Top 10 Southern California Courses You Can Play

Pick any major golf destination in Southern California and you’re bound to run into a celebrity or two. There are plenty of golf course stars in the region as well. Perhaps Northern California has more five-star public spreads, but for diversity (ocean, mountains, desert, parkland), perfect weather, and a fair bit of PGA Tour cachet, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Palm Springs shine brilliantly.

We’re eagerly awaiting the official opening of Omni La Costa Resort’s Champions course in spring 2024, as reimagined by Gil Hanse. Until then, here are the top 10 Southern California golf courses you can play.

Torrey Pines Golf Course (South)La Jolla

The most celebrated municipal layout west of the Mississippi has played host to the PGA Tour for since 1968, with winners that include Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, and Tiger Woods. It was Woods that cemented Torrey’s reputation for tournament drama with his heroics at the 2008 U.S. Open—nearly matched by Jon Rahm’s performance in 2021. Stretched by Rees Jones to 7,800 rough-choked yards, the South is without a hole that plays over or around the Pacific, but you’ll never forget the downhill par-three 3rd, the waves crashing in the backdrop, or the long par-four 4th, perched atop a bluff with the ocean on the left. It’s not much for charm, but as beautiful brutes go, Torrey Pines South is at or near the top.

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Torrey Pines, South Course (photo courtesy Torrey Pines)

PGA West (Pete Dye Stadium)La Quinta

Back on the rota for the Palm Springs area’s PGA Tour event as of 2016, following a hiatus that lasted nearly three decades, Pete Dye’s west coast follow-up to the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass pays brilliant, if brutal homage, right down to the island-green par-three 17th and the scary par-four closer that wraps around a massive lake. Mountain backdrops, insanely deep bunkers (such as the 19-foot pit that guards the 16th green), Vail ski-hill moguls, and formidable carries over desert and water are further takeaways. At 7,300 yards, it’s less frightening than in its 1980s heyday, but for most, it still packs a wallop.

Southern California
PGA West, Pete Dye Stadium Course (photo by Matt Hahn)

Pelican Hill Resort (Ocean North)Newport Coast

Of Pelican Hill’s two Tom Fazio-designed layouts, Ocean North is the layout for more serious sticks. At 6,945 yards and par 71, it’s nearly 365 yards longer than its older brother, Ocean South. Fairways are narrower, greens tougher to access, and there are more forced carries. The course doesn’t edge the ocean like Ocean South, but it dishes out one handsome long view after the next. Ocean North peaks at the 558-yard par-five 17th, that climbs to a bluff peering over the Pacific.

Pelican Hill Resort (Ocean South)Newport Coast

Dating to 1991, the elder (by two years) of the two courses at this top-ranked resort midway between Los Angeles and San Diego measures a manageable 6,580 yards and par 70 from the tips. With amply wide fairways and a paucity of forced carries, Ocean South is fun and playable—and stunningly scenic, with its coastal landscaping, artful Tom Fazio shaping, and close-up encounters with the Pacific. Most memorable are the back-to-back oceanside par threes at 12 and 13, the latter a two-green setup with the putting surfaces separated by an enormous sand feature. Stick around for a stellar finish, highlighted by a double canyon crossing at the 453-yard par-four 18th.

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Pelican Hill, Ocean South Course (photo courtesy Pelican Hill)

Trump National Golf Club Los AngelesRancho Palos Verdes

One of Southern California’s bucket list courses for connoisseurs of seaside golf, the 7,242-yard par-71 Trump L.A. layout enjoys a spectacular bluff-top setting above the Pacific, some 40 minutes south of LAX. Draped atop cliffs amid the rolling horse country of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, few courses in America offer so many ocean vistas for four and a half hours. Pete Dye created the original design and Trump, Tom Fazio, and Gil Hanse have provided tweaks over the past 25 years. The bunker-strewn, 512-yard par-four 18th with the Pacific on the left is a drama-splashed closer.

 

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Rustic Canyon Golf CourseMoorpark

Perhaps the best bang for the buck in the United States, this 7,044-yard par-72 Gil Hanse/Jim Wagner/Geoff Shackelford design 45 minutes north of L.A. engages at every turn, thanks to an easy-to-walk routing with tremendous variety that allows for run-up shots galore. The course name is rooted in holes that are crisscrossed by barrancas and framed by native sagebrush and steep cliffs and by the old-fashioned shaggy-fringed bunkers. The first hole illuminates the course virtues perfectly. A 70-yard-wide fairway welcomes the opening tee shot, but then the fun starts. A narrow, sandy-bottom, ditch-like barranca slashes the fairway’s left side, about 145 yards from the green, then twists on a diagonal, cutting in front-right of the green. Are you ready to gamble so early in the round? If so, a potential eagle awaits.

Rams Hill Golf ClubBorrego Springs

Since its original Ted Robinson design in 1983, Rams Hill has weathered more stops and starts than Southern California’s 405 Freeway during a Friday rush hour. In 2007, Tom Fazio completely redesigned the original course, and it was renamed Montesoro, which subsequently closed in 2010. In 2014, the old name was restored and so was the 7,232-yard par-72 course, which is located about 90 miles northeast of San Diego and just over an hour south of La Quinta. Essentially a desert course with mountain backdrops, Rams Hill boasts superb conditions and an oasis ambiance, thanks to its profusion of flowers, plants, trees, and water features. The right-sweeping, 577-yard par-five 18th entices with a wide fairway and a jog downhill to a green guarded front-right and in back by yet another handsome pond that’s fed by cascades of water.

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Rams Hill (photo by Brian Oar)

Torrey Pines Golf Course (North)La Jolla

Torrey Pines North has long served as co-host for rounds one and two at the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open, but generally took a backseat to its beefier, more prominent sibling, even as it was the more scenic of the two. Following a 2016 Tom Weiskopf renovation, however, the 7,259-yard par-72 North shines with new luster. All 18 greens were rebuilt with considerably more contour, all fairway bunkers were reconstructed, and more tee boxes were established for more variety. The stellar ocean views remain intact, though Weiskopf reversed the nines, so you’ll have to wait to the 15th hole for the jaw-dropping par three that goes full frontal with the Pacific.

La Quinta Resort & Club (Mountain)La Quinta

This early Pete Dye masterpiece kicked off the Palm Springs resort golf boom when it debuted in 1980. As always, with Dye, it’s tougher than old beef jerky from the 6,666-yard par-72 tips, but pure fun if you choose the correct set of tees. Mountain is home to a truly memorable back nine, especially holes 14 through 16 that plunge up and down the mountainside. The downhill, 168-yard par-three 16th, is the signature hole. However, the 15th is sensational in its own right, a reachable par five through the desert that hugs the mountain for its entire journey, with a green that button hooks into a cloistered cove. Come up short on the direct line and a huge bunker will swallow the shot.

Palm Springs
La Quinta Resort & Club, Mountain Course (photo courtesy La Quinta Resort & Club)

Sensei Porcupine CreekRancho Mirage

Built as the private domain of Tim Blixseth, with consulting help from Tom Weiskopf, Porcupine Creek was lost in a divorce and bankruptcy and acquired by Oracle’s Larry Ellison in 2011. President Obama spent Presidents Day weekend in 2015 playing it twice. Boasting superior mountain panoramas, it sports a fistful of memorable holes, notably the 245-yard par-three 15th, which plunges 200 feet downhill. In 2022, the property morphed into an exclusive, 22-room wellness resort, and guests now have access to this plush 6,665-yard par-72 layout that overflows with aesthetic bells and whistles.

Sensei Porcupine Creek
Sensei Porcupine Creek (photo by Chris Simpson)

What great public golf courses in Southern California did we miss? Let us know in the comment section.

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