Course Review(s): Lost Canyons Golf Club

It’s very rare when you play a round of golf and feel a little depressed afterwards. But that’s kind of what happened after playing at Lost Canyons Golf Club in Simi Valley on Sunday.

In case you didn’t know, this place has fallen on some hard times in recent years. Even though this was not the ideal time to finally play Lost Canyons, I had multiple reasons for doing so. First, I had purchased a deal on GroupGolfer.com a couple months ago ($59 for unlimited play any day of the week except Saturday). Though, reviews on Greenskeeper.org in the past year have been getting worse and worse, the price was good enough and I was hopeful things might turn around at least a little bit heading into spring.

Well, I haven’t seen the reviews getting any better and I have also heard some rumors recently that one of the courses here (Shadow) was likely to close soon. I figured I would take advantage of the deal in order to play both courses while they are still there.

Since they don’t book single players in advance, I called ahead Saturday and they just told me to “come on out” and there’d be no problem getting me out. They also informed me that they had a St. Patrick’s Day deal going on ($79 for unlimited play). I wanted to get out there early and get in my first round as quickly as possible. When I got there just before dawn, there weren’t too many golfers hanging around. And with two courses to play, I figured it would be easy to get out.

When I checked in with the pro shop, though, things didn’t seem so simple. In fact, I found the guy working there to be kind of rude. I was the first one in line and it took him a long time just to get me logged into the computer as a single walk-on. Then he grumbled at me as if it would be really tough to get me out any time soon. Two other walk-on singles were in line right behind me. He gave us all grief for not having made tee times. Of course, we all pointed out they don’t book singles and the fact that since they are offering a special unlimited play deal for the day, he might expect to see plenty of walk-on players in the morning. Ultimately, he told us if we really hustle out there, we could get off on the Sky course right away as a threesome—ahead of some of the regular tee times. Otherwise, it would be after 9:00 before he could squeeze us in.

We got out to the cart guy/starter and there was no rush at all. A twosome had just headed up to the first tee and we would be next. No other people were hanging around ready to go out. In fact, we were finishing the first hole before we noticed another group on the first tee (just another twosome). It was anything but busy and the course never looked super crowded all day, so I am not sure what the pro shop guy was all worked up about. Even if the Sky course was packed, he could have easily sent us out on the Shadow course because nobody was playing it that early in the morning.

Beyond the frustrations of getting started, the rest of the day went smoothly. It was a gorgeous morning in Simi Valley and Lost Canyons is in an absolutely beautiful setting. It is very secluded up in the hills and a wonderful place for two once-world-class golf courses designed by legendary architect, Pete Dye—with special design consultation from professional golf luminary, Fred Couples. They did a great job designing these tough courses that use every element of the natural terrain here as inspiration. You go up hills, down hills, along the sides of hills and down into flatter little valleys. There are very few flat lies on either course. No two holes play the same, yet all blend together seamlessly.

Both courses at Lost Canyons are challenging and are very intimidating visually. Every fairway looks a little scary from the tee and every green looks tough to get at from the fairway. But as Pete Dye likes to do, there are plenty of bail-out areas you can’t always see until you are right on top of them. You can use the natural slopes to your advantage if you have prior knowledge, but they can also punish you if you hit a poor shot or catch the wrong side of a slope. At times it’s fun. At others it’s extremely frustrating. Either way, it’s hard to get bored out here.

There are a lot of distinctive holes here, but the one that stands out is the finishing hole (#18) on the Shadow Course. That is one crazy par-5 hole design that plays straight uphill from the tee. The fairway narrows up in the middle where the apex of the hill is, and then it’s straight downhill from there. The green is ultimately tucked off to the left and is very well-protected by bunkers and hills. With conditions as they are now (I’ll get into that more later), there are some great risk/reward options, especially depending on which tees you play. A really good drive that catches the top of the hill could potentially leave you with about a 100-yard shot in for your second and give you a good look at eagle. But there are plenty of bad things that can go wrong, too, so it’s definitely a unique hole.

One hole that I didn’t care for was the 3rd hole on Sky. It’s a relatively short par-4 that goes downhill off the tee and then back uphill to the green. In the bottom of the valley, there’s a barranca that runs across the middle of the hole. From the forward silver tees we were playing, you need to carry your ball 220+ yards to clear the barranca. If so, you’d be rewarded with a short wedge shot in. That’s a great risk/reward scenario I’m totally in favor of. However, the hole offers no real “conservative” play option—at least not in the current conditions. A prudent player like me who isn’t confident of driving the ball that far might choose to lay up in front of the barranca and deal with a longer approach. Unfortunately, there was no suitable lay-up area. It was an ugly downhill slope covered with nasty-looking clumps of rough and dirt. There was nowhere “safe” to land my ball, leaving me no choice but to go for the gusto. Naturally, I came up short, lost my brand new ball in the barranca, took a penalty stroke and grumbled about it the remainder of the hole.

I wanted to focus on the design aspects of Lost Canyons first because I know how great these courses once were. They are both fantastic designs, the secluded canyon setting is awe-inspiring and the facilities are pretty nice, so I tried as hard as I could to separate current conditions with the course designs themselves.. Though I always wanted to play here in the past, the main reason I didn’t is because the courses were fairly expensive and deals were rarely found online. For a variety of reasons, they have fallen on hard times financially in the past few years and things continue to get worse. Now that I’ve actually played the courses, it’s that much more depressing to see what has become of this place.

Amidst rumors that they are closing the Shadow Course, it has clearly been all but left for dead. Just looking at it now, you can tell it won’t be around much longer barring some sort of financial miracle. After finishing on Sky in the morning, myself and one of the other singles (another first-time player here looking to check out these courses while they’re both still there) headed right over to Shadow without any wait. There were some groups out on the course, but it was pretty sparse and we got around quickly.

I found my round on the Shadow Course to be a little more sad than fun. It’s like getting to date a supermodel, but your first date is when she’s on her death bed. As I stood on every tee box, I tried to visualize what this course looked like back in the day. I could tell it was definitely something special and spectacular back then. It’s really a great layout and it’s a shame to see it this way.

The fairways and rough were completely dead with the only patches of green on the course being weeds and wildflowers. The bunkers were thin and clearly haven’t gotten any new sand in awhile. The tee boxes were barren and crumbling apart. The greens, however, were actually a pleasant surprise. Though they were really, really firm and hard to hold on approaches, they had smooth surfaces and were rolling at nice speeds on putts. In fact, I would say the greens are definitely much better on Shadow than they are on Sky right now. Go figure.

Whereas the second round on Shadow was filled with despair, the first round on Sky brought a small glimmer of hope. It’s actually in relatively poor condition right now, too, but there is life left in the course and hopefully it can be brought back with a great deal of TLC. Though it’s never a good thing to see a course close, it could be the best thing for Lost Canyons in the long run. If they close Shadow and put all their finances and attention into bringing Sky back to form, it will return to being considered one of the area’s premier courses.

Right now, Sky is hanging in there condition-wise. The fairways and rough areas are thin and patchy, but far from dead. Some areas were decent and others were awful. The bunkers are not great, but had at least a decent layer of sand (we noticed a bunch of unraked footprints, though, which was unfortunate). My take on the greens is that they are trying, but they have a ways to go before being good again. They lumpy, clumpy and bumpy, full of old ball marks and not consistently mowed. They were pretty firm and hard to hold, but on putts the greens were excruciatingly slow. For whatever reason, two holes were aerated and sanded heavily (the 1st hole and one other on the back nine—I don’t remember which one exactly).

Even though Lost Canyons was not anywhere near its best yesterday, I am still glad I finally got to play there. With the deal I had, it was worth the price of admission to play both courses. Otherwise, I wouldn’t pay much to play Shadow at this point—other than going out to pay respects to this once great course before it closes. I hope to see at least Sky come back to its former glory, so I can play it once again at its best. However, my worry is that once they do restore it, they’ll jack up the prices even more or turn it into a private club. Even while the courses are still running during the bleak times, I think the staff at Lost Canyons can use an attitude adjustment to at least make the playing experience as positive as possible. They should welcome any business they can get right now!

Some pictures from Lost Canyons Golf Club (Sky) (3/17/13):

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Some pictures from Lost Canyons Golf Club (Shadow) (3/17/13):

(Many not for the faint of heart)

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One of the nice patches of weeds growing just a few feet from the edge of the green:

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