Bunker renovation improves San Juan Hills Golf Club, one of the best values in California's Orange County

When Casey O’Callaghan was hired to perform a bunker renovation at the San Juan Hills Golf Club in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., he didn’t just reshape bunker edges and toss in some new sand.

His efforts have completely upgraded the golf experience. Bunkers have been moved or taken out. New ones have been put in where they made sense. Others have been completely redone, so they’re more playable for higher handicaps. Overall, O’Callaghan and his crew - based in nearby Newport Beach, Calif. - have made the 6,327-yard, par-71 layout more fun and interesting. The project, which modernizes a Harry and David Rainville design dating to 1967, started last December and will be completed later this month. It was done in phases so not to interrupt play on a popular public course in Orange County.

“Their bunkers were getting tired or old,” O’Callaghan says. “It was an interesting challenge trying to work with a course like San Juan Hills. How do you make the bunkers look beautiful and not have them require too much handiwork (for upkeep)? You have got guys who are 55 or 60 years old (playing) who can’t get in and out of bunkers easily.”

San Juan Hills isn’t overly bunkered (there roughly 60), but now they’re all in the right spots. O’Callaghan believes that will help speed up play. For example, on no. 15, a tough, uphill par 3, a bunker left of the green was removed and one on the right side was enlarged, so it catches errant shots that used to kick down the hill. On the second and fifth holes – two par 4s – greenside front bunkers were shifted to allow more room to run shots in, instead of forcing players to carry them via an aerial game.

“The course will be more playable for high handicaps, if they manage the course better,” O’Callaghan says. “It will also be a little more challenging for the low handicapper. Now that some bunkers are tightened up and moved closer to the greens, the better players might encounter them more.”

And of course, they look good, too. “There is the instant 'wow' factor of the new bunkers,” O’Callaghan says. “Aesthetically, they took it up two notches.”

Already a local favorite, San Juan Hills gets mostly four-star reviews on Golf Advisor, including from user Elrojot3, who called it the “Best Value in the OC.” He added: “where it really shines is the greens. The greens are in great shape. They roll true and are consistent between holes. For (the price) riding, you can’t beat it in Orange County.”

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,100 courses and written about golf destinations in 25 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Bunker renovation improves San Juan Hills Golf Club, one of the best values in California's Orange County