An Introduction to Orange County
Here we explore the golf courses in Orange County, a large and diverse county in southern California and to the south of Los Angeles.
Throughout the country it is well-known for being the home to the west coast’s Disneyland Park. But worldwide, it is possibly even more famous in part due to the long running TV drama The O.C.
Either way, it is a gorgeous stretch of coastline and a melting point of styles, traditions and things to do.
The coastline tends to be one of the first places visitors hone in on. Huntington Beach, also known as ‘Surf City USA’, is arguably the location of one of the best beaches. It is also home to the Huntington Pier which reaches out into the Pacific.
Likewise, Newport Beach and further to the south, Laguna Beach, both have stunning beaches.
If you’re with kids, naturally Disneyland Park will jump to the top of the list. But do also consider Disney California Adventure Park, which is just opposite but more modern and has Car Land, inspired by the Pixar movie Cars.
For somewhere to eat or have a few drinks, you generally can’t go far wrong sticking close to the coast.
For amazing steak, try The Ranch restaurant which can be found on the second floor of the Extron Electronics Building. Sumptuous steaks with a great wine menu.
For an off the beaten track place to have a few craft beers, head to Just Brew It. In Costa Mesa, it is also surrounded by other breweries like Green Cheek Beer Company and Gunwhale Ales. A great place to start the evening.
Let’s dive into the best golf courses in Orange County.
The best golf courses in Orange County
1. Shady Canyon Golf Club
An outstanding golf course to kick off our best golf courses in Orange County list.
The uber-private Shady Canyon Golf Club is also one of the newest in the region. It opened for play this side of the millennium, in 2002, and was designed by the great Tom Fazio.
It is routed up in the rocky outcrops of Shady Canyon itself. A wild area of arid landscape, not far from the equally barren yet impressive Crystal Cove State Park a mile or so away.
The routing Fazio designed, winds itself through the 300-acre site and largely glues itself to the natural topography. Large rock formations, snaking creeks and sycamores characterize the layout.
There are many great hoes, with nearly all the par 3s just on another level.
But don’t expect this to be a walk in the park….oh no. Shady Creek is a tough layout. From the backs the course stretches to over 7,000 yards. And with many tight landing spaces and undulating greens, this is not one for high-handicappers.
Good luck getting an invite though.
2. Pelican Hill (Ocean North)
The first of two fabulous courses at the luxury Pelican Hill Resort. These are two golf courses in Orange County you are going to want to play.
The resort has a magnificent coastal location, just between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. This is about an hour’s drive from downtown Los Angeles.
The two courses were both designed by the world-famous Tom Fazio. The Ocean North course was the second to open, back in 1993, just two years after the South course, further down in this list.
Just 12 years later, it was undergoing an extensive renovation, upping the general standards of the layout. This renovation focused primarily on relaying tee boxes and fairways whilst replacing rough with fescue grass.
Compared to the Ocean South course, the North course is routed on slightly more elevated ground. Subsequently, one thing you can be assured of is sensational views. From nearly every point on the course, you’ll glimpse the blue ocean in the distance.
This is without doubt a stern test of golf, with the routing making its way through canyons and ridges. Especially in some of the latter holes, there is a real need to plot your way round the course and loose play will quickly rack up a high score.
3. Santa Ana Golf Club
Santa Ana Golf Club is the oldest private club in Orange County, dating back to 1901. Being the oldest club, you would also then assume it has the oldest course. Well yes, but also, well no.
We’ll come to that in a minute.
Back in the early days, the club had a couple of location changes up until 1920. It was at this point it settled on its current Costa Mesa location, just 4 miles from Newport Beach.
The chosen location was definitely rural in the 1920s But fair to say with urban sprawl, that is no longer the case. But this does not detract from what is a sublime, yet intriguing course.
The Scottish pro at Los Angeles CC, John Duncan (Dunn), was the first to route a layout here.This routing lasted up until the mid-60s, but from that point on remodel after remodel, and renovation after renovation ensued.
Despite the best endeavors of those in charge of the club, and the best intentions of each architect, the course had completely lost its identity.
Fast forward to 2015/2016 and the not so insignificant decision had been made to completely, and I mean completely, remodel the course.
Architect Jay Blasi, who was formerly part of Robert Trent Jones Jr’s team, was selected to lead the project. In November 2016, the course opened to huge acclaim.
The character of the course gives a nod to the design style of the 1920s. Hundreds of trees were removed and vast sprawling bunkers were added.
The work on the green complexes is what really brings praise. Such distinct variety from one to the other, some featuring run-offs, others run-ons, unusual elevations and different shapes. These really bring the course to life and elevate the overall redesign.
Following the above project, Santa Ana Golf Club has taken huge strides up the best golf courses in Orange County ranking.
4. Pelican Hill (Ocean South)
After having covered the Ocean North course earlier in this list, our attention turns to the Ocean South course.
This was the first course to open onsite, in the year 1991. Like the North, it was designed by the legendary architect Tom Fazio. This is a designer who probably has more golf courses to his name than any other in any top 100 golf courses in the U.S. list.
As for the South, despite not being the higher ranked of the two at Pelican Hill, it is still an absolute peach.
Many would argue it occupies a more scenic and interesting footprint compared to its sibling. For starters, there are more holes close to the ocean. There is also more change in elevation, all 350 feet to contend with.
Looking purely at the scorecard, you would be forgiven for thinking the Ocean South course caters for higher handicappers. This is because it is nearly a full 400 yards shorter from the back markers.
But don’t be fooled. With forced carries and ravines to contend with, the aforementioned elevation changes and gorges to circumnavigate, it plays much longer.
There is also a wonderful climax. The 18th features a double canyon to be carried whilst climbing up to the final green, overlooked by the resort complex. Hold your nerves here if you can.
The Ocean South and the Ocean North will be classed a resort golf, a connotation which can be negatively viewed. But trust me when I say this is top-class. It doesn’t matter which course you play, they are truly two of the best golf courses in Orange County.
5. Monarch Beach Golf Links
South of Laguna Beach, in a prime area of real estate on this California coastline, is Monarch Beach Golf Links.
The course is effectively a resort course, with a choice of luxury hotels onsite. The superb Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach is next to the clubhouse. Whilst down towards the coastline is the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel.
The course was the work of Robert Trent Jones Jr, one of his earlier designs. Despite being so close to the ocean and having many ocean views, there is just the one hole which borders it, the par 4 third hole.
The rest of the course climbs slightly into the surrounding landscape, overlooked by the resort and affluent properties.
There is a great mix of holes all in immaculate condition. Water comes into play on more than one occasion whilst green complexes are often well defended, requiring precise approach play.
That precision play is no more acute than on the 18th hole. A 400-yard par 4, which requires an accurate tee shot. This is both to avoid the two fairway bunkers but also position yourself for an approach to the green over water.
A great way to finish this enjoyable, yet challenging layout.
6. Tijeras Creek Golf Club
Up away from the coast in the hills towards Rancho Santa Margarita, is the popular Tijeras Creek Golf Club.
This is a firm local’s favorite, being more often than not, in great condition and really well priced.
The course opened in 1990 and was designed by Ted Robinson. Robinson has an impressive C.V. with a portfolio of courses from all across the world and plenty in California. And Tijeras Creek golf club is definitely up there as one of his stronger creations.
When people talk about Tijeras Creek, they inevitably talk about the tale of two nines.
The challenging front nine features water on 3 of the 9 holes. Getting through these holes relatively unscathed is a feat in itself.
The back nine features far more elevation as it climbs through the old growth sycamores and oaks. From these holes you will enjoy breathtaking views out towards the coastline.
Open to the public and renowned for a good pace of play, Tijeras Creek is well worth the visit.
7. Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club
Another top class public access golf course, Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club fully deserves its entry on this list.
It’s fair to say there are many great private golf clubs in Orange County. Yet amongst them are some high quality and really popular public golf courses. Arroyo Trabuco is one of them.
Set within a 240 acre site, the course is routed through the Arroyo Trabuco canyon and O’Neill Regional Park. This is wild undulating terrain simply perfect for a golf course.
It was designed by ex-PGA Tour pro Tom Lehmann and a local architect under the name of Casey O’Callaghan.
Together they created a routing which is approachable for many different standards of golfer. Depending upon which tees you play from, of which there is a choice of 5, the course ranges between 5,000 to 7,000 yards.
Water comes into play on three holes whilst across the other fifteen, simply avoiding the lateral hazards is challenging enough.
If you’re looking to play here, they operate a demand-based green fee policy. Essentially the green fee will increase or decrease based on demand.
8. Golf at Marbella Country Club
Marbella Country Club is a luxury club set in the idyllic rolling hills of San Juan Capistrano. The location is lush, whilst also conveniently set just off Avery Parkway.
This private club sets the standard for high-end hospitality and features many facilities for the enjoyment of the membership.
Amongst those is the award winning championship golf course which was designed by the celebrated design partnership of Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf.
The pair have over the years created some world-class layouts, many of which can be found in Arizona state.
Here at Marbella Country Club, the course was designed in the old-style. This means during construction any movement of land was kept down to a minimum. Instead, they used the natural shaping and contours of the land.
The par 70, 6,600 yard course has plenty of character, with waves of mature trees leading up to perfectly manicured greens. Course conditions are paramount to the experience.
Elevation changes, serene lakes and sculpted bunkers all provide the finishing touch to this first-class golf course.
9. Strawberry Farms Golf Club
Barely a mile of two away from the outstanding Shady Canyon Golf Club which sits atop this list, is Strawberry Farms.
This incredibly friendly and welcoming public course is routed through the rocky Shady Canyon and Quail Hill landscapes. This really is a beautiful setting with some terrific views.
Inevitably, navigating through these canyons can, on many holes, lead to tight landing areas from the tees.
Yet, when you’re not playing through narrow canyons, you’ll be making your way round the 35-acre reservoir. Like the canyon holes, this will again require absolute precision from the tee box. If not, stand and watch whilst your ball disappears into the drink.
This however is one of the appeals to Strawberry Farms. The fact there are two very different styles to the layout; the canyon holes and wetlands.
Fortunately though it is not the longest course, with from the back tees the par 71 stretching to 6,700 yards. But I must stress, if you’re not one for accuracy off the tee, you could be in for a long day.
10. Tustin Ranch Golf Club
To the last course on this list of best golf courses in Orange County, the entertaining Tustin Ranch Golf Club.
This club is located up in West Irvine, about 14 miles or so from the coast. Like some of the other courses on this list, being up and away from the coast leads to some terrific views.
Well Tustin Ranch is no different. In fact some of the most spectacular views are out towards the Orchard Hills west of the club.
It’s the second course on this list designed by Ted Robinson and opened for play in 1989.
Water is one of the main hazards here. And lots of it. Granted not to the extent you’d find on a golf course in Florida. But on 8 of the 18 holes no less.
Challenging yet fun is how best to describe Tustin Ranch. This highly regarded course was voted 4 stars by Golf Digest magazine across a number of years.
What is the best golf course in Orange County?
The best golf course in Orange County is Shady Canyon Golf Club. The club is located in Shady Canyon, just a few miles from the coastline. It was designed by Tom Fazio and opened for play in 2002.