6,215 yards, 125 slope from the Black tees
The Palos Verdes Peninsula is a coastal region south of Los Angles that not only juts out further west than much of Southern California, but its hills rise from the ocean dramatically and swiftly. High above the South Bay, majestic panoramic views of the beaches, Channel Islands and even Malibu are before you. My father has lived there since the 1980’s, so it’s some where I have spent a lot of time and have come to know and love well. In fact, this is your 1992 champion of the Rolling Hills Cross Country 10K, reporting for duty.
Not very far from the site of this momentous victory that shocked the Southern California recreational distance running world is Rolling Hills Country Club. The runner up of that 1992 race was gracious afterwards, commenting I was like a deer running up and down the severe hills that comprise the race course, very similar to the hills on which RHCC sits. Sadly, I don’t believe the Rolling Hills Cross Country 10K exists any more. If it was, surely I would have been invited back as the grand marshal or something, right?
The good news is that RHCC remains. After undergoing an extensive redesign by David Kidd and re-opening in 2018, it is one of the more important course designs to come along in a while.
The course was originally built by Ted Robinson in 1965. Robinson designed a number of courses primarily in the western U.S. and emphasized the use of water a hazard. At RHCC, the course was densely packed in the hills and crowded by trees and houses. There wasn’t a whole lot of room for movement because of the surrounding houses and the property on which the course is set was partially owned and leased. The course remained as is for over 50 years.
David Kidd was brought in to perform a re-design. A sand quarry adjacent to the course became the focal point of the project, along with acquiring additional land. The sand from the quarry enabled Kidd to create the course he envisioned. That vision has the potential to advance modern design on a path that is unchartered yet welcome. Kidd arrived on the golf course architecture scene with Bandon Dunes and with the well documented success there, began a steady of stream of projects that include the Castle Course at St. Andrews, Tetherow, Gamble Sands and Mammoth Dunes. He has been quite vocal in his evolution of course design, even though he is one of the most sought after architects right now. While Kidd emphasized fun, playability and options when he designed Bandon, he began to design for difficulty and challenge on subsequent projects, focusing on creating a stern test. Courses such as Tetherow and Castle are known for their challenge, yet Kidd then returned to the philosophies he focused on at Bandon Dunes with Gamble Sands.
Kidd elaborated on his shift in design philosophy on a Feed The Ball podcast with Derek Duncan. In talking about the width and playability design trend, Kidd explained that the difference with his designs is he makes sure the player can see the width from off the tee. He wants to show you the width to instill confidence in the swing. Traditionally, tee shots invoke feelings such as intimidation, trepidation, deep thought, maybe even exhilaration. Yet the consistent theme in golf course design has always been to challenge the golfer, whether through strategy, difficulty, quirky greens, etc.
What if course design instead focused on making you a better golfer? What if course design brought out your best golf instead of your worst? Can such design still appeal to the more skilled golfers? Could it hold interest for the entire round? One of the great aspects of Pine Valley is that it brings out the best of your game. It can certainly bring out your worst as well, but you’re presented with so many situations where you’re forced to conjure the greatest golf in you. Nicklaus once said that confidence is the most important single factor in the game. If course design was able to give you that confidence while maintaining interest, it would limit the punishing element that plagues us all. The dark periods so to speak aren’t really an ideal part of the game. Yet the pangs of battle are. So is there a way to invigorate the golfer and provide an enjoyable round all while remaining infinitely interesting as a challenging adventure?
Mind you, this is different than ensuring the course is playable for all skill levels. Tempering difficulty or ensuring there are alternate paths to the hole for each type of player is effective in ensuring the course is accessible for all. Kidd does that here for sure, but goes beyond that to emboldening the golfer. This is no small feat. There are easy and forgiving golf courses out there, the majority of which resemble bland wide open fields with scant bunkers where it doesn’t really matter where you hit it. Breaking the notion that an interesting course needs to be difficult, heightening the abilities of the golfer and ensuring the round is as engaging as possible without relying on traditional standards of difficulty and strategy would make for an impressive design.
Alas, Rolling Hills CC. Indeed set on rolling hills, the golfer is invigorated on most shots because the anxiety he typically experiences has some how disappeared. Kidd was able to use the sand from the quarry to create firm and fast conditions, which make great use of the hilly terrain. He was also able to use the additional land to open up playing corridors. Large sweeping fairways feed into gargantuan shaped greens, many with heavily banked sides or fall offs. Instead of most typical strategic elements such as alternate paths to the green or risk/reward shots, everyone here plays the same course. Width is used brilliantly for this purpose, as are the glorious greens. Oh the greens, my friend. Large, heaving, sloping giants full of fun and drama. Getting to them is half the battle, then the real fun starts. With punch bowls, semi-punch bowls and sloping contours that seem to go on for a mile, the options are limitless and with the width and gradual sloping, the pin-able areas on the greens are numerous. There is also little rough on the course.
Kidd transformed the identity of the course and in the process, tapped into something with course design that advances the art in a promising direction. Building up the golfer in a way that captivates him throughout the round so that he leaves the Eighteenth each time with a radiant vitality for the game, chomping at the bit to get out there again. Yes Rolling Hills is not the first course to accomplish this, but it certainly accomplishes it more poignantly than most and in the manner in which it does it is nothing short of ingenious.
In terms of course design that moves us forward in a direction that can transform traditional perceptions of the game, this is it.
While I’ve roamed this area for the last three decades, I have never come across the course. I was certain I knew every square mile of the Peninsula and even though I knew the roads leading to the course, it seemingly appeared out of no where, in unchartered waters so to speak. The familiar white fences of the area framed much of the perimeter and the clubhouse sits spectacularly on a ridge overlooking the basin below. The practice area and range were impressive and consistent with the course; rolling, inviting, adventurous. After shaking off the remnants of the flight, I stepped on the First tee for another victory lap from that legendary 1992 win. A champion returning to a fitting domain.
The First is a 385 yard par 4 (from the Black tees). A slight dog leg left, there is lots of room on the right while the left side moves towards a number of bunkers. Flirting with the left side gets you closer to the green and away from the right front bunker. The First and Second share a nice sized fairway, so using the width can get you plenty close to the green. The green is the first introduction to the massive slopes you’ll encounter throughout the round while the left greenside bunker is deep and no where you really want to get near. The sloping green banks high on the back and right, which can be used so many ways on the approach. Hitting the green starts the second game with the flagstick and one or two putts is never assured. Many putts will be from long distance, so acumen with the putter is important. Not just nervy putts, but long range, continuous curves that go on for miles.
The Second is a 335 yard par 4. Coming back in the direction of the First with the shared fairway, all of the room off the tee is yet again to the right. Taking advantage of that room, however, means a succession of bunkers comes into play, between the right side and the green. Tee shots that are placed to the left of the bunkers, in a much tighter area of fairway, are rewarded with a clear path to the green, which is deep yet some what narrow. But so long as you don’t dick hook it left off the tee or end up in the larger fairway bunker, you have a shot at the green. Make it count.
The Third is a 490 yard par 5. An uphill big turn dog leg right. Bunkers on the right out a ways from the tee, just enough to make you think a bit before taking an aggressive line to the hole. I thought the bunkers on that side helped frame a target line off the tee. The right side of the fairway moves towards the left as well, so tee shots on that side will roll forward and towards the center. Moving up to the green, I believe this was the old site of the old Chandler’s Palos Verdes Sand and Gravel. I imagine this is where the old quarry was. The green is massive. On most of the them, I simply couldn’t get the entire green in a single photo.
The course started to get my attention after this hole. The slopes, how slowly the green revealed itself, the movement around and on the green; I could have sat there 100 yards out all day with a bucket of balls and used every club in the bag trying different approaches.
The Fourth is a 360 yard par 4. The fairway runs at an angle from right to left from the tee, with bunkers on the left. Again, oodles of land out there and off to the right, which slopes back to the left side. The green is tucked on the left side and as you get closer, the fairway slopes stronger to the left. The green side on the left is not to be trifled with, as the face and lip seemingly overhang the top of it. The sloping on the right and back of the green is tremendous. Aside from how fun they are, the size and movement also mean you have a recovery shot from almost any where. Yet another way of instilling confidence, getting aggressive on recoveries instead of defensive makes the game more fun and interesting. If you’re in a fairway bunker on the left, go ahead and swing for the green. The right bank would be a perfect aiming spot.
The Fifth is a 300 yard par 4. It’s uphill, which makes it a little longer than its stated yardage. The Fifth and Eighth share a fairway, which again opens up its width. Bunkers are essentially placed on either side of the fairway and short before the green, so setting up the approach shot off the tee with a shot that leaves you some where in the fairway is that is needed. A cavernous green side bunker on the right, along with a smaller one long left, ensure you need to be accurate on the approach despite the larger green that slopes from right to left and back to front.
Make no mistake, the course has teeth. The well placed bunkers can get downright treacherous and with the elevation on many of the holes, how you decide to get out of them could dictate whether you’re scrambling for par or worse than bogey.
The Sixth is a 315 yard par 4. Back to back short par 4’s and this one is downhill. Fantastic exchange took place prior to this hole as I mistakenly teed off on the Eighth. Once I hit my shot, I looked back and there were a foursome looking at me, waiting to tee off.
me: “oh, sorry – is this is the Sixth?”
them: “no, you have to go under the tunnel over there to the left.”
me: “ok great, sorry about that again.”
them: “no worries. He’s not going to be in Rush Hour 3 any time soon.”
After the round, I actually googled the Rush Hour 3 thing. It turns out Chris Tucker says the line in the closing credits. Absolutely loved the originality of the line and can’t wait to use it; I just have no idea in what context one is supposed to use it. If the good sir who said it ever reads this, would love to get his take. Either way, it was a good laugh as I made my way to the real Sixth.
Across the road where the old clubhouse is, the fairway runs downhill from the tee. The fairway is wide with just a single fairway bunker on the right the only hazard. The fairway ends in a ravine, with the green on the other side and green side bunkers on the left. There is room to the right short of the green, or even the Seventh fairway, so there’s a lot of places to end up off the tee. The hole is short enough that longer hitters could reach the green, but still need to think what the ball would do once it lands on the green since anything long will not be treated so nicely. Lots of options here and while the prudent golfer will likely hid a mid iron or hybrid off the tee and take advantage of s short approach, I went for the green, ended up in a bunker and scrambled for par. Just a great hole with an array of fun ways to attack it.
The Seventh is a 370 yard par 4. Back up the hill towards the old clubhouse, the tee shot is blind but there’s lots of room up there. A short game practice area is off to the left of the fairway, I suspect it was utilized a lot more when the clubhouse was on this side. The fairway continues uphill to the left while the green is tucked in over the hillside on the right. There’s a bunker short of the green on the hillside with an overhanging lip seen on many of them here, ramping up the challenge a bit. With the hillside, the approach is blind as well unless your tee shot gets way off to the left. The green here is spectacular. The right side slopes down from the Sixth tee, feeding towards the center. Again, knowing this makes the approach shots entertaining, hitting over the ridge and then seeing where your ball ends up after it hits that slope. Embrace the blind shots here and good things happen.
The Eighth is a 345 yard par 4. Teeing off here for the second time with thoughts of Rush Hour 3 in my head, the view of LA beyond never gets old. The fairway runs downhill, with a bunker complex short off the tee to avoid but more importantly, the fairway bunkers off the right can be reached off the tee. The fairway narrows as you get closer to the green, which is off to the left and slightly above the fairway. An expansive bunker off to the right of the green is fairly level throughout. A bunker pond if you will. With the green well above it, shots out of it will be tough. The tee shot needs to clear the curve while avoiding the bunkers. This will leave a nice approach to the green above with the entry point ahead as well. The green moves away from the front of the green and from left to right. A great hole emphasizing precision more than most others.
The Ninth is a 170 yard par 3. The first par 3 we encounter is fantastic. Kidd had additional land to work with but also significantly widened playing corridors by utilizing common shared fairways. Here, the tee shot is a forced carry over the right side of the Fourth fairway. There is ample room off to the left, even though the hillside hides a lot of it. While left is safe, it will leave you will a longer putt and chip to the pin. The green is set on a hill, with bunkers to the right and beneath it. A closer view of the City of Angels is before you, so take it in.
The front nine loops around the southeast side of the property and the old clubhouse. A variety of par 4’s keep the nine intriguing while the lone par 3 and 5 are great in their own right. Not a weak hole. My ranking of them is 3, 7, 8, 9, 4, 1, 6, 2, 5.
The back nine starts with the 475 yard par 5 Tenth. The hillside on the left causes left to right movement of the first fairway, which ends at a small ravine. Longer hitters may be able to carry the ravine from the tee but for anyone laying up short of it, factor in the fairway movement and that it also moves downhill towards the ravine. On the other side of the ravine, the fairway moves left with the hillside on the right side moving things in the opposite direction that the first. The green is set on the left as well, and my it’s a glorious site. A Biarritz semi punch bowl awaits. Those that are on the right side will need to negotiate a fast downhill approach to the green while those that are more left have a much clearer and easier line right into the front of it. Its size and entrypoints make the green so much fun and injects all the character this hole needs. So much here to enjoy, so well done.
The Eleventh is a 325 yard par 4. A short uphill par 4 that looks wide from the tee and is even wider than it appears on the right side. As on many holes to this point off the tee, the width is on the right while left is more dangerous yet could be more advantageous. That hold true here as well, as there’s a tree off to the right that could block approaches from that side while tee shots up the middle or left will be fine. There’s a lot of room past the bunkers short of the green, but the lone tree makes it looks a little tighter than it actually is. Another mesmerizing green where pin location can change the entire dynamics of the hole.
The Twelfth is a 335 yard par 4. The fairway grows wider as it proceeds to the green, then ends at a dry creek bed with the green on the other side. Breaking the mold, favoring the left side for all tee shots is preferred, as the hillside moves left to right and bunkers are below the fairway, making for tougher recoveries. The green moves from back to front and is a bit shallow, yet is infinitely wide. Get your approach towards the rear of the green and watch it move towards that pin.
The Thirteenth is a 180 yard par 3. The second par 3 has a fairway leading to yet another dry creek slash bunker area before rising up to a larger version of the green of which we just came. Wide with the entire back side sloping towards the center. Longer is better here to avoid the bunkers and trouble that lurks short of the green and use the slopes to get close to the pin.
The Fourteenth is a 355 yard par 4. All uphill, the fairway ends abruptly at a barranca, before climbing on the other side to the green, which slopes strongly from right to left around a tree on the front right, as well as back to front. Unlike most other holes, anything off green could be lost in the barranca while the far right side of the green has more room than it appears, along with a bunker on the back side.
The Fifteenth is a 530 yard par 5. With the fairway moving from right to left, all the width is on the left side, with a row of bunkers angling out just off the tee to collect any really bad tee shots. If Kidd wants you to see all the width off the tee, this hole is a prime example of it. Much of the course is laid out before you and there is little to give you pause from swinging freely. The fairway will then move the ball downhill towards the green and to the left, so plan accordingly. The green is uphill from the fairway with bunkers, and slopes moving from the sides inward up to and around the green. With the rest of the course before you, there’s a lot of exhilaration at this hole, crescendoing to a fantastic finish.
The Sixteenth is a 410 yard par 4. Turning around adjacent to the Fifteenth green, the tee shot it out to the the fairway shared with the prior hole, moving left to right towards bunkers, then water closer to the green. Like the Fifteenth, the width is now to the left and even better, the further out and left the better, which will clear the bunkers and water on the right side. The green sits downhill and to the right, with water on the bottom side and the green running from the back high side towards it. Working the angle into the green is important here, as the water comes into play more than it looks. There’s so much room on the left back side that those who have longer shots and need to carry the water can club up a lot to ensure the carry is successful. So many different ways to attack this hole, a great example of width and angles used effectively.
The Seventeenth is a 130 yard par 3. The march to the clubhouse begins with a short par 3 as it were, with an elevated tee shot to a green that cascades towards the water from left to right. Use whatever point of the left high side you see fit to roll the ball towards the pin or try to land it stiff outright, the bunkers and water should be avoided, but the fast movement of the green is probably the biggest foe here. Short par 3’s always focus on precision and while precision is rewarded here, creativity seems to be the biggest premium.
The Eighteenth is a 405 yard par 4. The inviting width off the tee starts you off well, get it as close to the clubhouse as you can. Just watch out for the sliver of a bunker that appears off to the right. As hospitable as the clubhouse is the final green, which is as enormous, fun and dramatic as all of the other greens put together. There’s even a bunker in the midst of it. An amphitheater punch bowl, sloping from back to front and right to left, it’s likely at least 100 square yards. While an inviting canvas for approach shots, it can be deceiving on putts, as the distance and slope can make some of the longer putts a challenge you just don’t encounter too much this side of the pond. It’s a fitting closing, however, that leaves you pleased no matter what the score. How can you not have fun on such a green?
The back nine weaves through some corridors until completely opening up on the Fifteenth and looping about to the clubhouse. The greens are momentous and the build up to the wide open arena starting at the Fifteenth is brilliant. I would rank them 15, 18, 10, 16, 11, 12, 13, 17, 14.
Generally, Rolling Hills was one of the highlights of the season for me. I remember when I was at Bandon Dunes a couple years ago with my family and how happy everyone was playing it. The score didn’t matter, but just the shots they were able to play and how fun the course was is what stood out for them. Rolling Hills is similar, but I believe the greens are even better. The design concept here; let’s call it player enablement, is done especially well. The size of the greens and width off the tee has the golfer believing in himself more, trusting his abilities and probably trying things he wouldn’t dare think of most other places. It’s a shift to the brave and courageous golfer facing adversity head first and accepting come what may. And it’s done ingeniously so the golfer never feels bored or that he some how has conquered the venue and needs to move on to more dangerous settings.
That’s the fear nowadays, isn’t it? That a course will not be regarded as interesting because it’s not difficult enough. So strategy and fun became important, which was welcome, even though there are scores of courses ramping up difficulty in the name of strategy, or restoration. Kidd is genuine in his intent and delivers consistent with his design philosophy. Give the golfer confidence, create joy and fulfillment with the game. That is one of the paths that moves us forward in course design. Rolling Hills is an intriguing, one of a kind course whose greens and width are so effective in creating a complete golf experience that touches on many aspects that make this game great.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: All remodeled as well, the two are separate structures and features views of LA below. The insignia, a simple flank on the lettering, personally appealed to me as I started to throw shirts and hats on the counter. The facilities here are first rate.
Practice area: Also first rate. The short game area near the first tee is worth hanging out the entire day itself while the range can be set up as individual holes. The putting green as well is phenomenal. Nothing here is overlooked.