The Ocean South is the first of two stunning seaside offerings Tom Fazio did at the Pelican Hills resort overlooking the Pacific at Newport Beach. Pelican Hills is a grand resort done in the 16th Century Palladiam architectural style of Northern Italy. Everything about it is large scale, top shelf, with great attention to detail. The golf facilities share all three of those characteristics.
From the moment you drive up it is obvious that everything about this place-the front entrance, clubhouse, golf shop, and restaurant speaks of a high end private club. They spared no expense in developing the property. Hell, the on-course bathroom facilities are probably in the $1.2 million dollar range. This would be a lovely course to walk and appreciate the dramatic ocean views but the golf course is built on a severity of the terrain with long walks from greens to tees that takes away any consideration of walking. The carts are even outfitted with performance seats with side cushions to make sure you stay in place on some of the billy goat turns. The only disappointing feature is that the practice facilities-range, short game area, and practice putting greens-are really not up to the standard of the rest of the place.
First impressions matter. Once you drive down the path from the staging area you cross the most expensive cart bridge on the planet and pull up next to the first tee box to watch the world unfold beneath your feet. The grandeur of this impression should not be lost on you because it will be repeated throughout your four and half hour tour of this course. From the high perch you have a sense of vertigo as you try to maintain your balance looking down a tree lined 400 yard log flume that spills to a green resting on a grass ledge above the ocean below. The question crosses your mind as you prepare to alight your drive, is this ball ever going to stop rolling and will I be able to play from where it comes to rest. Keeping your ball in front of you through the day is a must because the wayward shots have a way of becoming unplayable.
After the free fall on the first Tom marches you right back up the hill from which you came and you will get to the environmental gorge clusters that dominate the center of the property. After a dramatic two story downhill approach to the par 3 fourth green, you are staring to your right across an environmental abyss that would feel right at home at Kapalua on Maui. Your play on the fifth is across and adjacent too this intimidating haven for rocks, scrub, and critters that will make your knees chatter. Having the focus to pick targets and make unfettered swings is a requisite in this version of target golf. When your ball does start to wander just let the fear of the result go and bask in the wonderful beauty of the terrain that just ate your Titleist.
Skirting the gorges for a few holes you step out of your cart onto the secluded seventh tee. This hole is ensconced by trees, water, sand, and some serious boulders creating a surreal sense of tranquility as you ponder the articulate task at hand. The ensuing short ride to the eighth tee will take you by some troll caves on the left amongst the boulders and a look across Walden Pond to the landing area in the eighth fairway. It is almost like you should have brought your sketch pad or a writing tablet instead of 14 clubs, there is something genuinely mesmerizing about the atmosphere created in this corner of the course.
Working your way out of the deep topographical divides over the next three holes allows you to catch your breath and prepare yourself for the pure sensory drama of the seaside holes ahead after the turn. Make sure to charge your camera battery before the round because you could fill an entire flash card with stunning images over these three holes.
Baywatch begins on number 11 with a downhill march to the beach. Unlike on number one this time it is literally to the beach as the sand and rock outcroppings that frame this green complex will bring to mind Lawrence of Arabia. The approach shot into this green is one of the scariest shots you hit all day-anything missed to the right will be painful series of recovery attempts from Ramal’s abyss.
The next two holes are a unique tandem of consecutive seaside par threes. This is not like at Cypress Point or Bandon Dunes, not near as punitive, but the holes pack visual drama that will be the postcard images you remember in bed tonight. The first is a carry over a large piece of the Sahara to a long and narrow green hanging precariously above some nasty sand pits. The ocean backdrop makes it difficult to frame the target so you have to trust your yardage and give the wind a bit of respect in picking your club. Serious tilt from back to front in this one so being on the green is no guarantee of making a par.
As I mention in the detailed descriptive of the course below Tom was of two minds when he looked at the ground for this next hole so rather than decide which he liked better he created a short pitch three par with two green settings. The one on the left is the more dramatic and wind affected-the tiny green surface makes that task all the more forbearing. Take a moment to walk off the back of the left green to catch a glimpse of the jagged California coast line that is a Kodak moment for sure.
After the breathtaking seaside romp, the transition par five that comes next will give you a chance to regain your balance before your return to the gorges and a very demanding set of finishing holes. Fifteen is quite unusual, a hole that would feel right at home in the rocky terrain of Eniscronne Golf Club in the north of Ireland. You drive wide left to a precipice landing area respectful of a furry wilderness that shadows the right side of the hole just beyond the corner of the dogleg. Your approach has no margin for error as the narrow sliver of a green hangs off a Jai Alai wall on the left and the wilderness preserve on the right. Two well placed shots and two putts would be extremely gratifying as you head to the sixteenth tee.
The last of the three pars is drop dead gorgeous especially if you playing it late in the day into the setting sun over the Pacific. It calls for a full hybrid or fairway metal across the gorge to a green set on the edge of the horizon. The mound above the green on the left has a tree that stands sentry overlooking the green. This vista has the Monterey look of Carmel Bay to it.
After a very rigorous three-shot par five on seventeen the finishing hole is a potpourri of everything you have seen today. Needing a par here to win the back nine is a tall order. This is a double hop scotch affair where you drive away from the line to the green to a grassy plateau across the ever present gorges. The second is either a lay up to a landing area left and short of the putting surface or a bold carry over more oblivion to a long green set on a diagonal into a ledge above the grassy canyon. Pitching up the length of the green from the lay up area is a doable up and down. If you figure out how to save your par here that après Guiness will go down smoothly when you are done.
This course is a pure southern California experience-perfect weather, stunning vistas, and unique gorge laden terrain for making memorable golf holes. Much like Pebble Beach this a place where the golf seems almost secondary, four hours of riding up and down these hillsides will leave you with a strong sense of why so many people want to settle in this part of the country.
Newport Beach, California
Architect: Tom Fazio (1991)
Tees Par Yardage Rating Slope
Black 70 6580 71.9 134
Blue 70 6323 70.5 131
White 70 5929 69.1 126
Yellow 70 4723 68.2 119