No matter your style of play, there's something here for all tastes
Picking Orange County’s best 18 holes is a difficult list to narrow down, let alone compile. I’ve played every public and private championship course in the county several times – some hundreds of times – but I’m restricting this to holes from public courses I consider the most distinctive, picturesque, challenging and/or fun to play. My biases tilt toward long, intimidating and difficult holes with elevation changes and forced carries. I’ve also included six par-4s, six par-5s and six par-3s, plus a few ties. (I told you it was tough.) Let’s tee it up:
No. 11, Tustin Ranch, 170 yards, par 3: The course’s “island” green is actually a peninsula, but that doesn’t make the signature hole on this Ted Robinson-designed course any easier. Club selection is always difficult in the typically swirling winds, and it’s trickier than it looks. First, there’s no bail out area to play it safe and, second, you’re hitting over water to a two-tiered green framed by palm trees and waterfalls, a Robinson staple. Suffice to say, the water hazard gobbles up a lot of Titleists.
Nos. 5, 7, 14, 16, Tijeras Creek, 185, 225, 195, 172 yards, par 3s: Collectively, this Santa Margarita course has the best set of par-3s in the county, with water coming into play on three of the four. My favorite is No. 5, which requires you to carry a water hazard and is the site of my only hole-in one. There’s more water on No. 7, which usually plays into the wind. The 14th hole plays downhill and features another forced carry, as does No. 16. All are picturesque, challenging and fun.
No. 16, Pelican Hill South, 219 yards, par 3: Looking out and up toward the ocean, this breathtaking hole requires an uphill tee shot over a canyon and plays into the prevailing breeze, to the crest of a hill, with bunkers left and right of the green and a lone Toyon tree acting as a sentry left of the green. There’s gnarly rough surrounding the green, too. If you like short par-3s, there’s none better than No. 13 (131/125/113), featuring a postage-stamp green surrounded by sand bunkers.
No. 4, Arroyo Trabuco, 230 yards, par 3: One of the longest par-3s in the county, this hole plays downhill and usually downwind, but that doesn’t mean you can step up to the tee and ace it the first time you play it, as course co-designer Tom Lehman did with a 5-iron on opening day in 2004 (with me as a witness). When there’s a back-left pin position, it can play as long as 245 yards, so if you like to hit driver on a par-3, miss it right and you just might get a friendly kick onto the green.
No. 8, Ben Brown’s, The Ranch at Laguna Beach, 205 yards, par 3: Yes, I’m putting a par-3 from a nine-hole executive course on my list. Don’t scoff until you’ve played the hole and course, a hidden gem and made-for-walking layout in a spectacular natural setting framed by the Aliso and Wood canyons. If you think you’re a stick, try hitting a long iron or hybrid over the creek onto this small green. And if you love nature, deer sightings are common and part of the course’s charm.
No. 5, Talega, 225 yards, par 3: No matter which tee box you play from, this par-3 is a huge challenge. There’s water left of the green and in front, as well as two bunkers guarding the left side of the putting surface and another back right. The designers, Brian Curley and Fred Couples, didn’t give you much of a bail out area, either – short and right of the green is about it, and it’s still a tough up and down from there. So why do I like it? It’s difficult, and I’m a golf masochist.
No. 18, Pelican Hill South, 442 yards, par 4: This dogleg-left is the best hole, the best finishing hole, the most difficult hole and among the most picturesque holes in OC. From an elevated tee box that provides panoramic ocean views, it’s a visually intimidating hole that requires an accurate tee shot over a canyon preferably to a landing area between two bunkers on the left and then a second shot over a deep grass valley to a steeply sloped green. No wonder it’s called “Double Cross.”
No. 12, Arroyo Trabuco, 495 yards, par 4: This downhill brute looks like a par-5 from the elevated tee box and requires two long, precise shots – the first a forced carry over a huge ravine to reach a massive green sloped back to front. If you play it safe and steer your tee shot to the left side of the fairway, it’s not uncommon to have 230 yards or more to the green, which is guarded by a cavernous bunker short and right. Like No. 18 at Pelican Hill South, a par feels like a birdie here.