TEE & SYMPATHY : County’s Public Golf Courses Are Scenic, Sporty, Relatively Cheap--and Crowded
In the dark days before Arnold Palmer, golf was mostly a game for the rich and the powerful. They played their rounds at pricey private country clubs, where valets parked their cars, caddies handled their bags and greenskeepers scurried to repair the scars they inflicted on the course.
But with the rise to prominence of Palmer in the late 1950s, golf began truly to become a public game. Unlike many golfers before him, such as the elegant Bobby Jones, who won tournaments with a velvety swing and smooth urbanity, Palmer flailed at the ball like a lumberjack, shirttail hanging out, then stalked up the fairway defiantly, hitching up his pants, cigarette in hand.
While he was an uncommonly fine golfer, he appeared to be a common man. And, following Palmer’s example, millions of common men and women began to take up the game.
Not that there weren’t public golf courses; there were, but the demand for them increased dramatically and has continued to this day, the number of courses lagging far behind the interest in playing them.
Today in Orange County there are 26 public golf courses of nearly every size, configuration and level of difficulty. Any golfer in the county who gets the urge to swat the ball around for a while can choose among courses ranging from the tiny 9-hole executive course at the Newporter Resort, where the longest hole is 85 yards, to the sometimes wickedly difficult Links at Monarch Beach, where the beauty of the seaside setting can disguise the traps that lurk for the unwary.
Professionals at some of the larger courses in Orange County reported that as many as 60,000 to 80,000 rounds of golf are played at their clubs each year. With such volume, starting times are sometimes difficult to obtain, particularly with the frequency and popularity of company tournaments and preferred starting times that are given to members of men’s and women’s clubs associated with several courses.
“With the continuing growth of (the number of) golfers, more courses for the public are needed,” said Ward Lyon, the golf professional at Anaheim Hills Golf Course, which accommodates about 7,750 players a month. “If we had another 18 holes at our facility we would have no problem filling it up.”
Still, the avid golfer will find a way. Because for most lovers of the game, the attractive course, the testing hole, the layout that combines both natural beauty and man-made danger (professionals tend to use the word “challenge”) all are a kind of Holy Grail, the object of many a weekend crusade.
In response to a Times survey, a dozen golf professionals who work at public courses throughout Orange County offered their opinions about the best features of their own and other public courses in the county. They also listed the layouts they thought were most appealing to the average golfer who regularly plays public courses.
Two courses were the overwhelming favorites among the pros: the Links at Monarch Beach and the Green River Golf Club, both of which were endorsed by seven pros. In location and terrain, the two courses are vastly different, with Green River straddling the Orange County line near Corona and Monarch perched above the ocean in Laguna Niguel. But both were praised for their beauty and variety. Among the comments:
“Maintenance is A-1. Courses are always in good shape. The personnel are tip-top.” (Both courses.)
“Good lengths, with large trees.” (Green River.)
“Newer, in better condition. (Monarch.) “Good layout.” (Green River.)
“Makes you play different shots. Greens tricky.” (Monarch.)
“Right on the ocean, not too long, but very challenging.” (Monarch.)
“Good layout, although gets a bit too windy.” (Green River.)
“Mature, tough golf course.” (Green River.) “Has the beauty of ocean views.” (Monarch.)
“Hazards and trouble. Severe slopes and speeds on greens. Good use of water and bunkers. (Monarch.) Good mixture of length and finesse. Trees and wind make play more difficult.” (Green River.)
Runners-up in the voting were Mile Square Golf Course in Fountain Valley, San Clemente Golf Course, Imperial Golf Course in Brea, Anaheim Hills Golf Course and Rancho San Joaquin Golf Course in Irvine.
Holes at the Links at Monarch Beach were listed 11 times by surveyed pros as ranking among the best in the county. Three holes at Green River Golf Club and two at San Clemente Golf Course also rated accolades.
Two holes in particular, the par-5 sixth hole at Monarch Beach and the par-3 fifteenth hole at San Clemente, were mentioned repeatedly. Both are scenic but can present terrible trouble.
The sixth at Monarch Beach is a tantalizing hole in which two long shots can place the golfer on the green with a putt for an eagle. However, a deep creek running the length of the hole must be cleared twice before the green can be reached. Also, fairway bunkers are strategically placed to attract errant shots. Comments from the pros:
- “Plenty of bunkers, an ever-present wind and a tricky green make this a difficult par 5.”
- “Can play safe or gamble with your second shot.”
The 15th hole at San Clemente is a long par 3 requiring a hard and accurate shot. Nicknamed “the crow’s nest,” it features a deep gully between the tee and green that can swallow a too-short shot. In fact, any tee shot that does not hit the green has a good chance of rolling far away from the putting surface, down the hill, even out of bounds. It is beautiful, but daunting. Among the pros’ remarks:
- “Very scenic, with an ocean view.”
- “Narrow, tight green. Must hit the putting surface. A view hole.”
- “Two hundred and five yards of beautiful hole.”
Features of Courses
The pros were asked to list features about their courses that they believe attract golfers. The answers varied depending on the type of golfer for which each course was intended.
Willowick Municipal Golf Course in Santa Ana was praised for its tall, mature trees, while Monarch Beach’s Scottish links design--which traditionally includes few, if any, trees--won high marks for its design by Robert Trent Jones Jr.
Newport Beach Golf Course, an 18-hole executive layout (“executive” is a term that has come to mean a course shorter than regulation, what is sometimes called a “pitch-and-putt” course), was cited as ideal for beginners because of its short length and low green fees. Night lighting also was named as a selling point.
Beach views figured in the assessments of Shorecliff Golf Course, San Clemente Golf Course, the Links at Monarch Beach and the Newporter Resort.
The Anaheim Hills Golf Course and the Fullerton Golf Course were cited as good courses for those golfers who appreciate hilly lies, fast, true greens and diversity of design.
Even with the finer quality of course layouts and the higher level of satisfaction that many golfers feel when they play public courses today as compared to years past, there still remain problems with public courses that often do not exist at private country clubs. Because public courses are open to almost anyone who wants to play a round and has the money to pay for it, there is no guarantee that all who show up with a bagful of clubs know how to play or know the basic rules of golf etiquette.
Dave Cook, the PGA professional at San Clemente Golf Course, had strong words for the uninformed dilettante.
“The golfer has changed,” Cook wrote. “Too many people are playing golf who should not be on the course! When I was a kid, golfers were all classy individuals. Now you get a lot of people (ages 21-30) who come to the course to have a party, and they should stay home and watch a football game or get ‘86ed’ from a bar or somewhere else.”
Most people, Cook said, need lessons and good equipment to play the game properly.
Individual ignorance also plays a role in two of the thorniest problems on public courses, according to several of the surveyed pros: Slow play and lack of care for the course on the part of golfers.
“Slow play is always a problem on most golf courses,” Ward Lyon wrote. “Adequate yardage markers help and rangering certainly helps if (the rangers) have the power to enforce policy or requirements. ‘Ready golf’ (hitting when ready and not relying on the honors system) is good if people will use it.
“Most good golfers fix divots and repair ball marks, but continued education is necessary. At this course, we give away divot repair tools to make people aware of the continuing maintenance problem.”
Joe Boyd, the first assistant professional at Shorecliff Golf Course, wrote that “most golfers need to learn how to fix not only ball marks, but how to replace divots. I think people need to realize that the course is there for them, and that next time (they play their ball) could be sitting in their own unrepaired ball mark.”
Charles Beckner, the pro at the Newporter Resort, put it most succinctly: “When you think golf, think divots and ball marks.”
And, unlike the more open schedule at many private courses, the starter sheets at public links often are filled to overflowing.
“Starting times are extremely difficult,” Cook said. “There are usually 30 or 40 persons waiting at our doors at 5 a.m. when we open. The starters take times from both the line and the phone starting at 6 a.m. By 6:10 or 6:15, all morning times are sold out.” And, those times are for the following week, not the day of the call.
William Donovan Jr., the manager at Willowick Municipal Golf Course in Santa Ana, said that obtaining a starting time “has become tough because of the growing population. You always have a chance at a time, but getting one in the early morning, in the prime time before 11 a.m., gets harder and harder. Monday and Tuesday are usually the light days, but the weekends are really tough. Generally, most courses take starting times in advance and you have to wait in line at 6 in the morning a week before.”
Still, in the best Arnold Palmer tradition, most public links golfers doggedly tough it out in order to play their favorite game.
It’s worth getting up early to make reservations a week in advance because of the convenience and the lower green fees, said Cy Metzinger, an Anaheim resident who regularly drives to Santa Ana to play the Willowick course.
“Price-wise,” he said, “there’s a big advantage over private courses, although with the amount of play on public courses, there’s a lot of wear and tear on the course. (Willowick) is in excellent condition, though, and the food is good and the clientele are very sociable.
“We need more public courses in Orange County, but the ones that are here, I’d rank them very much above average for public courses.”
Bill Durocher, 75, of Corona del Mar, said he plays public courses in the county about three times a week and schedules most of his rounds at Willowick. And yes, he said, it’s bothersome to jockey for a starting time, “but it depends on how much you love the game.
“On the public courses,” he said, “the play is just tremendous. They’ll start at daylight and go until dark. But it’s kind of like the old horse racing saying: No man ever committed suicide who owned a yearling.
“Golf is like that. I don’t think a man would ever think of doing that when he’s out playing golf.”
Times Staff Writer Jerry Hicks contributed to this story.