There are many good to great golf courses in California. Pebble Beach Golf Links for example, has long been a teacher’s pet of rating committees that select the best courses in the US.
Until recently, it has been in the top three along with Augusta National and Pine Valley. Shockingly, it fell to No. 5 this year on the Golf Digest list behind Augusta National, Pine Valley, Shinnecock Hills, Oakmont and Cypress Point.
Golf Magazine also puts Pebble Beach fifth because it is a resort. Therefore, it is open to the wealthy public and falls into a different category than Augusta National and Pine Valley. Both of which are men’s clubs—the former by convention and the latter by decision of the members.
All of the five mentioned, except Pebble Beach are private clubs. So unless a member tells you what goes on there, invites you to play or you go to a professional or amateur tournament at one of the clubs, you’ll be dealing on rumor.
If you attended the 1972, 1982, 1992, 2000 or 2010 US Open or the 1977 PGA Championship at Pebble Beach, then you had a chance to see it first hand.
Often people ask: If you take away the ocean, is Pebble really that good?
What about the inland holes?
Are they all that special?
Well, the fact is that it does have the ocean on the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth, and again at the 18th. You can not get away from that fact. The seventh and eighth holes are just about beyond the imagination if you have not seen them in person. But the other holes can be non-descript. Not necessarily easy, but not visually special.
Yet Pebble Beach is not the only excellent golf course in California. Whether it is the best one on the West Coast Swing, depends on how you view Riviera CC, which is every bit as historic. It also has challenging holes—albeit without spectacular water views. Bobby Jones filmed an instructional series at Riviera. The lessons were lost to the world until Ely Callaway rediscovered them.
Scenes from Pat and Mike with Spencer Tracey, Katherine Hepburn and Babe Zaharias were shot at Riviera, as were the scenes from Follow the Sun, the story of Ben Hogan’s pre and post-accident life. Hogan won there so often it became known as Hogan’s Alley, along with Colonial CC.
Humphrey Bogart used to sit under a tree at the 12th hole and watch the LA Open when it was still called that. Riviera hosted the 1983 and 1995 PGA Championship, as well as the 1948 US Open (won by Hogan).
Many celebrities in the golden age of Hollywood, and later on television personalities were members, including Humphrey Bogart, Glen Campbell, Vic Damone, Peter Falk, Dean Martin, Gregory Peck, Walt Disney, Hal Roach, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford.
Then there is Spyglass Golf Links, built by Robert Trent Jones, Jr, in 1966—seldom mentioned by commentators during the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am telecast. The first five holes have views of the Pacific, but not waterfront adjacency. Then the course turns inland, into the depths of the Del Monte Forest.
The late Jim Murray, a legendary columnist for the Los Angeles Times once wrote: "If it were human, Spyglass would have a knife in its teeth, a patch on its eye, a ring in its ear, tobacco in its beard, and a blunderbuss in its hands. It’s a privateer plundering the golfing main, an amphibious creature, half ocean, half forest."
Each hole at Spyglass Hill has a Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson-inspired name: Billy Bones, Black Dog, Skeleton Island and Long John Silver. It is a contender as a top course in PGA Tour events.
Now we are not considering courses that were in events and then taken out. Such as the PGA West Stadium course, that was in the 1987 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. The PGA Tour pros had found it too hard compared to the other courses in the event. Instead the more user friendly Palmer Private Course was added.
Now the Jack Nicklaus Private, which is a little gentler than the Nicklaus Resort Tournament Course, is also in the Humana Challenge.
While the Stadium and Nicklaus Tournament courses remain a part of the PGA Tour Qualifying School, they are not in regular PGA Tour events. The Stadium Course is severe and penal almost start to finish—everything after the first hole anyway.
Yet in 1987, when it was the final-round course for the Bob Hope, Corey Pavin won—a short hitter on a long and severe course. Some of the holes on the Nicklaus Tournament course were incredibly demanding, but Tom Kite shot a 62 there in very chilly and windy weather during the Grand Slam in 1992.
Torrey Pines Golf Links in La Jolla used to be a public course in iffy shape. That is, until it was announced that the US Open was headed their way. Now, whether you like the course more or less after the renovation it still has some scenery to equal Pebble Beach, but you cannot see waves crashing into rocks and the ocean is not alongside as many holes.
It is mainly visible on the front nine from the third through the sixth. Then it’s gone until the 13th tee. The North Course has some spectacular views of the Pacific, but it is shorter and regarded as several strokes easier than the South Course, which is the US Open track.
Strangely enough, a recent survey of favorite golf courses of PGA Tour players was taken by Golf Digest. The west coast events are listed where the courses fell in comparison to all the courses they play.
1. Augusta National GC.
2. This will shock you, but Harbour Town Golf Links
3. Riviera CC
4. Pebble Beach GL
13. Spyglass Hill GC
30. Cordevalle GC
31. Torrey Pines - South
36. PGA West - Arnold Palmer Private
44. PGA West - Jack Nicklaus Private
48. Torrey Pines GC - North
My order would be somewhat different, but not much. Since Cordevalle is not one that I’ve seen, it is unfair for me to rank it. But based on the Tour player comments, it can’t be all bad. Or else the accommodations are out of this world, and that’s supposedly the case. The rest I know and two of them I helped with on the opening day festivities ( PGA West).
My decision on the ranking is based on who won at the venues because the kind of champions a course produces over time is both a reflection of the field and the courses. Since tournaments go in and out of favor, just as we are seeing with the Humana Challenge coming back into favor, winners can also vary depending on who shows up.
But a clear for instance is that Phil Mickelson has won every tournament in the West Coast Swing. The last one was the Northern Trust Open, otherwise known historically as the LA Open. The first was the Buick Invitational, now the Farmers Insurance Open. Second was the AT&T National Pro Am. Third was the Bob Hope, but he did not typically play that event.
Having seen all those courses many times, Riviera has to top the list, although the seventh and eighth holes at Pebble Beach are spectacularly dramatic.
Riviera has exquisite bunkering on many of the holes. It is whimsy, including a bunker in middle of the par three sixth green. It has a ridiculously hard 18th hole—hard because it is uphill and the fairway sends the ball to the right when you need to be in the left center.
Jim Murray, the Pulitzer Prize winner, once said to me: “People always ask me what I hit from the top of the hill on the 18th. They are falsely assuming that I get to the top of the hill with my drive. But after my drive it’s a five wood and a seven iron, a chip and three or four putts.”
In other words, for the average guy it’s a tough hole. It’s not the easy birdie that pros make it look like when they win. Riviera is the course that Tiger Woods hates. He has never won the Northern Trust Open under any name and has not done well there when he played in the tournament.
So that tells you something about how hard it is, even though it doesn’t look that way to the casual observer. Just remember, Woods hasn’t conquered it. That alone should get it to the number one spot. It’s Tiger-proof, and it’s a par 71 with one hole changed in the last 15 or 20 years (That’s the eighth, which they pretty much wrecked).
Somebody recently wrote that the 14th was an easy par three, but it has a shallow green. And they are not taking into consideration that starting at the 12th, Riviera is a bit like how the finishing holes at La Costa used to be—into the ocean breeze.
Because the course is in a canyon surrounded by celebrity homes on Sunset Blvd, you don’t realize that it’s toward the ocean. Golfers face the invisible ocean breeze from the 12th hole to the 16th.
Second in the rankings, the AT&T rotation has to get the nod starting with Pebble Beach and followed by Spyglass. If Cypress Point were still in the rotation of the tournament, it would rival Pebble Beach. Although it is a private course, it was built for a woman, Marion Hollins who was an excellent golfer and a great friend of Bobby Jones.
The current courses in the Humana Challenge: Arnold Palmer Private and Jack Nicklaus Private courses at PGA West, along with La Quinta CC, the only hold-over from the earlier Bob Hope Classic days.They are pleasant and have enough length to challenge.
Lack of wind, is typically perfect course conditions. Lower rough, ordinarily leads to good scoring. Players afraid of going low every day need not to apply. Both courses have multiple holes that play along the mountains. If you are not careful on the Palmer Course, you can have your back swing impeded by a rock or two.
Finally Torrey Pines and Farmers Insurance Open, while the South Course was redone for the US Open it was made harder. And whether harder is always better is up for discussion. Both Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods are winners here. Historically there have been other name champions such as: Gene Littler, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Billy Casper, Tom Watson and Johnny Miller.
Nevertheless, the layout has never taken advantage of the setting. There should be a finishing hole or holes by the ocean or at least by a deep canyon with the ocean beyond. With all the money that went into the renovation to leave the 18th looking like an inland hole, just did not seem to match the opportunity of the cliffs that overlook the Pacific. The routing of Torrey Pines South mystifies me every time I think about it.
So there are the rankings as Tour players see it, and as one writer sees it. Both of us start with Riviera and then Pebble Beach and Spyglass. After that, they go for Torrey Pines North, the Humana Challenge PGA West Courses and then Torrey Pines South with Cordevalle tossed in for good measure.
I put Torrey Pines after the Humana Challenge courses. It’s just personal preference. If invited, I'd play any of them.