A recent renovation has transformed Tom Fazio's Ocean South Course at Pelican Hill Golf Club into one of the most scenic rounds of golf on the West Coast.
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. - It sounds like something straight out of an episode of "CSI" or maybe the CIA handbook. Steve Friedlander keeps dropping the term CSS, sometimes in near rapid fire, to explain things.
If you hadn't been briefed, your head would be spinning. Don't worry though. Nobody's been murdered and there's no invasion planned today. At least, not on this idyllic stretch of California coastline.
Friedlander is the new general manager of the just reopened, renovated Pelican Hill Golf Club and he's explaining how it's been tweaked and reshaped. CSS stands for coastal sage scrub, and it plays a large part in the new look, especially on the much improved Ocean South Course.
For one thing, you can now see the ocean. Truly see it. In full postcard glory.
This might seem like a given on an ocean course, but in the years since Pelican Hill's two Tom Fazio golf courses opened in the early 90s, the vegetation grew long and often wild, obscuring many of the best vistas. It had particular impact on Pelican South, which winds around in some lower-lying areas - so much so that everyone just began to assume that Pelican North enjoyed a stranglehold on the best ocean looks.
With the CSS framing holes, Pelican South's water windows have been opened up, revealing a stunning beauty with plenty of bite. Fazio - who directed the revamp of his two babies - had vegetation cut down and in many places replaced with acacia shrub that naturally never grows taller than three feet.
In all, thousands of shrubs were moved around the course in the nearly two years it was closed, at a surely astronomical cost that the Irvine Company, which owns Pelican Hill, is not eager for you to know (Irvine's PR rep politely but firmly said that as a private company, it declines to reveal what it spends on projects). Still, there are reports that $1.3 million was spent annually on just shrub maintenance at Pelican Hill Golf Club even before the revamp.
As a golfer, you're just going to consider it someone else's millions well spent.
For Pelican South is suddenly one of the most scenic golf courses on the West Coast. It says here that its ocean looks even trump the vistas of its more wide-open sister North Course. That qualifies as near hearsay in these parts with Glenn Deck - director of instruction at Pelican Hill - and most other Pelican long timers still touting North as the eye-candy course.
No single Pelican stretch takes you closer to the ocean and delivers more dropped jaws - and potential scorecard sucker punches - than Pelican South's 11th through 13th stretch though.
It starts with a 367-yard par 4 that goes straight at the ocean and a green with big sand dunes behind it. No. 11 was never this dramatic before a bunch of bushes were removed to clear up that blue look, but now it's Al Pacino playing off Robert DeNiro worthy.
"I think it's the biggest single thing they did," Deck said.
No. 12 is no slouch itself now with Crystal Cove State Park to the left below this 159-yard par 3 where the wind can change directions between shots.
The 12th would be a conversation piece if it wasn't followed by another par 3 that one-ups it like that relative who always has to steal the holiday thunder. No. 13 also runs above the coastline, but it hits you with two greens.
That's right, Fazio worked in dueling greens.
The flag gets moved from the left to the right green depending on the day, creating a hole distinct enough that Fazio claims he's never designed anything quite like it. "Of all the golf holes, thousands and thousands of golf holes, I've been a part of, this is distinct," Fazio said.
It's also the best alibi a wayward golfer may ever have.
"Hey, I was shooting at the other green," is a refrain that's already been heard here enough to illicit groans with the laughs.
On Pelican South, you need a good sense of humor.
No matter how good or bad you are, Fazio's guaranteed to slap you around a bit. Pelican South is the type of course where a little local knowledge goes a long way - and visitors to the new posh Resort at Pelican Hill (it's set to open in the fall of 2008, about a year after the golf courses) and its Olympic sized (as in ancient Roman emperor times) swimming pool are not likely to have it.
One quick tip: Fear the deep rough like a vampire fears sunlight. Calling this stuff thick grass is like calling Knicks guard Stephon Marbury a tad eccentric. There's understating it and then there's completely understating it.
Pelican South's gnarly grass doesn't snare golf balls. It swallows them and then stores them in some far away galaxy you'll never see. It's not just possible to lose a ball you watched go right into the rough 10 feet in front of you. It's likely.
And if that five-minute search turned into a 15-minute foray, you'd still be out of luck.
You're better off just staring into the blue horizon and smiling.
Pelican South became a SoCal must play as soon as it reopened its gates. Of the two courses, the South benefited from Fazio's adjustments most. The ocean plays so much more of a lead role now and on a sunny California day, the views seem like they're never going to stop.
Sailboats bop along in the blue distance, vacationers hike on the beaches far below and your shots sometimes seem more impressive because the backdrop is so nice. Remember to look behind you on the 15th fairway for maybe the best ocean view of the day.
Drop any thought of any easy picture round though. This is one tough course, still the tighter of the two courses by far with its trees. You have to clear canyons, navigate other elevation changes that can almost sneak up on you (yes, usual over-the-top showman Tom Fazio is subtle).
Pelican is a splurge play. It's $235 no matter the time of day (no twilight in the OC), but the Pelican regulars eager to get back on filled the tee sheet in the first few weeks of its new life.
Pretty soon, everyone may learn what CSS is.
When the Resort at Pelican Hill opens next year, 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.
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.
One of the new features is a towering entranceway bridge that golfers later drive their cart over to reach the first tee.
November 26, 2007