Enjoying Some of Santa Barbara County’s Best Golf

The Santa Barbara area is known for many things, and local golfers know it as a hotbed of quality courses. There’s not much in terms of quantity, but the quality is undeniable. I had the opportunity to play two of the area’s best courses yesterday on a picture perfect day.

The Ranch Course at The Alisal • Solvang, CA • 10/17/13

Great golf may not be the first thing you think of when talking about the unique Danish village of Solvang, but it is home to The Alisal Resort. They have two courses here. The River Course is open to the public and The Ranch Course is a little more difficult to access as a semi-private club. Generally, it’s reserved for only members and guests of the resort.

Because I knew I’d end up playing it someday, I have researched stay and play packages at The Alisal and let’s just say it’s quite expensive there. So when I saw an SCGA member’s outing scheduled there this year at a price of $85, I jumped at the opportunity. It was the perfect solution for me!

We had an 8:30 shotgun start and we teed off on the short par-4 7th hole as a threesome. It was a nice hole to get warmed up on for me. We didn’t have anyone directly in front of us for a couple holes, so we moved at a nice quick pace early on. Things slowed down when we caught up to the groups ahead, but it never felt that slow. In fact, when we were finished and I looked at my phone, I was shocked to see it was almost a 5-hour round! That said, I really didn’t mind because this is a course worth taking your time to enjoy.

The Ranch Course itself may be slightly overshadowed by its setting. It’s in a gorgeous secluded little valley just south of town. We probably saw a couple dozen deer grazing on the course during the round and even a few wild turkeys. A small creek runs the length of the course and comes into play on almost every hole. Mostly, it runs along the side of each hole as a wooded hazard area, but a few times it crosses through and forces some risk/reward decisions. A couple of the par-3s play directly over the creek for a fun, challenging and beautiful set-up.

The course was designed by William F. Bell and was opened in 1956, so it retains some old school charm. The narrow fairways are lined with old growth trees, leaving some uncomfortable angles and plenty of natural hazards to contend with. There are some tricky doglegs and a few somewhat blind shots as the course meanders its way through the woods and up and down some gently rolling hills. There aren’t any major changes in elevation, but more than enough to keep things interesting and challenging.

The biggest challenges on the course are posed by the greens. They are not easy to read. You should always look at where the creek is located in relation to each green because things naturally break a bit toward it. No matter what read you think you have, things tend to break even more than expected. It’s not always easy to convince your mind to hit it high enough.

The signature hole on the Ranch Course is the par-3 5th, which features an elevated tee and a shot over the aforementioned creek to a relatively small and well-protected green. I remember this one especially because I was within a couple feet of an ace. That was certainly the highlight of my round, because otherwise the course had its way with me. If you can keep your ball straight here and out of the trees/creek, you can post a good score. But if you are just slightly off on any shot, things might not go so well.

On top of the beautiful weather we enjoyed in such a scenic setting, the course itself was in spectacular shape. The tee boxes and kikuyu fairways were more or less absolutely perfect. I only noticed a handful of small thin spots all day. The rough was lush. It was not cut deep, but still enough to make you work because of the thick grass. The greens were just about perfect, as well—soft and receptive enough and smooth/quick/true on putts. The bunkers were full of super fluffy sand. Quite simply, the Ranch Course had top-notch conditions all around.

Though I don’t know if I would personally pay the price for stay and play access at The Alisal Resort, this course is definitely worth a visit if you have an opportunity to play. It is truly one of Santa Barbara County’s best “gems.”

Some pictures from The Ranch Course at The Alisal (10/17/13):

Of course, there was more golf in the plans after a glorious morning at Alisal. A friend (who had also played in the morning outing) and I headed across the 246 highway and toward one of my favorite courses anywhere…

La Purisima Golf Course • Lompoc, CA • 10/17/13

We had a 2:00 tee time ($45 with cart was the price), but ended up running late because of the unexpectedly long round at Alisal and some slow traffic driving through Solvang and Buellton. I called over to the course to let them know and the kid in the pro shop didn’t seem too concerned about it. When we arrived, we saw why. There weren’t too many people out there, so we weren’t in much of a rush at all.

With that in mind, I wanted to grab a quick bite in the snack bar/grill, but when I went over they were already starting to close up shop for the day. Seems a bit early, but I guess that’s what they do when the course isn’t getting a ton of play on a weekday afternoon. I had to grab a Gatorade, Powerbar and some Gummy Worms from the pro shop, and that would have to settle for “lunch” as we made our way to the first tee.

We played as a twosome at a nice relaxed pace. There were a couple of twosomes ahead of us and another twosome behind us, but things moved along well. We teed off around 2:15 and finished right at 6:00, so it was ideal.

This was my second time playing the infamous La Purisima. I know some people who dislike this course, but most people I know absolutely love it. When I first played here quite a few years ago, I loved it, so I’ve been looking for an excuse to come play it again. Now that I’ve played pretty much everything else in the area, it was a perfect time to come back and rediscover La Purisima.

The reason people tend to love or hate the course is because of the challenge. This is widely regarded as one of the toughest layouts in all of Southern California. It has earned the nickname of “La Piranha.” I wouldn’t disagree, because many parts of it are quite unforgiving. At the same time, it has plenty of fair qualities to it. Almost every hole can produce a decent score with the right strategies and the right shots. A few holes, though, are ones you just hope to survive.

Local knowledge is definitely a benefit here because there are some very unique and, what some might say, “funky” hole designs. The 2nd, 4th, 6th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 18th are just a few of the most distinctive that come to mind. These are holes where previous experience is helpful and good shots are absolutely required to avoid big numbers.

La Purisima also features two of the tougher par-3s you’ll find around (in my opinion, skewed greatly by the fact I play a fade). The 9th is a lengthy one with tall trees guarding the left side and not much room for error right either. Two big bunkers guard the left and right sides of the green, making short and straight the only acceptable “miss.”

The 17th is another one that strikes fear into most people, especially if the wind is blowing. It’s not quite as long, but there’s even less room for error with a creek running in front of the green and trees all around it. Yikes!

Every year, La Purisima hosts what they call the “Impossible Open.” In this sadistic event, they take what’s already a super tough course and crank up the challenge to 11. Part of me wants to sign up for next year’s tournament just to have the experience and to be able to tell the horror stories here, but part of me wants nothing to do with it. We’ll see.

The course was in fairly good overall shape, highlighted by the greens. They were perfection! They had nice soft/spongy surfaces, and were silky smooth and pure on putts. They were rolling at very quick speeds, but not quite as frighteningly fast as my previous visit. Unfortunately, they are getting ready to aerate next week, but I’m sure they’ll be coming back just as strong in a few weeks.

The fairways were mostly good. Many were excellent and others were not too great with a lot of thin areas. The rough was very spotty. Around the greens it was thick, lush and beautiful. Around the fairways, it was hit and miss with some good areas and some terrible patches. When you are not on a fairway here, be sure and watch your step. There are a lot of holes, lumps and bumps and we both almost turned our ankles several times. If you are driving a cart, keep it on the fairways or on the dirt paths (where there are paths). Going through rough is a painful and bumpy ride!

Lastly, the sand traps were good. The greenside bunkers had a nice top layer to work with and fairway bunkers were kept firmer, which is how it should be.

Though a little rough around the edges right now, La Purisima is still one of the best courses in Southern California. It is definitely one of the most challenging and unrelenting layouts, so if you like to challenge yourself then it’s a good test. If you want a relaxing round on a resort style course, then you might look elsewhere. I look forward to my next battle with this course, which will hopefully be sooner rather than later this time.

Some pictures from La Purisima Golf Course (10/17/13):

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