As golf season winds down in Buffalo-Niagara, our attention turns to domes, trips and television. You have domes and your remote control device within reach, so leave the rest to me. I’m going to give offer up a nine-part series (this is part nine) on eclectic eighteens across the USA. The only thread tying them together is my having played them. That, and the fact that all of the courses are worthwhile. You’ll never play them all in one sweep, as I once did, but when you find yourself in these regions, know that these courses are worth your money and your best game.
Many followers of the golf game are holding their breath on the 2016 debut of one specific course: the Olympic Course at Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. The competition to name the designer was finalized in 2012, and the result was something of a surprise. Teams led by female/male headliners like Jack Nicklaus/Annika Sorenstam and Greg Norman/Lorena Ochoa, along with individual architects like Tom Doak, Robert Trent Jones II and Gary Player were beaten out by Gil Hanse and his this-project-only partner, Amy Alcott. Hanse had interned and worked for Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf before striking out on his own. Despite the downturn in the industry in the late 2000s, Hanse was able to carve out a successful niche, thanks to his design philosophy.
Rustic Canyon was one of Hanse’ first solo designs. Located in Moorpark, California, the course rests in a literal canyon, running its fairways lengthwise, up and down the ditch. In certain seasons (including the one in which I played it) winds similar to the Santa Ana ones add to the challenge of the course. Holes that played north on this day opposed the fierce winds, adding 3 to 4 clubs to each shot. Holes in the opposite direction became driveable or near-driveable par 4s and 5s. The area, as with most of mid- and southern California, finds itself in the woes of a drought, so watering is minimal. At Rustic Canyon, the emphasis is on firm, fast playing surfaces, so a skill set that includes bump-and-run and low-flighted shots is required to score. Oh, and the putting.
The greens at Rustic are large, often terraced, and nearly identical in grass height and firmness to the chipping areas that abut them. Consequently, what appears to be a green in regulation from the fairway is often a unique, lengthy challenge with the flat stick. My playing partner on this day was a semi-local named Cory, a gregarious, enthusiastic golfer. We whipped around the course, with him offering playing advice and some of the keenest eyesight I’ve ever seen. Rarely was one of my wayward shots not found, and it wasn’t thanks to my vision. Rustic Canyon, especially for the first-time golfer, should be played with a sense of humor and humility. The vistas are spectacular, the course is superbly routed and the holes are memorable. Most important of all, there is a sense of fairness and a diversity in shot values, that will appeal to golfers across the spectrum.
After the success of Rustic Canyon, Hanse and design partner Jim Wagner were retained to redesign Soule (pronunced “soul”) Park in Ojai, California. About 90 minutes from Moorpark (see above), Soule Park had an enviable routing but the not the most challenging nor inspired putting greens and bunkering. The words “fun to play” were the driving force behind the renovation and the course was re-opened to rave reviews among the inside crowd of architecture aficionados, as well as the paying public.
Soule Park bears a resemblance to Rustic Canyon, in that it rests in a valley amid distracting mountains. The primary difference is the width of the property. Unlike Rustic Canyon, a narrow, out-and-back type of course, Soule Park is rounder, with holes weaving among one another. The property demands that golfers confront changes of direction (think wind and sun) with each successive hole. Bunkering in drive zones and beyond is deceptive, often tricking golfers to into taking routes that they would later deem less ideal. The width of the fairways, however, allows approaches from either side to eventually find the green. The San Antonio creek makes an appearance of a few holes, and the architects used it well. Tee shots and approaches cross it at angles, asking golfers to consider how much of the hazard to take on with a shot.