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The 25 Most Challenging Golf Courses in California

You could spend a lifetime collecting perfect golf experiences here

Yankee sage Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that California's superiority came from its abundance of glorious days—it had more of them, in fact, than anyplace else. Too bad Ralph didn't play golf, because the same can be said of golf in the Golden State: It is plentiful, wonderful, and remarkably varied, ranging from $12 goat farms with world-class views of the Pacific to the most elite public course in the world, Pebble Beach. California is home to nearly 1,000 golf courses, if you care to try and count—and that includes an astonishing array of experiences: ocean courses, mountain layouts, desert tracks, famous munis, and private clubs where only God or a member can get you on. You could spend a lifetime collecting perfect golf experiences here. I've spent two decades doing it, and here's my highly subjective top 25 picks of places you simply shouldn't miss:

1. Pebble Beach Golf Links
As greens fees escalate toward the $400 mark, you'd think golfers would ask themselves if a visit to the shrine of American golf, site of the 100th U.S. Open last summer, is really worth it. The pilgrims keep coming in droves, and the answer is an unequivocal "yes." Simply put, nothing ranks with the visual splendor and technical challenge of the oft-touched-up Jack Neville masterpiece, symbolized by the new Nicklaus hole at five, which looks as if it has hung above Stillwater Cove forever. Pebble, like St. Andrews, is for true peers of the game. The Lodge has never looked better, and the new Casa Palmero Spa is nonpareil for soulful pampering after or before a round. The Lodge's famous Tap Room is the best course restaurant in America. For dinner, to briefly escape Pebble's madding crowds, consider a 25-mile jaunt down Highway 1 to Big Sur's magnificent restaurant Cielo (at the venerable Ventana Inn). Take a caddie and enjoy the walk. Forget your score and remember the views. Greens fees: $300-$350. 2700 17-Mile Drive, Pebble Beach; 800-654-9300; www.pebblebeach.com.

2. The Links At Spanish Bay
In the past decade this sprawling golf hotel and its photogenic "true" links course have matured into a complete gourmet golf experience from first drive to last putt. Half the golf world seems to pass through the hotel's wide, handsome lobby, the bagpiper at dusk continues to enthrall guests, and the Watson-Tatum-Jones Jr. collaboration built out back on Sam Morse's former sand quarry is finally earning the marks it deserves as one of America's finest golf courses. The links play just a whisker over 6,800 yards from the tips but, at 146, boast one of the sternest slope ratings in the Golden State. The premium is on decisive shotmaking, and the afternoon wind can capriciously determine whether it'll be a good walk spoiled. Heretical as it may sound, lately I've enjoyed playing Spanish Bay more than its famous cousin a few miles down the Monterey coast. Greens fees: $185- $210. 2700 17-Mile Drive, Pebble Beach; 831-647-7495; www.pebblebeach.com.

3. Ojai Valley Inn & Spa
There's something about this venerable retreat I simply adore—it's so "old" California, with a marvelously subtle George C. Thomas course built in the 1920s and thoughtfully retouched by Jay Morrish in '88. Large oaks, small greens, and barrancas everywhere you look, easy to walk—but enticingly dangerous to play from the rear tees. The addition of a new spa and major renovations to guestrooms have helped restore the vaunted reputation Ojai once enjoyed as a love nest for golfing movie stars. But the real improvement has been on the course itself, with the recent restoration of two of Thomas' "lost" holes, a magnificent long par-three seventh and a devilishly handsome eighth, a bending par-four where anything but a straight, well-struck approach shot can balloon your score. Greens fees: $110-$130 (includes cart). 905 Country Club Road, Ojai; 800-422-6524; www.ojairesort.com.

4. Spyglass Hill Golf Course
Robert Trent Jones' West Coast tribute to Augusta National and Pine Valley has never been better—or more difficult. Long ranked as one of the premier courses in the United States, The Glass, as locals sometimes call it, can smoothly slit your throat within the first five holes, the loveliest opening stretch in American golf, I sometimes think. Is there a more fascinating hole on earth than the fourth—that gorgeous wee par-four, hard by the Pacific, that requires you to bravely fire your shot over an ice plant and then thread an approach into an elongated sliver of a sunken green? The back nine, meandering through the stately Monterey pines, can soothe and haunt you, especially when the fog rolls in and the deer come out to feed at dusk. I never play The Glass well—but I also never miss an opportunity to play it. The practice range is the best in the Del Monte Forest, and the staff at the cozy clubhouse is very friendly. Greens fees: $225-$250. Resort guests at The Inn at Spanish Bay or The Lodge at Pebble Beach get a slight break. Spyglass Hill Road, Pebble Beach; 831-625-8563; www.pebblebeach.com.

5. Pasatiempo Golf Club
If you sense an unapologetic predisposition toward "classic" courses, you're quite correct and need look no further than this sweet masterwork of subtle design, which is right on your way from the San Francisco Airport to the courses of Monterey. Dr. Alister Mackenzie, a military expert in the art of camouflage and the famed architect of Augusta National and Cypress Point Club, wrought something truly wonderful at Pasatiempo: a smallish (just 6,400 yards) golf course that plays like anything but, meandering up and down gentle hills, with fairways cinched by huge trees and nearly perfect greens. Ravines, barrancas, and small glimpses of the Pacific through the dense vegetation lull you into a complacent reverie if you're not careful. The par-four 365-yard 16th was Mackenzie's favorite hole in golf, with its blind drive and its challenging approach to a three-tiered green. Pasatiempo's only snags can be slow play, due to the course's growing popularity, and a somewhat indifferent attitude in the pro shop. Ignore the help and play this gem with your bag on your shoulder. You won't soon forget it. Greens fees: $125-$140. 20 Clubhouse Road, Santa Cruz; 831-459-9155; www.pasatiempo.com.

6. La Quinta Resort & Club And Pga West
During the booming postwar years, Hollywood hotshots like Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, and Bob Hope put Palm Springs on the map and made desert golf their winter passion. Today the best of the desert are still La Quinta and PGA West, 13 miles southeast of Palm Springs, featuring a bevy of designer courses by Dye, Palmer, Nicklaus, Weiskopf, and Norman that will knock your socks off. Pete Dye's TPC Stadium Golf Course at PGA West is the (in)famous headliner—a sadomasochistic "must-play" tour de force packed with pot bunkers, sand hills, and ruthlessly uneven lies. Some say it borders on the unfair, like most stadium courses, which are designed to inflict maximum pain on the pros and entertain mere mortal spectators at golf tournaments. By contrast, Dye's La Quinta Mountain Course, in 1992 the site of the California State Open, and the slightly gentler adjacent Dunes Course are frequently rated by pros and superintendents as two of the fairest tests in the state. Greg Norman's gorgeous new PGA West layout, 7,156 yards in length and gloriously framed by sand and desert flora, is justly earning rave reviews. La Quinta Hotel guest greens fees: $50-$205. 50-200 Vista Bonita, La Quinta; 800-598-3828. PGA West: Guest greens fees $50-$205. 55-955 PGA Boulevard, La Quinta; 800-742-9378.

7. Pelican Hill Golf Club
Pelican Hill aficionados like to say that this Newport Coast club, featuring a pair of spectacular Tom Fazio layouts, is southern California's answer to Pebble Beach. They're not far off the mark. The recent addition of a Spanish-style full-service clubhouse with a thoughtful staff and an award-winning pro shop makes Pelican the perfect afternoon getaway for golf purists and harried L.A. executives. The Ocean South Course winds through narrow canyons, imparting a feeling of blissful isolation before flinging you down to the edge of the sea and a splendid view of Santa Catalina Island. The slightly tamer, 6,800-yard par-71 Ocean North Course roams, links-style, over ridges and dry headland terrain, treating the eyes to Fazio's finest environmentally sensitive handiwork. He's a modern master, and Pelican Hill stands as one of his best. The club is complemented by the presence of the nearby Four Seasons Hotel Newport Beach. Greens fees: $175-$225. 22651 Pelican Hill Road South, Newport Coast; 949-760-0707; www.pelicanhill.com.

8. Sonoma Mission Inn And Country Club
Considered one of the best places to play in California, the jewel of Sonoma wine country features gentle elevation changes, traditional greens, and enough open spaces to make it ideal for serious beginners: the perfect activity between treatments at the inn's famed spa two miles away. But the tight doglegs, water hazards, and length of the course (7,087 yards from the tips) can be a serious test for the better handicap player, which is the reason both the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur qualifying rounds have been held here. There's a decidedly relaxed air throughout the world-class Sonoma resort that spills over to the course, designed by Sam Whiting and Willie Watson in the 1920s and updated handsomely by Robert Muir Graves in 1991, creating a pace of play that never feels too crowded or rushed. The other pluses are a super-friendly shop staff and a sweeping panorama of surrounding hills and vineyards. Greens fees: $75- $110. 17700 Arnold Drive, Sonoma; 707-996-0300; www.sonomamissioninn.com.

9. Incline Village Golf Resort—Championship Course
Okay, okay—it's in Nevada. But the course almost straddles the state line, and from the Golden State golf junkie's point of view it deserves to be mentioned with the best of its neighbor to the west. Carved through the pine-covered Sierras at a top altitude of 6,500 feet, featuring tight tree-bordered fairways, beautiful turf, and glorious occasional glimpses of nearby Lake Tahoe, this "mountain" golf course became one of my favorites the first day I played it. The demands for accurate shotmaking are strong, and there is little room for error in most places, making for either a challenge you hope to meet or a long afternoon you'll try to forget. I particularly admired the trueness of the greens and the fine conditioning of the turf. The only negative: During the busy summer season it can be difficult to get on. Wait until fall, and shoot away. Greens fee: $115. 1 955 Fairway Boulevard, Incline Village, Nevada; 888-236-8725;
www.golfincline.com.

10. Presidio Golf Club
If you can't get on the grass at Olympic or San Francisco Golf Club (the city's two most elite and wonderful courses), fret not. This previously private, member-built classic that dates back to 1895 is a must-play for any golf enthusiast or student of classic design and club architecture. Operated by the military since the 1950s, the Presidio Club is now a public facility ably managed by the Arnold Palmer Golf Management Company, with particular attention paid to customer service and course maintenance. The course—a walker's paradise— roams just 6,500 yards up and down the lovely eucalyptus-covered hills of the Presidio, but dramatic elevation changes, smallish greens, and narrow fairways make it a much sterner challenge than it appears on the card. Greens feature old-style shoulders that place a premium on approach shots, and the bunkering here can be murderous. Greens fees are a bargain too: $42-$57. 300 Finley Road, San Francisco; 415-561-4653; www.presidiogolf.com.

11. Bodega Harbour Golf Links
Up the coast highway in the village of Bodega Bay, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds, is one of the state's treasures, a marvelously conditioned resort course that, just like a Hitch character, has two distinct personalities. The front nine unfolds with a true links flavor, offering narrow fairways and few flat lies, while the home march leads you very nearly into the marsh itself. In both cases the views of the ocean and the Sonoma hills are inspiring. But you'd better pay attention to your game because this early Jones Jr. course, which reads just 6,200 on the card, can bruise your ego, especially if the ocean breeze is kicking up.

If the course is booked, consider jaunting over to nearby Sea Ranch Golf Links, another seaside sweetheart that had a devoted cult following as a nine-hole track (it was listed as one of the best in America) until original designer Robert Muir Graves came back and built an equally companionable second nine. A friend calls Bodega Bay "Monterey minus the attitude," noting that hotel prices and greens fees are about half of what you pay downstate. Rates at both the contemporary Bodega Bay Lodge and the rustic Sea Ranch Lodge are more than reasonable, and the greens fees at both golf courses are as well. Bodega Harbour Golf Links greens fees: $60-$90. 21301 Heron Drive; 707-875-3538; www.bodegaharbourgolf.com.
The Sea Ranch Golf Links greens fees: $45-$80. Highway 1; 707-785-2468; www.searanchvillage.com.

12. Northwood Golf Club
While you are loitering on the Sonoma coast you have to check this out—a true artifact of golf history. Alister Mackenzie built this storied nine-holer amid the towering redwoods and massive firs in 1928. It's often played by members of the nearby Bohemian Club and guests who have a sense of history and taste for adventure. Fairways are tight, greens are tiny, bunkers are difficult—classic in every way—and the terrain imparts a majestic solitude in places. If you can't hit straight tee shots, however, you'll just have to enjoy the splendid isolation and the handsome redwoods. Course conditioning has improved dramatically in recent years, and greens fees are a bargain: $27-$37. 19400 Highway 116, Monte Rio; 707-865-1116; www.northwoodgolf.com.

13. Bayonet Golf Course
The best-kept secret in "The Kingdom" (in other words, the Monterey area) is a stern course located on the grounds of defunct Fort Ord, off Highway 1, built in 1954 by a southpaw general. The Bayonet is long and difficult, and a must-play course while you're waiting for your tee time at Pebble. The technical challenge comes from large, intrusive pine and oak trees that pinch fairways tightly—and make straight driving a must. Maintenance has improved markedly in recent years, as word of this course has leaked out, and the greens can be lightning fast. Considering what you pay in the area to play courses half as challenging, you may blink in astonishment at the $60 weekday rate ($85 on weekends). An easier sister course, The Black Horse, is also located on the sprawling former army base. 1 McClure Way, Seaside; 831-899-7271; www.bayonetblackhorse.com.

14. Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course
Another California beauty although technically just yards over the Nevada line, the redoubtable Edgewood has been quite nicely spruced up by Tom Fazio, the nephew of George Fazio, the course's original designer. It features large undulating greens and wonderful views of the adjoining lake, enough open spaces to be forgiving to the resort player, and a handful of holes where trees and difficult doglegs require long and accurate tee shots and approaches. Finishing holes border the lake, and the par-threes are especially challenging and memorable. Greens fees: $175-$200 (includes cart). 180 Lake Parkway, Stateline, Nevada; 775-588-3566; www.edgewood-tahoe.com.

15. Aviara Golf Club
With its lavish clubhouse and exquisite grooming, Aviara rivals the finest California private clubs. Another plus is its affiliation with the adjacent Four Seasons Resort, renowned for its customer service, which perhaps spills over to the pro shop—one of the most customer-friendly operations in the state. The spectacularly landscaped Arnold Palmer-Ed Seay course (one of their most creative designs, constructed through a series of ravines and around an inland waterway called Batiquitos Lagoon) appears tighter than it really is, as it features generous fairways and large greens. The difficulty comes in properly reading the bold slopes on those greens; putting from below holes is a must! Tops in the San Diego area, this pretty golf course is situated in the heart of golf's Silicon Valley, near the manufacturing complexes of Callaway and Taylor Made, among others. Greens fees: $175-$195 (includes cart). 7447 Batiquitos Drive, Carlsbad; 760-603-6900; www.golfsd.com/aviara.html.

16. Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club
Although it's a members-only club, guests of the plush Rancho Santa Fe Inn have access after 1 p.m. Built in the late 1920s and host site of the original Bing Crosby Pro-Am from 1937 to 1941, this elegant Max Behr course, a tribute to design economy, should be played for reasons of charm and history alone—but it doesn't lack for challenge. Fairways are framed magnificently by large eucalyptus trees, and the greens can be extremely fast on a summer day. It has long been regarded as one of the state's best courses, and the back nine, rising into the fragrant floral hills above the quaint village of the same name, is particularly engaging. And because it's a members-only club, the pace of play tends to be superb. Greens fees: $70-$96 (includes cart). 5827 Via de la Cumbre, Rancho Santa Fe; 858-756-3094.

17. La Costa Resort And Spa
Known for its many PGA Tour tournaments, golfing dons, and an enduring rumor that Jimmy Hoffa is buried beneath the 18th green, La Costa is often overlooked in modern guides promoting the best and brightest golf in the state. Though the resort seems to be constantly battling the fatigue factor, skipping this terrific Dick Wilson-Joe Lee jewel would be a big mistake. You will not be able to play the composite course used for the Anderson Consulting Match Play World Golf Championship; nevertheless, the next best thing is the difficult South Course, copiously tree- and water-lined, where accuracy is a must. Greens fee for guests: $155. Costa del Mar Road, Carlsbad; 760-438-9111; www.lacosta.com.

18. Torrey Pines Golf Course
Since you're in the neighborhood, you might as well take in the king of southern California municipal golf: a place that, whatever it lacks in terms of refinements, it compensates for with a pair of terrific, well-conditioned golf courses. Do not expect to be dazzled by either the amenities or the staff at this longtime site of the Buick Invitational and favorite of local son Phil Mickelson. But if pure golf adventure is your aim, the long (7,055 yards) and demanding South Course, one of two on the site designed by William Bell Jr., easily fits the bill, sending you through bosky ravines one minute and over sweeping headlands the next. At the adorable par-three third hole, a one-shotter that's set against the sea, you'll know why some call Torrey Pines the "workingman's Pebble Beach." Golf was meant to be an Everyman game, and at Torrey Pines that's the name of the game. Greens fees: $55-$60. 11480 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla; 619-570-1234.

19. Cinnabar Hills Golf Club
A newcomer to the San Jose area, this engaging two-year-old 27-hole public course has quickly become the pride of the Silicon Valley golf scene. Architect John Harbottle III has deftly blended rolling terrain with handsome directional bunkering and ultrafast greens to produce a truly memorable outing. Three courses (Canyon, Lake, and Mountain) provide distinctly different challenges. Canyon is the toughest, narrowed by creeks and trees, while Mountain features elevated tees, sumptuous views, and spacious landing areas. The course conditioning was spectacular when I visited; I wished I had more time to play the attractive Lake course as well. Greens fees: $30-$100. 23600 McKean Road, San Jose; 408-323-5200; www.cinnabarhills.com.

20. Course At Wente Vineyards
Another upscale public newcomer, this Greg Norman signature course started gathering accolades from the day it opened in 1998. Routed brilliantly over some spectacular terrain (woodland, vineyard, grassland), with excellent views and superfine greens, the course features almost every kind of shot value imaginable—a true test of one's range of skills. My only regret was that I had to see it in a hurry and was forced to play much faster than I would have preferred. This resulted in a bloody card, proof that creative and thought-provoking shotmaker courses like this deserve your full time and attention. Greens fees: $80-$100. 5050 Arroyo Road, Livermore; 925-456-2475;
www.wentegolf.com.

21. Poppy Hills Golf Course
I have a painful history with this course, which is undoubtedly why I place it far down my favorites list. I never seem to be able to master the plunging hillside fairways, sloped greens, and ruthless bunkering of this beautiful, big-shouldered Jones Jr. course, home of the Northern California Golf Association, and one of the courses used for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. With huge undulating greens and generous landing areas that tempt the long player to go for broke, you'd think lugs like me would fall instantly in love with this extremely popular golf course. Hasn't happened yet, but I'll keep trying. Greens fees: $130-$145. 3200 Lopez Road, Pebble Beach; 831-625-2035.

22. Del Monte Golf Course
Another antique gem, which recently celebrated its centenary and is reputed to have been the first golf course built west of the Mississippi, this meandering inland layout was recently touched up by Rees Jones and should be on your list of courses to check out while in Monterey. Playing just 6,339 from the back tees, Del Monte's luscious fairways and greens and directional bunkering give you a blissful break from the nerve-racking accuracy required at places such as Spyglass and The Links at Spanish Bay. The course is an easy walk, and it is also an excellent place to rub elbows with local residents and members. Greens fees: $85-$103. 1300 Sylvan Road, Monterey; 831-373-2700; www.pebblebeach.com.

23. Carmel Valley Ranch Golf Club
After years of tinkering with this controversial, once uncompromising Pete Dye course, first opened in 1981, the current owners have almost got it right. The first nine features tight fairways, lots of mounding, and greens that can fool you every time, while the prettier and even tougher back nine, rising more than 350 feet from the valley floor, features some of the most dramatic elevated tee shots in all of California. Several of the holes on the back nine are inspired (especially 14 through 17), and you'd better not count on achieving your handicap on this closing run. Just grip and rip, and enjoy the lovely view and the deer that come out to watch at dusk. Greens fees: $65-$180. 1 Old Ranch Road, Carmel; 831-626-2510.

24. Aliso Viejo Golf Club
Team Nicklaus (Jack and son Jackie) has done some engaging and, in places, brilliant design work here, producing a trio of creative and not overly long nines that make for one of the best golf experiences in the entire Orange County area. The emphasis is clearly on your short-game skills, with approaches over water and handsome bunkering that force you to think hard before you pull the trigger, and menacingly sloped putting surfaces that can make you three-putt in the blink of an eye. Really fun, never dull. Greens fees: $85-$125. 25002 Golf Drive, Aliso Viejo; 949-598-9200; www.alisogolf.com.

25. Pacific Grove Municipal Golf Links
Finally, the true "poor man's Pebble," a thoroughly engaging muni linkslands, set on a priceless hook of rock in view of the more famous (and expensive) courses of the Monterey Peninsula, and designed by Jack Neville, the same man who created Pebble Beach Golf Links. The Grove is an absolute joy to play. It weaves you through a wind-swept forest one minute and flings you out by crashing surf the next. The turf is always hard and seemingly unwatered, but that's half the charm of the place. Not to mention a killer ice plant, magnificent sand dunes, and the photogenic lighthouse. It's always busy, so call early for a tee time. The modest greens fees make it even more memorable: $31-$36. 1 77 Asilomar Boulevard, Pacific Grove; 831-648-3175.