Santa Barbara: Bringing out the best in California's golf contrasts

By Ted Johnson, Contributor

Santa Barbara has always served as a release valve for Los Angeles. Smaller in population and even more compressed against the Santa Ynez coastal range, Santa Barbara is the easy getaway that still has the best of southern California weather, beaches and lifestyle.

Sandpiper Golf Club
Sandpiper Golf Club has been called the "Poor Man's Pebble Beach."
Sandpiper Golf ClubOjai Valley Inn & Spa - 16th holeRancho San Marcos Golf Course - 10th greenLos Robles Greens Golf Course - 9th
If you go

As for golf in this part of SoCal, you don't have to travel far to get a completely different feel in terms of weather, temperature and lifestyle.

The biggest draw are the beaches, which is why Santa Barbara is known as "America's Riviera." It's also home to one of the best deals in public golf.

Sandpiper Golf Club

Sandpiper Golf Club, located on the bluffs north of the central business district, offers stunning views and compelling shot values. In all, it's an experience that harks to another course on bluffs about 200 miles to the north. That's why Sandpiper has been called the "Poor Man's Pebble Beach."

On land that once served as a central part of ARCO's offshore oil production, in 1972, developer Ken Hunter bought the land, cleaned up the derricks and laid out the holes. (He sold the golf operations in the early 2000s.)

Several holes play along the bluffs adjacent to the beach below but not as much as Pebble Beach's famous run of nos. 4-10. The course meanders on flats before touching the Pacific on nos. 5 and 6. After turning inland, it dives towards the ocean on the par-4 10th, with the par-3 11th bringing blue horizon, salt air and Pacific breeze.

The uphill 12th cuts inland, but the par-5 13th -- hugging the bluffs like a lonely child -- is one of California's best holes. It's a 532-yarder that glides over the crashing waves, requiring good carry distance on the second and third shots. The long par-4 14th also rides adjacent to the beach. Three of the last four holes play away from the ocean, and it ends on a par 3.

Sandpiper and its sister course in La Purisima played host to PGA Tour final stage qualifying in the late 1990s. Full rate for Sandpiper is $160, which may seem high for a high-end, public-fee course, and yet it's a third the price of Pebble Beach. As the memories fade, however, the lingering impression will not be the fee as much as the beauty, and you'll be glad you played.

Rancho San Marcos Golf Course

Rancho San Marcos Golf Course, located about 24 miles and 30 minutes inland through the mountains from Sandpiper, is a stark contrast.

Instead of sea breezes, you get a warm, calm, desert feel. Scrub oak replaces the occasional cypress pine. Rock outcroppings and golden California hills take the place of the azure Pacific.

This Robert Trent Jones II design opened in 1998 and offers the designer's usual features: compelling, short par 4s; "splash" bunkers; and critical judgments made on carrying creeks and bunkers.

From the tips it's nearly 7,000 yards, but the blues drop to less than 6,300, and it's plenty even for the high single-digit handicapper. It's hard to imagine that, as the crow flies, the ocean is 20 miles away, and yet you feel like Hoss Cartwright from "Bonanza" is going to ride up behind the 15th green. That's because this is where the old gauchos who worked for the mission ran their cattle and horses. There's a good chance President Reagan rode his horses on nearby trails.

Sandpiper and its neighbor, the Bacara Resort, are definite high-end. San Marcos, with a full-rate cost of $104, is Cowboy Country. Boots allowed, of course.

Ojai Valley Inn & Spa

Forty-five miles south of Sandpiper, residing in the boutique-rich community of Ojai, sits Ojai Valley Inn & Spa resort and its wonderful George Thomas-designed course.

Southern California is often criticized for not having any places of tradition. Ojai runs contrary to that cliche. This is a resort on par with the best on the entire west coast for opulence, comfort, cuisine and, yes, price. The golf is a distinct charm, reminiscent of Thomas' designs at Riviera and Los Angeles Country Club.

Thomas laid out this unassuming-looking but spectacular course in the 1920s. In the 1980s and '90s it was a regular stop for the Champions Tour, and even today its tricky greens and elevation changes bring his masterful bunkering into play on nearly every approach shot.

A sign for me of a course's excellence is the feeling that, upon walking off the 18th green, you want to walk over to the first tee and start over. Ojai does that.

Sterling Hills Golf Club

Sterling Hills Golf Club, about 55 miles from Sandpiper, is just about halfway between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, making it a perfect spot as one of two courses on a 36-hole day when traveling between the two cities.

Designed by Robert Muir Graves and chief assistant Damian Pascuzzo, Sterling resonates that SoCal-golf feel -- large eucalyptus trees, kukuyu grass in spots and elevation changes. The best of the course comes in the par-4 run of 12-13-14, the latter overlooking the field of flowers that comprise so much of Camarillo's economy.

The par-3 15th, about 160 yards, is just a delight -- water fronting on the right, a tricky two-tiered green and hard-to-detect breezes put a lot of pressure on execution.

Los Roble Greens Golf Course

Los Roble Greens Golf Course in Thousand Oaks is another California sleeper.

The scorecard says a 6,200-yard par 71, and yet, at 900-feet elevation, there's plenty of up-and-down to contend, not to mention large oak trees hovering over the edges of narrow fairways and small, slanted greens.

What was once oil operations is now one of California's iconic courses. Horse country, artist retreats, former flower fields and even the up-and-down interior terrain of Thousand Oaks offers the golfer plenty of southern California's distinctive characteristics. It's the best of contrasts in golf.

Ted JohnsonTed Johnson, Contributor

Ted Johnson has been writing about golf for more than 25 years. Having traveled the world with his clubs, he counts himself lucky to have played Cypress Point, but Turnberry’s Ailsa, Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath in Australia and Ireland’s Royal County Down tend to rotate as favorites. And then there was the trip to Vietnam, where he found himself in Vung Tao and his luggage in Ho Chi Minh City. That’s why to this day he carries a toothbrush in his golf bag.

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