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The Best Courses in California: A Golfer’s Guide to Paradise

The state of California is known intimately around the world, even to those who have never been there.

Not only is it the most populous in the United States of America and with the largest economy, but it contains the country’s second largest city in Los Angeles and the second most densely populated major city in San Francisco.

The home of Hollywood and the Pacific Coast residence of choice for so many of the rich and famous, it turns over so much wealth that were it a country it would boast the fifth largest economy in the world.

Situated in the Western United States, California has long been one of the most culturally diverse areas in the whole of the country.

There were thought to be some 300,000 indigenous inhabitants before it was first colonized by mostly Spanish settlers, the largest influx occurring during the eighteenth century.

It was at first part of the newly-independent Mexican Empire before becoming, briefly, a republic in its own right and then finally being absorbed into the United States in 1848.

As fate would have it, the annexation by the US coincided with the discovery of large reserves of gold, which inevitably inspired large-scale immigration into the area from Europe, China, the Middle East and other parts of the United States. California achieved statehood in 1850.

Although enjoying a mostly Mediterranean climate, there are parts of California which experience cooler and even polar temperatures.

Because of its geography the state has experienced a number of major climatic events including earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, droughts and tsunamis.

The Rich History of the Golden State

Called the Golden State, California is home to one eighth of the entire population of the United States of America with just under forty million citizens.

Its many big cities include Los Angeles (the largest, with a population of over 3.8 million), San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Fresno and Sacramento. Spanning an area of some 163,000 square miles, it is the third largest state in the US behind Alaska and Texas.

Whilst during the American Civil War the state of California supported the union, there was a large amount of residual sympathy amongst sections of the population for the Confederacy. In 1869 the first transcontinental railroad was constructed, enabling easier access from the east coast.

The Mediterranean climate was ideal for the growing of many crops, and vegetables, cereal, cotton, nuts and fruits are produced locally. In Southern California oranges are grown.

Chinese and later Japanese migration into California added to its rich diversity, the larger part of the population today remaining of Hispanic heritage. The place names give testimony to the strong Spanish influence throughout the life of the state.

Hollywood, a municipality in the central region of Los Angeles, has become synonymous around the world with the US film industry. Walt Disney, Columbia, Warner Bros., Universal and Paramount are all based in the vicinity.

Theaters, studios and of course the Walk of Fame have all become landmarks of international renown.

The Californian Golfing Tradition

In having no fewer than 21 major sports franchises California is far better represented in top level professional sport than any other state in the USA.

It hosts five Major League baseball teams, four NBA basketball teams, three top level football sides, three playing NHL hockey and three in Major League Soccer. Women’s professional sports are represented too, in WNBA basketball and the National Women’s Soccer League.

It is also the only US state to have hosted both the Summer and Winter Olympics. In addition, many of the most successful college sports teams also hail from California.

California is viewed as the primary hub within America for Mixed Martial Arts and is a major center for motor sports and speedway, as well as boasting several first class racetracks for horse racing.

When it comes to golf, California is without doubt up there among the best locations in the US. Its varied climate, extensive coastline and sheer diversity mean there is so much to enjoy and such variety that neither resident nor visitor is every likely to grow bored with California golf.

From Cypress Point Club to Pebble Beach Golf Links, Torrey Pines to Riviera Country Club, there is something for the occasional partaker as much as for the pro golfer.

It is perhaps no coincidence that it has produced some of the finest players ever to have graced the sport, not least Johnny Miller, Phil Mickelson and of course Tiger Woods.

What also appeals about golfing in California is that there are both private courses and public courses in abundance, both offering some real high quality sport. This so epitomizes this freedom-loving West Coast state in which so much is affluence but is seldom exclusive.

20 Best Golf Courses in California

Whether your preference is for paying on parkland or in the desert, by the ocean or on wild mountain courses, California has something to offer golfer everywhere. Here are twenty of the very best California golf courses:

Cypress Point, Pebble Beach

Alister MacKenzie designed this stunning course in 1928, which remains so special today not least because it defies to many golfing conventions – including back-to-back par-5s and a 16th which juts out into the Pacific Ocean.

Exclusive doesn’t begin to cover it, even the rich and the richer have to be sponsored by a member to be allowed to play.

Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pebble Beach

Most agree that this is the best public access golf course in the state of California. Hosted the US Open five times and is a regular calling point for the PGA Tour with the AT&T Pro-Am.

Like Cypress Point this course brings the player to the very edge of the worst largest and most magnificent ocean.

Torrey Pines Golf Course (South), La Jolla

The South Course provides the regular venue for the annual PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open, and two US Open Championships were played here also.

Both golf courses are open to the public, with the option to stay overnight at The Lodge.

Riviera Country Club, Pacific Palisaides

George Thomas and Billy Bell built this unlikely marvel in the 1920s, majoring on angled greens and innovative bunker configuration.

The par-4 tenth is famously fun.

Los Angeles Country Club (North), Los Angeles

Also originally designed by George C. Thomas, this sought-after course was lovingly restored by Gil Hanse in 2010, with bunkers reshaped and fairways widened.

Played host to the Walker Cup in 2017 and awaits the US Open itself in the summer of 2023.

Pasatiempo Golf Club, Santa Cruz

Alister MacKenzie once said this was the best golf course that ever designed.

Which some might think odd considering that Cypress Point is also one of his, but it does serve to demonstrate the high opinion he head of his work here.

Unlike Cypress Point this course is slightly inland, but don’t let that spoil the captivating sea view.

Monterey Peninsula Country Club (Shore Course), Pebble Beach

One of two courses sought after here, the quirky Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula was designed by the late Mike Strantz and has been incorporated into the AT&T Championship rota.

In 2004 Strantz built twelve new holes and upgraded six more.

Spyglass Hill, Pebble Beach

Another Pebble Beach favorite, Spyglass Hill near Monterey Bay is also part of the AT&T Pro-Am.

A Robert Trent Jones Sr. design, the course successfully utilizes the natural landscape to bring out the best in its unique features, which begin at the coastline before moving inland to the tree lined fairways bordering Del Monte forest.

La Quinta Resort & Club (Mountain Course), La Quinta

Situated beneath the glorious Santa Rosa mountains, the challenging Pete Dye mountain course offers elevation changes, bunkers and rock formations.

As with so many of the venues in California the views are breathtaking, and never more so than at the raised 16th.

Indian Wells Golf Resort, Indian Wells

This resort boasts two municipal golf courses, the Celebrity Course and the Players Course.

The former has mountain views, lakes and streams, rolling fairways and water features whilst the latter has challenging bunkers amid mature trees.

The Olympic Club (Lake Course), Daly City

The scene of multiple national championships, having opened almost a century ago, with tree lined fairways and a wondrous view overlooking San Francisco.

Built by Willie Watson and Sam Whiting, it was restored in 1927 following storm damage and is one of three courses at the Olympic Club.

Pelican Hill (Ocean North Course), Newport Beach

A hillside landscape creation by Tom Fazio, this par-71 public access course close to La Quinta opened for business in 1973.

One of the best maintained resort courses, with splendid coastal views from literally each and every tee.

Madison Club, La Quinta

Another Tom Fazio design classic, stupendous scenery and the luxury clubhouse and facilities combine to provide an unparalleled golfing experience.

A select members-only course owned by the Discovery Land Company.

Aviara Golf Club, Carlsbad

A public access course designed by the legendary Arnold Palmer, wonderfully landscaped overlooking Batiquitos Lagoon.

Rolling fairways, water hazards and taxing bunkers make this a popular and much sought-after venue for local players and tourists alike.

Half Moon Bay Golf Links (Old Course), Half Moon Bay

Not a top-100 golf course, but makes the list by virtue of the sheer luxury and quality of the resort. Built in 1973 from a design by Arnold Palmer and Francis Duane, the eighteenth is said to be one of the best holes in the sport.

San Francisco Golf Club, San Francisco

A challenging bunkered creation by A.W. “Tilly” Tillinghast, this low-key but unique and special course offers an unforgettable golfing experience.

The seventh is known as the “duel hole” because, famously, it was the scene of the last official duel to have taken place in the United States, in 1859.

Valley Club of Montecito, Montecito

An Alister Mackenzie course near Santa Barbara, about two miles north of Los Angeles.

The first two greens seem specifically angled as though to benefit play from the ostensibly more risky left hand side of the fairway.

The Links at Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach

Robert Trent Jones Jr., Sandy Tatum and Tom Watson combined to fashion this Scottish-influenced course by the coastline. Situated between Asilomar State Beach and the Monterey Peninsula Country Club.

PGA West (Stadium Course), La Quinta

Rated in the Top 100 by Golf Magazine (2016-2017), and deemed the fourth toughest course in the US by Golf Digest in 2017, the seventeenth hole on this Pete Dye course is chillingly nicknamed “Alcatraz”.

Bel-Air, Los Angeles

By the golf architect George C. Thomas, many subsequent tinkerings were unapologetically reversed during Tom Doak’s recent restoration, bringing it back closer to its original and historic design.

Mountain Courses and Stunning Sea Views

One of things which places California amongst the very best locations for golf in the United States is the sheer diversity of climate and terrain.

Desert courses, coastal resorts and mountains can all be tackled within a few hours of each other, and the variety of available options is surely second to none.

California has an abundance both of public access courses and of exclusive, member-only venues. It really does offer something for everyone.

The courses themselves compete in the richness of their design. Some of the top architects, not just in the USA but in the world, have left their mark on the playing greens of California.

Whether the state has the best courses is of course entirely a matter of personal preference. New York would doubtless argue differently.

But California certainly does offer a unique and different experience, with a sympathetic climate to boot which makes it a pleasure to play as well as to enjoy the hospitality by which it is so often accompanied.

Phil Andrews
Phil Andrews

Phil Andrews is an English-language article writer and author of the 1970s nostalgia fiction novel The Best Year Of Our Lives. His special interests are current affairs, economics and sport - in particular soccer, boxing and golf.

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