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The Greening of Orange County

Typical of Fazio, the final two holes on both the South and North may be the best. Each seventeenth is a par five with greens perched high above the Pacific. On both, short is safe. Long is off the edge of the world. Both finishing holes demand drives to target fairways carved out of impenetrable jungle. As he passed, a golfer who had just teed off in the group ahead of mine said, as though I were some long-lost brother, "I cleared the canyon!" Next, you aim at even smaller greens--surrounded by elegant oblivion. Naturally, the generous bail-out areas in front of both eighteenth greens are hidden.

On my final swing of a thirty-six-hole day at Pelican Hill, I hit my best iron shot--to ten feet for a possible birdie at the eighteenth of Ocean North. I dropped my club in disbelief and said aloud, "Did I do that?" Yet it was just a downhill 165-yard mid-iron with a nice, helping breeze at my back. No big deal, really. You're asked to hit a merely good shot; yet, to the eye, it looks like something only Hogan could do. That's great contemporary design.

If you can afford $155 a round on Monday through Thursday and $225 on weekends, then just play Pelican Hill, over and over. But for roughly half the price, you can play lots of memorable holes at seven other high-end Orange County public courses. You'd be delighted to have any of these tests on your doorstep back home. But they're all in a different category from Pelican Hill.

The new face of golf in Orange County may not be quite the one you'd suspect. It's Doug DeCinces, forty-nine-year-old former major league third baseman and, now, golf course developer. Having grown up in Southern California and having played for the Angels, he thinks he's seen the future; it's a lot easier to spot than a Nolan Ryan fastball.

You're it.

"Who wouldn't want to come here?" he demands. "We've got the greatest year-round weather anywhere. Everybody knows this is a vacation paradise. But we're right between Los Angeles and San Diego, so it's a business mecca, too. Orange County has always had everything you'd want--except top-quality golf that's open to everybody."

DeCinces used to compete against Tom Seaver and Ron Guidry. Now he's in a different game in a different league. He's in the middle of the race to see who can boast about the newest, snazziest $75- to $225-a-round public course on what's sometimes called the California Golf Coast.

DeCinces finds himself--and his Strawberry Farms Golf Club, designed by Jim Lipe--up against Tom Fazio, Robert Trent Jones Jr., Jack Nicklaus and Payne Stewart. If you're a big-name architect and haven't built a new track in Orange County, what's wrong with you?Strawberry Farms is barely a long par five from the freeway and a few miles from John Wayne Airport. Yet, tucked in a canyon in its own 250-acre realm, with its back nine wrapped around a thirty-five-acre reservoir, DeCinces's tough track really does feel, as he says, "incredibly removed." Yes, you can go to Irvine to escape.

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