Mission Hills: Unique memberships allow non-members to tee it up

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

California stretches about 1,000 miles from north to south and in-between its borders there are more than 1,000 golf courses. A bit hard to get your arms around all that.

As every golfer knows, California is home to some of the best courses in the world, not just the entire nation. And the same places seem to keep popping up on everyone's lists. So to start this off, let's just list those top-of-the-line places, California All-Time Classics, and get them out of the way.

After that, we'll try to sort out what's best in the north and best in the south. If we've omitted your all-time favorite, you're probably right, it should be on this list, too.

All-Time Classics You Can Play

Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Spyglass Hill Golf Course at Pebble Beach.
The Links at Spanish Bay at Pebble Beach.
Torrey Pines Golf Course in LaJolla - South Course.

Our top three picks -- a real hallowed trinity of the golfing world -- can cost you $350 or so for a tee time to start with; sometimes you really have to stay at the resorts where they are located in order to get a tee time.

Torrey Pines in the San Diego area, site for a U.S. Open not too long ago, is the most accessible. It costs less than half that amount for a visitor to play; though sometimes it's hard to get a tee time if you're not staying at The Lodge at Torrey Pines. The South Course is the most in demand, but the North is a great place to play as well.

If playing one of these world-famous courses on the Pacific Ocean has been your lifelong dream, it's worth the trip and the dough.

Must-plays in Southern California

Pelican Hill in Newport Beach - Ocean South and North Courses.
Mountain Course at La Quinta Resort in the Palm Springs area.
PGA West Resort in La Quinta - Jack Nicklaus Course and TPC Stadium Course.
Lost Canyons in Simi Valley -- Sky or Shadow Courses.

The two seaside courses at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach are Tom Fazio masterpieces set amid some of the most expensive real estate in Orange County. Although La Quinta's Mountain Course by Pete Dye opened way back in 1980, it's still widely acclaimed and everyone's favorite to play at this resort.

Like many of the courses on these best lists, they have sky-high green fees, but in the long, hot summers of the Coachella Valley there are great bargains at all the courses, including the Nicklaus and TPC Stadium.

Lost Canyons in the L.A. area has two award-winning Pete Dye courses. Both suffered some damage in recent fires in the Simi Valley area, but the Shadow Course has reopened. No estimate yet on the reopening of the Sky.

Must-plays in Northern California

Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Crua.
The Course at Wente Vineyards in Livermore.
Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn Golf Course in Sonoma.
The Dragon at Nakoma Resort near Graeeagle.
CordeValle Golf Club in San Martin.

Northern California has a collection of stars scattered over a wide area so don't expect to play all of them in one trip. Pasatiempo is a semi-private club in the oceanside town of Santa Cruz that has a 1920s-era course designed by Alister MacKenzie, also designer of Cypress Point in Pebble Beach.

Travel to Livermore, way east of the city of Oakland to play The Course at Wente Vineyards. The Wente family took out hundreds of vines to make room for Greg Norman's fairways.

The Sonoma Mission Inn course is a classic, designed in 1928 by Sam Whiting and Willie Watson, architects of San Francisco's Olympic Club Lake Course. Only guests of the Mission Inn resort and members of the golf club can play this course, in the heart of wine-growing country.

The Dragon is in a resort area located about a 45-minute drive from Truckee and is considered one of toughest courses in the state.

CordeValle, a plush resort with sky-high prices, offers a Robert Trent Jones Jr. course.

Best Golf Resorts

Pebble Beach Resorts in Pebble Beach.
The Lodge at Torrey Pines in LaJolla.
La Quinta Resort and Club in La Quinta (Palm Springs area).
Westin Mission Hills Resort in Rancho Mirage (Palm Springs area).
PGA West Resort in La Quinta.
Desert Springs Marriott Resort in Palm Desert.
Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert.

Golf resorts are one thing that California knows how to do right. They're everywhere and they're wonderful, most of them with at least two and often more courses. We've listed several of the best here, but the truth is that we could list two or three times as many. Several on our list are in the Palm Springs area.

Gems That Should Get More Attention

Half Moon Bay Golf Club - Ocean Course.
Hiddenbrooke Golf Club in Vallejo.
Twelve Bridges Golf Club in Sacramento.
Stonetree Golf Club in Novato.
Legends West Course at Diablo Grande in Patterson.
Desert Falls Country Club in Palm Desert.

Most of this list is made up of Northern California courses; we could probably list a half-dozen more courses from the south part of the state. Half Moon Bay is affiliated with a great Ritz-Carlton resort on the Pacific Ocean, south of San Francisco. Arnold Palmer's Hiddenbrooke gets ignored a lot because of its out-of-the-way location, slightly north of the blue-collar town of Vallejo; it used to be the site of an LPGA tournament. Twelve Bridges is changing its name and is on the way to going private; so make your tee times soon. StoneTree is a fairly new course designed by Johnny Miller and Sandy Tatum.

Legends West at Diablo Grande probably has the most unlikely location. It's in the town of Patterson, just off Highway 5 in the Central Valley, but is getting lots of attention recently. Co-designed by Jack Nicklaus and Gene Sarazen, the course is semi-private with limited play for outsiders.

Desert Falls is a 20-year-old course with fantastic bunkering that deserves a round when you visit the Palm Springs area.

Best New Courses

DarkHorse Golf Club in Auburn.
TPC Valencia in Valencia.
Trilogy at La Quinta.

DarkHorse, designed by Keith Foster, is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in the old gold mining town of Auburn. The tee times are extremely affordable here.

The TPC Valencia, designed by Mark O'Meara, is right off I-5 in the Magic Mountain area. And Trilogy is the Gary Panks design where Annika and a few male golfers played the most recent Skins Game.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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