With its simple appearance masking a rootsy, throwback design, Southern California’s Rustic Canyon reminds us of how the game was meant to be played
Rob Brown Into the Rustic
| Credit: Rob Brown

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.

The two hit it off and agreed to keep an eye out for a future project. A couple of years later, when the site in Moorpark became available, Shackelford’s father, Lynn, brought it to his son’s attention. (Lynn, the former UCLA basketball star and Lakers announcer, had previously worked with Craig Price, whose company had won the bid to develop the course for the county.) Shackelford then easily sold Hanse on the project.

Although he had impressive credentials as a golf architecture critic, Shackelford had never contributed to an actual full-length design. For Hanse, that wasn’t an issue. "A lot of people understand strategy and can draw up a good golf hole," said Hanse, "but building one is completely different. Geoff realized he didn’t have a lot of experience and was eager to learn and observe, which helped him become a better architect."

For Shackelford, the opportunity to put down his critic’s pen and sit in the director’s chair (okay, codirector’s chair) was irresistible. "It was exciting, particularly since Gil was so patient, especially when I got on the bulldozer," said Shackelford. "Some of the crew looked at me as a lowly writer—what could I possibly know about course design?But I asked a lot of questions and had some observations that hopefully brought a fresh perspective." Though they haven’t worked together since, the two (along with Wagner, Hanse’s design partner) are now reviving their partnership for courses in Nebraska, Mexico and British Columbia, all of which are expected to get under way in the next year.

In the case of Rustic Canyon, the project was expedited by the fact that Shackelford lives less than an hour away in Santa Monica and was able to spend far more time than usual roaming the site with a topo map. "When we hit the ground for construction," Hanse said, "we were so far ahead of where we typically are because Geoff had done such a thorough inventory of the property."

Exploring the canyon, Shackelford made special note of any terrain that mirrored what he liked most about Riviera Country Club, a course he grew up playing and for which he wrote a club history. Rustic Canyon, he pointed out, "is in a very similar setting, with the hills on the sides and the hazard going down the middle. Very similar plants and everything. It’s hard to believe, looking at Riviera today with the mature trees and kikuyu grass and multimillion-dollar homes on the sides, but that was very much the course we looked to for inspiration."

Although the designers didn’t attempt anything as ambitious as a bunker carved into the middle of a putting surface (as at Riviera’s sixth), golfers playing Rustic’s twelfth hole will nevertheless enjoy their rendition of Riviera’s elusively angled tenth green. And the boomerang green of the thirteenth, crazy slopes and all, is also straight from the George Thomas playbook. "A lot of developers would say, ’How could you do a boomerang green on a public course?’" Shackelford said. "’Someone could wind up on the wrong side and try to chip the ball!’ There really isn’t much we would have done differently if it had been private."

Nevertheless, it would do both clubs an injustice to hold up Rustic Canyon as a poor man’s Riviera; the course has far too much personality of its own. The cross-canyon fourth, a blind par three over a weedy embankment, is the kind of modest, low-lying short hole one might find on an unsung English heathlander. In contrast, the view across the entire course from the high sixteenth tee is so unexpected that it gratifies in a way that courses devoted to "framing vistas" never do. Oddities abound along the way, from a fiendish pot bunker on the ninth named "Serge" (in honor of the truck driver who nearly crashed into it during construction) to the tenth green, also known as the "Lap Pool."

"We used to call it that," Hanse explained, "because we let Geoff shape it and he couldn’t run a bulldozer very well. He just made this huge rectangular hole in the ground. I went back and cleaned it up, but we left the shape." To their credit, the Lap Pool functions well: Nestled against the wash on the right, it’s not easy to get the approach shot—which plays straight up-canyon—anywhere near a back hole location.

It’s just amazing how many people view ’fun’ as a dirty word in golf," Shackelford said. "Early on, when people first played here, they’d say, ’Oh, yeah, it’s a very nice course. It’s fun.’ And they worried they were insulting me! That’s when I knew golf was in trouble—when I saw that people’s impression of a great course was one that would just beat them up."

Which isn’t to say Rustic Canyon is easy. Rather, it’s more the kind of course where, after a bad swing, you try to talk your ball into a safe place rather than reaching immediately into the bag for a new one. There aren’t many intimidating shots, but Rustic can steal strokes with the best of them.

The first hole, for example, is a 540-yard par-five that is reachable for many golfers, especially when the course is playing firm and fast. It begins with an inviting drive to a broad landing area, but then the approach is complicated by a lightning bolt of a barranca that splits the fairway from just outside the 150-yard marker all the way down to the front right portion of the green. What’s more, the green not only runs away from the golfer but also plays down-canyon, making it tough to hold. Standing back on the tee, one feels confident that birdie or par can be had here, yet it always comes as such a surprise when six (or higher) is written on the scorecard.

The same goes for the wonderful third, a short par four of just 315 yards that conjures up a world of possibilities. Play it five times and you can easily come up with as many results. That you can make a tap-in birdie after driving it clear over the green is the type of thing that sticks in the player’s mind and can cause moments of self-flagellation when, in subsequent rounds, the more conservative approach leads to bogey. Or when a bold drive onto the green leads to a soul-crushing three-putt par. . . .

The regulars all have their favorite strategies for taking on holes like these. They’re an opinionated bunch and unusually devoted to their home course. You’d really expect a guy like Jon Winokur, a nine-handicap who plays in a weekly foursome at Rustic, to come up with something grouchy, given that he was the editor of The Portable Curmudgeon, a collection of the snarkiest pearls from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde. But no: "If it ever went private, I’d be the first in line," he said. "I can’t imagine not playing that course once a week for as long as I can hold a golf club."

When Jon winokur, a regular at Rustic Canyon, steps onto the tee of the par-four third, he sometimes hears the voice of Clint Eastwood: "Do you feel lucky, punk?" The hole is short (315 yards from the tips, with plenty of firm ground short of the green to run the ball up on) and flat, stirring visions of tap-in birdies—or even eagles!—in the golfer’s mind.

But which way to go?The urge to drive the green is always one’s first thought (Option A), though bunkers on both sides serve up enough terrible lies, both in and around the sand, to be effective deterrents. Option B, a long bailout down the right-hand side, also has a certain appeal, especially if one is feeling less than precise. There’s tons of room to play, but it comes at a price—the nest of bunkers short and right partially obscures the approach, and the green runs away from the player. Option C, for its part, is easily the least appealing from the tee. The grassy ridge and the entrance road conspire to make the landing area seem much smaller than it is, but a nice mid-iron or hybrid opens up the best view of the green. Lynn Shackelford and other low-handicappers swear that by far the most birdies are made by taking this path.

Option A: 315 Yards

Bombs away! You can even drive it over the green and pitch back.

Option B: 180+ Yards

Can you ever play it too safe?Wedge shots from here are tricky.

Option C: 180 Yards

The garden spot, if you can resist temptation and hit a smooth long-iron.

15100 Happy Camp Canyon Road, Moorpark, California. Architects: Gil Hanse, Geoff Shackelford and Jim Wagner, 2002. Yardage: 6,988. Par: 72. Slope: 128. Greens Fees: $37–$47. Contact: 805-530-0221, rusticcanyongolfcourse.com.