On Sunday, I had another opportunity to check out a private club in Southern California. Over the past few years of playing in SCGA and GK events and getting to know other avid “course collectors,” it has really opened up some great chances to meet members of private clubs and work together to get access when possible.
A few of us were invited out by a member at Fairbanks Ranch to play 27 holes and check out all three nines of this course in Rancho Santa Fe, a community where there’s no shortage of private golf clubs (along with a huge equestrian lifestyle). In fact, the grounds that are now the Fairbanks Ranch golf course were once host to some equestrian events during the 1984 Summer Olympics and some old wooden jumps were left behind that you can see on the course. That was right when the country club opened and then the Ted Robinson-designed golf course was constructed soon after.
It seems they brought in a lot of trees (mostly pine and tall palms, which surround every green in a cathedral-like pattern) in the construction of this course, which have matured nicely over the years to provide plenty of visual contour throughout the Valley and Lakes nines especially. Those are the original two nines and then the Ocean was added much later. It has some similar design qualities, but a bit of a different vibe.
The facilities are beautiful and I knew when I got there this was going to be a nice experience. As a guest showing up before anyone else in my group, I felt very welcomed by the staff and was able to find my way around in the clubhouse and ample practice areas. The weather was very nice when I arrived as you may have seen if you followed my first Twitter post on Sunday, but progressively got cloudier and windier as we made our way around the course. Oh well, it was still a very enjoyable day!
We started on the Valley nine at 9:30 and never had to wait on the group ahead of us. They were well ahead The pro shop guy told us they were extremely busy that day with tee times booked solid, but the courses never looked or felt too crowded. “Busy” is always a relative term at a private club.
We played the Lakes nine next, and then took a short break to grab a bite to eat before finishing off on the Ocean nine. We couldn’t ask for better pacing and a relaxed private club experience.
Probably the coolest feature at Fairbanks Ranch is the way all three nines end. The 9th hole on each course is really the signature hole and they all play similarly. Two of the greens (Lakes and Ocean) sit at the foot of the big clubhouse with an intricate design of water hazards, giant green complexes, rock walls, distinctive bunkers and those aforementioned palm trees all woven together in a very cool presentation. Each hole is demanding and scenic with a ton of water in play. The most distinctive of them all is the 9th on the Lakes nine, which features an island fairway, but the 9th on Ocean is probably the toughest of the bunch if you ask me.
I loved the way each course finished and found the rest of the layouts to be pretty enjoyable overall. With the Robinson design features and the palm trees surrounding the big, undulating greens, it naturally reminded me a lot of Tustin Ranch. The newer Ocean nine is a bit of a departure with most of its holes running along a little marshy area. It had more of a linksy feel with long native grasses and the reeds along the water hazards more grown out.
The member we played with told us he prefers the Lakes/Ocean combo as it features a more interesting collection of holes than Valley. I would tend to agree as there were more memorable holes on each of these courses. The 1st hole on Lakes is eye-catching as it wraps around a big lake for one of the more intimidating opening holes you’ll find anywhere. Fortunately for us, it was our 10th hole.
The course was in very good overall condition, highlighted by the greens. These were my ideal kind greens with soft, grabby poa annua that allowed for aggressive approaches and chips, but very smooth and rolling at medium-fast speeds. The tee boxes were excellent throughout. The fairways were mostly great. They were best on Valley, with only a few GUR spots here and there. There were a few more weak spots on Lakes and Ocean, primarily on the holes out along the lower marshy spot where the soil is apparently not ideal for grass retention. The rough was lush and thick, but not deep. It was sticky enough to make you work for a good recovery shot, but not overly penal. I was only in one bunker all day and it was fantastic.
It sounds like new ownership will be taking over and probably changing the name, too. They only had temporary scorecards available until all the new branding decisions are made. I know they are adjusting the design of the 1st hole on Ocean to become a shorter par-4 instead of a pretty basic par-5 like it is now, but not sure about any other design changes that may happen, if any.
Otherwise, I am glad I got to play Fairbanks Ranch and would recommend it to anyone who gets a chance.
Some pictures from Fairbanks Ranch Country Club (6/28/15):