The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe, California

Rancho Santa Fe is a land blessed. Half an hour north of San Diego in what locals call North County, it’s high in the mountains with views of the ocean, spectacularly sited amidst canyons and crevasses, and lush with trees and flowers. It’s almost too good to be true. Those lucky enough to live and play there must wake up every morning and pinch themselves. They need a little challenge.

So let them tee it up at The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe. They’ll enjoy the front nine; everybody does. Then look at their faces when they make the turn and reach the 10th tee. Maybe that will shake them up a bit.

“It’s a tale of two nines,” explains Director of Golf Steve Wilson, channeling his inner Dickens. “The first nine is out there in front of you. I tell our members and guests to get their birdies while they can. Then you get to the par-four No. 10 and the fun really begins.”

Wilson, perhaps no expert on 19th-century English literature, is one when it comes to 21st-century golf. The fun most definitely starts on the back nine and keeps on going, hole after hole, vista after vista, before reliving the entire wondrous journey all over again in the cozy, yet elegant, 36,000-square-foot Tuscan-style clubhouse.

That is no knock against the front nine, which provides its share of challenges. It’s just that when one arrives at the 10th tee and gazes at the intimidating par-four dogleg left—with its long forced carry over a deep canyon and a row of dangerous bunkers on the other side—well, even Mr. Dickens would have trouble giving the hole its proper due. (“Great Expectations,” perhaps? Certainly not “Bleak House.”) You are no longer just playing a game: You are transported into almost the same sense of awe one feels on the 16th tee at Cypress Point: You don’t want to leave.

But moving on leads to the property’s most distinctive feature, the bridge. To be exact, the first of two stress-ribbon bridges (the other is on the par-three 11th), which transports golfers from the teeing ground to the fairway, spanning 285 feet and consisting of 25 13-foot-wide, pre-cast concrete panels suspended 85 feet in the air. The look below is reminiscent of the view from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, creeks and rocks adding to the serenity of the occasion.

Such serenity is everywhere at The Bridges no matter how busy the course becomes. Given how the holes are designed on this Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout, other golfers are, with few exceptions, nowhere to be seen. It is also no coincidence that cart paths are not visible, either.

“That is one of the things I love about this place,” says Gordon Cooke, director of membership development. “You feel like you own the course.”

Also mostly hidden from view are the club’s homes, exquisite as they may be. Houses are visible along the hills but never impose on the golf experience. There are other enticements, as well, all part of the lifestyle, including a five-acre tennis and recreation centre and a fitness facility.

It doesn’t take long to get smitten. Take Gypsy Wolf. She and husband Wally were quite content belonging to another private club about an hour up the coast. Yet looking out from the 10th tee at the natural vegetation, and at the clubhouse behind the final green, they imagined they were in Italy where their daughter has been living the last 23 years. They were sold.

“We decided to take a gamble,” Gypsy says, “and we’ve never been sorry.”

Speaking of the vegetation, The Bridges has won numerous awards for landscaping. Every hole brings out another unique arrangement of flowers, shrubs, and trees.

Perhaps no hole is as artfully laid out as the 15th, an uphill par four with rows of orange trees, originally planted in 1945, lining both sides of the fairway.

“We carved the fairway out of that grove in order to preserve the ambiance,” says Ken Ayers, development manager. “We sculpted the golf course from the natural features mother nature gave us.”

Nothing goes to waste, either. Many of the oranges are converted to juice in the club’s three restaurants while snap peas, carrots, radishes, and greens harvested from the club’s organic garden are served in salads the same night. The club produces more than it can use, selling the rest to local restaurants.

More growing goes on in the vineyard adjacent to the clubhouse, where the vines produce Cabernet, Brunello, and Sangiovese grapes. The vineyard was just a hobby until the club started to take it more seriously, eventually capturing first-place awards at the San Diego County Fair. The club also hosts wine dinners and each fall invites members to help with the harvest, culminating in a gala grape-crush festival and party.

Among the current membership—roughly 300, with about 250 enjoying full playing privileges—are a few stars from the golf industry, including putter craftsman Scotty Cameron, who describes the club’s feel as timeless. “It’s so close to the coast,”Cameron says, “but you feel as if you’re in Italy or Napa Valley. As soon as you drive through the gates you feel and know that you’re in a special place.”

Another member is Phil Mickelson, who lives nearby and spends a good amount of time at the short-game practice area. The area, adjacent to the clubhouse, affords Mickelson another invaluable benefit: privacy.

Even when Phil is hard at work there remains more than enough practice space for everyone, five different facilities in all including what is known as the “warm-up” area. No degree of warming up is adequate preparation for the majesty and difficulties out on the course, particularly the treacherous 10th. The next hole, an uphill par three with still more canyon to carry, is also quite imposing.

Every hole on the back is distinct and dramatic. The fairways are fairly wide but copious amounts of sand serve as a reminder that any major failures from the tee will not be overlooked. Each bunker—and there are nearly 100—is a work of art, unique in shape and design; players often require more lofted clubs than usual to get balls back to safe haven.

And the challenge doesn’t end once on the greens. They are slick and feature relatively few flat spots. The grounds crew not only keeps them fast, they keep them clean, watching vigilantly for even the smallest hint of the dreaded Poa annua that has ruined far too many greens on the west coast. Sharp eyes and sharp tools are put to good use.

Cameron, who knows the importance of good greens, says, “In the attention to detail with slope and speed, they seem to always be just right.”

The Bridges, which measures just over 7,000 yards from the tips—one of five sets of tees—closes strong. The final hole is a long par four with big bunkers everywhere and more sand, as well as water, fronting an elevated green.

The club also has opened itself to some professional play, hosting The Battle of the Bridges, the nationally televised, night-time, under-the-lights skins game that starred Mickelson and Tiger Woods in 2003, 2004, and 2005.

“It put us on the map,” Wilson says. “It allowed us to show the course in prime time.”

Or as Dickens might have put it, needing only half of his famous aphorism, “it was the best of times.”