Course Review: Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club

It’s been a little quiet on the blog, but it’s kind of the calm before the storm as the next few weeks will keep me rather busy with new courses to play and review. I was able to get out yesterday and play another nice private club. As I keep working my way through the excellent crop of Rancho Santa Fe courses, I was excited to have the opportunity play the area’s oldest track, Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club.

This course has a lot of great history and a strong tradition that can be felt throughout the very nice, yet not overly flashy clubhouse. It was designed by Max Behr and opened in 1929. The club served as the original host course for the first six Bing Crosby pro-am tournaments, otherwise known as “The Clambake.” Ultimately, that tournament made its way up the coast and is now the annual event at Pebble Beach.

In one of the restrooms, I saw an old photo of Behr and his associates planning the course on what looked like a very barren plot of land. To see all the mature old trees and the seemingly natural contours of this course now, that was a cool photo to see of the very simple beginnings.

I was able to play the course through a friend, who is a member of another local club that has some reciprocity with Rancho Santa Fe GC. We had a foursome and teed off around noon, finishing in about four hours total. The guest rate with cart was a reasonable (by private club standards) $131.

Of all the older Southern California courses I’ve played, I’m certain Rancho Santa Fe is the most fade-friendly layout I’ve encountered. It’s fairly forgiving off most tees, but the majority of doglegs tend to work to the right because of how the overall course is routed. That does not mean it’s an easy course. We played the white tees at just over 6,400 yards and it plays relatively long overall. The par-5 4th is a really long one, playing at 580 yards from the whites (with a somewhat uphill tee shot) and over 600 from the blues and blacks.

The key part of this course’s layout is that it runs straight back and out for the front nine and then the same going the other way on the back. If you look at the satellite view, you’ll see it takes up a very narrow footprint with no sideways holes in the mix. This means that the first four holes play pretty much directly downwind. Then, the next nine play straight into the wind. Finally, you finish with five more with the wind as you work your way back to the clubhouse. It’s easy to see the wind is almost always a factor here.

Easily the most intriguing hole here is the par-4 13th, which presents all sorts of options depending on your skills and your bravery. It’s kind of a split fairway with the main landing area up the left. From the tee, long hitters may try to go toward the right little patch of fairway, which is its own little peninsula without a lot of room to work with. If you play it safe to the left, you will have a pretty intimidating approach shot over two channels of water (the first of which has a cool Augusta-esque bridge crossing it). There is some bail-out room short and left of the green. If you feel the need to play really conservative with another lay-up, then you can decide to hopscotch into that middle peninsula and leave a short wedge shot in. It’s another thing worth seeking out in the satellite view because it’s just as awkward (and sadistically fun) as it looks from above.

I felt the layout overall gets stronger as you go. The early part of the course is nothing too amazing, but the holes get more and more interesting and the contours get more dramatic. I really liked the elevated greens on the 8th, 10th and 11th, all of which are very well obscured and protected by some really deep bunkers. Definitely any bunker at Rancho Santa Fe is worth trying to avoid because they are tough. In addition, most greens have small, yet highly effective false fronts. Anything landing short will most certainly stay short!

Condition-wise, the course was in nice shape overall. The tee boxes were good and the fairways were nice fluffy bermuda. They didn’t offer much roll-out, but provided nice surfaces to hit from. The rough was just thick enough to make you work and be plenty penal if the ball settled in a bit. I was in a couple bunkers and they had excellent sand. The greens were very receptive and what I’d call “sticky.” It was best to be aggressive and go at the pins because the ball would stop quickly. They were still recovering a little from the aeration a couple weeks ago, but were mostly healed. Putts generally rolled smooth, but perhaps a bit slower than they look like they normally would. I’d say medium speeds today, but I could tell they generally roll much quicker.

Like many older courses, Rancho Santa Fe isn’t one that will inspire oohs and aahs from your group, but it quickly grows on you and presents a much tougher test of golf than it first appears. At first glance, the 134 (whites), 140 (blues) and 142 (blacks) slopes seem too high, but  before too long you start to see why it is rated so high. All these years later, it’s still a pro-quality course, which would explain why they still host some big amateur events here.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone that they take advantage of an opportunity to visit Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club if ever invited. It’s a really solid old course with a lot of classic charm that’s hard not to enjoy.

Some pictures from Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club (10/13//15):

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