Away Game: Southern California

Surf And Turf

Where golf meets the coast in sunny Southern California

November 2012

See that big house up there--the really big one?"

I turned and gazed at a massive, three-building compound on a ridge high above the Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach, Calif.

"That," said my caddie, "is owned by the guy who invented Hot Pockets!"

course guide

Map: Kagan McLeod & Jonathan Rivait

OK, so maybe Orange County isn't the most glamorous corner of Southern California. In these sun-kissed suburbs an hour south of L.A., perhaps you're more likely to cross paths with a guy who made millions on microwavable snack food than, say, an Academy Award winner. But here's the thing: Come here on a golf trip and you'll leave feeling like a big shot, no matter what business you're in.

I played three Orange County courses on a recent visit: Oak Creek Golf Club and the Ocean South and Ocean North courses at Pelican Hill. I also drove about 50 miles up the coast to play Trump National Golf Club Los Angeles, in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Oak Creek was a great place for a warm-up round. Set 10 miles from the coast in Irvine, it's a not-too-punishing Tom Fazio layout with wide fairways and big greens. Though Oak Creek is surrounded by homes and industry, the course has done an artful job of blocking all that out. If it weren't for the sunny skies, mid-70s temperature and the fragrant eucalyptus trees lining its perimeter, you might forget you were in Southern California.

At the two Pelican Hill courses, by contrast, there's never any doubt where you are: overlooking the Pacific Ocean. These are extraordinarily beautiful courses, in premium condition and with all the bells and whistles you would expect from a top-dollar course ($245 for resort guests, not including caddie tip). Both were designed by Fazio in the 1990s, and both got thorough makeovers in the late 2000s when the Resort at Pelican Hill was built.

The South is the more dramatic of the two and gets you closest to the ocean. Its 11th hole dips under the Pacific Coast Highway and runs right along the coast, followed by a memorable pair of back-to-back short par 3s at Nos. 12 and 13. I had plenty of time to soak it all in. The day I played, a midweek morning in the early summer, the pace was glacial. Our group's caddie said Pelican Hill usually aims for 4¾-to-five-hour rounds. We finished in 5½. Plan your day accordingly!

The North course is farther from the surf, but it doesn't lack drama or sensational views. Nos. 17 and 18--down and then back up a steep slope to finish in the shadow of the resort's massive "coliseum" pool--were among my favorites. Our readers give the North ★★★★½ to the South's ★★★★. If you forced me to choose, I'd say I preferred the South and its closer proximity to the water, though only narrowly.

My lodging on this trip was split between the Island Hotel in Newport Beach and the Resort at Pelican Hill. The former was once a Four Seasons and is now managed by the Irvine Co., developer of basically everything in the surrounding area. It has the cool, detached air of a top business hotel, with rooms starting at $279. "Meet me at the Island Hotel. It's a little safer," was among the things a former No. 1-ranked golfer allegedly texted one of his mistresses a few years back. They stayed in Room 905, if you must know.

Trump National

The second of two Trump waterfalls.

Pelican Hill is clearly designed for the vacationer--and in particular, the vacationer looking for luxury. Voted the No. 1 resort in the mainland United States last year by Condé Nast Traveler readers, it has 204 bungalows and 128 two-to-four-bedroom villas with butlers and personal chefs on request. The smallest bungalows go for $395 a night and the villas $695.

The morning after playing Pelican Hill's courses, I budgeted two hours to get up to Trump's place, assuming the worst of California traffic. Happily it took only an hour, which gave me plenty of time to warm up. Not that it did much good. I'd seen pictures of Trump National L.A. and was dazzled by the way it hugs the coast, but I had no idea it was so hard. This course will wear you out.

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