Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect recent golf course upgrades and ownership changes
Within the nation's most populated state lies some of the best golf resorts in the United States. The terrain varies greatly from one tip of this long region to the other, as does the weather–from craggy, seaside links to rolling, inland meadows; from 80 degrees and sunny to dense fog and biting wind. But one thing is certain wherever you choose to visit: It doesn't get much better than the Pacific Coast when it comes to top-quality golf resorts.
The California coast below San Francisco presents a golfer a range of excellent choices. Just 30 minutes south of San Francisco is Half Moon Bay, where a Ritz-Carlton and two affiliated oceanfront golf courses add a splash of elegance to a charming farming and fishing town. On scenic Monterey Bay golfers find the Holy Grail of U.S. golf resorts, Pebble Beach. With several "it-doesn't-get-any-better-than-this" courses in the Del Monte Forest–Pebble Beach Golf Links, Spyglass and The Links at Spanish Bay among them–it's easy to overlook the Monterey Peninsula's other fine designs. But out in Carmel Valley, Quail Lodge and Carmel Valley Ranch have been pleasing guests for years with their sunnier weather and serene layouts.
Once you hit Southern California, look to Orange County and San Diego County to provide the best resorts offerings. The courses in this southern part of the Pacific region are less tree-lined than those found in northern California and Oregon. Instead, gently rolling hills and panoramic views are the norm. Golfers find themselves shooting over arroyos and playing through golden canyons. The weather is typically warmer too.
Along the Newport coast, the two Tom Fazio designs at Pelican Hill fit this description. They are among the most desirable upscale public layouts on the West Coast. Nearby in Dana Point are Monarch Beach and the affiliated St. Regis Monarch Beach Hotel. The Dana Point and Laguna Beach area is a favorite with nongolfers, too, as shopping, art galleries, spas and divine cuisine are in abundance.
Further south still, golfers can play to their heart's delight at Four Seasons Aviara, La Costa and Torrey Pines–three of the top resorts in the United States, all located within 20 minutes of each other.
With such a wide and diverse selection of courses and resorts, it can be hard to choose. Clearly, multiple visits to the Pacific Region are required to make a dent in your "must-play" list.
When To Go
California doesn't experience a true cold season (well, it does, mostly in the mountains), as temperatures remain comfortable all year long. That being said, The Sunshine State does endure its fair share of rainfall, typically December through March. Winter temperatures average in the low to upper 60s (degrees F), with summer months nearing the mid-90s in some regions. All in all, it's never a bad time to plan a visit.
Considering that the freeway systems of California are among the nation's most complex, it's just as important to know not only where you're going, but how to get there.
As for the Golden State, if you're visiting the Monterey coast, expect just over an hour's drive from the San Francisco Airport or 45 minutes from the San Jose Airport. Also, the coastline drive is fabulous, so don't be shy to rent a comfortable rental car and enjoy the spectacular views from Highway 101.
When heading to Southern California, we advise you find ways to minimize drive time. Traffic can be a bear. Luckily, there are at least five major airports (and many more) that are in close proximity to a host of golf-friendly areas. If you're heading to L.A. County, the obvious choices are LAX and Burbank Airport. But if you're heading southward to places like the Newport coast, then the John Wayne Airport is a much smarter and closer choice. Ontario is a solid choice for an inland flight, and Long Beach is one of the favorite airports among Southern Californians for its fewer crowds and easy access.
Check with each golf course and/or hotel that you plan to visit, and make sure they give you not only street directions, but freeway instructions, as well.
Where To Play
|The Lodge At Pebble Beach
The Inn At Spanish Bay
Far and away the most revered golf resort in the United States, Pebble Beach boasts three outstanding hotels, an unbeatable location on the Monterey Bay, and legendary golf courses rich with history and lore. Pebble Beach Golf Links and Spyglass Hill typically top everybody's lifetime "must-play" lists. But don't forget Spanish Bay: Both the course and the accommodations on the Pacific Grove end of 17 Mile Drive are superb. The Pebble Beach Golf Academy, located at Spyglass Hill, is a recommended stop, where all the latest teaching tools and excellent instruction by Laird Small and team will keep you on the course–critical on any of these classic designs. Golf packages available.
Pebble Beach may get most of the national attention, but locals know it's always a few degrees warmer and a whole lot sunnier in Carmel Valley. This is but one of the selling points for Quail Lodge. The golf course has long been known to offer a relaxed round of golf in a pleasant valley setting, where low-handicappers can score at will, and higher-handicappers will have a very good round. Weeping willows, colorful plantings and plenty of wildlife are seen around this design. In July 2003, this classic 97-room Carmel Valley property completed a $25 million renovation that included rooms, common areas and the clubhouse. A refreshening of the course followed in 2015. The work done has elevated Quail Lodge once again into the elite status of California golf resorts. Golf packages available.
This quiet resort 30 minutes south of San Jose and 45 minutes north of Monterey offers the best of everything: a big, sweeping Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course, a luxury lodge and a country club atmosphere. You feel as though you're a member of a special private club here. The course ranges through a distractingly pretty, oak-studded valley where hawks fly and red tail fox are common. Jones Jr.'s design pays homage to the classics, yet is every bit part of its landscape, feeling as if it had been there for a hundred years. Accommodations at Cordevalle consist of 45 bungalows, villas and fairway homes, all very private. A full-service spa is available for guest use. The 45,000-square-foot clubhouse serves as golf and social center, and also offers excellent dining. Golf packages available.
|Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay
Just 30 miles south of San Francisco, hidden in a quiet fishing and farming community, is The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, and two world-class golf courses. Subject to summer morning fog and brisk winter weather–just like San Francisco–you almost feel as though you are in Scotland when playing here. An Arthur Hills-designed, links-style layout called The Ocean Course is complemented by a parkland-style design by Arnold Palmer called the Old Course. Both boast panoramic ocean views. A 261-room exercise in relaxed luxury, The Ritz-Carlton is set like a European mansion on an exposed bluff above the Pacific. Golf packages available.
|Pelican Hill Golf Club
Thirty-six holes of oceanfront Tom Fazio golf is one way to describe Pelican Hill's charms. But in addition to phenomenal views and the most scenic setting for golf south of Pebble Beach, these courses challenge your best game. Stringent carries off the tees, fairways narrowed by mature trees and testy green complexes are all part of the fun. But it's so gorgeous, you won't care if you shot 95! These are two of the best upscale daily-fee golf courses on the West Coast. Pelican Hill offers high-end bungalows (some with butler service). You can also set up base camp at the nearby Montage (262 craftsman-style rooms, suites and bungalows, spa, dining) or Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel (393 luxury guestrooms, spa, dining). Both of these oceanfront properties are highly recommended.
|Monarch Beach Resort
Monarch Beach Resort presents an alluring destination. From many holes on the golf course, wide ocean views can be seen, and a couple holes run alongside it. The course was built to conform nicely to the terrain. Several carries off the tee can jump up and bite, but most everyone enjoys their experience on this friendly Robert Trent Jones Jr. design. Monarch Beach Resort is a captivating seaside getaway that celebrates the best of Southern California’s coastal lifestyle. The award-winning Orange County retreat features beautifully-appointed guest rooms and suites with refreshing coastal palettes, private balconies from which to take in the ocean breeze, plush bedding for restful nights, and spacious living areas to find reprieve at the day’s end. From custom-designed furnishings and restful lounge seating to spa-inspired bathrooms with deep soaking bathtubs and rainfall showers, unwinding is easy. Monarch Beach Resort Hosts are also on hand to ensure that your unique preferences are known and addressed flawlessly. Golf packages are available.
|Four Seasons Resort Aviara
Carlsbad is home to many of the top golf equipment manufacturers, including Taylor Made and Titleist. Thus, it is only fitting that it is also home to one of the best golf resorts in the U.S. Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay designed one of their best courses at Aviara, a layout that opened in 1991. The course is bordered on the west by the Batiquitos Lagoon, home to more than 130 species of shorebirds, waterfowl and a wide array of natural vegetation. It is a highly manicured course, with an abundance of flowers and water features on several holes. The elegant, comfortable Four Seasons Aviara features 329 guestrooms and suites set in low-rise, Spanish Colonial-style buildings. Several dining options are available, including a wonderful Sunday brunch at one of the best golf clubhouses you'll ever see. Golf packages available.
|Barona Valley Ranch
At Barona Valley Ranch, 30 minutes inland from San Diego, the concept of play takes on added dimension, as a bustling Indian casino adds to the lure of this resort property. If you've lost the skins game to your golf mates, you always have a chance to win it back at the blackjack tables. Golf course designer Gary Roger Baird had a serene, inland valley setting on which to work his design magic, with massive boulders strewn across the landscape. There is plenty of sunshine and a tranquil feeling out here in what feels like rural California, yet it is only 30 miles from San Diego. There are 364 guestrooms and an additional 32 luxury suites. Several restaurants service the needs of guests, with the Barona Oaks Steakhouse being a standout. Golf packages available with some rooms.
|Omni La Costa Resort
A quick 30-minutes north of San Diego, there are two scenic, fun golf courses set on 400 acres at La Costa, both of which have been recently remodeled. The North Course is wide open and rolling, while the South Course is tighter and more demanding. Water and tree-lined fairways make accuracy a must on both designs. If they feel a little like Florida courses, it's because courses by the designers Dick Wilson and Joe Lee are everywhere in the Sunshine State. Nine holes of each course were used for the PGA Tour's Accenture Match Play World Golf Championship for many years. A $140 million renovation in 2003/2004 brought new life to this classic, 400-room California resort. Golf packages available.
|The Lodge at Torrey Pines
Along the sunny La Jolla coast, just a few miles north of San Diego, two of the best public layouts in the country await at Torrey Pines Golf Course, home of the PGA Tour Farmers Insurance Open, and site of the 2008 U.S. Open Championship. Majestic Pacific views distinguish both tracks. Opened in 1957 they are revered for their combination of beauty and beast since. Prior to the 2002 PgA tournament, architect Rees Jones made some significant improvements to the South Course, bringing this popular design to its best shape in years. The North Course underwent a redesign in 2016, including reversing its nines. The Lodge at Torrey Pine is a 175-room luxury retreat at which to hang their spikes, dine and relax after golf. Best of all is the fact that the lodge has guaranteed tee-time privileges at the two world-class golf courses. Golf packages available.
This course on the north side of Monterey Bay opened in 1929 and still ranks as one of the best daily-fee tracks in the nation. The par-four 16th was course architect Alister Mackenzie's favorite hole in golf. Mackenzie spent the last years of his life living in a home on Pasatiempo and tinkering with the design. Tom Doak brought it back to its original glory in the early 1990s.
Par 70, 6439 yards (72.5/136)
Both of these are excellent choices and should be on your play list when in the Monterey Bay area. They will both challenge even the top professional from the back tees, and have done so in various tournaments over the years. . The Bayonet Course is long and difficult. The Black Horse Course is almost completely new after a recent redesign by Gene Bates. Both have great ocean views.
Bayonet–Par 72, 7104 yards (Gen. Robert McClure/Gene Bates)
Black Horse–Par 72, 7024 yards (Gen. Edwin Carns/Gene Bates)
Oak Creek is a picturesque course where good shots are rewarded and bad shots are penalized. Landing zones are generally wide open and driver-friendly. If you miss fairways, though, bring plenty of golf balls, because they get lost easily in the deep rough. The course is particularly women-friendly, with the silver tees measuring under 5000 yards.
Par 71, 6729 yards (72.7/132)
Set amidst Trabuco Creek and Ladera Open Space Reserve, Arroyo Trabuco provides a "high-end golfing experience at a competitive price." The 240-acre site occupies an old gravel pit (whose operations were shut down in December 2000), and several holes play around the old facility. The layout encounters quite a bit of rolling topography, making for some fun and memorable holes.
Par 72, 6974 yards (73.7/134)
(Tom Lehman & Casey O'Callaghan)
|Rancho Bernardo Inn
An 18-hole course first built in 1962, this design is set in a small, scenic valley and surrounded by homes. A meandering creek, two lakes, natural vegetation areas and fast greens add to the pleasant experience. A local's favorite.
Par 72, 6631 yards (72.3/133)
|The Auld Course
Resting in the foothills of Mt. Miguel, this traditional course includes 18 distinctive holes. It features panoramic ocean and mountain views, acres of natural wetlands, and no homes or roads. The hillsides influence most tee shots, so placement off the tee is important. It is a big course with no trees, which is significant because it tends to get windy in the afternoons.
Par 72, 6855 yards (73.4/132)
(Cary Bickler & John Cook)
With the task of breaking down local attractions in an area as large as California almost impossible, heed our advice and plan a vacation that includes experiencing some top designs from one of course architecture's all-time greats: Alister Mackenzie
The name Alister Mackenzie (1870-1934) evokes instant images of top-tier golf designs. If you have ever had the pleasure of playing one of this transplanted Scotsman's better U.S. creations–Cypress Point Club, Augusta National or Valley Club of Montecito–the experience no doubt will stick with you forever. The problem is, all of those mentioned above, and many of his other memorable designs are guardedly private.
There are, however, several public Mackenzie courses that one can and should play in California. The best of them is Pasatiempo (1929) in Santa Cruz, on the northern rim of the Monterey Bay. Mackenzie lived in a home on one of the fairways at Pasatiempo and continued to refine this design until he passed away. Tree-lined fairways and panoramic ocean views combine with strategic arroyo crossings and Mackenzie's signature bunkering patterns to create a wonderful, fulfilling experience here.
North of San Francisco is Northwood Golf Course (1928), a nine-hole Mackenzie course on the Russian River. Huge redwood and fir trees grace play on this unassuming design. And in Sacramento is the newly renovated Haggin Oaks (1932), a popular municipal course that boasts very distinct Mackenzie design features.
Golfers who enjoy the history and traditions of the game are likely to find an Alister Mackenzie pilgrimage nothing short of sacred. If you count yourself in this category, northern California is the place to do it.