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Play Away: Solace in Santa Barbara

Slow-growth Santa Barbara plays tortoise to the runaway hare ninety minutes south: fast-lane Los Angeles with its disposable minimalls and legions of type A citizens scowling and cursing at one another on the web of freeways where they spend half their lives. By contrast, Santa Barbara is almost wilfully laconic, a paradise by the sea that conveys a sensibility not unlike that of an iguana sunning itself on a sandy beach.

The less than 100,000 residents of the town include many escapees from various forbidding megalopoli—Oprah Winfrey, David Crosby and that one-gloved fellow with the roller coaster in his yard among them. And who could blame them?Twenty miles of palm-lined beaches, eighty-some wineries in the hills to the north and three hundred days of sunshine a year make this one very desirable place to raise a roof. There aren't but a couple of hundred holes of golf in the area, but they are situated on handsome, hilly green stretches of earth that often rival the more famed Monterey Peninsula courses to the north for sheer physical beauty—and cost roughly half as much to play.

The secret to Santa Barbara's status as the American Riviera is its unique east-west coastline, giving the region its perennially sunny disposition. Highway 101 runs in and out of the city from the north and south, and the nearby airport receives non-stop flights out of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Amtrak also makes a stop here on its way up and down the coast.

The best golf is a half-hour drive or better from downtown, with the exception of the Sandpiper Golf Club, which hugs the coastline on the city's west side. Highway 154 takes you north into the Santa Ynez Mountains for a dose of the fast-becoming-nouveau Old West. Those big purple landmasses twenty-five miles off the coast are part of the Channel Islands National Park, where outdoorsy types can hike, dive and kayak till the city's many top-notch eateries siren-sing them back to shore.

Golf in the city itself boils down to a far-better-than-average muni called Santa Barbara Golf Club, a par-seventy shorty at 6,037 yards that plays longer due to the roll-inhibiting ways of the ubiquitous kikuya, which isn't called a "feral" grass for nothing. Break out the lofted driver and let it fly high toward the magnificent vistas of the Pacific—these alone are well worth the paltry thirty-dollar fee. The greens roll true and are in fine shape for a city facility, while the steadfast marshals keep the pace of play fairly brisk for a track hosting nearly 100,000 rounds a year. Eucalyptus trees dot the course liberally, forcing some nimble shot-making and scenting the air so strongly you'll feel like you're golfing on a gigantic green cough drop.

Consider that muni a tune-up for some serious golf to come, the first stop being the venerable Sandpiper Golf Club in Goleta, recently acquired by Beanie Baby magnate Ty Warner. A major outlay is proposed to restore this scruffy William F. Bell–designed gem to its original luster, though for now its unparalleled views and sea-misty air more than make up for the United Nations of alien grasses that have at times invaded the fairways. The $130 tab here says a lot for that old real estate maxim about location, even when one considers the value of seeing a gang of dolphins motoring past as you line up a putt.

Glen Annie Golf Club does not claim to be the area's most challenging layout, but it is Sandpiper's clean-cut cousin just up the hill, offering beautiful looks toward the sea. The tight 6,420-yard Robert Muir Graves design winds up and down in dizzying fashion. It boasts two drivable par fours and some very grabby rough bordering them, so keep it on line if you break out the heavy artillery. Group outings are the staple of this fairly benign track, a good place to grab forty of your closest acquaintances for a friendly round.

Twenty minutes north of the city lies the Santa Ynez River Valley and a snaking patch of green in the midst of the brown sage-covered hills: Rancho San Marcos Golf Course, a world-class course damned only by its remote location and a thin base of local golfers to sustain it properly. Those urbanites sufficiently intrepid to make the trek often return to its glorious setting and dramatic Robert Trent Jones Jr design. Set on untrammeled land with a stagecoach trail running through it, the terrain is so pristine it's almost a shock (albeit a welcome one) to see flagsticks poking into it. Fresh apples in a barrel and fire pits for warming the hands on cold mornings are nice, but it's the golf that will bring you back.

Not to be a snitch, but Arnold Palmer once called the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa the "best-kept secret in the United States." Just a half hour southeast of town, the 1923 George C. Thomas/William F. Bell design is set on 220 acres of lushly forested hills. Ojai has hosted seven PGA Senior Tour events, testament to the fact that bigger doesn't mean better when mature oak trees, barrancas and bunkers are factored in. The sixteenth green has eleven sand-pits begging to be used, and there are many forced carries and blind approaches that demand cortical, versus muscular, participation.

And then there is La Purisima Golf Course, a name that inspires fear, awe and admiration among California golfers. Located near Lompoc, forty-five minutes from Santa Barbara, this Robert Muir Graves design has a 143 slope, and that doesn't factor in the blustery winds that arrive like clockwork mid-morning and stay till dusk. Par is a winning score at the many PGA qualifying events held here; some say the course is brawny enough to host a future U.S. Open. Three hundred acres of oak-strewn valley were hardly altered for the meandering links design, which despite its length is eminently walkable and, at about fifty bucks, the best value in the state. The greens are soft but subtle, the surroundings unmarred by housing, the test as true as the game offers.

Swarms of tourists make their way to Santa Barbara on the weekends, a practice that has gone unabated since the turn of the last century, when them mangy Hollywood types started swarming the hills of neighboring Montecito. Charlie Chaplin's Montecito Inn was built in 1928 and is still in business, just down the road from the Four Seasons Resort Santa Barbara, which sits on twenty-two acres of prime seaside real estate. A 10,000-square-foot spa is complemented by three lighted tennis courts, a putting green and two swimming pools. In Santa Barbara proper, the 1915-vintage El Encanto Hotel and Garden Villas can lay claim to the Unspoiled Charm gold medal, its Craftsman cottage and Spanish colonial dwellings set amidst sweet-scented botanical gardens on ten glorious hillside acres. Two blocks from State Street sits another bit of history, the Upham Hotel and Country House, which has operated without interruption since 1871, when its amenities included stables, carriage rides and "hygienic food for invalids." Its rooms have period furnishings but modern conveniences, and the Master Suite even comes with a hammock and private yard.


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