San Juan Hills Country Club: An air-conditioned gem in the Capistrano Hills

By Patrick Browne, Contributor

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. -- Constant onshore breezes keep temperatures mild while playing this picturesque golf course, located near the famous San Juan Capistrano Mission. Don't let the 6,295 yard layout of San Juan Hills Country Club lead you to believe it's a stroll in the park. No. 15, a demanding 436-yard, par 4, is ranked the third toughest among Orange County public courses.

San Juan Hills Country Club
San Juan Hills C.C. is among the toughest public golf courses in Orange County.
San Juan Hills Country ClubSan Juan Hills C.C. golf course
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San Juan Hills Golf Club

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Tucked away in the hills of San Juan Capistrano, San Juan Golf Course is situated midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Its location is conveniently close to Legoland, Disneyland, the San Diego Zoo, and miles of sandy beaches. The championship golf course underwent a major renovation of its fairways and greens, making them some of the best in south Orange County.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 71 | 6327 yards | Book online | ... details »

Mission Viejo High School used San Juan Hills as their home course. Alumni Mark O'Meara played much of his high school golf here. Hubert Green lived close by and was a regular, as were Couples, Cook and Mickelson early in their careers. Dave Stockton enjoys the range facilities when preparing for his West Coast swing. President Richard Nixon enjoyed playing the course prior to dining at his favorite Mexican restaurant in San Juan Capistrano.

With more than 50 bunkers and six water hazards, the undulating fairways give way to well maintained, large, bentgrass greens.

Hole no. 1: A 342-yard par 4 launches you over a 50-yard pond to a wide receptive tree lined fairway. The raised green prevents the player from knowing the results of the approach shot until almost arriving on the green.

Hole no. 2: A 360-yard par 4 that requires a draw off the tee to a fairway that slopes down to the right and will feed a ball directly into a right fairway bunker. The second shot on this hole requires precision.

Another very raised, shallow, but wide green is guarded by a large front bunker, out of bounds at the rear and a large drop off to the right. Once you're on the green and have caught your breath, you are rewarded with your first panoramic view of the San Juan Capistrano valley.

Hole no. 3: This 367-yard par 4 plays downhill. The fairway once again slopes down to the right and will feed a ball into the waiting water hazard. An iron played from the tee to the left fairway will safely set you up for a straightforward shot to a downhill green. There are restrooms here, between the 4th and 8th tee box.

Hole no. 4: The 342-yard par 4 will start a climb to the highest part of the course. Uphill and sloping to the right, the fairway is wide with out of bounds on the right and trees and bunker to the left. This is the last green to be remodeled and will be ready for play in 45 days. With four par 4's to start off with, the pace of play is generally good to this point. Here you will know if your choice to walk or ride was a good one. The climb to the next tee will require a short breather.

Hole no. 5: The panoramic view from #5 tee box must be one of the best in South Orange County. The Santa Ana mountain range can be seen 15 miles beyond San Juan Capistrano to the Northeast as it rises up 5,687 feet to the Santiago peak.

The constant motion on Interstate 5 can be seen and faintly heard as it winds its way through the San Juan Valley below. Double OB to the right and trees encroaching onto the left fairway that obstruct your view of the green 344 yards away, bring you back to reality. Once again don't let the yardage fool you. An iron from the tee to the right side fairway might be prudent, to get you to your best approach-shot distance.

You will need it. This is one of the toughest greens to reach in regulation, as it is well protected, small and fast. A large undulating slope to the front of this green will certainly test your putter. The large bunker in front of the green that prevents you from seeing the putting surface has an auspicious history.

The ex-superintendent of the course reputedly took a 17 on this hole due to his inability to exit this hazard. His wish for his ashes to be scattered on the course was fulfilled when they were respectfully placed deep below this bunker, where they remain today. A strategically placed, cold-water dispenser on the way to stroke #1, is a welcome sight at this point.

Hole no. 6: A 563-yard par 5. The tee, like #5, has one of the most picturesque panoramas on the course, as well as the most elevation change of the 18 holes. This is a risk-reward hole at its best. A yellow flag 200 yards down the middle of the fairway suggests the safe route for par before the fairway sweeps dramatically left.

The San Juan Capistrano Mission seen in the distance, is also a good aiming point for a safe shot. If you have the courage and ability to hit over a wooded hill to the left of the fairway to the unseen landing area far below, the opportunity for birdie here is real. This will leave approximately a 220-yard shot into the prevailing Westerly onshore wind. The green is receptive to long shots due to the large slope from back to front.

Hole no. 7: 175-yard par 3. The first of the par 3's. The raised green severely penalizes shots to the left. A steep slope will kick the ball way left, down the slope into trees, leaving a blind shot to a raised green with the certainty of dropped shots.

Hole no. 8: 513-yard par 5. The narrow exit to this tee box is lined with trees. A wayward tee shot will turn this relatively easy par 5 into a long walk.

Hole no. 9: 193-yard par 3. A nice way to end the first 9 holes. Do not hit over the green here. A large drop off at the back of the green will feed your ball down the cart path and into the tunnel that takes you to the next hole. With the pin at the back of the green, your putt to the hole will have to be hit harder than it appears due to the subtle up slope at the back of the green.

Hole no. 10: 369-yard par 4. The least interesting hole on the course, other than the frustrating 200 year old oak tree right in the middle of the fairway, that is registered and cannot be moved. The San Juan Creek is red staked down the entire left side of the fairway.

Hole no. 11: 419-yard par 4. What you see is what you get.

Hole no. 12: 483-yard par 5. Gentle uphill, wide fairway yields many birdies. Final restroom facilities here.

The next three holes were completed about 5 years ago when the new practice facility was built over three of the original holes. It is a 300-yard uphill hike to the 13th tee.

Hole no. 13: 355-yard par 4. Another well planned risk-reward hole. A rolling fairway with a group of cavernous bunkers on the left will catch a player attempting to sneak around the corner. Double OB on the right is snake bait. Do not attempt to look for your ball in the brush here, as the posted rattlesnake warning signs indicate.

In most brush areas of southern California, an encounter with "Mr. No Shoulders" in the summer months is possible. The raised green is well sculptured and produces many tricky pin placements. The final cold water dispenser is here.

Hole no. 14: 142-yard par 3. Aesthetically pleasing. A high tee gives a good view of the green below. A large pond and bunker consume balls hit to the left.

Hole no. 15: 436-yard par 4. A par here should be treated as a birdie. A narrow tee exit with houses on the left and a large hill on the right gives the impression of hitting out of a small valley. A half-acre pond is placed at the dogleg left, forcing you to stay right of the water, making you play all of the 436 yards to the green. A large well-bunkered green will test your putter once again.

Hole no. 16: 170-yard par 3. No mistakes here, the green is the only "fairly" safe place here. The steep sloping green will offer you your best opportunity on the course to 3 or 4 putt. Double OB to the left and rear, a steep, thickly covered slope to the right and two large bunkers at the front of the green. Possibly the signature hole for the course.

Hole no. 17: 517-yard par 5. The steep slope of the fairway will kick all balls right. Most balls on the fairway will be below your feet for your second shot.

Double OB left and right. Depending on the strength of the Westerly this green can be reached in two. A mild green will give up a rewarding birdie. If playing late in the day this hole will be several degrees cooler due to the wind being channeled down the fairway. Think about carrying a sweater in your bag.

Hole no. 18: 205-yard par 3. This hole can easily ruin a good score. A possible wait for the green will get the impatient player agitated. Birdies are rare here, so do your scoring prior to this hole.

The practice range has 20,000 range balls, a bunker, chipping and putting greens. Hitting is off mats only and the range closes at dusk. The resident pro, Arnie Dokker and teaching pro Larry Brotherton, run a summer junior golf camp. Lessons are always available from a qualified teaching staff that operates out of a well-stocked pro shop. A visit to the clubhouse shows a congenial atmosphere consistent with a private country club, with public course prices.

Service is prompt and friendly. The resident chef serves up some fine food. There are changing facilities for ladies only. For gender biased players, ladies play on Tuesday's beginning at 8 a.m. and Thursdays beginning at 2:30 p.m.

This is truly one of the best deals in southern California and is highly recommended. Depending on your physical condition, a cart is suggested, due to the hilly terrain of the course. Prices are most reasonable for what you get.

Great greens, great vistas, great weather and a fairly good rate of play. All this makes for a most enjoyable round of golf and I can almost guarantee, you will, like the famed swallows of San Juan Capistrano, return again.

Patrick Browne, Contributor

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