6,632 yards, 133 slope from the Gold tees
Course: If you go Northeast from downtown Los Angeles, you would end up taking the first freeway ever, the 110, into Pasadena. Moving west from Pasadena on the 210, you’d be parallel to the Foothills, with towns all the way to the base of those Foothills and all the way down to, well, Long Beach. This is the San Gabriel Valley. San Gabriel was originally the name of Mission San Gabriel, founded by Saint Junipero Serra. These missions were established throughout California, from San Diego up to San Francisco and alas, where many of the city names originated from. You could go west on that parallel with the mountains until San Bernardino, at which point you either go up the mountain to Arrowhead and Big Bear, or bear south a bit and head to Palm Springs.
Pasadena is where I grew up. I lived a block away from the Arroyo that runs to the Rose Bowl and technically, my first round of golf was at the Arroyo Seco Golf Course when I was about 9. It would be over a decade until my next round. Pasadena is a city rich with history. The house I grew up in was built in 1900. The Tournament of Roses has their annual Rose Parade each New Year’s Day. It has never rained during the day of the parade, not once. The Wrigley Mansion, the Gamble House, Huntington Library, Norton Simon Museum; I assumed that all towns people grew up in had some version of these things. It was a great place to grow up. Once I left for college, however, friends and family all seemed to move away all at the same time and by the time I was graduating, there became fewer and fewer reasons to come back. Nowadays, I’ll visit for the sake of nostalgia, the landmarks and sense of place still making it all familiar.
Just a few minutes away from Lacy Park – where I played as a kid and ran road races in the Summer – the dance studio where I was forced to both drop off and pick up my sister, and Twoheys (RIP – best milkshakes ever), is San Gabriel Country Club. It’s officially the closest course I have played from where I grew up, so fortunately you get a bit more of a bio on the area than you probably expected. San Gabriel CC was crafted by Norman Macbeth, Willie Watson and then Billy Bell, opening in 1912. It’s the oldest course in Southern California.
The history and tradition of the area is not just limited to Pasadena, but extends throughout the valley. I certainly sensed it at SGCC, which hit me with the same type of familiarity I feel when in Pasadena, or even nearby San Marino. This is what I call vintage Southern California. While most of Southern California is trendsetting, looking for the next post-modern chique reality star to idolize, much of the San Gabriel Valley has remained relatively unchanged for decades. The historical architecture remains intact, many of the restaurants have become local fixtures and, well, the weather is always nice. The character and sense of place here is just as strong as any where else.
Alas, San Gabriel CC reflects this character very well. Set on a tight piece of property, the routing is superb, flowing well and never feeling cramped. It does so without confining tree lines or wild hooked dog legs trying to contort itself to fit 18 holes. It’s a traditional layout that relies on angles into the greens, mesmerizing sharp bunkers and a great collection of greens. And the grass. The kikuya and poa greens, a thing of beauty. I’ve never relished being in the rough more, with the Kentucky blue grass a distant second (and bent grass an otherworldly billionth place). Like the rest of the area, SGCC has likely changed incrementally and slowly. The course underwent some great renovations a few years ago, clearing some trees and sprucing up some bunkers and greens. The clubhouse is likewise traditional, with a locker room showing off the history of the place. It felt a lot like Merion, A Lot Further West. An elegant course that demands finesse and plays smartly, yet tests the complete game. And the Eighteenth tee shot, over the very active street, is quite the pleasant quirk.
Almost all of the golf I play in California is at newer modern courses. It’s only fitting that SGCC radiated a classic charm that I’m used to back East, yet here the familiarity of the Southern California I grew up with was also present. With the Oaks and Sycamores looking on with timeless dignity, I got a little home sick for the first time in years.
The First is a 289 yard par 4 (from the Gold tees). We begin by marching towards the foothills on this short par 4. The green is surrounded by thick ridged serpentine bunkers that turn, climb and twist about, trasitioning the relatively flat fairway to the slightly raised undulations of the green. The approach shot must be spot on considering the bunkers, which all leads back to a tee shot that puts you in the best position for the approach. Trees line both sides, so accuracy on both shots is critical. It’s a testy opener but with its shorter length, presents a good deal of options.
The Second is a 525 yard par 5. Ok, I guess we’re through with gentle handshake openers and flat tree lined fairways and are moving straight to long par 5’s with a number of lines to the green and terrain changes with a green that is hidden by bunkers altogether? Most of the course is on the other side of Hermosa Drive and once you cross over it, the holes open up dramatically, starting with this long and exciting par 5. I can think of another course with a similar set up; a shorter par 4 to start, then crossing over a road to get to the majority of the holes, the first of which is a par 5. Can’t think of it? Here’s a clue, starts with Mer, ends with ion. Really it was how the two courses fit so well into their smaller footprints but as I started thnking of it, this other similarlity hit me as well.
As for the hole, the change in dynamics of the First shows you how versatile this course is from the beginning. Here, the slight dog leg left off the tee presents the option of opting for the conservative right side, away from the centerline bunker, or taking the bunker on and trying to cut off the turn a little for a clear look at the green complex. The tee shot is also over the Rubio Wash, which runs through the middle of the course. I guess if we’re going to keep going with the similarities with Merion, this is their Cobbs Creek. Once you’re out of the dog leg, the green is tucked away and sunk on the left, with bunkers guarding it. The further right of the fairway, the more the green opens up from the bunkers and the less you will need to rely on an aerial approach. It’s a great par 5 and presented at the perfect time after the First, already showing the signs of a strong routing.
The Third is a 381 yard par 4. A straight away par 4 with the green set on the left side, we are now in the heart of the course. Trees are either side and bunkers are staggered on each side as well, starting with the right. The entry point of the green suggests approaches from the right are a little more preferable, with the green kind of looking at you since it’s tilted towards you, moving back to front.
The Fourth is a 550 yard par 5. The trees are deceiving. They create the appearance of less space than there really is but when you actually just count them, you start realizing they are well placed and spaced. The fairway crooks slightly to the left, with the green running perpendicular to the fairway, likewise set off to the left a bit. Bunkers abound near the green, most of them on the lower left side. The green is well defended from those who want to go for it in two and moves nicely from right to left.
The Fifth is a 195 yard par 3. Now running along the perimeter of the property, the tree line on the left and bunkers on either side make this a tough proposition from the tee. The green is larger than it appears from the tee, especially on the back right, and there’s a good amount of room short left to work with. The interaction between the green and bunkers here is terrific and accounting for how the ball with roll and bounce after it lands is a great aspect here and the course in general. I even found my hooked tee shot in that tree line for a chance at recovery.
The Sixth is a 356 yard par 4. Still running the perimeter of the property, the fairway opens up around the tee landing area, but looks much tighter from the tee. Bunkers are on the left and with the tree line and perimeter on that side , favoring the right side is the play, past the family of trees. The green is well guarded by bunkers and horse shoes around the one on the front left, the undulations and mounds more confrontational than subtle, making their presence known quite loudly. Those that are inclined to the hook will rue the day they play the Fifth and Sixth and that was the case for yours truly. Yet the right side is fraught with risk, it’s better than the penalty strokes piling up.
The Seventh is a 443 yard par 4. A dog leg right framed by trees, there’s plenty of room for those hitting out to the turn while those who try to cut the leg will need to get over trees and a bunker, all on the inside. After the turn, the fairway runs up to the green that runs right to left, with a treacherous deep bunker on the left yet a more tricky shallower bunker on the high right side. The entry point of the green is wide open, so I opted for the good old bump and run into this green and watched it roll right up to the hole.
The Eighth is a 403 yard par 4. A straightaway par 4 where it seems like the trees are crowding but there’s plenty of room for the tee shot. The approach is of more concerned focus, as the bunkers here make it clear you must hit the green to avoid them. The trees do a good job of hiding the massive slope to the right of the green that takes any shots on that side down towards the Rubio Wash.
The Ninth is a 183 yard par 3. The raised green is directly ahead, across from the Rubio, with most of the room to miss out to the left. Bunkers on both sides of the hole guard it well, yet it’s deep enough to take most shots, even with the longer clubs. A nice way to finish off the front, and we end up a few feet from the Second tee.
The front nine is a great example of the course in general, featuring a graceful set of holes all fit in nicely to the property. The routing, along with the greens and bunkers, are the soul of the course and on the front, even make the straightaway holes varied and adventurous. The course took me by surprise but once I was in it, realized just how good it was. Ranking the front, I would go 2, 3, 4, 7, 1, 5, 9, 6, 8.
The back nine starts with the 439 yard par 4 Tenth. Now running in the middle of the course to the left of the Rubio Wash, the slight dog leg left cants a bit from left to right and bunkers reside on the left as you advance towards the green. Lots of interesting decisions here; attacking the left side means a shorter approach, yet the ideal angle into the green is more to the right, so it’s a matter of your preference – take the shorter distance and worse angle, or the better angle with longer distance. I’ll take the angle here, just mind the trees along the right there to keep your tee shot honest. The approach is one of the better on the course. The green is set on a raised ridge with a false front. It’s a deep yet narrow green, so getting the line right is vital to avoid the bunkers. Like many of the holes here, the bunkers above the hole are secretly treacherous, so favoring the lower side is something I kept in mind. It’s an outstanding par 4, one of my favorite of the season.
The Eleventh is a 169 yard par 3. The tee shot carries over Rubio to a nice convex green that is fronted with bunkers and moves more from left to right. Longer seems like the better miss here, yet that depends on pin position. It’s a much different look than the prior par 3’s and even with the pin on the left side, I opted to used to long right side and have the ball fall ever so gently to the hole.
The Twelfth is a 355 yard par 4. I know the marker down below has 342, but that’s from the tees forward from where I was playing. As can be seen, each hole has a name and one of my regrets is not capturing this for each one. The golden bell resides at the foot of the tee, as Bautista is a straight par 4 that forces you to the right with its trees and bunkers. The green is well guarded with an entry point on the left side, rewarding those who stayed on the more challening left side off the tee. Another deep and narrow green rewards a correct line with some tolerance of distance control as those foothills look on.
The Thirteenth is a 539 yard par 5. Running paralell to the par 5 Fourth, it’s more imperative to get the ball in the fairway off the tee than really trying for disctance. The second shot allows more of a slash at the ball towards the green. The green itself is well defended, wide and shallow. Any approach shot too far to the left or right gets very problematic in a hurry, so err on being short more than anything else. The bunkers and green coomplexes are set up beautifully here and this hole is no exception. Like many classic courses, the green dictates play all the way back to the tee and ensures you show up with a complete game.
The Fourteenth is a 214 yard par 3. Fernando jumps back over Rubio and features the only water hazard you’ll encounter on the course to the left of the green. There is lots of room to wail away with the longer tee shot and the rear of the green acts as a backboard, sending shots back towards the center. It’s a great par 3 and continues the theme of par 3’s that utilize the wash as a forced carry (3 of the 4 par 3’s do this).
The Fifteenth is a 329 yard par 4. A shorter par 4, it’s somewhat uphill and the bunkers present the visual that a short tee shot is ideal to avoid them altogether. There’s a single bunker that the entire green seems to hinge on, with run offs on each side. The high right of the green is likely a good aiming point while many approaches to the front of the green run the risk of being eschewed. Yet another example of an engaging green complex making the character of the hole shrewd and delightful.
The Sixteenth is a 415 yard par 4. A slight dog leg left, we begin the march home. A wide fairway awaits beyond the tee with the primary goal being to clear the turn to have a clear look at the green. The fairway leads to the green, with an inviting entrypoint and wide bunkers awaiting on either side. Too far left and you’ll find yourself near the Fifteenth tee or worse, in the Rubio. The greenside bunkers have nice flat bottoms, so you can use the line to get up and over the jutting lip that blocks the view of the green.
The Seventeenth is a 452 yard par 4. The tree line on the left doesn’t stop until just before the green, so any room is off to the right. The area just before the green opens up so like the Thirteenth, ensuring a clean second shot to take advantage of the space around the green is paramount. The green moves from back to front, with two separate tiers, making any putt from the rear much tougher.
The Eighteenth is a 395 yard par 4. A unique tee shot over Hermosa Drive, the fairway is invited on the other side. Another well guarded green, with some run off room at the back left side. The green is a tough one to nail and with bunkers lurking about, but finishing steps from the clubhouse and First tee, the impeccable routing lays you in the exactly the ideal place at the end of the round.
The back nine finishes the counter clockwise rotation you set out on off the First tee. The par 3’s are stronger on the back while there are some great par 4’s as well. I would rank them 10, 14, 11, 13, 15, 16, 18, 17, 12.
Generally, San Gabriel CC was refreshing to run into. A nice classic in the heart of Southern California that manages to emphasize a sophisticated challenge. Angles, placement and accuracy are necessary and if you get out of position, a resourceful short game is necessary. All of this on a tight piece of property that feels anything but. Many courses of this ilk overly on green speed to feel relevant, but SGC C is a great example how misguided that is. They run great, but hold when they should while the bunkers, trees and rough combine brilliantly for the strategy and challenge. In an area where image is king, it was refreshing that SGCC could feel so cool without even trying. It was the under the radar gem of the season for me.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Understated yet well equipped, the barber shop in the locker room was great while the patio is where I could see myself camping out day after day.
Practice area: A range that, like Merion, is great up to the long irons and a nice putting green.