IF YOU’RE A GOLFER, you probably don’t need reminding. If you’re looking to get into the game, California is the place to do it. That’s because there are hundreds of absolutely amazing courses in the state (the San Diego area has 92 on its own). That famous California climate means any time of year is a great time for a round, and no matter what kind of setting you prefer — coastal, forest, desert, mountain — you’ve got dozens of options.
Most importantly, the majority of those options will provide you a world-class experience. If you’re looking for the best courses in the nation, you can’t go wrong in California. If you’re looking for the absolutely legendary, read on.
1. Pebble Beach Golf Links
You can’t mention “golf” in California — or anywhere in the country for that matter — without Pebble Beach in mind. The absolute most highly regarded public golf course on the planet, Pebble Beach has been the site of numerous US Open Championships and home to the annual AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am since its inception in 1919.
Located two hours south of the Bay Area in Monterey County, directly on top of some of California’s most impressive cliffy coastlines, this is one for the bucket list. Grab your clubs and walk in the footsteps of Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Tom Kite, and Graeme McDowell — all of whom have won US Opens here on this very course — at least once.
2. Torrey Pines Golf Course
The South Course at Torrey Pines in La Jolla (just north of San Diego) is the stuff of US Open legend, where an injured and recovering Tiger Woods famously out-golfed Rocco Mediate, all while grunting, hobbling, and occasionally buckling in pain.
But for the decidedly less “pro,” the North Course has the very same eye candy (if not more — the 6th hole, with paragliders flying above the waves and glimpses down the cliffs to the beach, looks like it belongs on a Windows screensaver) at a lower price point.
3. PGA West TPC Stadium Course
The Stadium Course is the one you’ve got to visit when heading out for some desert golf. Located in La Quinta (southeast of Palm Springs) and designed by Pete Dye, it was carved into the landscape with spectator seating in mind (hence the name), making it an actual arena for you to experience pro-level golfing glory.
This course is known as one of the most challenging places to golf in America. If you think that’s an exaggeration, just wait until you’re hacking your way out of a comically deep bunker off the back of the 16th (the face is as tall as a building), then lining up for your tee shot toward Alcatraz, the 17th hole’s island green.
4. Wente Vineyards
Part of the PGA Tour’s Nationwide Tour, the championship course at Wente Vineyards, a short drive east of the Bay in Livermore, was designed by Greg Norman and opened in 1998. Maybe it’s all that wine you’re surrounded by, but the vibe at Wente is remarkably relaxed. The hilly landscape makes the course pretty difficult, but the pace of play usually allows you to stop and appreciate the vineyard views, including a quick pause at the top of “Lombard Street,” where you’ll completely forget what you’re doing for a few minutes.
Their grass driving range also deserves attention. It’s located higher in the hills and is just as zen as the rest of the course — all the way down to the perfectly stacked pyramids of range balls left at every station. (The best part is they’re free and unlimited!) And the service at Wente is as legendary as the facilities; they’ll even wash your clubs for you at the end of your round so you can sip wine on the patio and recount your best shots of the day.
5. Half Moon Bay Ocean Course
In surroundings like these and with a course design that’s a joy to play, it’s impossible not to grin like an idiot for four hours straight while playing Half Moon Bay’s Ocean Course, just down the coast from San Francisco. Even if the wind is pushing your ball back so hard you’re basically making negative progress down the fairway every other shot, this course is incapable of ruining your day.
The inviting, wide-open layout means even “beginner” (read: terrible) golfers like myself get to enjoy roping balls as far as possible without having to fear the precision involved in avoiding the random tree, dogleg, or kitchen window.
6. Pacific Grove Municipal Golf Links
Just a few miles up the road from Pebble Beach, the Pacific Grove Muni shares the very same jaggedy, dramatic coastline and epic views. The front nine is great, weaving through narrow forest-like terrain where the biggest challenge comes from avoiding the numerous deer scattered around the course, but the back nine is where Pacific Grove earns its legendary status.
Jack Neville (the same golf course architect who’s responsible for Pebble Beach) created the Pacific-facing back nine to work with the natural terrain of the dunes around the Point Pinos Lighthouse. You can’t get more California golf than this.