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Ocean golf that makes you think: Revamped Pelican Hill North delivers the oxymoron

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. - Playing golf toward the ocean tends to end strategy discussions like the entrance of a beautiful woman in a clinging dress ends a debate over who's the best shortstop in New York. Postcard views trumpet golf thinking as fast as Bruce Willis overpowers an army of terrorists in one of those "Die Hard" movies.

Pelican Hill Ocean North Course
The easier course, Pelican Hill North, still throws canyon clears at you.
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So it is that the newly Tom Fazio revamped Pelican Hill Golf Club Ocean North Course is destined to be known as the golf course with wide-open ocean vistas. Even if you might end up remembering it as a course with more decisions than a Rubik's Cube.

In rethinking Pelican Hill North as part of its owner Irvine Company's grand vision for a Mediterranean-style, crazy luxury resort scheduled to open in late 2008, Fazio uses the second chance to make you think. He infused his original design with subtle points to go with the ocean blue.

Pelican Hill North remains the more hacker friendly of the two golf courses with wide-open fairways, fewer trees than its also revamped and reopened sister course Pelican Hill Ocean South - and, most importantly, less ball-gobbling fescue forced carries.

It's not a tame Fazio by any means. A 133 slope rating hardly qualifies as completely domesticated. And you'll be shooting across some canyons - two on 18 alone, the best hole on the course. But Pelican North's not one of those Fazios that's so over-the-top tough that you just want to throw your hands up in surrender, either.

Instead the newly renovated Pelican Hill North throws things like expanded collars around the greens at golfers.

These aren't greens, but the grass is still low-cut enough that you can putt off them - even though they're often above or below the actual green. And in most cases, you probably should putt if you're anything approaching a double-digit handicapper.

"Most golfers will putt from the collars," said Steve Friedlander, Pelican Hill Golf Club's new general manger. "It gives you some options, though."

If you have Phil Mickelson's short game - or think you have Phil Mickelson's short game when you really possess Charles Barkley's - those options are crazy fun.

It's all about choices, choices, choices at Pelican Hill North. No. 8 is typical of the dilemmas Fazio keeps putting out there. This 540-yard par 5 with a looming lake forces you to decide which shot you want to be tough, because while there are two ways to go, neither is easy.

Most golfers try to layup to the lake right, not realizing what a tough approach shot to an elevated green this leaves. You'll have a much easier final approach if you shoot the other way, but first you have to avoid the water and some hulking trees.

Forget risk-reward. This is risk-risk.

"The more you play the North, the more you see the different options you can take," said Pelican's director of instruction, Glenn Deck, who's probably played Pelican both before and after the revamp more than anyone. "It's a course with a lot of secrets."

So much for the stereotype of that wide-open, boring resort course.

Of course, if you go left on Pelican North's first par 3 (the 197-yard, forced coastal-sage-shrub-clear No. 2) and find your ball rolling far from the hole on this Minnesota Fats green, you catch on pretty quick.

Oh, you'll probably still go home and boast to your buddies about the holes where you're aiming straight toward the Pacific. No. 11, No. 14, No. 17 - who can decide which has the best look of all?

You pay that $235 greens fee (there's no twilight in the OC) to soak in the blue and the breezes, after all.

"It's so darn pretty, I could almost care less how bad I'm playing," Texas golfer Art Strickland said in the midst of his second Pelican Hill North round. "You know that's pretty."

Still, beauty aside, it's no big upset to walk off Pelican Hill North with some beast of a golf question running around your head.

Did I use the right club here? What the heck was I doing there?

Yes, it's a resort course that makes you think. Don't worry, though. Fazio disguises it in an awfully pretty package.

The Verdict on Pelican Hill Ocean North Course

Pelican Hill boasts the two best golf courses in Newport Beach. If you're in San Diego - little more than an hour away - you could do a lot worse than making Pelican Hill a day-trip. It might be the most memorable day of the vacation.

Especially if you run into a scowling Sean Penn at the giant Whole Foods that's a mere 15 minutes away. Or if you birdie the rollercoaster 13th and its flapping fairway.

It's a lot easier to bump into Sean Penn, though.

If you're only going to play one of Pelican Hill's courses, the majority of golfers on this early reopen play seemed to think North brought the best scenery. This golfer disagreed, though, finding the quality of South's cliff-hugging ocean holes outdid North's sheer quantity of blue looks.

"The thing I've found interesting is how many different things golfers have come up with for why they like one course best," Friedlander said.

At most big money resort courses, that would qualify as marketing bunk. At Pelican Hill, it rings out true.

Go ahead and splurge. It's still cheaper than one pair of many of the designer jeans at the nearby Fashion Square Mall.

Newport Beach hotels

When the Resort at Pelican Hill opens this winter, it is aiming to be one of the most distinct hotels in the world. And based on a site view, it clearly holds the potential to succeed. You will not just stay at a room here. You can get your own villa with a bathtub that has an ocean view.

Until the resort opens, and even after, the Island Hotel is certainly not a bad alternative. This is Newport Beach's most posh hotel, a 5-star where the high level of service avoids being stuffy. It doesn't hurt that some of the rooms have balconies that give you ocean glances, too.

Newport Beach restaurants

One of the best new spots in town can be found right inside Pelican Hill Golf Club. It's Pelican Grill, and the understated name doesn't provide an adequate picture. This is anything but your stereotypical golf course grill - no hot dogs for dinner and plenty of sophisticated dishes like braised short ribs.

It's already become a real Newport Beach scene, too.

Fast Facts

Pelican Hill Golf Club shut down for almost two years as Fazio tweaked and modified his two originals. Most of the shut down decision can be attributed to the building of the sprawling near resort, however.

Irvine Company didn't want golfers playing Pelican with construction signs and truck noise everywhere.

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.


 
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