Best in Class, Part 2: Central & Northern California

Last week, I posted Part 1 of my personal “Best in Class” rankings. I featured courses in Southern California. As I head north in the Golden State, the regions spread out a bit more. Yet, there are still a lot of great courses to feature here.

Keep in mind these rankings are based on my own personal experiences and criteria (course design, conditions, scenery, price value, sentimental value, etc.) and in many cases are based on just one round at the course.

I did also mark a few of the most notable courses with an asterisk (*) to denote which ones I would consider the best of the best and would probably make my Top 20 list if I were to compile one.

VENTURA COUNTY, CA:

  1. Moorpark Country Club • Moorpark
  2. Ojai Valley Inn & Spa • Ojai
  3. Soule Park Golf Course • Ojai
  4. Rustic Canyon Golf Club • Moorpark
  5. Sterling Hills Golf Club • Camarillo

Originally, I was going to include Ventura County as part of the “Central Coast,” which is why I didn’t include it in my Southern California Best in Class post. But I’ve played enough courses now that it warranted splitting this area into two different divisions. The tough part about making Ventura it’s own region is that I kind of have an equal affinity for several of the courses I’ve played up there. After careful thought, I’ve decided to give my top ranking to Moorpark Country Club. I’ve only played 18 of the 27 holes there (I played Creekside and Ridgeline nines, which I’m led to believe is the best combination anyway), but I really enjoyed my experience out there. A lot of fun holes and dramatic elevation changes. Forced carries, narrow fairways, severe doglegs—just my type of course. The wind can get fierce out here and it was howling the morning I played there, but that just adds to the fun!

I give second place to Ojai Valley Inn. This is just a beautiful course in a great setting. Well maintained, but also way overpriced because it’s part of the high-end resort/spa. Soule Park is just down the road from Ojai Valley Inn and is one of the more interesting city-owned courses you’ll find. It is very inexpensive and still gives you that nice peaceful Ojai setting, making it one of the best values in all of Southern California. Kind of a links style layout with some nasty bunkers and tricky greens. Rustic Canyon is always a well-regarded course and also a great deal for the quality of course. It’s another unique links design with plenty of challenges to be found. Lastly, I’ll go with Sterling Hills as it is fresh on my mind and was a very pleasant surprise. I enjoyed the layout here, especially on the back nine and the service/conditions were great when I played here last weekend. A little overpriced at regular rates, but deals can be found.

[Honorable Mentions: River Ridge (Victoria Lakes), Olivas Links, Buenaventura]


CENTRAL COAST, CA:

(Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties)

  1. La Purisima Golf Course • Lompoc*
  2. Rancho San Marcos Golf Course • Santa Barbara
  3. Cypress Ridge Golf Club • Arroyo Grande
  4. Sandpiper Golf Course • Goleta
  5. Hunter Ranch Golf Course • Paso Robles

It’s taken awhile, but I’ve pretty much been able to play every course along the Central Coast that I’ve really wanted to check out. There’s a few down at the bottom of the list I still need to play, but I am pretty certain that none will crack this very strong top 5. The winner for me will still be La Purisima. This is just an incredible course that’s as scenic as it is challenging. One of the tougher courses you’ll find anywhere with some really tricky and fast greens. Simply a great course!

Rancho San Marcos is another great course. It’s very secluded, very scenic and enjoyable on every level. Cypress Ridge is a bit further up the coast and is a wonderful setting for golf, from the cypress-lined fairways to the fun changes in elevation. Sandpiper is one of the most scenic courses you’ll find anywhere, built right along the oceanfront cliffs and beaches. A nice course design is overshadowed by the views. A little overpriced, as well. Finally, Hunter Ranch is another scenic and challenging course managed by the same people who own La Purisima, so you know you can expect a great golf experience.

[Honorable Mentions: Glen Annie, Monarch Dunes, Avila Beach, Morro Bay, River Course at The Alisal, Blacklake]

CENTRAL VALLEY, CA:

(Kern County up to Sacramento Area)

  1. Apple Mountain Golf Club • Camino*
  2. Stevinson Ranch Golf Club • Stevinson
  3. Ridge Creek Dinuba Golf Club • Dinuba

I really just ventured into the Central Valley area for golf very recently, so the list is not long. In fact, I had to stretch the region to include the Sacramento area, which allows me to highlight one of my favorite California courses: Apple Mountain. This is a true “mountain” style course—which I obviously love—with big pine trees everywhere, very tight and hilly fairways and greens with plenty of severe slopes. Very challenging, very scenic and very fun!

I recently played both Stevinson Ranch and Ridge Creek Dinuba and enjoyed both courses out in the middle of Cow Country. Pretty flat and uninteresting landscape surrounds both courses, but they are both very enjoyable links layouts and seem to be extremely well-maintained. I would definitely recommend either if in the area.

MONTEREY PENINSULA, CA:

  1. Pasatiempo Golf Club • Santa Cruz*
  2. The Links at Spanish Bay • Pebble Beach*
  3. Pebble Beach Golf Links • Pebble Beach*
  4. Spyglass Hill Golf Course • Pebble Beach
  5. Pacific Grove Golf Course • Pacific Grove

I listed my top five in the Monterey area, which includes all the courses I’ve played up there so far. But all are worthy of mention here when talking about great courses. There’s a reason people flock to the Monterey Peninsula for golf. It’s an incredible place with some of the most famous courses in the world. My top pick would be Pasatiempo up in Santa Cruz. This classic Alistair MacKenzie layout is enjoyable on every level and a definite must-play if in the area on a golf vacation.

Then, you get to the “big three” Pebble Beach courses. I rank Spanish Bay first because my round there was absolutely the most enjoyable round of golf I’ve ever played. Perfect weather, perfect course conditions and I felt like I had the place all to myself going first off in the morning. Then, there’s Pebble Beach, which is at the top of anyone’s bucket list—and for good reason. The price keeps going up, but it’s worth saving your pennies for a one-time splurge. Spyglass Hill is also not to be forgotten about. Another beautiful course with a great layout that many people prefer over Pebble or Spanish Bay. Lastly, you cannot ignore Pacific Grove. They call it the “poor man’s Pebble” as it’s just up the road from the resort. It’s city-owned and very inexpensive compared to everything else in the region. The back nine takes you out right along the ocean with a great links-style layout. The front nine is more inland and woodsy. I would actually consider it more the “poor man’s Spyglass Hill/Spanish Bay.” The front nine is more reminiscent of Spyglass and the back is more in the style of Spanish Bay. However you slice it, Pacific Grove is a great stop if you are in the area and wanting to play some great golf, but aren’t willing to fork out the big bucks.

BAY AREA, CA:

  1. Presidio Golf Course • Arguello Gate
  2. TPC Harding Park • San Francisco

Somehow, I just haven’t played that much in the Bay Area. I haven’t played at all in the East Bay and I’ve only played twice in the San Francisco area. That said, both were great courses. I preferred Presidio of the two. Great layout with lots of hills (fitting for San Francisco), plenty of trees, great views and just a nice atmosphere for golf. TPC Harding Park is a little more expensive (unless you are a SF resident), but is also a great course that captures the spirit of the Bay Area. Tight layout with a lot of intertwining holes. Stay on your toes out here or wear a hard hat. Errant balls will be flying at you from every possible direction.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA:

(Everything North of Bay Area and Sacramento)

  1. Mount Shasta Resort • Mount Shasta*
  2. Bodega Harbour Golf Links • Bodega Bay*
  3. Beau Pre Golf Club • McKinleyville
  4. Lake Shastina Golf Club • Weed
  5. Kings Valley Golf Course • Crescent City

I’ve talked about Mount Shasta a lot on this site. Even though it is not a super high-end course or really well-known, it is my personal favorite course. It just holds a special place in my heart because of the first few times I stopped and played it while driving through the area. This mountain course is tight and hilly with plenty of trees in play and some tricky greens. The elevation and dry conditions can result in some larger-than-life drives, but the most important thing here is to stay safe and in the fairways. It’s not a long course, so positioning is vital for a good score.

Next is another one of my personal favorites: Bodega Harbour. This course just has a great seaside vibe. It’s build along a hillside overlooking Bodega Bay. Just a great course in a wonderful setting. Further up the coast you’ll find Beau Pre. I only played here once many years ago, but it was an enjoyable layout with lots of trees and a few good elevation drops. Lake Shastina is not far from the Mount Shasta course, so it gets a bit overshadowed in my mind. But it is also a worthy stop if in the area. Last but not least, there’s my “home” course: Kings Valley. This course was right down the street from my childhood home and I spent many a summer day out there learning to play golf. Just a little 9-hole course with eight par-3 holes and one par-4. There’s really not much to it, but it’s a special course to me and will forever be one of the reasons I love the game of golf.

[Honorable Mentions: Sea Ranch, Del Norte]

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