In some ways, Rustic Canyon Golf Course, in the rumpled hills of Ventura County an hour north of Los Angeles International Airport, resembles the knock-around munis most golfers know so well. It does not make a dazzling first impression: Not much is revealed from the entry drive. Though locals slow down to scope out pin placements, to the uninitiated the view is of a seemingly flat expanse of land, devoid of any remarkable features.
Up at the modest clubhouse, there are no fawning greeters, and no army of name-tagged teenagers vying to carry your clubs to a staging area fifty feet away. Golfers change their shoes in the parking lot, and that’s by default—there is no locker room. In the grill room, you are much more likely to be addressed as "pal" or "bud" than "sir."
Perhaps it was these details that prompted a well-traveled friend, when I told him I was planning a visit to Rustic Canyon, to ask, "Is that really a Travel + Leisure Golf type of course?" The answer is yes, and then some. Beyond the unprepossessing exterior lies one of the most significant courses of this decade and, even more important, one of the most fun.
Designed by Gil Hanse, Geoff Shackelford and Jim Wagner, Rustic Canyon opened in the spring of 2002. Its story is one that has run counter to prevailing trends in American golf architecture. To put it in context: In 1999, when the designers first visited the site, America was in the middle of a massive course-construction boom. (Indeed, of our sixteen-thousand-plus courses, 7 percent were built between 1998 and 2000.) The crest of the wave was the opening of countless "country clubs for a day," which promised to bring the amenities and exclusivity of the private-club experience to the masses. The problem was that many of these new courses occupied questionable pieces of land and operated under even more questionable business models. A galaxy of expensive mistakes were made, from forcing holes into environmentally sensitive areas (to give what would have been the best golf land to future homesites), to an insistence that the course be at least 7,200 yards and include a signature hole on each nine. No matter the intent, the cost of those decisions would ultimately be passed along to the customer. The result was all too often a $150 round that left golfers feeling empty and, frequently, much lighter on balls.
In contrast, the course and clubhouse at Rustic Canyon were built for a paltry five million dollars, and the tee sheet is routinely jammed. And it’s not just that a prime weekend greens fee goes for all of fifty-seven dollars. It’s because playing golf at Rustic Canyon is addictive, and a standing reminder that enjoying a versatile, nuanced piece of golf architecture does not have to be the exclusive domain of the private-club golfer.
Once out on the course, the "seemingly flat" property reveals itself to be excellent ground for golf—the gently pitched floor of the C-shaped canyon actually rises more than 240 feet in elevation from one end of the course to the other. The field of play is essentially tilted toward the gate of the canyon and the Pacific Ocean. Almost every hole plays either directly up- or down-canyon; this affects the "speed" of the hole from tee to green. When confronted with a fast uphill putt after having just negotiated the opposite, golfers are compelled to continually adjust the calculations behind their shots.
The course is bisected by a dry wash that is used to great effect. Holes melt into their surrounds, where scraggly vegetation provides texture and a sense of the native environment. As the day moves along, the play of light and shadow against the striated canyon walls creates a feeling of tranquil isolation. The site, which was passed over by a handful of other course developers, proved to be the ideal laboratory for the architects to put a contemporary spin—sometimes subtle, sometimes wild—on a number of great design features from golf’s Golden Age.
Geoff Shackelford is perhaps best known for his blog, geoffshackelford.com, in which he dissects the issues of the day—from major-championship setups to equipment deregulation (a topic that has made him the bête noire of the USGA)—with an incisive and often caustic wit. But he is also the author of several histories, including The Golden Age of Golf Design, which explores the works of such masters as George Thomas and Alister MacKenzie. It was during his research for that book a decade ago that he first encountered Gil Hanse, who was working at Merion Golf Club at the time and is well regarded for his restoration work at several clubs in the East.