Orange County resorts, public courses produce coastal golf memories and exude laid-back vibe

Pelican Hill South Course

When you hear about California, it’s usually something about Los Angeles, San Diego, or San Francisco, the three largest cities in the Golden State.

Orange County often takes a backseat to those booming metropolises, but that’s OK for those Californians and visitors who are looking for a more mellow experience. 

People who live in Orange County often talk about how it exudes a “state of mind” and laid-back atmosphere and lifestyle. The OC has everything, and whatever it doesn’t have is only a short drive away.  

It’s the home of mountains, gorgeous beaches, awesome hiking trails, cool attractions for the kids, and – for our purposes – great resort and public golf courses, all is just an hour south of Hollywood and the famous City of the Angels. 

On a recent trip to Orange County, we played two of the region’s most famous and highly ranked resort facilities — the two courses at The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach and the Monarch Beach Golf Links at the eponymous resort in Dana Point.  

Then we teed it up at three of the county’s top-ranked public courses — Black Gold Golf Club in Yorba Linda, and Strawberry Farms Golf Club and Oak Creek Golf Club, both in Irvine.  

Afterward it was easy to see why everyone seems to be smiling in Orange County – we left with great memories of varied courses and challenges and in our best mood in months. 

Monarch Beach

Pelican Hill North Course

With the Ocean North and Ocean South courses at Pelican Hill, Tom Fazio’s vision for great golf was brought to life in its purest form. Thirty-six holes of world-class golf weave their way through stunning terrain and breathtaking vistas, with every lie, every shot and every hole designed to perfectly complement the natural landscape.  

The Ocean North course features panoramic views from every hole, while the Ocean South course takes you closest – with three holes directly on the coast.  

Every shot and hole here was designed to complement the natural landscape at sea level. Fazio designed both courses to fit into the beautiful rolling hills of Newport Coast and leveraged the terrain to create elevation changes, challenging holes, and some memorable and stunning scenic vistas. 

On the North course, with open canyons and elevated plateaus dotting the landscape, there are panoramic ocean views from every tee. The North has a links feel to it with very open and forgiving fairways and majestic views of Newport Beach and the sparkling blue Pacific Ocean from most every hole. 

Even though North is only 6,945 yards, this is a challenging track. Fazio throws a lot at the golfer, including several exciting risk reward opportunities, forced carries, dramatic elevation changes, treacherous and strategically placed bunkers, sloping and contoured fairways, and challenging green complexes. Like most tough Fazio designs, he always seems to leave you a bail-out area but it may cost you a stroke. 

North is a course you need to think your way around and on the tee box make sure you check with the forecaddie (which are mandatory) for the best way to play each hole. There are five sets of tee boxes and the forecaddies will help with course management, club selection, and reading the breaks on the greens.  

The first hole sets the stage for the round at North; it’s a beautiful 542-yard par-5  with a forced carry to wide landing zone followed by a blind shot downhill to a dogleg right along a rolling and contoured fairway to a double tiered green. Whew, it’s as hard to play as it was to explain! 

All four par-3s on the North are fun, challenging, and scenic with a mix of uphill and downhill holes with well-guarded greens with tiers, slope, and undulation.

The closing pair on the North are outstanding. The 17th is a par-5 that doglegs right along a huge bunker (there are seven more bunkers on the way to the green). If you find the sweet spot on the fairway you may be able to risk carrying a deep canyon and the green-side bunkers for a potential birdie. 

No. 18 is a long par-4 with a carry over the coastal sage scrub to a landing zone with a trio of massive, treacherous bunkers. The approach is downhill over a canyon and requires precision to avoid three more good-sized bunkers and native areas that are next to an undulating green. 

A round on Ocean North is as visually stunning as it is fun to play. Every hole has majestic panoramic vistas of the ocean, all with the Pelican Hill Resort stoically perched on a terrace above.  

Pelican Hill North Course

Pelican Hill South Course

On the South Course, which is studded in pristine green surrounded by 270-degree views of the Pacific and opened in 1991, several holes are right by the ocean’s edge. 

The ocean comes into full view at the 193-yard, par-3 seventh hole, which plays downhill and really close to the sparkling blue Pacific Ocean. Here it’s not uncommon to hear the barking of seals and the crashing of the waves against the rocks and sand as you navigate the putting surface. 

Excitement continues to build as you cross under the highway and head straight toward the ocean on the magnificent 11th hole, which requires an accurate approach shot to a green that is guarded by a huge deep bunker complex on the right and another all along the back. The background here is often sailboats and large expensive yachts cruising on the ocean just off the coast. 

The 12th and 13th holes are two outstanding par 3s with tiered greens surrounded by treacherous bunkers and natural areas – but it’s the waves crashing on the rocks nearby that will likely grab your attention. The 13th is famous for having two greens, one tucked back in a dune. 

The round on the South course ends with the devilish 18th, which requires a forced carry over a deep ravine and then another carry over a second ravine to a multi-tiered guarded putting with a front-to-back slope. The backdrop to this hole is the stunning Pelican Hill Resort.   

Ocean South has tighter, tree-lined fairways with several forced carries over canyons. It is the shorter of the two courses and regarded as a stroke or two easier. Most of the landing zones are ample but you need accuracy on a majority of the approach shots.  Elevation changes and sloping contoured fairways demand your attention. 

The par-70 South Course has five sets of tee boxes so don’t bite off more than you can chew – move up a set of tee boxes, leave the driver in the bag on some holes and have a fun and memorable round. This is a fantastic track, so make it enjoyable. 

Located on some of the most exquisite land anywhere in Southern California, the Pelican Hill Resort features 204 bungalow rooms and suites as well as  128 villas that give guests the feeling of a home away from home. There are also world-class restaurants in classic al fresco settings and a luxurious spa. 

The resort spans more than 500 acres and is surrounded by an additional 50,000 acres of protected land in Orange County. It’s two championship courses are listed by Golf Digest as among America’s 100 Greatest Public Golf Courses. 

Few public-access golf facilities overwhelm golfers with views as relentlessly as Pelican Hill Golf Club. But once you find your focus, players of every skill level will be rewarded with rounds on a pair of courses that challenge your game to the nth degree, quicken your pulse and make you yearn for more. 

Pelican Hill

Monarch Beach Golf Links 

Monarch Beach Golf Links in Dana Point is a sumptuous Robert Trent Jones, Jr. design with a bit of a split personality.  

Played straightforward by the high-handicapper, it’s got the feel of a fun walk on an oceanfront park and a generous feast for the eyes. But if you’re a more serious golfer, it can be diabolical, with 105 bunkers, a routing that calls for great shot-making and lightning-quick putting surfaces. 

Opened in 1983 and renovated in 2001, Monarch Beach Golf Links meanders through a very upscale resort and residential community. There’s subtlety on every hole on this course, illustrating the genius of Jones’ work. 

The rolling fairways are lined by hundreds of beautiful Coral and Pepper trees and exquisite perimeter landscaping, with mounding and sand bunkers strategically situated near the landing zones. There is frequently ample recovery room greenside, though tightly mown collection areas are present to challenge the short games of all players. 

One neat feature of the course is that you will never be asked to carry huge distances over water or foliage. The lack of forced carries is a part of why Monarch Beach is considered by many as a top resort course for women. 

At 6,645 yards from the back tees, Monarch Beach Golf Links is not overly long, but can be tough with the challenge of the winds right off the coast. The yardage is ideal for the type of shot-making that is required; it’s imperative that you not only hit the greens, but know where on the putting surfaces you want your ball to land.  

The sound of crashing waves and seagulls in the distance is prevalent on several holes, especially the 315-yard, go-for-it-off-the-tee third that’s set right of the beach. 

The 600-yard par-5 seventh is a beast, requiring three very challenging shots thanks to a creek that runs right down the middle of the hole. The fairway is narrow and has bunkers and a hillside on the right. The green lies on the side of the creek, nestled between it and more bunkers. 

The best hole on the back nine might be the short par-3 13th, with a peninsula green guarded by a large bunker placed in what would be the bail-out area.  The putting surface is very large and deep, making distance control important to get a birdie. 

The 400-yard par-4 finishing hole also ends with a precarious approach to a rock walled green complex with water front right and sand bunkers all around. 

Set on a perfect location near the water, Monarch Beach Golf Links is unique because of its duality of a traditional golf experience and authentic beach town feel: old-school golf meets the OC vibe. 

Monarch Beach

Black Gold Golf Club 

Black Gold Golf Club in Yorba Linda is routed on a rolling 219-acre plot involving prominent rises, valleys and canyons. Golf course architect Arthur Hills and his team had a challenge with the routing, doing quite a balancing act to fit the holes in, especially on the tight home half.  

Hills moved more than 2 million cubic yards of dirt to provide enough space for the tees, fairways and greens and to create this dandy, 6,756-yard par-72 layout.  

“The Black Gold site was one of the hilliest we’ve ever worked on,” the late Hills once said. “We’ve never moved even a million yards of dirt on any other golf course that I can remember. And because of all the cut and fill, we had to do a ton of re-vegetation of the slopes above the golf course.” 

There are still several active oil wells on the property. Hills noted they capped the ones that were actually affecting the course, and the existing layout came very close to at least one of them. Surprisingly, there weren’t any outstanding environmental issues to deal with, and all has been well in the near-two decades since the course debuted. 

Black Gold runs the length of the 843-acre Vista Del Verde, serving as the centerpiece for the community. Owned by the city of Yorba Linda, the course is also a focal point for local citizens. On a clear day, visitors can view Catalina Island and the Pacific Ocean from several points around the course. The gorgeous 12th hole presents the highest elevation point of any golf facility in Orange County.  

Black Gold’s five sets of tees ensure its amenability for all handicaps and, despite the site’s considerable variety, the majority of the landing areas are flat and mainly treeless. Black Gold’s hazards can be very intimidating because of their placement, size and plenitude.  

The layout’s most memorable quality may be its smooth putting surfaces, which can be challenging for rookies to gauge. Here’s a tip that might help: the greens break toward Disneyland, about 10 miles to the southwest. 

Black Gold’s front nine is flatter and a bit easier, while the back side is much tighter and features a couple of truly difficult holes. There are only two par-4s exceeding 420 yards, and none over 450; the two longest holes have more than adequate landing areas off the tee.  

Hills did an amazing job with the greens and surrounds, but they’re a little tricky. At times, a putt will break opposite to what your minds’ eye tells you, and there’s more movement than appears.  

Despite the severe terrain around Black Gold, there’s a surprising amount of flatness to the course. It looks as though it’s always been that way, with plenty of native vegetation bordering the property to make it like you’ve left the city and are enjoying golf in nature.  

Black Gold has received several honors, including a rating of 4½ stars by Golf Digest‘s Best Places to Play and a ranking as a Top 3 Best Public Golf Course in Orange County by the Orange County Register.  

Strawberry Farms Golf Club 

Strawberry Farms Golf Club, a Jim Lipe design opened in 1997, is a bit off the beaten path – but that’s okay. The 6,700-yard par-71 track runs through canyons and across wetlands, with holes routed between a large reservoir and an environmentally sensitive hazard, and both features narrow the fairways at different times in the round. 

The back nine is the stronger side here, with the start and end the best holes. The 10th asks for a drive from an elevated tee box that must avoid the reservoir that runs the length of the left side of the hole.  The approach must avoid the large bunker front left or the reservoir farther left. 

The finishing hole is a bit odd, with a tee shot that is uphill and partially blind from the back tees.  The key here is to not get too aggressive as there are pot bunkers and odd bounces that can doom even a good strike. The narrow green is perched over a hazard and is angled at 45 degrees, with a tier, making it quite difficult to hit from far out. Stay away from the scenic waterfall to the right. 

Strawberry Farms Golf Club

Oak Creek Golf Club 

We were advised to play Oak Creek Golf Club before heading to Pelican Hill and that was a sage tip – it’s a great place for a warm-up round and a primer for what we were going the see are the resort. Set 10 miles from the coast in Irvine, it’s a not-too-punishing, 6,850-yard Fazio layout with wide fairways and big greens that’s surrounded by homes and industry. 

The course has done an artful job of blocking all that out, using fragrant Eucalyptus trees to line its perimeter. Fazio incorporated a handful of water hazards into the course’s ex-orchard setting.  

Oak Creek GC’s best hole might be the 16th, a 370-yard par-4 that’s a short dogleg left and has an enormous bunker that forms the left side of the hole from tee to green. The more of the bunker you flirt with on the drive, the shorter the approach. The green has a tier that slopes balls from right to left. 

Orange County might be a haven for surfing and golf can be considered a “kindred spirit” to that sport, at least in this locale. As actor Dennis Quaid says, “surfing is like golf…it keeps knocking you down. But when you stay with it and catch that wave…magic.”

Oak Creek Golf Club