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The Greening of Orange County

Orange County golf is still a work in progress. Every course offers something special, but each one has its limitations as well.

Monarch Beach Golf Links, for example, is a must play. In part, that's because the sporty 6,344-yard par-seventy course has two holes next to the ocean and several other Pacific views, though much of the back nine runs between homes. Where else but in la-la-land will you hear a jogger yell, "Nice shot," after you've nailed one to the green?Back East, they blow horns just to see you chili-dip one into a creek.

However, you also need to visit Monarch Beach because the Ritz-of-all-Ritzes is across the street. After your round, and an hour before sundown, report to the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel's third-floor lounge or its first-floor ocean terrace. Order a drink and an appetizer to nibble. Then sit with your jaw slack as you watch the kaleidoscope of changing cloud formations, the cliffs and sailboats, the sun-glade across the sea and, finally, the apocalyptic sunset.

How high does the Ritz sit above this majestic scene?The helicopter tours fly below you. The surfers on Salt Creek Beach are just specks. How romantic is it?A couple sat next to me one evening. She wanted to break up. Something about no date being set for the marriage. An hour later, they left hand in hand. Now that's what I call a view.

Aside from Pelican Hill, the back nine at Tijeras Creek is the pick of the Orange County litter. The front nine is pleasant, with two excellent par threes. The back nine is distinctly different. Perhaps the DANGER: MOUNTAIN LION sign should be a tip-off. At least it says that management "considers the probability of attack on human beings remote."

Actually, it's the rattlesnakes you have to watch at Tijeras Creek. "They like to come out and lie in the sun on days like this," the starter told me. What is the proper rattlesnake etiquette, I asked. Play through and ask questions later?"It's like the alligators on the courses in Florida," he said. "We promise you one thing: They won't bite if you stay thirty feet away."

As you walk the twelfth and thirteenth fairways at Tijeras, the chasms on either side are so amazingly deep and dense that you're actually playing golf above the tops of towering hundred-foot sycamore and native chaparral in the canyons below you. Just as special are the fourteenth and sixteenth holes. You drive down steep grades into the canyons, and there, these gorgeous par threes lurk, carved out of chaos. Nature seems barely to be kept at bay. Jack rabbits and deer bound out of clearings a few feet away.


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