by Steve Breazeale
Since picking the game up as a teenager, I’ve become fascinated with golf. I love the ins and outs of every round, which includes the analyzing of a course and how one performed on it. I set out to review all the public golf courses in San Clemente, Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano, and came back with a general consensus that we are lucky to live in an area rich in golf history, tradition and quality.
I wanted to write reviews of each course from the perspective of the average golfer. I’m not a single-digit handicap and I don’t hit the ball 300 yards, which I suspect a majority of us can’t do anyways. It led to an enjoyable six weeks of venturing out to all of the links in our area and coming back with something I hope will prove useful to those who live in our areas and love to golf.
Monarch Beach Golf Links
Growing up on the golf tracks of South Orange County, I had only heard whispers of Monarch Beach Golf Links. I knew it existed behind the pearly gates at the St. Regis Resort, and I have caught a few glimpses of it while driving on Pacific Coast Highway. But given the price tag (green fees range between $115 to $175 on weekdays and $135 to $195 on weekends), it was always out of reach.
When we went out to play Monarch, my group was in awe. The maintenance, the details, the design — it was all pretty impressive.
The course’s claim to fame is the two-hole stretch that runs parallel with the Pacific Ocean.
As the par-4 third hole doglegs left, the water gets closer and closer as you make your way within a pitch shot of the sand. Putting on the green with waves crashing behind you is about as Pebble Beach-esque as you can get.
“Our guests often comment that our first, five-hole stretch is the most scenic in Orange County and definitely the most strategic,” General Manager Eric Lohman said.
We decided to leave our egos at the door and play the course from the second set of men’s tees — the golds — which makes the course about 6,052 yards long. Given the yardage it seems small, but what the course lacks in distance, it makes up for with strategic play. Most tee shots involve hitting over, around or, in our group’s case, into bunkers. Monarch boasts 89 bunkers spread out over this Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed course, and they are everywhere.
Lohman said that the greens run anywhere between 9.5 and 10.5 on the stimpmeter, a numeric rate used to measure the quickness of a green. To put that into perspective, the greens on the average PGA Tour venue read at about 11. The greens are quick but very, very pure.
If there’s one hole that will break your spirits and make you want to channel your inner Happy Gilmore by unleashing a patented putter throw, it’s the par-5 seventh hole, which measures 612 yards from the back tees. A horrible tee shot derailed my game, and I carded a double-bogey seven on this hole, so let’s just leave it there before I have more depressing flashbacks.
“I think it (hole No. 7) is one of the best par 5s around… One of the most exclusive clubs to join in OC is for those who reach that hole in two (shots),” Lohman said.
If you find yourself yearning for that special round where you treat yourself — or others — and splurge a bit, this is a great course.
Address:50 Monarch Beach Resort North. Dana Point, CA 92629
Green Fees: $115-$195
San Clemente Golf Club
The San Clemente Municipal Golf Course was the very first course that I played as a teenager. Since then, the course has changed a bit, but much of it remains the same.
The rough seems to have been grown out more and there’s less sand plugged in the fairways as I recall. Also, the new clubhouse is an awesome upgrade from the old trailer that used to greet golfers.
The front nine, designed by Billy Bell, offers a great opportunity for low scores. The first five holes are wide open, which allows you to be aggressive off the tee without the fear of losing your ball.
My favorite hole in that opening stretch is the 485-yard, par-5 five fifth. For a right-handed golfer who shanks the occasional drive, the placement of the tee shot isn’t super important as long as it’s hit hard and not left into the houses. The wind is always at your back, so this is definitely a grip-it-and-rip-it hole and a great place for a long-drive challenge.
It wouldn’t be a proper review of the Muni if I didn’t throw in the reoccurring mantra: “Every putt breaks toward the ocean.” I’ve played here for years, and whenever I get paired up with someone, I hear that phrase uttered on the first green every time, and it never gets old. When in doubt, factor in the knowledge that your putt will dip toward the ocean.
“The tricky part is that (the greens) appear relatively flat because everything is sloping. It just fools the eyes,” Course Manager Gus Nelson said.
Once into the back nine, things get tricky. The par-3 13th hole is always the one that destroys my round. It’s a long and narrow par-3 that forces you to hit a long iron into it, which is difficult for most amateurs like me. A chunky tee shot that morning put me in the greenside bunker, and I had to scrap my way to a double bogey five.
The par-3 15th is the course’s signature hole. Once you hit your tee shot over the canyon and drive to the green, be sure to stop for a minute and take in the awesome view of the ocean.
Holes 16 to 18 are the hardest holes, at least for me. The tee shot from the blue tees on number 16 is brutal, the uphill tee shot on the 17th is tough and the par-4 18th is hard just because of the sheer length of it. The finishing stretch tests your knowledge of the course and the limits of your game.
Address: 150 E. Avenida Magdalena. San Clemente, Ca.
Phone: (949) 361-8384
Green Fees: $14-$42
Talega Golf Club
Talega is the newcomer to the San Clemente golf scene. Built in 2001 and designed by Fred Couples, the course is a beauty.
What strikes me the most every time I play Talega is how different every hole is. The course includes a drivable par-4, a downhill par-5, and a par-3 with a lake in front of it — all on the front nine alone.
The drivable par-4 third hole is a favorite of mine and my regular foursome. It’s always fun to see who has the guts to pull out a driver and go for the green that sits uphill 290 yards away. The hole is littered with fairway bunkers, but if you have a 220-yard carry, you can clear them all and your drive will funnel up to the front, right edge of the green, setting up a birdie opportunity. Unfortunately for my group, on our outing, two balls from two different golfers found their way into the backyards of neighboring houses on the right.
The par-5s at Talega are pretty tough, which make it feel vindicating when you play one by the book and get a par or better.
“The back nine has three, very challenging par-5s. The long hitters can take advantage of the par-5s where the ‘thinker’ can take the upper hand by playing them smart,” General Manager Peter Dalkas said.
The back nine is one of the more unique stretches of holes I’ve played in the area, and the last three holes are tough but fair. If you’ve had a good round up until that point, finishing a few over par on that stretch is a plus.
The par-4 18th is a perfect finishing hole. Not only does it look amazing, but it is a great example of risk-reward golf. The tee is placed at the top of the hill with the fairway racing straight down below you. The fairway eventually ends at a lake, which surrounds most of the green, front and back. A huge fairway bunker in the middle of the fairway causes trouble for your tee shot and forces you to either go long over it or layup short. Luckily, my driver was on point that day and I hit a good shot over the bunker and got my par, ending my day on a high note.
Address: 990 Avenida Talega San Clemente, CA
Phone: (949) 369-6226
Green Fees: $45-$100
Shorecliffs Golf Club
I’ve been donating my golf balls to the bushes and water hazards that line the course at Shorecliffs Golf Club for years now. It’s a course where, if you’re accurate, you can go low and have a good round. But it’s also a course that has the potential to chew you up and spit you out.
A San Clemente institution, Shorecliffs has been around since the ’60s and was even frequented by Richard Nixon back in the day.
When I asked course General Manager Joe Leicht what Shorecliffs offers beginners and experienced players, he kept bringing up the term “Target golf,” which makes a lot of sense because it’s a course where you have to pick your spots.
The first hole is as good an example of this as any. It’s a 530-yard, par-5 that doglegs sharply to the left. A well-struck driver will put you at the corner of the turn and from there the hole narrows drastically with a water hazard along the left side and out-of-bounds markers to the right.
“This golf course is very narrow and very demanding, so you have to pay attention on every shot,” Leicht said. “It’s kind of a love-hate golf course… People come out here, and they do very well and really like it because it’s playable and fair… Or, they come out and they just don’t hit the ball very well and they don’t like it at all.”
The course may be narrow but it also has some easy and fun holes like the par-4 fifth. When the tees are up at the top of the canyon on number five, your tee shot has to find its way 100 yards straight down to the fairway below.
The back nine offers some unique holes, like the par-3 13th, which is as bizarre as it is tough. It’s an uphill par-3 that measures 166 yards, but it plays more like 180. You have to carry an iron all the way up and try and hold the ball on a two-tiered green that slopes severely from back to front. It’s definitely the hardest par-3 on the course.
The thing that impressed me the most about Shorecliffs was the greens. They are small and hard to hit but they are in great condition right now. They roll true and quick and they only add to the challenge of the course.
“(Good greens) have always been the reputation here for as long as I can remember,” Leicht said. “Even when the turf conditions haven’t been great, the greens have always been excellent.”
Shorecliffs is among the more affordable options for golfing in San Clemente, and they’ve kept their prices down in recent years ($24 to $38 on weekdays and $28 to $55 on weekends), which is something they can be proud of. The course is in good shape for the summer and will offer you a good test of your golfing skills. Just be sure to bring a couple extra sleeves of balls.
Address: 501 Avenida Vaquero San Clemente, CA
Phone: (949) 492-1177
Green Fees: $23-$55
San Juan Hills Golf Club
San Juan Hills has undergone a change in recent years. They have beefed up the course with longer rough, made the greens quicker and built a new clubhouse all in the span of four or five years.
I used to play the course regularly but haven’t in recent months. In just that short timeframe, I was surprised at the differences.
On the first hole, I had a slap-in-the-face moment after I putted from the back of the green toward a front pin placement and watched my putt sail past the cup leading to an opening bogey. The greens were a lot faster than I remembered, which was a good thing.
Director of Golf John Hendricks accredits the improved condition of the greens to time and the devotion of the groundskeepers, headed by Tom Mathew.
“(Mathew) does a phenomenal job considering the number of players that we have out on the course,” Hendricks said. “But the course is in great condition right now and he does a great job with it.”
I soon caught up to the speed of my putts and played really well and I ended up shooting an 85, which is an above average round for me. The shape of San Juan Hills always seems to fit my eye. The tee shots line up just right for me and the surrounding geographical features (i.e., hills) don’t seem to fake me out and cause me to hit into trouble.
As the round went on I started remembering which clubs to hit on which holes. I recalled that the approach shot to the par-4, second hole requires an extra club. I told myself to not forget to bust out the driver and smash it over the lake on the par-4 third. It’s funny how much better you can play when you are in the right state of mind. Plus, I was so familiar with the course, I felt like I couldn’t miss.
I like this course because it awards the player who shapes his shot. The tee shot on the par-5 sixth sets up nicely for a right-to-left draw, as does the par-4 13th and par-4 15th, arguably the hardest hole on the course. If you can work the ball a little, you can go low out there.
“It’s an unusual golf course in that its yardage in today’s standards may not keep up with some of these big golf courses,” Hendricks said. “But it’s challenging enough for the good player…and it’s a nice, playable golf course for the average player, which is what most people are in this game.”
Address: 32120 San Juan Creek Road. San Juan Capistrano, CA
Green Fees: $43-$75