Every once in a while you trip over a unique golf course, one that does not fit into any of the neat categories of course design. Rustic Canyon is one of those, a blend of links design with an arid desert course feel. Created by Gil Hanse with the help of long time associate Jim Wagner and golf writer Geoff Shackelford the course was built on flat firm, sandy turf in a two-mile long arroyo between dusty foothills about 40 miles north of the Los Angeles sprawl.
At first glance the land must have seemed ill suited for golf, but credit the imagination of these three guys to come up with a rough-edged “rustic design” to delight and challenge golfers of all abilities. A dry wash full of distinctive desert vegetation and scrub dominates the center of the property and provides most of the hazards the golfers will encounter. With wide open fairways, an absence of trees, no rough to speak of, natural desert hazards complimented with a limited number of Wagnerian thick-lipped jagged edged bunkers, and no man-made water in play, they used a minimalist approach to integrate natural beauty and topographical nuance into an almost intoxicating golf experience.
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Taking a page from the links formula of course design they created holes using broad fairways and angled proximity to the natural hazards coupled with wide, flowing, and uncluttered green complexes. There is a vague similarity to what Hanse did seven years later at Castle Stuart Golf Links where he built a user-friendly links course with wide driving areas and strategic approach lines on stretches of rolling terraced land overlooking the Moray Firth in Inverness, Scotland.
As you often see in the British Isles these green complexes, many of which the surrounds blend seamlessly into the green surfaces, encourage ground approaches. Depending on wind direction and pin positions each day this makes for an inherent variety of strategic approaches. Managing one’s way successfully around this place takes a links mentality where every shot requires proper consideration of how it affects the next shot. This means at times one must temper aggressive instincts and allow the flow of the course to dictate the proper and efficient way to play.
The first order of business was that Rustic Canyon be assembled as a municipal facility to serve golfers of every ilk in Ventura County and the greens fee had to be quite reasonable. The driving range, short game area, and practice putting green are modest but adequate to provide players a proper stage prepare for the day. Golf carts are outfitted with a rudimentary GPS system that can be very helpful considering that the lack of trees makes depth perception an enigma and visual distancing a challenge. The course is walker friendly with hand carts available and there is a pricey hand drawn minimalist yardage book that can be helpful as well. The yardage book is done in the style of the touring professional so it has all the real detail a thinking player needs without the glossy window dressing. But honestly you have to be of a particular mindset to find this yardage book user friendly.
With four sets of tees on the scorecard there is a distance to present the appropriate challenge for every handicap. You will note that there is a peculiar fifth choice, the Hanse tees, that is actually a Pu Pu Platter of holes from the Black, Blue, and White Tees. It makes for a wonderful 6400 yard challenge if one thinks the Blue Tees at 6634 is more than they can chew. Playing the Hanse tee you have to pay attention to the Hanse scorecard yardage for each hole to see which color tee to play on that hole. The shorter holes are often played from the Black Tees which satisfies the perverse macho element in most of us-that in itself makes for an interesting twist.
The opening hole is a perfect example of the design characteristics you will see all day. Standing on the tee of this five par the harrowing bunker on the right makes the driving area appear seriously constrained whereas it actually widens past the bunker to almost 70 yards of width and a warm welcome for almost any drive. In spite of this wide driving berth, position is very important depending on how you will negotiate the dry bed fissure on your second shot that bisects the last 140 yards of the fairway into the green. For a bump and run approach shot into the green, the second shot needs to be played from the left side of the driving area deftly into the narrow channel of mown fairway grass left of the fissure. Up the right off the tee allows for a longer second shot lay up to a more open area closer to the green but what is left will be a lawn dart pitching club across the hazard to a green steeply pitched toward you. If the pin is on the front right this can be a difficult approach and putt to negotiate. Throughout the day these types of decisions have to be anticipated so it is a matter of knowing where the pin is located and plotting an approach path that is appropriate.
Further study of the scorecard reveal quirky hole yardages and hole sequencing that is equally intriguing. The front nine has three par 3s and three par 5s with all the par threes coming in a five hole sequence. In the links tradition the three pars have great variety from longer semi-blind approaches to large sprawling greens to short pitches to small greens surrounded by deep sand pots or nasty grass hollows. Throw in a two very imaginative short par fours on the outward nine and you are playing an a collection of finesse holes where length is of little advantage.
As you make the turn sequential technical par 5s on nine and ten followed by another on thirteen provide good scoring chances in the second leg of your Nassau bet. The heart and soul of the back side are three long and challenging par 4s which set an entirely different cadence for the way in. To further complicate matters the routing keeps you off balance as the hole directions switchback five times on the back nine. With any prevailing North/South wind down the valley this will wreak havoc on your swing rhythm and force you to play differing trajectory controlled shots on every hole.
It is hard to imagine as you walk the course that there is actually a 240 foot drop in the property as it works from the top of the valley to the bottom. The last change in direction on the sixteenth tee will release you on a downhill ramp that stretches the rest of the way to the clubhouse. This makes for three of the most majestic holes you play all day but the increment of club selection adjustment can be astounding, especially if the wind is at your back. Ground control to major Tom…..it is the only way to control the approaches into the last three greens.
The Hanse crew was determined to create a rustic golf experience with the natural design feel of the architects of the Golden Age of Design who could not move large quantities of dirt to make a superb golf holes. Honoring that tradition, Rustic Canyon requires thoughtful play with strategic agility. The satisfying feeling of mental exhaustion one gest from negotiating the vagaries of a classic design is something to reflect on long after the Rustic Canyon experience is done.
Architect: Gil Hanse (2002)
Tees Par Yardage Rating Slope
Blue 72 6634 71.6 128
Hanse 72 6390 70.4 126
White 72 6049 69 122
Red 72 5275 65.3 112
For more pictures click to review Postcard From Rustic Canyon