The Resort at Pelican Hill’s Ocean North course is one of two fabulous Tom Fazio designs that opened for play within a couple of years of each other at the start of the 1990s. Ocean North and Ocean South occupy a fantastic coastal setting on the clifftops between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, less than an hour’s drive south of downtown Los Angeles.
In 2005, both 18-hole layouts closed for an extensive upgrade – described as “a two-year re-perfection” by Tom Fazio – which included re-turfing fairways and tees with a hybrid Bermuda grass, converting rough to fescue and rye grasses, modifying/adding bunkers to enhance strategy or aesthetics and re-contouring fairways to assist with drainage.
In addition, tee boxes were rebuilt and a number of new tees were added (extending both courses by around two hundred yards), a number of greensites were expanded to increase playing options around the putting surfaces, high-traffic areas were sand-capped, cart paths were resurfaced and a state of the art water system was installed to conserve and recycle water.
Feature holes on the Ocean North course include the 197-yard 2nd and the 170-yard 6th, with both of these downhill par threes playing to greens perched on the other side of a small canyon. On the back nine, the 558-yard 17th is regarded as the signature hole on the course, swinging right and down to a promontory green – approach shots played beyond the putting surface are in big trouble here.
Charles Blair MacDonald had been dead for over half a century when Pelican Hill was created. But his maxim—“Don’t confuse the canvas with the artwork” applies here. Only three holes lack stunning vistas of the Pacific Ocean and Santa Catalina island. Unfortunately, the hilly, canyoned land required the creation of a course that can only be navigated in a golf cart, a flaw of some note in my judgment. The resulting separation of the holes makes the course that much more unmemorable: there were a half a dozen of which I have no memory 24 hours after playing. That said, there are a number of fine holes here. Many get the player thinking about the best line for the tee shot and that strategy question carries over on the second shot on the par 5s as well—the best being the pot bunker in the middle of the 8th fairway. The greens are were fast (11.5 on my stimpmeter in January 2019) and quite tricky…..but less so once one realizes that above the hole is not a good spot to be putting from. My group rolled at least half a dozen putts right off the green, including two by a scratch golfer.
The two big takeaways, be prepared to have your senses overwhelmed with the scenery and wind. The dominant breeze is off the ocean but it was really swirling when i played there. Both courses are Fazio designs and you can see his fingerprints throughout.The second hole reaches out and grabs you be the throat, long par 3 into the wind with a carry over gunch. The third hole is a classic Fazio with the fairway hour glassing in the landing area with bunkers on each side. On the par 4 4th if your approach is right you are dead. The 7th is tough but interesting. There is a large bunker in the middle of a huge fairway. There is more room right but a much tougher approach, less room left but a much easier approach shot. Choose your poison. The 8th is a fun par 5, reachable if you a big hitter. I thought the 9th hole was very peculiar, long but if you get inside 190 yards the fairway narrows significantly. On the back the 11th and 14th are essentially the same hole, doglegs right . My favorite hole was the par 5 17th. Big hitters will be tempted to go for the miracle shot, but play smart and stay left
The difference between the North and its sister course the South is fairly straightforward -- the former has the better overall consistency of holes. The North works its way up and down the landscape and the overall bar for shotmaking is clearly elevated on a number of the holes. Once again, as he did with the South Course, architect Tom Fazio excels in dressing up the landscaping so that the holes look magnificent against the green vegetation and the glistening Pacific Ocean in the nearby distance.
The strength of the course rests with the collective par-4 holes -- they are quite unique in terms of how they are designed and the level of varying challenges they provide. When you factor in the overall land movement it's quite incumbent on the golfer to pay attention to getting to the correct side of the fairway to maximize the angle into the green.
The downside is that when playing the North one spends plenty of time traversing the property. Credit Fazio and his team for getting the most out of the site but the abruptness of the land often disrupts the overall flow one should have when playing. Worrying constantly on where the cart should be can be a draining exercise that should not be the dominant nature of any course.
After the first two holes which are fairly ordinary the bulk of the remaining holes on the outward half are well done. There's constant movement and having a precise tee game goes a long way in maximizing one's scoring potential. The downhill then uphill par-4 9th is especially well done. The fairway narrows considerably and the green is high above the fairway and appropriately contoured to defeat the impulsive play.
The final two holes close out the North in a solid manner. The par-5 17th is one of the most photographed holes in all of California because of the awesome backdrop scenery with the Pacific Ocean as the star attraction. The architecture for the hole is no less in terms of its qualities. The fairway narrows down as you get nearer to the green and with an elevated target it's likely varying wind velocities can easily occur. The closing hole is actually the flip of what you find from the companion South Course. This time the hole dog-legs right around land that must be avoided at all costs. The green is one of the better ones on the North and is well defended and has sufficient movement so golfer can rest easy until the final putt is holed.
Playing Pelican Hill is not a cheap ticket but if you should be tempted to enjoy all the pampering be sure to play the North layout. The demands of the site necessitate a power cart and the facility does have forecaddies that can prove to be useful for picking out target lines and reading of the greens. On a gorgeous day it's truly an eyeful.
by M. James Ward