a fun play with plenty of go-for-it par 5s.

Firecliff's almost immaculate conditioning -- there is green here and it's really green -- adds another dimension.

No. 8: Strawberry Farms Golf Club

It seems ridiculous to place a course developed by an obscure former major league third baseman (Doug DeCinces) in the top 10, a course in Irvine of all places. Yet Strawberry Farms is that unique, that scenic. In a Southern California area where every available plot of land appears to have a house jammed onto it, this course meanders through hills, boulders and waterfalls. Better yet, most of its natural and fun to play.

Strawberry Farms once caused Golf Digest's Ron Whitten to go virtually adjectiveless in a you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it review. Now that's an accomplishment.

No. 9: Barona Creek Golf Club

For value, there's not a better course in SoCal. Set on the reservation of the Barona tribe about 35 minutes outside of San Diego, Barona Creek stretches out over rolling terrain with not a single home around.

"I didn't expect this," golfer Chung Hang said, spreading his arms wide. "There's so much ... open space. I didn't know there was this much space anywhere in this part of California. Everything else is so developed.

"Excuse me. I just didn't expect it."

No. 10: La Costa Resort (North Course)

Some wail that La Costa is an overrated TV creation, but there's no denying the power of the 13 through 18 closing stretch at La Costa North (now known as the Champions Course). This a fun, often vexing run of golf, starting with a par 4 that makes you feel like you're playing in a bread bowl.

Architect Dick Wilson makes the rest of the course, overshadowed as it is by the finish, interesting enough to more than merit this 10th spot. The deep, deep detailed bunkering is some of Wilson's best work and it was kept alive through renovation.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • ratings

    harbor wrote on: Oct 25, 2012

    golf's great!! even ratings-Sir you want to play one of the truly best in so. cal. do yourself a favor! Hacienda golf club la habra heights.. all those little intangibles that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It's tough but it's gooood. Thanks Sonny


  • golf

    balla wrote on: Mar 27, 2006

    malibu country club is the best course


  • Best SoCal Public

    grandcosmo wrote on: Mar 2, 2006

    The best public course in Southern California is Rustic Canyon and it isn't even close.


  • Trump National

    Greg W wrote on: Feb 20, 2006

    Haven't played since taken over by Trump, and only played the course before they fixed the last few holes that fell into the sea a couple years ago, so can't comment on those. But the majority of the rest of the course was relatively boring at the time, with a majority of the holes just parallelling one another back and forth down the hillside in terrace-fashion. Pretty piece of property and very scenic views, but not all the interesting/exciting set of holes. But maybe the last 3 restored holes overcome that. But I agree that the Lost Canyon courses should have strong consideration...


  • So Cal's 10 best

    tim hale wrote on: Feb 20, 2006

    I haven't played the Trump National track since he took it over but for that not to be in the top 10 is a joke. I have played ever course on your top 10 and Trump National blows away all but a couple of them. I don't think even Donald Trump could ruin that track. Also the fact that you left Lost Canyons off your list is a sin. There is no better test of golf in California for the experienced player than that place. I hope you aren't counting Santa Barbera as So Cal either because there are some great courses up there too. It sounds to me like there were some serious kick backs given to the judges. :)


  • Great Courses

    Mike Ryan wrote on: Feb 20, 2006

    What about the Sky and Shadow Courses at Lost Canyons...Much better than the North COurse at Torrey.


  • so cal course # 11

    dick prendergast wrote on: Jan 24, 2006

    it's oak valley in beaumont. built by the old landmark group that created pga west, mission hills etc. this is a dandy ! too bad you missed it .


  • Top 10

    Ted mills wrote on: Jan 23, 2006

    Who paid the bribes? No Aviara,Rancho Palos Verdes, Coto De Caza, for the likes of Indian Wells, etc?


  • Top 10 Golf Courses

    EJ Brown wrote on: Jan 23, 2006

    You forgot one of the BEST.......Bear Creek GC.....LA North....Riviera....surely you can't be serious?????????


    • RE: Top 10 Golf Courses

      tim hale wrote on: Feb 20, 2006

      I think they're talking about public courses.


  • Too much desert sun

    Scott wrote on: Jan 23, 2006

    I think Chris has spent too much time in the desert. His Top 10 list has four courses from the flat and boring Coachella Valley. Here are some courses that are better, and more popular:
    Fours Seasons Resort Aviara
    SCPGA Champions Course
    Oak Valley Golf Course
    Moorpark Country Club
    Rustic Canyon Golf Course
    Angeles National Golf Course


Comments Leave a comment
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