River and Ranch Courses at the Alisal: An Outdoor Paradise

By Tom LaMarre, Contributor

SOLVANG, CA – Don Quiote was not among the early Spaniards who came to the Santa Ynez Valley, but had he passed this way, he would have found his dragons, uh, windmills in the streets of this authentic Danish settlement on California's Central Coast.

Tourists marvel at the integration of two cultures among the vineyards of what has become one of California's top-wine-producing areas. On the outskirts of the Scandinavian village, founded in 1911 by Danish farmers, is Mission Santa Ynez, founded by Spanish padres in 1804.

Just down the road are 36 more reasons to come to Solvang–the River and Ranch courses at the Alisal Guest Ranch, another bit of history that opened in 1946 on the site of a former Spanish land grant of the 1800s.

The Central Coast has become a popular golf destination in recent years.

"La Purisima (in nearby Lompoc) was the first public course in the area (opened in 1986)," said Pam Moore, Head Pro at the River Course, which opened in 1992. "But the Santa Ynez Valley needed its own public course and the River Course gave golfers in the area a place they could play every day and have a good time."

The River and Ranch courses, even though they are neighbors, are located in two entirely different settings. The River Course is in a wide valley and is pretty open. Since it's newer, the trees have not matured, but even when they do it will never look like the Ranch Course, which is in a more woodsy area.

"They are two distinct golfing experiences, which is by design. That's what we were trying to do," Moore said.

The differences are remarkable since the courses are within a mile of each other. The Ranch Course, a classic designed by noted architect William F. Bell and opened in 1955, is open only to guests at the ranch and members of the Alisal Men's and Women's Golf Clubs.

"Two different courses make it perfect for me," said Mike Hegarty, who came from Crystalaire Country Club in Llano in 2001 to become director of golf at the Alisal. "I am able to market the two courses to different organizations and players of different abilities. If all 36 holes were the same, it would make my job much more difficult."

Hegarty continues: "The Ranch Course is typical Billy Bell. Everything is right in front of you. There is nothing you can't see. It was what they wanted when the course was built because it is a resort course, built specifically for the guests."

There are several elevated tees on the Ranch Course, which is lined by oaks and sycamores. The Santa Ynez River runs along the West border of the course, which is traversed several times by Alisal Creek before it meets the river.

Every hole is a picture postcard, but none more than the 161-yard sixth. The tee shot from the top of a hill must carry the creek to a green heavily bunkered on the left. Pause for a moment to appreciate the view of Solvang
and the Santa Ynez Valley.

"It's a very deceiving hole," Hegarty said of No. 6. "The locals know that in the afternoon the wind is always in your face. It's about a 50-foot drop to the green and you have to figure all of that into your club selection. It's a beautiful hole to look from, but it's difficult to play, even for the pro staff at the course."

The eighth is a demanding 416-yard par four, the most difficult hole on the course. A barranca that bisects the fairway 236 yards from the elevated tee is reachable with a big drive. Once on the fairway, the approach shot must be hit with a fairway wood or long iron to a small green that is only 15 yards wide and is protected by traps right and left.

"It's a wonderful, demanding hole," Hegarty said. "You have to get the ball close to the barranca to have an easier second shot but you can hit it in there if you get greedy. There is trouble everywhere, with out of bounds on the right, the sand and water. I would put it up against any par four in Southern California."

There are some interesting quirks to the course, which has three par threes, three par fours and three par fives on the front nine. Both nines open with par fives and close with par threes–but the 208-yard ninth and the 201-yard 18th are anything but easy.

"I would say that finishing with a short par three would be a bad thing," Hegarty said. "But the shot on the 18th is long and very difficult, with the creek on the right and trees verhanging on the left. A lot of matches come down to the final hole and, coupled with the 17th hole, it makes for a great finish."

The 420-yard 17th hole requires a tee shot to the right of the fairway short of another barranca in order to see the green on the big dogleg left. Anything to the right makes it virtually impossible to go for the green and probably means a lay-up short of the barranca.

"It's just a monster," Hegarty said. "You can hit driver off the tee even though it doesn't look very far to the barranca because the ball will only roll about 10 yards on the kikuyu fairway. You have to hit it to the right-center of the fairway to get the right angle. If you hit a great tee shot you might only have eight iron to the green but it you lay back it makes for a tough second shot because the gap through the trees is pretty narrow. I think the best way to play the hole is to be aggressive.

"Every time I have a great round going on this course, in the back of my mind I know I have to get through 17 and 18 without getting in trouble to finish it off," Hegarty said.

The Ranch Course plays to 6,551 yards from the back tees compared to 6,830 yards at the River Course, but the Ranch probably is a stroke or two more difficult.

Al Geiberger, the first player in PGA Tour history to shoot 59, holds the course record at the Ranch with a 65, while Chad Wright, who plays the Canadian PGA Tour, tied John Pate's standard of 66 on the River Course.

"The River is a little more forgiving," said Moore, who was an assistant at the Ranch Course before becoming head pro when the newer course opened. "That's what you want from a public course for players of all abilities. It's a course anyone can play and enjoy."

The most dramatic and difficult hole on the course is the 438-yard, par-four seventh that has trouble everywhere you look.

Hit a big slice off the tee and your ball can wind up in a vineyard of Ken Plam's Mission Meadow Winery, which runs the length of the hole. Hit a hook and your tee shot might wind up at the bottom of the lake that runs all the way up to the green.

"That's a good par five for most people," Moore joked. "It's long and always into the wind with trouble down both sides of the fairway. It plays uphill and the green is elevated, so sometimes you need three clubs more than the yardage. Bogey can be a real good score there."

The front nine again finishes with a par three, 172 yards down the hill and across Alamo Pintado Creek, which crosses the course in several spots. Again, the prevailing wind comes into play.

"It's a pretty scenic hole and it's not too difficult unless the wind is blowing," Moore said. "The problem is, you can't always feel the wind because the tee is protected. It comes off the hill on the other side and pushes the ball down. A lot of people wind up short on that hole. It's not easy to hit the green because it's the smallest on the course and it's set back a bit from the bunkers so it appears closer than it really is. There is a tendency to under-club."

The back nine opens with the No. 2 handicap hole, a 430-yard par four but it plays downwind with the tee shot through a chute of trees. Another stand of trees runs down the left side of the fairway and the right side is guarded by a gaping bunker.

"It's a tough driving hole," Moore said. "The chute is narrower at certain times of the year but we recently trimmed the trees so it's a bit easier. It's tight in the driving area and if you go left you either lose the ball or have an unplayable lie. It's a long second shot and it's hard to get the ball on the green because it gets narrow again up there. It's just a challenging hole from start to finish."

The last four holes cover a plateau below the clubhouse.

The 123-yard 17th looks simple enough but is almost surrounded by water and sand, but the most challenging of the final four is No. 15, which plays uphill across the creek.

"It's a tough drive because it's into the wind and you have the river on the left and out of bounds on the right," Moore said. "It's visually challenging because it appears to be narrow from the tee but actually it's pretty wide. The lake to the right of the green catches a lot of approach shots and the two-tiered green can be tricky if you're not on the right level."

No matter which course you play, when the round is over there is plenty more to do for guests of the Alisal Guest Ranch, which offers tennis, horseback riding, biking, swimming and hiking, plus boating and fishing on Alisal Lake. There are nature walks and bird watching on the property, which borders the old Ronald Reagan Ranch that served as the Western White House during his presidency.

There are programs for teenagers and children, including a petting zoo, plus arts and crafts.

Among those who signed the guest registry at the Alisal Guest Ranch, which has been in operation since 1946, were Clark Gable, who married Lady Silvia in the old library on the grounds, and Doris Day, who was a regular visitor.

The Ranch Room serves gourmet meals and there are banquet and meeting facilities, or you can dine at the Cabernet Restaurant or the Meadows Restaurant and Grill at the Royal Scandinavian Inn in town.

You can browse in the shops of Solvang or get a taste of the region at the numerous wineries in the area, which is considered the Napa Valley of Southern California.

Solvang is three miles east of Highway 101, about 40 minutes north of Santa Barbara. When you see the first windmill, you've arrived.

Ranch Course at the Alisal
1054 Alisal Road
Solvang, CA 93463
Phone: (805) 688-4215

River Course at the Alisal
150 Alisal Road
Solvang, CA 93464
Phone: (805) 688-6042

Tom LaMarre, Contributor

Tom LaMarre has been a sportswriter and copy editor in California for parts of five decades, including 15 years with the Oakland Tribune and 22 with the Los Angeles Times.

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