My Own Little RTJ Trail in Southern California

Alabama is home to the famous Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, which I was fortunate enough to play a few stops on in 2014. However, RTJ Sr. has had a hand in several classic Southern California courses, as well. I just happened to play two of them in back-to-back days, so I kind of experienced my own mini local “RTJ Trail” this week.

Really, it’s just a convenient excuse to pair two reviews together…

Pauma Valley Country Club • Pauma Valley, CA • 11/9/15

I signed up for an SCGA outing here on Monday, and it’s one I’ve been looking forward to for awhile. They do an outing out here almost every November, but I wasn’t able to make the past couple. I was glad to finally have a chance this year.

Perhaps it was that build up or just my positive experiences with other Robert Trent Jones Sr. courses in the past. It might be that I knew Pauma Valley had a very cool and secluded setting, well off the beaten path along the old Highway 76. It also has some rich history, having been around since 1960. For a number of reasons, I had really high expectations for this course. I expected to love it. In the end, I certainly liked it, but I just wasn’t as blown away as I wanted to be.

One issue was the weather. I arrived quite early before my 11:08 tee time and the weather was beautiful. There was talk of some small rainstorms rolling through, but it didn’t look like that at all in Pauma Valley. Luckily, I snapped a few photos while waiting around. About five minutes before teeing off, the clouds rolled in and it was just gloomy the rest of the day. We even got rained on briefly.

Driving into the property under the sunlight, the course looked gorgeous. Once we got out there on the first hole, it seems the gloomy skies revealed more of the course’s conditioning flaws. Naturally, they are dealing with the drought here like everyone else (perhaps even more because of the remote location) and it seems some maintenance has been done recently, so things are still very playable and nice by today’s standards. It just wasn’t as nice as it looked at first. I’ll expand on the conditions more later.

I’ll admit the shift in weather and not being able to get many good photos did probably make me a bit grumpy, but I did want to enjoy the course more than I ultimately did. It is a solid layout that reminded me a lot of the courses at Sycuan. The front nine is mostly flat and fairly forgiving off the tee. The greens have some undulation and the bunkers are well placed to provide some elements of challenge. Several holes on the front nine play along/through a wash area similar to what you find on some Coachella Valley courses. There’s a nice water hazard that comes into play on the 3rd and 9th holes.

Speaking of the 3rd hole, it’s easily the most interesting of the par-3s here. I was hoping for more from the short holes given the setting, but they are all pretty flat and basic. The 3rd is saved as you play over that wash and the water hazard looms long and left. Also, it is framed nicely by the modest old clubhouse in the background.

The back nine does get more interesting and I definitely liked it more with some hillier terrain and more distinctive angles.

The overall course does play rather long. It’s a par-71 and features some lengthy par-4 holes in the mix. We just played the white tees (6,404 yards) and five of the par-4s were still well over 400 yards. There are blue and black tees even further back if you really want to test yourself.

Speaking of long holes, the 18th is a nice finisher with an elevated tee and a slight dogleg right design playing back toward the clubhouse from the west side. The 17th is also a nice part of the finishing stretch. It’s a very tricky par-5 that is a severe dogleg left off the tee and then plays straight uphill the rest of the way. Some big bunkers make you think on  your second shot and/or approach.

Even though I kind of knocked the conditions, the course was mostly in decent shape. The tee boxes were very good throughout. The fairways had multiple grasses and were a bit inconsistent. It appears they were aerated recently, so I hope they are still in the healing process and will come around more in coming weeks/months. They were playable enough, but just didn’t look that nice. The rough was mostly fine and not much of a factor. The sand traps had great sand. The greens also showed signs of recent aeration, but were almost healed. The practice green rolled much smoother and quicker than the actual greens, in my opinion. Still, they were pretty good overall.

Pauma Valley didn’t quite live up to my lofty expectations, but it’s still a very good course that I would recommend checking out if you get the chance. My playing partners all seemed to love the course, so I think I was the most critical in the bunch. As I said, I expected to really love it and ended up walking away just liking it.

Some pictures from Pauma Valley Country Club (11/9/15):

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My mini SoCal RTJ Trail continued on Tuesday, a little closer to home this time in Orange County…

Mission Viejo Country Club • Mission Viejo, CA • 11/10/15

Mission Viejo is just a few years younger than Pauma Valley, having opened in 1967. I can only imagine how different the area was back then because South Orange County has grown a lot in the past 50 years. In that respect, Mission Viejo CC kind of feels shoehorned into the property now surrounded by the loud I-5 freeway, busy Oso Parkway and all sorts of housing complexes. Still, it remains a classic course that has held its ground for the most part as the city grew up around it. That’s often the case with a lot of older Southern California tracks.

I was able to play the course as part of a special SCGA promotion. Members are able to play Mission Viejo any Tuesday in November after 10:00. The rate is $90 (cart included).

I had called ahead last week hoping to get a full tee time and gather a group of friends together, but they were all booked up for this Tuesday. Instead, I called in the morning and inquired about “walking on” as a single. The lady in the pro shop was super nice and put me on her list to come out around 11:00 after some member groups were scheduled to go off.

I showed up and things went smoothly. That lady rang me up and sent me over to the starter, Ed, to get slotted in with a group. I didn’t have to wait too long and I was teeing it up with another twosome right around 11:15. We had a foursome in front of us and had to wait on them a number of times, but the overall pace was great at just under four hours.

I had heard Mission Viejo’s nickname of “Mission Impossible” from several people who talked about how difficult the course is due to a variety of factors. First, it is very hilly. I wouldn’t say it is narrow outside of a few holes, but the fairway cuts are tight and some trees are very well placed. Many of the greens are elevated and all are very well protected by some deep and nasty bunkers that you definitely want to avoid. There are a handful of tricky doglegs and other uncomfortable angles to contend with, as well.

Last but not least, the course has kikuyu grass throughout, which a lot of people hate. I have a love/hate relationship with it, often depending on how I play it that particular day. In general, when kikuyu is nicely kept, as it is here, I actually like it. When it’s a bit unruly and inconsistent, like you find at most local munis, then it can be much less pleasant!

With all those factors in place, it’s easy to see how that nickname was earned. I don’t think we got the full teeth of its challenge yesterday as the rough was cut low and the greens were super soft and slow. The lack of deep rough made tee shots a little more forgiving and the soft/slow greens allowed for more aggressive approach shots, chips and putts. Still, it’s a stern test as most bad shots are going to be punished.

If Pauma Valley was a slight disappointment the day before, Mission Viejo was a pleasant surprise. Of course, the great weather did raise my spirits. I have driven by this course so many times and it always looked interesting, but I didn’t think I would like it nearly as much as I ultimately did. Those par-3s at Pauma were pretty blah, but MVCC has a very fun collection of short holes.

The 3rd over water and framed beautifully by Saddleback Mountain in the background is a nice hole. The 6th is a blast with a straight drop-off from tee to green and some really nasty bunkers in play. The 13th is another nice one with a water hazard to the left of the green. Lastly, the 16th is a real fun hole with another big drop from tee to green.

The signature hole here might be the par-5 14th with a creek/ditch cutting across the fairway about 80 yards short of the green to mess with your mind a little bit on that second shot. Then, the green is elevated severely and protected by some of the deepest bunkers on the course. As you look back from the green, you are treated with easily the best view of Saddleback on the course. I particularly liked the whole main stretch of the back nine across the street (holes 11-17).

The course was in solid condition overall, but the greens were really slow as I mentioned. The tee boxes were good and fairways were mostly great. The rough was cut down in most areas and neglected in some of the outer areas with some water conservation in effect, so it wasn’t much of a factor. The bunkers were fantastic. The greens were still recovering from some maintenance. Sounds like they’ve had some issues with the turf this year, so as the starter says, “they’re not back yet.” They were very soft and fluffy, and rolling quite slow. Maintenance guys were all around and clearly doing a lot of work around the greens while we played, so they’re working hard to get them back to normal.

Other than the greens being sub-par and some minor distractions caused by the location (freeway noise, etc.), there is so much to love about Mission Viejo Country Club. I really liked it a lot and would highly recommend it, though it is not a course that everyone will enjoy. Kikuyu haters will certainly grumble and wild players who spray the ball everywhere will really struggle here. You have to keep it in play to post a decent score.

Some pictures from Mission Viejo Country Club (11/10/15):

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