Best in Class, Part 1: Southern California

Recently, I was trying to compile my own top 10 list. In other words, my favorite 10 courses I’ve ever played. Let’s just say it was not an easy task because I’ve been fortunate to have played so many great courses throughout this country and sometimes it’s hard to compare. My list quickly went from 15 courses and then up to 20, so it was not going to work. 

I then began thinking more regionally, so I could have representatives from a wider variety of locations instead of what I may just arbitrarily pick as my “Top 10” or “Top 20.” So what I decided to do was break it down by region and share my top picks for each geographic area. Some places (i.e. Southern California) I’ve played a lot more than others, so those regions are broken down even more. In other regions of the country I’ve played much less, I am grouping multiple states together. You’ll get the idea.

One thing to keep in mind is that these are only courses that I have played personally. My rankings are based on a number of criteria based on personal experiences (course design, conditions, scenery, service experience, price value, sentimental value, etc.). Many of these courses I’ve only played once and some I’ve played a lot (hence sentimental value), so rankings are based on what I’ve experienced.

That all said, I did put asterisks (*) next to the courses that probably would make my Top 20 list (in no particular order), so you can get a sense of what I see as the best of the best.

Now, onto the picks. Let’s start with my own backyard…

ORANGE COUNTY, CA:

  1. Tijeras Creek Golf Club • Rancho Santa Margarita
  2. Pelican Hill (Ocean South) • Newport Coast
  3. San Clemente Golf Course • San Clemente
  4. Coyote Hills Golf Course • Fullerton
  5. Costa Mesa Country Club (Los Lagos/Mesa Linda) • Costa Mesa

Even though I live here, I’m not generally a huge fan of golf in Orange County. There are plenty of nice courses around here, but most are way overpriced. There are a few good deals to be found, as well, but those are generally overcrowded (especially on weekends when I typically play). Factoring all things in, Tijeras Creek would definitely be my top pick in OC. It does fall into the overpriced category, but not as ridiculous as some courses around here. It’s a great layout with a spectacular back-nine.

Pelican Hill (South) is a beautiful course and gets number two because it is a nice layout in an incredible setting. But if you are going to splurge this much for a round of golf, I’d recommend going up to Pebble Beach or visiting another “bucket list” level course instead. San Clemente is the best deal in Orange County with a great location and enjoyable layout, but it is very overcrowded and a little harder to get on for non-residents of San Clemente. Though I’ve only played it once, Coyote Hills is a really fun layout with lots of elevation changes, tight shots and tricky greens. Just my type of course, though it is also definitely overpriced. Lastly, I submit a “sentimental” pick with Costa Mesa Country Club. I included both courses as a tie because I enjoy both layouts (Los Lagos and Mesa Linda) and I’ve played here a lot. The price is right here, but it can get very crowded. I’ve never played here on a weekend and I probably never will, but for weekday twilight/afternoon, it’s hard to beat the convenience, value and quality.

[Honorable Mentions: Strawberry Farms, Talega, Monarch Beach, Anaheim Hills and Tustin Ranch, solely for their free birthday play deal, which is the best thing in OC golf!]

LOS ANGELES COUNTY, CA:

  1. Industry Hills Golf Club at Pacific Palms (Zaharias) • City of Industry*
  2. Industry Hills Golf Club at Pacific Palms (Eisenhower) • City of Industry*
  3. Trump National Golf Club • Rancho Palos Verdes
  4. San Dimas Canyon Golf Course • San Dimas
  5. Los Verdes Golf Club • Rancho Palos Verdes

Just this year, I finally had the chance to play at Industry Hills. I’ve played the Zaharias course twice now and the Eisenhower course once. There’s no doubt in my mind this is the best that LA County has to offer, but picking between the two as my favorite course is not easy. I love both, so it’s probably more of a 1A and 1B ranking. In the end, I give the slight edge to Zaharias because that’s what my gut tells me. I know I’m in the minority here and most people would strongly prefer Ike, but I have to go with my gut here. You can’t go wrong with either course, though. I’m still amazed that these incredibly beautiful courses exist in such an ugly city!

Trump National would be a similar situation to Pelican Hill in the Orange County list. Beautiful course in a gorgeous setting overlooking the ocean. A ton of great waterfront views, first-class service and a fun/challenging layout. No complaints about the course whatsoever, but the price is too steep. Los Verdes is the “poor man’s Trump” and right down the street. Not as many good views and not nearly as well maintained, but a fun layout. Too crowded, though, and harder to get on for non-county residents. In between those two at number four is San Dimas Canyon. Even though it can get way overcrowded here and people complain about long rounds, I do love the course itself. Tight and hilly with a lot of fun holes. Not very long, but another good target golf course that I really enjoy.

[Honorable Mentions: El Dorado Park, Angeles National, Brookside, Hansen Dam, Rancho Park]

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, CA:

  1. Mt. Woodson Golf Club • Ramona
  2. Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club • San Diego
  3. The Golf Club of California • Fallbrook
  4. Eagle Crest Golf Club • Escondido
  5. Woods Valley Golf Club • Valley Center

The first thing to point out when it comes to San Diego County is that I really haven’t played a ton down there yet. I haven’t played Torrey Pines or any of the higher end resort courses, so my list is admittedly a bit weak. But I have compiled my list based on what I have played and Mt. Woodson sits on top. The last time I played here it was not in as great a shape as I would have hoped, but it is still a fantastic layout. Not super long, but very tight and very tricky. It will test your skills and your patience around every corner and up/down every hill. It’s in a beautiful remote mountain setting, as well, so the scenery definitely factors into the selection.

Carmel Mountain Ranch is also a great course in a nice hilly setting, so I make it my second choice. The Golf Club of California is a course that went public fairly recently, so there’s still an air of “private course” feel there. The service/clubhouse is great, though still a bit snooty I thought. The course itself is excellent. Great variety of holes (no two feel the same) and very challenging throughout. Eagle Crest is another fun and scenic course with a great variety of holes and challenges. Lastly, I put Woods Valley. The front nine there is a bit bland, but the back nine runs through the woods and features a number of really fun holes that will definitely keep you on your toes.

[Honorable Mentions: Meadow Lake, Pala Mesa, Arrowood, Marine Memorial]

INLAND EMPIRE, CA:

(Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, Not Including Palm Springs Area)

  1. CrossCreek Golf Club • Temecula*
  2. The Country Club at Soboba Springs • San Jacinto*
  3. Goose Creek Golf Club • Mira Loma
  4. Oak Quarry Golf Club • Riverside
  5. Redhawk Golf Club • Temecula

This is easily the region I’ve played most here in Southern California, and there are many great courses to be found. The prices are generally good and they are easier to get on on weekends. My top choice out here is CrossCreek in Temecula. I fell in love with this course the first time I played it. There was a great vibe out there in the early days with all the staff wearing old-timey knickers and handing out Hershey bars on the first tee. I always really enjoyed the diversity of holes and the challenging layout of this course, as well. It had fallen onto tough times for awhile, but I am glad to see it has gotten closer back to its glory days in recent years.

Soboba Springs is second on my list, even though I haven’t played there since the casino took over and remodeled the course. It used to be the best deal anywhere around. A bit out in the middle of nowhere, but it was always a great price and always in great condition. Very long and challenging layout. When the casino bought the course and made their upgrades (new clubhouse, flipping the nines, etc.), they jacked up the prices too much, but now it seems they are coming back down and I hope to get out there again soon. Goose Creek and Oak Quarry are two of the most well-regarded courses in this region and I can understand why. Both are great layouts and worth checking out at least once. Redhawk is one of the toughest courses around, if you ask me, but it’s a really enjoyable track with many memorable holes. Very diabolical greens on a number of holes out here!

[Honorable Mentions: Eagle Glen, Oak Valley, Temecula Creek Inn, Rancho California (SCGA), Diamond Valley, Morongo GC at Tukwet Canyon, Los Serranos, Glen Ivy]

COACHELLA VALLEY, CA:

(Palm Springs Area)

  1. Classic Club • Palm Desert*
  2. PGA West (TPC Stadium) • La Quinta
  3. PGA West (Nicklaus Tournament) • La Quinta
  4. Eagle Falls • Indio
  5. La Quinta Resort & Club (Mountain) • La Quinta

In the past year, I’ve been able to venture out to the Palm Springs area more often in order to sample some of the many great courses out here. There are so many courses out here, I had to make it its own region. Personally, I’ve still barely scratched the surface, but I’ve played enough so far to compile a really good list. Classic Club is my top choice in the area. I played there earlier this year and was blown away by the tough layout of the course (water, water everywhere!), unique desert surroundings that feel completely different than any other course out there, and the quality of the service (huge clubhouse, great facilities, etc.). It is very well-maintained and simply a wonderful course. It was not windy when I played there, but I know it can get very windy there and can only imagine how much tougher the course plays in those conditions.

The TPC Stadium Course at PGA West is generally one of the courses people come out to play. It’s one of Pete Dye’s most challenging layouts (if not his MOST difficult) and a must-play if you are in the desert. The Nicklaus Tournament course right next door is not as “Dye-abolical,” but Jack designed a beautiful course that is worthy of a lot of praise. Eagle Falls is another great course, and like Classic Club, is situated on the north side of the I-10. So wind can also be a factor here, but it is a great course no matter what the weather throws at you.

Lastly, I come to the Mountain course at La Quinta Resort. I’m conflicted on this one. I just played it recently and was disappointed in the poor conditions out there that particular day. That said, I really enjoyed the layout of the course and the spectacular setting up against the desert mountains, so I know how great this course can be when in peak condition. I hope to play there again someday in better circumstances, and I am sure it will move up in the rankings when I do. Right now, though, I have to rank it based on my personal experience.

[Honorable Mentions: Desert Dunes, Escena, Terra Lago (South), Shadow Ridge, La Quinta (Dunes), PGA West (Norman)]

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