Palos Verdes Golf Club

6,433 yards, 133 Slope from the Black tees

When you’re the only boat out, you should re-evaluate things. That’s about the wisest nautical tidbit I can offer in my limited time out at sea but as we set out for whale watching that day with the wind blowing fierce, I began to wonder where everyone else was. As we finally moved past the safety of the harbor, it became immediately apparent that everyone else was likely inland, taking the day off from the Pacific. Our boat began swaying, bobbing and diving into the waves as passengers screamed and ran for the cabin. Even those on the upper level were not spared from getting drenched from the enormous swells. “We’re all going to die!” My nephew let us all know what was in store. “I’m not having fun!” “This boat is haunted!” I’m not sure where he got that last one, but I was tasked with calming him down while my sister was trapped on the other side of the boat, unable to walk over because of the angry sea. We kept heading further out though, the captain seemed unfazed. No whales in sight. My Dad, who just bought a boat and recently got his certifications, suddenly became Magellan and lectured me on every move the boat was making while my nephew continued to let us all know none of us were getting out alive.

It was good to be back in L.A.

It shouldn’t be, but the wave of nostalgia that hits me when I return to the South Bay is always surprising. It makes sense though, I have been in the area since I was ten years old when my Dad moved here from Redondo. The white wooden fences lining the roads, the horse trails, the gargantuan hills leading high above the coastline for some of the best views in Southern California, it’s all as I remember whenever it was I was last here. In fact, nearby Los Verdes is where my foray into the game started.

That sense of nostalgia remained as I surveyed the back nine of Palos Verdes Golf Club from the clubhouse. Perhaps it’s because it was designed by the father (William P. Bell a.k.a. Billy Bell) of the guy that designed Los Verdes (William F. Bell a.k.a Billy Bell, Jr.), which is where I started this game. Getting even more Freudian about it, it could be that Billy Bell designed Brookside Golf Course, which was a couple minutes from where I grew up and the first golf course I ever saw. I went by that course all the time and even acted as security for the greens during the World Cup in 1994. Those who have read my west coast reviews know I’m a big fan of Billy Bell. Bell worked closely with George Thomas on a lot of his well known courses such as LACC, Riviera and Bel Air. Thomas entrusted Bell on several construction details and liberties with design and his catcher mitt bunker style is unmistakable. When Bell set out to design courses, he would often consult with Thomas. Palos Verdes is among those Bell designed while consulting with the Captain. To wit, Thomas receives co-design credit for PV in some circles. Todd Eckenrode did some refresh work and tree management here in 2013 to sharpen things up as well.

The course opened in 1924 and is routed among the towering coastal hill tops, spending time high above for views of the Pacific, then coming down into the various ravines and canyons that interlace among the hills. The membership call the front a “perfect nine,” as each hole is a different par from the prior (the sequencing of par holes are 4-3-4-3-5-4-5-3-4). The bunkering does have that catcher mitt style in spots while the greens have a good deal of subtlety in contours that contrasts with the roller coaster movement of the fairways. The set of par 3’s was impressive with its variety and combination of thrilling shotmaking with strategy. While not an overly long course, the terrain and Kikuyu fairways ensure roll out is some what limited in a lot of spots while this reverses near the green with a lot of the short grass surrounds. This variety and challenge of the approaches extends to the tee shots, which place an array of demands on the golfer, all of it focused on testing the degree of shotmaking and selection of angles within his purview. The views are stupendous.

The LPGA had the Palos Verdes Championship here in late April, which was a couple weeks after my round. It certainly seemed capable of hosting the professionals and producing an interesting tournament, which it did with American Marina Alex prevailing at -10. Like Wilshire down the hill, it is able to present that challenge with the terrain and strategy, absent an emphasis on length. Like Wilshire as well, Palos Verdes is an underrated notable course in Southern California that should be in many more discussions in terms of very good classic courses full of the type of substantial and complex golf many seek at the more well known courses like LACC, Riviera and Bel Air.

The homecoming continued as my host and I learned we graduated from the same college. Another member joined us at he back nine, who was also a fellow alumni. Getting to talk about college stuff was just another perk to the round as we climbed and plummeted the hills, all while the Pacific gleamed in the background.

The First is a 392 yard par 4 (from the Black tees). Alongside the high round of the hills where the clubhouse is set, we head off. A wide fairway with some movement to the right before us. The green is above the fairway on a small hilltop with bunkers guarding the front and a collection area sloping off to the left. Upon reaching the green, the Pacific reveals itself beyond, showing us just how special a setting we are in early in.

The First
Approach shot territory
The green

The Second is a 208 yard par 3. The course is determined to make an impression in more ways than one and while the gorgeous views are sublime, this long par 3 forced carry over a ravine wakes you up in a hurry. There’s room short to miss but it will be uphill to the green and bunkering cuts in to the green on both sides. There’s lots of room on the green, which helps accommodate the booming tee shots into it, but putting is certainly a navigating adventure while that ocean sparkles below.

The Second
The green
Looking back at the tee

The Third is a 413 yard par 4. While the course is set on such coastal hilly terrain, it is imminently walkable. The greens and tees are set up close to each other so there’s seamless transitions to each while the climbs up the hill are tempered with gradual cross slopes. The ravines and canyons cut into the hills continue to assert themselves into the structure of play. Here, the ravine is on the right and the golfer must decide how much of it to take on off the tee. It’s a risk/reward proposition and those gambling correctly are rewarded with a short approach into a smaller green. Those opting to stay away from the ravine and veer to the left off the tee will have a longer approach in made much more challenging with the green size and bunker placement. The small green is a tough one, with a sharp left to right movement.

The Third
The fairway as it leads to the green
Short approach

The Fourth is a 226 yard par 3. We move from the higher ground to the lower in a hurry with this drop shot par 3. The hillside now hits us right to left and the ball will move in that direction once it lands from the heights it will take from the tee above. It’s a hearty shot and some what blind but there’s plenty of room around the green for recovery if one misses the green. Just don’t miss right into the bushy, ice plant laden hillside.

The Fourth
Left of the green, down below
The green
Looking back at the tee

The Fifth is a 522 yard par 5. The climb back up the hill starts here. All uphill and a bit narrower than the holes prior, long and precise is all you need to reach the green. The green complex is at a clearing, so there’s more room to approach the green yet those that are to the right and above the green will be faced with quick terrain running away from them that will need to be treated with the utmost delicacy.

The Fifth
Moving up the fairway
Looking back at the fairway from the green
The transition from the Fifth to Sixth, switch back up the hill

The Sixth is a 338 yard par 4. The routing essentially switch backs back up the hill around a grove of trees. The tee shot here moves uphill on the second part of the switch back. The climb is not as significant as the Fifth but each shot will play longer based on the incline. Like the First, the climb to the green rewards us with another spectacular view of the Pacific. Don’t let that distract you from a rather subtle green that moves a lot more strongly than it appears at first blush.

The Sixth
Approach shot territory
Short of the green
Shorter approach
Enjoy the view

The Seventh is a 561 yard par 5. The tee shot needs to carry the ravine we first encountered at the Second, yet it’s blind from the tee. The start of the fairway is rather uphill before leveling out and heading to the green, all of it set at about a 10:00 angle from the tee. Water is hiding off to the left of the green as well for good measure and again, the green is of modest size, ensuring the approaches in are precise and well-calculated. The clubhouse is off to the right and it was then I thought we had finished nine holes but alas, not just yet.

The Seventh
From the right of the green
Looking back from the green

The Eighth is a 155 yard par 3. A much more milder drop shot than the Fourth and shorter. Bunkers canvas the sides and most of the front while the green size once again vexes to make sure accuracy is a premium. There’s just not a whole lot of places to miss here and even the places you can miss, you wish the ball was lost anyways.

The Eighth

The Ninth is a 386 yard par 4. A dog leg right where the fairway turns out of view from the tee. The tee shot is blind for many, especially the longer hitters. The fairway is wide after the turn and the pushed up green is in full view at that point, with bunkers guarding the front. As we’ve come to learn, the approach must be true to avoid the trouble around the green, or a parade of seething needless strokes awaits.

The Ninth
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The front nine starts at the hill tops before plunging down and climbing back up again. Every hole was strong, even those that were a bit loose from tee to green. That is because the tee shot and in every case the green was full of interest, conjuring a finesse style game from the golfer. I would rank them 3, 2, 4, 7, 8, 5, 9, 6, 1.

The back starts with 364 yard par 4 Tenth. Heading a little higher and in the opposite direction of the front, the right to left tilt of the fairway is evident from the tee and must be accounted for. Tillinghast reportedly visited here briefly way back when and had the Tenth green shifted over to the left, which is how it plays now. The fairway bunkers leading up to the green and bunkers around the green make their presence felt. The approach is likely aerial all the way because of it. Certainly a lot more going on here than the First as the course expects the golfer to be properly in tune to his game at this point.

The Tenth
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Eleventh is a 362 yard par 4. Staying on the outside permitter of the property, the tee shot is some what blind and a mild carry over some rough terrain area before the fairway, which has a significant right to left tilt just like the hole prior. The fairway runs downhill to the green and a little left, with the hillside making the left side of the green treacherously deep. Bunkers cover the green complex well, starting a theme on the back. The terrain movement cannot be ignored in a good way and for everything good and holy, stay away from the left.

The Eleventh
The green ahead, from the left
Approach shot territory

The Twelfth is a 283 yard par 4. A shorter par 4 with the biggest forced carry of the round off the tee. A large ravine must be carried to the fairway, which crests and makes the rest of the hole blind. Even though the uphill makes the hole some what longer than the stated yardage, a lot of golfers can likely reach the green or get close to it if they hit driver although there is a case to be made for teeing off with a shorter club and setting for a wedge into the green. Trees on either side keep everyone honest and there are bunkers guarding the front of the green. that precipitate another aerial approach. A scenic, fun and strategic par 4.

The Twelfth
Approach shot territory

The Thirteenth is a 418 yard par 4. We now start to move down to the lower ground, which starts with the tee shot to a fairway that runs from right to left at a 10:00 angle, downhill. There is a ravine between the tee and fairway, so the golfer must decide how much to take on off the tee. Bunkers on the side of the ravine and a ridge just before them complicate this decision, as many will try and go for the ridge so their ball will advance further down the fairway, yet those ending up short or left will end up in the ravine or if they’re lucky, the bunkers. The fairway runs right down into the green, the clearest entry point of the back nine thus far. The green is an intriguing one, cascading from a front upper tier to a rear lower one. It makes for a thrilling approach that can be handled a number of ways, as is putting the green.

The Thirteenth
Approach shot territory
Looking back
The green

The Fourteenth is a 439 yard par 4. The tee is set back in the hills as we continue down to the canyon floor. The tee shot is similar to the Thirteenth in the the fairway is off to the right and too far left will end up lost, here in Malaga Creek. The fairway moves downhill to the green with a center line bunker before the green to complicate things. The green moves front back with bunkers on either side. Unfortunately, I spent most of this hole near Malaga Creek so photos are some what limited.

The Fourteenth
The green

The Fifteenth is a 145 yard par 3. Bottoming out below the hills, we turn around and begin the climb back home. The tee shot is over the creek to a fantastic green with bunkers at the front and rear. The green is wide with a back to front movement while ending up in either row of bunkers comes with its own set of problems.

The Fifteenth

The Sixteenth is a 486 yard par 5. All uphill, mind the fairway bunkers that are placed on either side leading up to the green, which is set off to the left. In fact, the green is set so far over to the left that one could stay to the right on fairway to pin high before coming over for the approach. That’s the decision on the second shot, just exactly where the approach should come in from as the golfer essentially has an almost 180 degree range to choose from. The green moves from back to front with the terrain while bunkers are mercifully on the left and front side to catch balls from plummeting down the hillside. It’s a great par 5 with that green position.

The Sixteenth
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
The green
Looking back

The Seventeenth is a 330 yard par 4. We’re still climbing uphill with this fairway moving right to left as well. The fairway bunkers are a bit larger here than the hole prior and the green is also off to the left, but this one is tucked within some mounds, making the approach blind. The green is large and there’s some room to the rear that moves towards the center. A nervy approach where knowledge of the terrain and experience with its bounces and rolls is at a premium.

The Seventeenth
Approach shot territory
A little closer
Even closer than that
The green
Looking back at the view

The Eighteenth is a 405 yard par 4. Back near the hill top, the fairway here bends around a tree line to the right before reaching the pushed up green next to the clubhouse. It’s a blind tee shot with a bunker on the left and trees on the right, so left center is a good line. Some larger bunkers are around the green but the entry point is substantial enough to utilize for the ground game for those so inclined.

The Eighteenth fairway
Approach shot territory
The green
Looking back

The back nine is set on more undulating terrain and the climb back uphill is more pronounced at the closing holes. The variety in the greens keeps each hole fresh while many of the tee shots hold a lot of strategy and challenge. I would rank them 13, 16, 11, 12, 14, 15, 10, 17, 18.

Generally, Palos Verdes is an under the radar classic that utilizes its rich terrain in a variety of ways that provides an engaging round. Tee shots must confront cavernous ravines or climb up heights unknown, approaches must negotiate hillsides and smartly placed bunkers while the greens are a great mixture of strong undulation with strategic restraint. This is all before the spectacular views of the ocean and coastal hillsides leading to the canyons below. The Southern California character is alive and well here, showing off the design tenets of Bell and Thomas in splendor.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: A remarkable Spanish style structure set on a hillside overlooking the course and Pacific beyond. The pro shop is a separate building near the halfway house with a solid collection of head covers.

Practice Area: The range is set down the hill where you hit into one of the hillsides. I believe there’s a short game area there as well.