Swing into history: Catalina Island Golf Course is the oldest play in all of California

By Judd Spicer, Contributor

AVALON, Calif. -- If you're heading to the oldest course in California expecting luxury club life, you're traveling to the wrong place.

Catalina Island Golf Course - hole 1
Catalina Island Golf Course's 325-yard opener is an eye-raiser.
Catalina Island Golf Course - hole 1Catalina Island Golf CourseCatalina Island Golf Course - 7th hole
If you go

Yet if you're going to Santa Catalina Island ready to absorb a distinct piece of American golf history, then ready your island vibe for a nine-hole track with some serious lore.

Like the song sings: Twenty-six miles across the sea, and mainlanders departing from southern California enjoy the island and its golf among a host of relaxed pleasures.

"It's a place you come and enjoy; it's not 'button-up' but instead a relaxed environment in a congenial atmosphere," said Andrew Welham, general manager of tours & activities for the Santa Catalina Island Company. "It just fits in with the island lifestyle."

Originally built as a three-hole course in 1892, Catalina Island Golf Course would expand to nine, then 18 holes under its second owner, gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., before eventually reverting back to nine holes of play.

Course and island historians believe the track to be one of the oldest in the U.S.

"It's definitely the oldest course in California, and we believe the oldest west of the Rockies, if not the oldest west of the Mississippi," said Michele Bestudik, historian and film liaison for Santa Catalina Island Company.

Such history includes the former Bobby Jones Golf Invitational from 1931-1958 (check out the legend's bronze likeness in the clubhouse) and still serving as host to the Santa Catalina Island Junior Championship, which has welcomed the likes of SoCal golf luminaries such as Tiger Woods (twice), John Cook, Corey Pavin, Amy Alcott and Craig Stadler.

Catalina Island: Swing with history

Rustic, peaceful and diminutive in length at just 2,100 yards, locals often play the golf course twice, swinging from the white tees on the front and the blues on the latter nine.

Given the laid-back island environment, it's not uncommon to hear more laughter than cussing across these skinny fairways, and one is prone to view more t-shirts than collars. And with a host of mild-mannered deer strolling the grounds, nature past-and-present further sets the Catalina golf vibe.

"There used to be a lot of buffalo and wild boar on the course -- horse stables, too," Bestudik said. "Local rules used to state that you could take a free drop out of a buffalo patty without penalty; that was actually on the scorecard."

Free of water hazards -- yet sporting ample sand and tiny, undulating greens -- the track's five par 4s and four par 3s shouldn't be overlooked. The timeless tenets of strategy and ball-control run concurrent with the history.

"It's a very unique course with its share of challenges, and I think it's probably the only course I've ever played where the first tee box goes over a main road," Welham said. "That road on the first gets my own nerves going a bit. But in large part, you find yourself surrounded by nature. There are so very many courses with traffic or housing, but there are so few quite like this."

The 325-yard opener is indeed an eye-raiser, with island traffic running behind the elevated tee box and a road (not to mention a playground) situated below. Despite the desire to bomb past the adjacent trouble, clubbing-down is recommend on the fun no. 1, with muscular slices finding trouble deep right toward ensuing tee boxes, which block out approaches to the raised, protected first green.

Added need for control is found on the top-handicapped no. 4, with its 328 yards of claustrophobic play and bunkering deep right.

"The fourth and fifth fairways are very, very thin with the row of trees running between them and the road to your right on no. 4," Welham said. "So you need lot of accuracy there."

Back-to-back par 3s on no. 6 and no. 7 are a highlight, with the latter playing downhill at 194 yards.

On the 178-yard, par-3 home hole, a final mid-iron challenge is tasked, all but demanding that players avoid a bail-out right, where a deep, meaty bunker awaits.

Catalina Island Golf Course: The verdict

No, Catalina Island probably isn't where you and your family head for the explicit purpose of playing golf, but the historic course truly is a great complement to the play, pamper, drink, dine and adventure that the island has to offer.

But students of both golf and sporting lore will no doubt find enhanced appreciation for these grounds. Along with Catalina's storied tourney history, the land adjacent to the course also served as the spring training grounds for Wrigley's Chicago Cubs from 1921-1951, and memorabilia of their island time can be found alongside the Jones statue in the course clubhouse.

Judd SpicerJudd Spicer, Contributor

Judd Spicer is an award-winning, veteran freelance writer hailing from St. Paul, Minn. After 12 years of covering MLB, NBA, NCAA and the active golf landscape of the Twin Cities, he relocated to the Palm Spring, Calif. region to further pursue his golf work and Champions Tour dream. Sporting measured distance off the tee, Spicer refers to his pitching wedge as his "magic wand." Follow Judd on Twitter at @juddspicer.

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