Trip dispatch: Orange County, California is not just for high-rollers

Upscale golf experiences abound, but it’s a pair of budget beauties that really stand out.
The 13th at Pelican Hill's Ocean South Course is an iconic Southern California golf hole.

NEWPORT COAST, Calif. – Warren was in heaven.

The retired restaurateur I was paired with at the Ocean South Course at Pelican Hill Golf Club was having the time of his life. An avid golfer in his early 70s, he had been sidelined with various injuries recently, such that this was just his third 18 in a decade, he told me.

Nevertheless, he’d been feeling more spry lately, and he wanted to treat himself, so he paid the full $295 rack rate to play the Tom Fazio design that weaves through canyons and meanders down to the beach, with two of the most picturesque par threes you’ll ever play at the 12th and 13th.

He could barely hit the ball 150 yards off the tee, but I could tell he’d been a decent player back in the day; the touch and technique he displayed on several 30-yard pitch shots was proof. Nevertheless, by the middle of the back nine he was laboring a bit. So I asked him whether this splurge of a round was worth it to him.

“Oh man. Absolutely,” he said.

Fair enough! While Pelican Hill may not be in every golfer’s price range, the latest in an ever-growing cast of characters I’ve been paired with on my travels was satisfied. And if you’re going to spend nearly $300 on a round, you could certainly do a lot worse than this 36-hole Newport Coast, Calif. facility.

Though Fazio’s Ocean South Course tends to get the bulk of the accolades, it’s the Ocean North Course that a few club members I talked to consider the superior layout. I agree: its placement higher up the eponymous hill affords the golfer even more spectacular views of the Pacific – all the way to Catalina Island on clear days – than the still-plenty-beautiful Ocean South. Furthermore, the mix of holes is more interesting, and while both courses are decidedly cart-ball affairs, the Ocean North has a better overall flow as well. Over 10 rounds, I’d choose it six times over its sibling.

Whichever course you play, though, you will get all the trappings of a high-end golf experience: plush conditions (though with a pleasing touch of firmness in the fairways), valet parking, impressive interior spaces and gracious service. The on-duty outside operations staff at Pelican Hill was the biggest I’ve ever seen at a 36-hole facility. The clientele is well-heeled, consisting of successful members as well as guests of the next-door Lodge at Pelican Hill, whose rooms go for upwards of $800 to $1,000 per night. It is a quintessential high-end Southern California place, and if you’re into that, you’ll love it. I won’t lie – I enjoyed living the high life for a day, playing both courses.

But I also loved discovering an absolute hidden gem the day before: San Clemente Municipal Golf Course, which is Pelican Hill’s philosophical opposite. Charging just $44 as its maximum green fees for walkers, The Billy Bell design is a country-club-for-the-people, and one of the most pleasant munis I’ve ever played. The course is not overly long or difficult, but between the tricky kikuyu grass, fun fairway movement from the sixth hole on and some mischievously flashed-up bunker faces that obscure parts of greens, it is a charming layout and a terrific walk.

It sits a couple miles inland, but throughout San Clemente’s front nine and into the middle of the back, golfers get little teasing peeks at the Pacific Ocean. Holes 13 and 14 climb up a canyon through a residential part of town before the course’s climax: the par-3 15th, which plays over a deep chasm from a tee at the highest point on the property. There, the ocean heaves into full, 180-degree view. It is a masterful reveal before an engaging final trio that descends back to the clubhouse. This, I thought, must be what Torrey Pines was like before it got famous.

Luckily for the people of San Clemente, their course doesn’t have the space or ambition to host much more than a local tournament – the City Championship, won in the past by then-amateurs Mark O'Meara, Paul McGinley and Kevin Na – so it should always remain affordable and friendly. That’s just what the community needs; no more.

And like many successful such operations, continuity of leadership has been key. Head pro Vinnie Poncino got his start at the course washing carts 22 years ago. His boss, Dave Cook Jr., has been working there for 50-plus years. Cook took the reins from his own father in the 60s.

Other surprises were in store during a few days in “the O.C.” (calling it “the O.C.” is a good way to out yourself as a visitor, by the way). A late addition to my itinerary was Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club ($120), a very good public course tucked away in a corner of Mission Viejo. Head pro Michael Block, who has been at the course since it opened 15 years ago, is one of the most skilled players in the club pro ranks, having won the 2014 PGA Professional National Championship.

The Tom Lehman/Casey O’Callaghan design features a rousing first dozen holes that climb up, down and over a few canyons, before a flattish six-hole finish that nonetheless calls for some engaging shots. The club boasts one of the best public clubhouse facilities I have ever seen: a bar and patio setup that eclipses even that of even most private clubs. If you turn in your scorecard to the bartender, your first drink will cost just a cent for every stroke. As a colleague and I finished our late-Thursday-afternoon round, an Eagles tribute band was beginning a set on a stage in front of the patio, which was absolutely packed with people.

Also in the upscale golf space and owned by the Irvine Company, which owns Pelican Hill, is Oak Creek Golf Club in the central-county city of Irvine, whose outpost of the University of California has one of my favorite athletics mascots: the anteater.

Like Pelican Hill’s courses, Oak Creek is a Tom Fazio design, but unlike Pelican Hill's seaside digs, it occupies two compact tracts of land separated by a stretch of railroad tracks. Despite the intimate confines, the course does not feel cramped; plenty of containment mounding sees to that. My mid-September visit found the course in nice shape, with very firm fairways that made the course more strategic than one might expect. The driving range was buzzing, too.

The threesome of fellow Millennials I joined on the first tee agreed the $95 weekend twilight rate ($75 weekdays) – an aggressive discount from the $180 normal weekend green fee) was a bargain. It may sound a little shocking to those of us living in more modest cities, but in an area full of expensive things and experiences, this can be regarded as a value.

The 9th hole at Oak Creek is a long par 4 whose green offers some much-needed relief in the form of external gathering slopes.

The last stop on my northward trek through Orange County could fairly be called a pilgrimage site for fans of recent golf history. The Destroyer Course at Navy Golf Course Seal Beach in the town of Cypress is where a young Tiger Woods played his formative golf. Interestingly, there are no official recognitions of his time there.

Nevertheless, Daniel, a doctor I was paired with, was eager to point out a few landmarks around the course, including the “Tiger Tree” left of the sixth fairway, planted some 350 yards off the tee, where the teenage phenom used to land tee shots: perhaps the first of many futile attempts at Tiger-proofing. That the tree now stands leafless and dead seems to be a sign: there was no stopping the kid.

The "Tiger Tree" on the 6th at the Destroyer Course is a reminder of the legend's formative years bombing drives down the fairways.

Other notes

- Irvine is where I laid my head during my visit – specifically, the Hotel Irvine, another Irvine Company holding. This centrally-located former Hyatt Regency is a solid option for anyone visiting the area. The 12th floor club-level lounge called "Club 12" and accessible for a $35 daily fee for up to two people, has breakfast each morning and snacks all day, plus happy hour drinks each evening. With a rooftop patio overlooking the area as well, it’s a nice value for those who plan to make daily use of the space.

- I flew in and out of LAX for reasons of convenience, but John Wayne Airport (SNA), located in Santa Ana, lands visitors right in the middle of Orange County. Newark and Atlanta are two east-coast cities from which you can get nonstop service, as well as a host of West and Midwest airports.

- What's the best time of year to play golf in an area that enjoys consistently great weather seemingly 24/7/365? According to some resident golfers I polled, the more overcast "May Grey"/"June Gloom" months received surprisingly high praise. The cloudy skies that make frequent appearances tend to moderate temperatures and provide ideal golf weather and pristine course conditions. Greens can be sped up when dry summer heat is less of a threat. Playing as I did in early September, greens tended to show signs of wear from consistent heavy summer traffic, and the bentgrass and poa annua surfaces were relatively slow in deference to the sun. A couple courses relied on big fans by several greens.

- If you can score a twilight tee time at Pelican Hill, not only will you save $100 off the rack rate, you'll likely get to experience an incredible sunset as you finish up your round. Here, the cheapest time to play might also be the best if your schedule allows.

- On a trip where I ate just about as well as I have all year, the standout meal was my lunch at Sup Noodle Bar in Cerritos after playing at Navy Golf Course. The north-Vietnamese-style pho, its broth spiked with garlic and bone marrow oil and packed with oxtails, was the best thing I've eaten in a long time.

Hotel Irvine's Club 12 has an outdoor deck that is a great spot for some twilight work or socializing.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
2 Comments
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Commented on

Liked your comments on Orange county courses, San Clemente munie my favorite. Next time you are here I would like to recommend you try "Dos Lagos" in Corona

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Commented on

Thanks for the tip, Jim! I'll look into it next time in the area.

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Trip dispatch: Orange County, California is not just for high-rollers