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The Greening of Orange County

Many Orange County courses look a bit short on the card but in reality play longer and tighter. In a desertlike locale, where land and water are precious, and expensive, and where environmentalists defend each pine and oak as though it were a family member, you're not going to see wide fairways and fat greens. Golf courses are squeezed into nature, not imposed on it. As a result, the strategic, risky 300- to 350-yard par four--a lost and disrespected art elsewhere--is part of the gasp appeal in Orange County. You step to the tee and say, "This is breathtaking. But is there a fairway?"

Golf courses are squeezed into nature, not imposed on it. After one micromanaged debate with a state environmentalist about which sacred vegetables at Strawberry Farms could be touched, DeCinces moaned, "You've got to be kidding."

"Well," said the official, stretching to the outer limits of his ability to compromise, "you can always build the course with seventeen holes."

Out here, the wildlife and bird sanctuaries win all ties. And with good reason. Southern California sprawl would consume every inch if it could. The best inland courses--like Strawberry Farms, Oak Creek and Coyote Hills--are blessed oases tucked just beyond sight of freeways and homes. Business travelers may be surprised to find Coyote Hills--a Cal Olson-Payne Stewart test with elevation changes, streams and cobblestone bridges --in the middle of Fullerton, fifteen minutes from Anaheim.

If you blink, you miss the opening of a new $100-a-day public course. Nicklaus's twenty-seven-hole Aliso Viejo Golf Club, much of it cascading down a steep hillside, opened in 1999 and is too young to judge. However, in grand Bear style, no expense has been spared.

The best aspect of Orange County golf is ultimately its most unexpected feature. It sometimes seems that every yard of prime Southern California land has been irrigated, cantilevered and tortured into maximum usage, that only the ocean itself has been spared the rich, ambitious hand of man. Yet, pockets of nature remain, and golf is helping preserve them.

Both Pelican Hill courses, the back nine at Tijeras and Strawberry Farms, the ocean holes at Monarch Beach and the best parts of Coyote Hills have this exciting Western edge. "We've got mountain lion tracks all over this place," says DeCinces. "And we just caught a big old fifteen-rattler the other day."

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