An introduction to California

California is the most southwestern state in the United States. It borders Oregon to the north, Nevada and Arizona to the east and the country of Mexico in the south. One of the largest US states, it is also one of, if not the most populous. So imagine the choice of golf courses in California to choose from.

The state is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in the U.S. Millions flock here every year to visit some of its famous sites and landmarks.

Its three biggest cities are also some of the most famous worldwide. San Diego in the south, the metropolis of Los Angeles and the immensely popular San Francisco.

California is known worldwide and not just for Arnold Schwarzenegger being State Governor. There are so many iconic landmarks from the Golden State Bridge and Alcatraz in San Francisco. Add to that Hollywood near Los Angeles as well as the Yosemite National Park and the Joshua Tree National Park. 

Its long Pacific coastline, 840 miles to be precise, is stunningly beautiful. There are so many beauty spots along the hundreds of miles of glorious beaches. 

With such a long coastline and dramatic landscape, it’s to be expected there are going to be hundreds of top class golf courses. Many are ranked in the Top 100 golf courses in the United States. Let’s get stuck in.

The best golf courses in Northern California

Monterey Peninsula (Dunes)

On a stunning piece of California coastline is the superb Monterey Peninsula golf club. It has two 18-hole courses the Dunes and the Shore Course. The site is just north of the equally if not more famous Pebble Beach and Cypress Point golf courses.

The Dunes course was initially designed and routed way back in 1926 by Seth Raynor. The plot of land upon which he was to create this course was truly inspiring. Dominating sand dunes, jagged cliffs and a dense forest all combined in beautiful harmony. 

Over the years the course has undergone some pretty drastic renovation. Sadly what we have today isn’t really the original Raynor course. Rees Jones (1999) and Fazio Design (2016) have both come in and made more than subtle tweaks here. 

Yet one thing is for sure, this course is divine. Early on the fairways are hidden amongst the glorious sand dunes. Whilst on the back nine you encounter the wrath and beauty of the coastline.

This is perfectly encapsulated by the par 3 14th hole where the green is tucked away in the rocks of the coastline.

California Golf Club of San Francisco

California Golf Club of San Francisco, California
Photo credit Steve Sorensen

Also known as the ‘Cal Club’, the history of this course dates way back to the early twentieth century. This was when the club was actually positioned in a completely different location to where it is today.

It was in 1924 when the California Golf Club of San Francisco moved to its permanent home down the Peninsula. The plot of land is quite stunning. It has rolling hills and views across the bay to Oakland and west to the Pacific. 

The Scotsman Willie Locke as well as Arthur Vernon Macan were brought in by the members to route the new layout. At the same time, Alistair MacKenzie was commissioned to transform the bunkering. Most recently, the courageous Kyle Phillips was asked to address the problems they were having with the greens.

I say courageous because Phillips literally transformed many of them as well as built a handful of new holes. This means the California Golf Club of San Francisco is today back to where it should belong, one of the best golf courses in the world. The championship tees stretch the course to just over 7,200 yards.

Olympic Club (Lake)

Olympic Club, San Francisco, California - Photo credit David Palefsky
Photo credit David Palefsky

The Olympic Club is so much more than just a great golf club. What started as an amateur athletics club has over the years morphed into a hugely successful sports focused community. It now has over 10,000 members competing across 16 sports.

The club originally purchased the site of an old 18-hole course called Lakeside Golf Club. Yet very quickly the club replaced this with two new 18-hole courses and a new clubhouse. It was in 1924 that the Olympic Club as we know it really came to life.

Over the years the Olympic club has hosted many major golf tournaments. These include multiple National Championships and numerous other golf events. But topping all of that was the U.S. Open Championships of which it has hosted more than a handful.

There have been some changes in the routing over the years. But nothing overly dramatic which fundamentally changed the essence of the original design. Trees play a constant challenge here, and nearly all of them were strategically planted post the design of the course to enhance the layout.

There are also no water hazards, despite the name, and also just a couple of bunkers. You may not lose a ball, don’t for a second think this is going to be a walk in the park. Its ferocity in design is one of the reasons the U.S. Open keeps coming back here to challenge the best of the best.

Cypress Point Golf Club

Cypress Point Golf Club, Monterey, California
Photo credit Tyson Mayers

This epic golf club is known worldwide for its utter beauty and sheer brilliance in golf course design. It is regularly considered the best golf course in the world, across numerous different golf course rankings, websites and publications. 

Although it has such prominence and prestige, it partly has an aurora for how little it is known. So few people will ever get the opportunity to play here. This is due to it being strictly private and having only a couple of hundred members. 

The course was designed by one of the beacons of ‘golden age’ architecture, Dr Alister MacKenzie. Throughout the round the golfer is taken through Monterey pines, cypress groves and lastly, to the iconic rugged coastline. 

This is one of these rare golf courses where the harmony between course and nature is so seamless. You can’t help but wonder which was there first. MacKenzie did a sterling job yet the stunning coastline has to take 50% of the credit. An absolute beauty.

San Francisco Golf Club

san francisco golf club, California
Photo credit Ryan Winther

Here we have one of the oldest golf courses on the west coast of America. San Francisco first opened for play in 1918 after having been originally routed by three members.

The first professional touch up came in 1923 when A.W. Tillinghast was commissioned to remodel the layout, primarily focusing on San Francisco’s legendary greens and bunkering. 

Like many other of San Francisco’s best golf courses, the San Francisco golf club is also tucked away on the peninsula overlooking Oakland and the Golden Gate Bridge. The site is fabulous, characterised by rolling pine laden hills. 

Throughout the front-nine, the landscape is truly impressive, running across a number of immense ravines. The downhill par 3 7th hole is appropriately named the ‘Duel Hole’. It was here where the last legal duel in America took place.

In 2006 Tom Doak was brought in to restore a number of holes and features. This project included three holes which had been removed in 1950 in preparation for a road widening project which never happened. 

The San Francisco Golf Club is without doubt one of the Tillinghast’s finest designs. It is also without doubt one of the finest golf courses in the world.  

Pebble Beach Golf Club

Pebble Beach Golf Links, Monterey, California - Photo credit Evan Schiller
Photo Credit Evan Schiller

This stretch of coastline continues to deliver top class golf courses. On this occasion we have the outstanding Pebble Beach.

It is located on the same jutting coastline as Cypress Point and Monterey Peninsula. This really is a hotbed of Top 100 golf courses.

Unlike Monterey Peninsula and Cypress Point though, Pebble Beach golf club is open to the public. Although be prepared to pay a hefty green fee of over €400. But to play on this magical stretch of coastline is special, and a pilgrimage here is surely worth the price. 

Pebble Beach opened for play in 1919 and was designed by the relatively unknown Jack Neville. There was design input from Henry Chandler Egan as well as Jack Nicklaus in more recent times. This really is as good as it gets with coastal golf. 

The accolades and awards continue to fall for Pebble Beach. N#1 ranked public golf course in America. And one of the Top 100 golf courses in the world, let alone California.

Pasatiempo Golf Club

Pasatiempo golf club , California

The superb Pasatiempo golf club is just an hour and a half’s drive down the coast from San Francisco. We’re just past San Jose and towards Santa Cruz.

The plot of land is up in the hills overlooking Santa Cruz and not far from the University of California Santa Cruz. This is another iconic Californian golf course, much overlooked due to its neighbors up the road in San Francisco. 

The course was designed by the world-famous Alister MacKenzie. His none too shabby C.V. includes the likes of Cypress Point and Augusta. Many a mere mortal would dream of just having one of these iconic courses on their C.V..

Yet despite being spoilt for choice, MacKenzie considers Pasatiempo his best and preferred work.

There are many trees throughout the course although at points you catch the stunning views across to the Monterey Peninsula. Creating even more drama are a number of ravines which cutt across fairways and in front of greens.

Over the years there has been significant investment in the layout. But none more-so than since the turn of the century. Tom Doak, a student of MacKenzie’s work, was entrusted with restoring many of its original features. 

As a semi-private club, there are a handful of tee-times available during the week to the public and for just over €300, this isn’t cheap but it is still a bargain.

Spyglass Hill Golf Course

Spyglass Hill Golf Course, Monterey, California
Photo Credit Evan Schiller

Yet another out-of-this-world course somehow crammed onto the Monterey Peninsula, a place where golf course after golf course seems to attain world-class status. Well Spyglass Hill definitely deserves its place on the podium as this is another superb example of oceanside, coastal golf.

The course was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr and opened for play in 1966 and boy is it tough. Trent Jones Sr did not consciously try to make it overly difficult, but compared to its sister course Pebble Beach, both owned and operated by the same management company, Spyglass Hill is tremendously challenging. 

As the golfer emerges from dense woodland from the opening five holes, they are then confronted with the ultimate in target golf. Narrow weaving fairways with large sandy waste-areas to small well protected greens. All this whilst being battered by the Pacific ocean breezes. Club selection and patience are key.

Like Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill is open to the public and ranked in the Top 10 of America’s best public golf courses. This is another of those occasions where you can follow in the footsteps of the pros, as the course regularly hosts the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am as well as having been the host event for a U.S. Amateur Championships. 

The best golf courses in Southern California

Los Angeles Country Club (North Course)

The history of the Los Angeles Country Club is fascinating and mind-boggling. But most surprising is the fact the club changed sites four times before finding its long-term location. This is its present spot up in Beverly Hills.

The first layout for both the South and the North courses were designed by four of the original members. In later years, both Herbert Fowler and George C. Thomas were involved in redesigning aspects of the layout. 

The biggest renovation came in 1996 when both courses were radically renovated. The upgrade was essential to meet the standards of the modern game. But of critical importance was to maintaining the character and original features of its early designs. 

Out of the two outstanding courses onsite, the North course is the one which gets most of the plaudits. This is parkland golf at its best. The utter brilliance of design is in how the course uses the natural hills and rolling landscape to craft each individual hole. The bunkers are like mini works of art, each one beautifully sculpted into the land. 

So highly regarded is the North Course, it is regularly considered one of the best golf courses in America and also one of the top golf courses worldwide.

Valley Club of Montecito

Valley Club of Montecito, California - Photo credit Chris Justice
Photo credit Chris Justice

Nearly a two hour drive up the coast from Los Angeles past the Toro Canyon Park, is the wonderful Valley Club of Montecito. It is literally just ten minutes from central Santa Barbara. 

This stretch of coastline is gorgeous and nicknamed the ‘American Riviera’. Over the years it has been deeply influenced by Mexican culture and as such there is this unique morph of central American and Mediterranean architecture which can be witnessed by the clubhouse. 

So it is here that the great Alistair MacKenzie designed this brilliant layout. The course is overlooked by the Romero Canyons but is not overly hilly in itself aside from subtle undulations in the fairways and around greens. 

In fact it is around the greens where most of the action comes into play. Most are sublimely protected by numerous bunkers which have been perfectly sculpted into the land. From the tee half the holes play open encouraging you to pick out the driver, whilst the other half demand precision and strategy. 

Like many of the courses on this list, befriend a member and enjoy the day here.

Bel Air Country Club

This fantastic course is located in one of the most sought after neighborhoods worldwide making this quite valuable retail estate. Yet here we have one of the finest golf courses, designed by the prolific George C. Thomas, who was also largely responsible for two courses a few minutes up the road at the world-class Los Angeles Country Club. 

The topography of the site here makes this course so enjoyable and fun to play. There are ravines, cliff edges and undulating fairways. This is most in-play on the par-3 tenth hole which literally takes you from one ravine to another, which you cross by a famous swinging bridge.

It is not the longest or most challenging course around, but you can’t for one second stop thinking about what shot to play, unlike many courses where there is an element of hit and hope. There are elevated greens, elevated tees, dropped tees, downhills, uphills, you name it.

Tom Doak and his Renaissance Golf Design firm was recently engaged to improve the course with reestablishing some of the original Thomas design features as well as improving the playability on a number of other holes.

This really is one of the most fun and unique golf courses you could play. Let’s be honest, how many can claim to have tunnels through canyons, an elevator to the clubhouse and a swinging bridge to cross a ravine? 

Riviera Golf Club

Riviera Golf Club, Los Angeles, California
Photo credit Adam Harrison

The legendary Riviera Golf Club is located on the edges of the Temescal Canyon Park to the north. To the south, are the Los Angeles suburbs. The club opened for play in 1926 and is one of the finest golf courses in the world. 

This absolute masterpiece was designed by Herbert C. Thomas. Thomas was the brains behind so many of the great courses in this region. And when building Riviera, no expense was spared shifting the earth to construct the masterplan Thomas devised.

With the course having been built over a century ago, today it fits seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. It really is a haven of peace and quiet away from the noise of the city. 

The integrity of the course has much to do with the fact no two holes are alike. This has you constantly thinking about what’s the right shot to hit.

You’re unlikely to lose your ball but mis-shots will be penalised with incredibly tough rescues shots. The greens are superb but tough as well with nothing but the utmost precision to score-well. 

Over the years, Riviera club has hosted some of the finest golf tournaments. This includes none-more-so than the US Open in 1948 and many PGA Championships, US Senior Opens and Amateur Championships. 

What is the best golf course in California?

The best golf course in California is without doubt Cypress Point Golf Club on the Monterey Peninsula. It was designed by Alister MacKenzie and is considered one of the best golf courses in the world.

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