SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA GOLF GUIDE
Instead of trumped-up extras, these courses offer intriguing, affordable challenges
Golfers line up their puts at the ninth hole at Aliso Creek Golf Course in Laguna Beach. (Lori Shepler / LAT)
This is also not a list of the longest, toughest and roughest public layouts in the region. Instead, this is a list for those who like their golf fun, affordable and harking to an era before developers jammed golf courses onto mountaintops:
Brookside Golf Course No. 2 (Pasadena): The No. 1 course was the site of the 1968 L.A. Open and therefore is longer and tougher than the 6,046 yard par-70 No. 2. But this wily design highlights Riviera co-architect Billy Bell's clever use of small, tightly bunkered greens set amid the Live Oak-dotted splendor of the Arroyo Seco.
Check out the scores in May's Pasadena City Championship. They aren't that much better on No. 2. That's because Bell makes you think, which is still the best way to challenge good players while letting the average hack retain his dignity.
Goose Creek Golf Club (Mira Loma): Brian Curley and Lee Schmidt's 6,556-yard par-71 design is the only "modern" creation on this list. Working with pretty uninspired terrain, the architects offer alternate routes, encourage the ground game and utilize natural hazards to create plenty of interest. That's why Goose Creek is always busy, and always will be.
Griffith Park Golf Courses (Los Angeles): Despite changes that have ranged from an experiment with a Bermuda grass green to the Harding Course's mosquito-breeding ground "water bunkers" (mercifully since removed), the remains of George Thomas' original 36-hole design retains plenty of harm. The Wilson course's opening and closing holes remain outstanding, while Harding's amusing finish lets you wrap up on a high note while taking in sounds from the L.A. Zoo.
But considering Griffith Park's architectural heritage and location, city golfers deserve better. Also, don't hesitate to head over the hill for the nine-hole Roosevelt Course, the park's best-kept secret. Next time you are headed to the Greek Theater for a show, go early and take your sticks. Just bring extra balls because the downhill par-four sixth may be the tightest landing fairway in all of golf.
Los Verdes Golf Course (Palos Verdes): The bunkering here will never be confused with MacKenzie at his peak, but William F. Bell (son of the great Billy Bell) managed to create a fun walk on a canted site. But the architecture doesn't matter with such stunning ocean views, especially since nearby Trump National costs 10 times more.
Recreation Park Golf Course (Long Beach): The original Virginia Country Club was constructed in 1917 and opened to the public 14 years later. Don't be fooled by the opening two holes, a pair of drivable par-fours that bog down play and tempt some to head for the parking lot abutting the third tee. Because from there the wonderfully bizarre routing weaves up, down and around the hilly site, yet the walk is a pleasure.
At 6,405 yards and par 72, "Rec Park" is often underestimated by better players but beloved by Long Beach golfers who enjoy the undying pleasures found in classic lay-of-the-land design.
Rancho Park Golf Course (Los Angeles): The only American course to have been host of the PGA, Champions and LPGA Tours (Desert Inn was the other until Steve Wynn bulldozed it), Rancho charms with its blind and obstructed view shots, sidehill lies, minimalist bunkering scheme and an unusual sequencing that culminates with two par-fives.
Despite efforts by various armchair architects to desecrate the design via peculiar add-ons and that peculiar alternate green system, every hole exudes its own character. Long after you've left the West L.A. property, each Rancho hole can be recalled. There is no greater compliment you can pay an architect, which, in this case was the little-known William Johnson, who also had a hand in Rancho's wily par-three course. Though for my $2, the nearby Armand Hammer Golf Course in Holmby Hills is more fun and less crowded. But beware, the fee for this 18-hole pitch-and-putt jumps to a whopping $3 on weekends.
Sandpiper Golf Course (Goleta): Oddly, the views aren't that great for a course set on the Pacific. The real joy of Sandpiper is found in the clever strategy and bold green complexes. William F. Bell's 1972 design takes full advantage of a diverse site that includes natural swales and a seaside canyon where the dramatic downhill par-three 11th sits.
There's also the frightening second shot on the two-shot 10th, where you swear a missed approach will fall off the face of the earth. New owner Ty Warner wants Robert Trent Jones Jr. to completely redesign the course, so play it soon. Of course, the Coastal Commission will have some say in the matter. So you have time.
Santa Anita Golf Course (Arcadia): The mysterious James Harrison Smith's eccentric 1935 design often flies under most golfing radars despite low prices, convenient freeway access and great views of the San Gabriel Mountains. As with many of the most enjoyable Southern California layouts, Santa Anita takes advantage of land that appears flat from the surrounding streets, but on further inspection offers fascinating swales, quirky bumps and in the case of the wondrous 435-yard finishing hole, some of the wildest undulations west of Ballybunion.
Torrey Pines Golf Course, North (La Jolla): Designed in 1957 by the Bell father-son tandem as the family design business was transitioning to the son's control, the pleasurable 6,647-yard North Course offers stunning ocean views and remains fairly true to the original design. Sadly, the same can't be said for the 7,607-yard South Course, which lost its subtle green complexes and popularity after Rees Jones' pre-2008 U.S. Open redesign.
Aliso Creek Golf Course (Laguna Beach): That howling you hear is coming from all of those Orange Countians infatuated with the region's many forgettable and sadly overpriced designs that lure golfers with fine service and wide-open tee sheets to make up for their soulless architecture. Not at Aliso Creek! This quirky nine-hole design by Gary Roger Baird stretches to a mere 2,221 yards and clocks in at par 32, but the combination of stunning canyon scenery and fun short par fours makes it a blast to play. And isn't that what a good golf course is all about?
Geoff Shackelford co-designed Rustic Canyon Golf Course in Moorpark, which was Golf Digest's Best New Public Course of 2002 and is perennially ranked in Golfweek's Top 100 Modern Courses. firstname.lastname@example.org
Five overrated public layouts
Four Seasons Aviara Resort, Carlsbad — This Arnold Palmer design relies on an excessive number of flower beds and other nonsensical accouterments to justify the excessive price. If mountainside golf and lavish water features are your thing, then get down to Carlsbad as soon as possible.
La Costa Resort, Carlsbad — This 36-hole track is still enjoyable to play, but the Dick Wilson and Joe Lee 1960s architecture looks like most architecture from that era: tired. The resort needs to turn consulting architect Brian Curley loose on these potentially excellent courses. Start by dealing with the drainage issues that sent the PGA Tour to Arizona for the WGC Match Play Championship. La Costa's aesthetics could be enhanced by creating wetlands and coastal sage scrub areas along with a healthy dose of native oaks and sycamores so the golfer feels as if they are in Southern California instead of Sarasota.
Ojai Valley Inn and Spa — George Thomas' design has gone through so many renovations that were it not for ad campaigns invoking his name, one might forget that this giant of course design ever set foot on the property. The once-rustic layout is still beautiful, but it's now upscale. That translates to improved course conditioning and excellent service. But with those manicured and modern-looking Carter Morrish bunkers, calling this a Thomas course is unfair to the master's legacy.
Pelican Hill (North and South Courses) — Both layouts took bland to new heights, which might explain why the courses are undergoing renovations before reaching their 15th birthdays. Architect Tom Fazio was in his Shadow Creek phase when building it, so that meant way too many pine trees lining the strategy-free fairways. That aesthetic might be fine for the Las Vegas desert, but when you are asking people to pay $250 for ocean views they can't see, it's time to break out the chain saw.
Trump National of Los Angeles — Under the previous ownership, this was going to be a solid upscale daily fee with a great restaurant facility, amazing Catalina Island views and several fun holes like the (still) awesome par-four 13th. Donald Trump has raised the tackiness bar with bombastic Greek sculptures, offensive waterfalls drowning out the ocean sounds and to top it off, his gold crest glued all over the Spanish clubhouse façade. All he has delivered are excessive prices and a functional 18th hole with an epic second shot. The rest of the course is about the same, and it isn't comparable to Pebble Beach, contrary to what The Donald says.
— Geoff Shackelford