6,278 yards, 130 slope from the White tees
Once you crest the Santa Susanna on the 101 from Los Angeles, you plunge into the Camarillo Valley and eventually find yourself moving up along the Pacific coast, which glistens in the sun off to your left. It’s an inspired drive I never grew tired of while in college. It took me a few months to move away from the ocean and head for the coastal mountains off Route 154. Lizard’s Mouth, Lake Cachuma, Cold Spring Tavern and yes, even Chumash Casino. It’s a part of Santa Barbara gorgeous in its own right and mainly frequented by the locals, who leave the beaches to the tourists. Tucked away just off the San Marcos pass is Rancho San Marcos, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. in 1988.
Golf started for me while I was in college and the first courses I played were there. I knew next to nothing about the game, so would drag friends that golfed and learn from them. I mean, I didn’t even know there were courses open to the public; I assumed they were all private. I fell in love quickly, however, and played nearly every where. Glen Annie was my home base while my splurge was going to the range at Sandpiper. Twin Lakes, a nine holer I can’t remember the name that closed, Hidden Oaks, Santa Barbara Municipal; I went to all of them early and often, just happy to be out and soaking up the scenery, knowing the confines of inside studying for law school were around the corner.
But I never went to Rancho San Marcos. It was higher end and too pricey for us.
Isla Vista is the coastal village where most of the UCSB students live. In fact, it’s pretty much all college students. Some of the houses overlook the ocean while the beaches are walking distance. Campus Point, Sands and my personal favorite, Devereaux, are all worth seeing just once. Away from whatever tourism there is, the beaches and surf breaks are typically quiet and it’s not unusual to have it all to yourself. “IV” is a fascinating place, or at least was (visiting recently for the first time in over ten years, I couldn’t really get a read on the place). The foggy cold nights when you could hear the waves breaking in the distance as you walked the roads from one house of friends to another, falling asleep on a balcony overlooking the ocean as the sun set, riding a beach cruiser while you steer with one hand and carry your surfboard in another, then meeting up at a barbecue after are things that stay with me all these years. There’s so much more. Looking back, the summers were my favorite. As many would move back home, the town would empty out and things got much quieter. Small groups remained and while parties were never hard to find during the school year, you’d have to work a little to find them and you’d start seeing all the same people over and over again until by the end of summer, everyone knew each other and very much by accident, we had a small community of close friends. Vacationers would come and go, bars and grills were mellow and probably my favorite was empty Devereaux, where we’d have any wave we wanted and would stay for hours without thinking about it. The cast of characters was never dull, rounding out a very eclectic coastal way of life. As I drove away that late July to make my way out east, I knew I’d never find a place quite like it again.
Alas, my round at Saticoy motivated me to visit once again, the first time in a while. And while I wanted to visit all the courses I once frequented, I decided to visit the place that eluded me in college. I climbed the San Marcos Pass, rising high above the Pacific in my rear mirror view and within minutes, was in a different world from the beach entirely; rocky hilled terrain with dramatic sandstone formations amidst oak savannas. There’s a rustic feel to the course, which spends the front nine in the Santa Ynez River Valley before heading into the hills on the back. It’s naturalistic, unconcerned about manicured presentation and instead focused on what matters most; how it plays. I was unprepared for how much the pastoral setting seeps into the play of the course but it was a welcome surprise.
It turns out that visiting when I did would be the only time I’d be able to play there. Unfortunately, the course made the difficult decision to close indefinitely after experiencing a heavy downturn resulting from the current pandemic. I’ll hold on to hope that it will be able to re-open at some point in the future. I decided to do the review anyways. You just never know.
The First is a 560 yard par 5 (from the White tees). It’s kind of a dog leg and a half, first turning to the right, the fairway heaving up on the left then it all dropping down a ridge only to come back up again towards the green before shifting left a bit. The mountains around you, the oaks frame the valley and provide some solitude as you make your way through the round. The bunker complexes here vary in shape and size. Here, the one on the right is in play off the tee while the ones on the left continue on down towards the green.
The course embraced a very natural look but played every inch as good as those courses striving for the the look of perfection. Balls rolled down the fairways, bunkers were terrific and the greens were fun. Some of this is surely from the water restrictions CA implements but there’s something liberating about it. It fits in better this way, like it’s ben here just as long as anything else.
The Second is a 172 yard par 3. The green is above the tee, bunker o the left, oaks on the right, false front tilting from right to left. The green is deceptive from the tee, hiding most of its movement but in general it’s much deeper than it looks.
The Third is a 314 yard par 4. A short par 4 where the oaks crowd in to add some challenge. The green is straight ahead, the fairway dipping just in front of it and creating some interesting pitch and chip situations for those slightly off of it. A great hole to run it up.
The Fourth is a 379 yard par 4. Much different from the last hole, the fairway here is wide open, the fairway canting from left to right, towards the Santa Ynez River, which is closer to the hole than you think. Rattlesnakes are over there as well, or at least so the signs say, which is reason enough for me to leave whatever balls that may have wandered over. The green has a nice entry point at the front with a bunker at the left, everything moving to the right towards rattlesnake alley. I’m having a lot more fun than anticipated, the course playing firm and fast with all kinds of options.
The Fifth is a 166 yard par 3. A forced carry over water, short right is the bail out room and bunkers are on the far side to gobble those over ambitious tee shots trying too hard to avoid the water.
The Sixth is a 585 yard par 5. We continue along with the Santa Ynez off to the right, a wide open fairway in tow with a bit to handle off the sides if your shot is very off line, like mine. It’s a long hole and two good lashes should get you close enough for a manageable approach. The green is tucked away off to the left, a bunker left of that. A little smaller green than we’ve seen too but with a generous fairway, it fits in here.
The Seventh is a 165 yard par 3. 4-3-5-3, a good sequence for the last few holes. A forced carry off the tee the same distance as the last par 3, the wide shadow green is sandwiched between larger bunkers, which creates an entirely different play than the prior despite the similarity in distance.
The Eighth is a 388 yard par 4. A dog leg right, the green has the most undulations of the front nine with its multi tiers. Lots of room yet again feeding into the green from the fairway, so go with your best plan of attack and focus on that green.
The Ninth is a 387 yard par 4. The loop around the valley floor is almost complete. The fairway heads straight out then drops off, so you can’t see what lies ahead. But hitting it beyond the drop off is fine unless you’re really long, at which point the water off to the left may come into play. While the fairway narrows and turns right to circumvent the water, most approach shots will need to carry the water to the deep narrow green, laying perpendicular to most tee shots.
The front nine is circles the valley floor and is nice and wide open for the most part, with the exception of a few shots. The course played like the scenery some how and as I made my way through, there was very much a sense of properly interacting with the natural surrounds. I would rank them 1, 8, 9, 4, 3, 2, 6, 7, 5.
The back nine starts with the 473 yard par 5 Tenth. We start in the opposite direction than the First, heading for the hills so to speak. The opening salvo is a mild forced carry to a fairway that funnels towards the center before heading down to a dry creek river bed, which separates the fairway from the green. Using the hills off the tee is a good idea, then figuring out if you want to go for the green on the other side of the creek will come with a good amount of temptation. The green moves from left to right with bunkers on the far side. It moves fast, so plan accordingly.
The Eleventh is a 422 yard par 4. At the base of the hills, a raised tee shot to a wide open fairway with more inspiring views awaits. The approach is to a very punch bowl-esque green that was one of the more fun on the course.
The Twelfth is a 503 yard par 5. The fairway moves uphill. Carrying the bunker on the right from the tee will advance your ball a bit more. A dry river bed comes in diagonally and bisects the fairway, which presents the quandary on the second shot whether to take it on or lay up to it. Or even where to carry it, as the fairway on the other side runs from left to right to the green, with left being further away from the green. Another fantastic green, quite large, which runs every which way and can be approached a variety of ways depending on how you handled the river bed. A very fun par 5.
The Thirteenth is a 118 yard par 3. We’re now in the hills amongst the oak savannah and come across the easiest hole on the course. A shorter shot to the green that moves fast from back to front. Consider it a warm up for the next hole.
The Fourteenth is a 157 yard par 3. A forced carry over a deep ravine, the green greets you perpendicularly from the tee, the greenside bunker front left of it. There is room off to the right and a little on the far side, but too much on the far side and your ball will roll way downhill into the native stuff.
The Fifteenth is a 390 yard par 4. We now start to make our way down the hills. A dog leg left with rich scenery in every direction, two of the most rewarding shots can be had at this hole. The tee shot, as you watch your shot fly into the surrounds, then bound down the fairway. The green is downhill, making the approach a decision in flying it or running down on to it. Either way, the contours and scenery make it an inspired hole.
The Sixteenth is a 199 yard par 3. A longer par 3 with the green below the tee. Bunkers are along the right while there is enough room on the left to land short if need be. The green is wide and while hitting the green is ideal, there is work to be done for anyone not close to the green, on or not.
The Seventeenth is a 382 yard par 4. A lazy dog leg left gently heading down. The fairway on the high right side as the fairway tilts from right to left, all of it moving downward. The fairway feeds into the deep green with nice shaping off the left and back. From the Thirteenth, we have been cascading down the hills and while it seems we’re at the floor, we are not. This is a nice hole that presents plenty of options at the green and surprises those who try to cut off too much at the tee, which could end up taking the ball down the hillside.
The Eighteenth is a 518 yard par 5. The plunge to the valley floor is off the tee, a magnificent drop shot to the fairway below, some what muddied up by that cart path. The path, driving range to the left and bunkers are all in play, as are the tree off to the right. Make the last a good one into the scenery and watch it fly. Down below, the fairway becomes tighter in a hurry and goose necks a bit to the right. The green is ahead, much wider at the rear, bunkers lining the right side at various depths. The approach needs to be fairly on point to avoid the bunkers, which creates the visual of dominating the greenscape. There’s a lot more room than it appears, so with confidence, get on and finish with that birdie roll. More about shot shaping here than strategy, a lot of the fun is at the approach and if you end up in one of those bunkers off to the right.
The back nine is a little more diverse, mainly because of the terrain it’s on, while the routing does well to take what makes sense when it does. I would rank them 12, 15, 10, 11, 16, 18, 17, 14, 13.
Generally, Rancho San Marcos fits into the land and its surrounds very well. It has a rustic feel and accordingly, I was pleased to see you could use that land with a lot of your shots. While the course was open to options, the strategic components were present but not terribly atypical. What the course did very well though is exude the same type of relaxed bucolic sense that’s been in these mountains for centuries. Seemingly a world away from the beach life awaiting down the hill, it was this California I was glad to get back to and miss dearly.
The course is also a very good example of paying attention to how the course plays not how it looks. It would look silly for a course in this area to look pristine; entirely out of place. And while my initial thoughts were the place had fallen on hard times, it only took a few shots to realize the course played terrifically. What looked like dried hard pan was anything but. Rich soil was underneath, which created a modified tight lie that actually made me consider a lot more shots than I usually would. The ball would roll unfettered into all kinds of trouble, to my delight. Taking all of this in, it was a fantastic surprise playing here and I was glad that I settled on it.
I hope the course finds the means to re-open. I know nothing about how it was doing before the pandemic started, but I hope that it was not struggling because those that came here were turned off by the visuals of the grass. It is of no moment. It’s a good example of how Bobby Jones, Jr. is in tune with and favors more naturalistic layouts, like Chambers Bay and Silverado. Bobby sees course design more like art that should be in harmony with its natural environs and I certainly felt like I had done more than played a round of golf when all was said and done. I felt like I had connected, albeit briefly, with the great Santa Ynez, with its hills, canyons and oak.
With the rest of the day at my disposal, the sky was the limit. I could have continued north to the wineries, especially one of my favorite haunts, Foxen. Or made it 36, visiting good old Glen Annie or Sandpiper (they were both booked solid lol). Or went to downtown SB, which definitely would have included a margarita at El Paseo, lunch at The Palace and at least walked by O’Malley’s, the first bar I got into, which also happened to be the same night I met Michael Jordan, had a beer spilled on me by him, got a hug from him, then a free beer from him (a story for another time and no idea whether any of these places still exist). Instead, I gladly headed to IV. While it was jarring and sobering to see what had become of this place and that, realizing that many of the memories I had would have to remain just those, I was drawn to what I knew would still be there, and will remain long after I am not. Devereaux was just as I had left it. It was a mellow day, not always the case during the winter. The gentle rhythmic lapping of the water sounded all too familiar, the occasional voice or two down below from the cliffs a fitting respite every now and then. As I stood on the cliff and looked out to the point, the sun felt baptismic, washing over and around. All the years, decades really, started disappearing and I could see me on that cruiser, heading to where the cliff sags enough to climb down to the sand, not a thought in the world other than hoping the water wasn’t too cold and I needed to be at the IVBC in a couple hours. Lost in thought, yet I swore I heard it. Faint and passing but sanguine, a whisper. “Good to see you.”