The Rustic Canyon course was laid out in 2001 within a 350-acre site on the floor of a broad canyon to the north west of Los Angeles and – with less than 20, 0000 cubic yards of earth moved during construction – it’s widely regarded as a triumph of architectural minimalism.
Built on a former sheep ranch, Rustic Canyon was the result of collaboration between designer Gil Hanse, his associate Jim Wagner and golf writer Geoff Shackelford. Their aim was to set out a course where the game was played as much on the ground as in the air and to that end they succeeded effortlessly.
Generally wide fairways are routed in total sympathy with the sandy, free-draining landscape, and the generosity of width permits the golfer to consider alternate routes on many holes. Greens are large and imaginatively contoured with closely mown aprons, allowing bump-and-run approaches to be played at many of the holes.
As on the best of courses, the holes at Rustic Canyon get stronger as the round progresses with the inward holes climbing to higher ground and winding their way across some tough terrain before returning to the clubhouse. In particular, the compelling par fours at 11, 14, 16 and 18 are themselves worthy of the very reasonable green fee charged at this public facility.Last word to Gil Hanse who described Rustic Canyon as “the most lay-of-the-land course we have built to date. This is a testament to the beauty and strength of the land. An added pleasure in developing this golf course was the collaboration with Geoff Shackelford, a golf historian who reveres traditional design with the same fervour as we do. Rustic Canyon is a public course with little ego and a lot of heart (that) has shaped up to be very, very special.”
When Ventura County officials hired then-unknown golf course architect Gil Hanse to design a course for them in 2001, they probably expected to get an ordinary course not unlike the two older courses the county already owned. But Gil is no ordinary architect. He provided them with holes with such classic features as a Lion’s Mouth bunker, a Biarritz hole, a Ha-Ha wall and a Cape green (i.e. modeled after MacDonald’s original).
But the work of Hanse and colleagues Jim Wagner and Geoff Shackelford (son of Lew Alcindor’s UCLA teammate Lynn Shackelford) was more than a mere regurgitation of ancient designs. Most holes ask the golfer to think about her/his tee shot, with the 1st, 3rd, 8th, 13th and 14th providing particularly strategic challenges. The same thoughtfulness is required on the second shot at the par five 10th. The long narrow green is best approached from the right side of the fairway…..where a string of bunkers awaits the second shot that strays too far right. There are a few holes that seem flat and unchallenging, e.g. the 6th and 9th. But the stirring undulations on the green provide plenty of challenge.
Most green sites include closely mown chipping areas nearly indistinguishable from the greens (In January 2018, the greens ran at 11.5 on my stimpmeter, while the chipping areas were a mere 10.5.) Combined with the firmness of the sand-based turf, this provides the opportunity to attempt putts of over 100 yards.
Rustic Canyon is located in Happy Camp Canyon and those who get to play here regularly are happy campers, indeed. It’s one of the few truly municipal courses deserving a six ball rating.
Given my genesis in golf as a public course player I've had the good fortune in playing many of the finest available courses in America.
I would dare say no American course can surpass the affordable prices and top tier design elements Rustic Canyon so clearly provides.
The SoCal area experienced plenty of golf course construction during the go-go-go days of the 1990's. Sad to say, with few exceptions, much of the design product that emerged was simply forgettable. The rush to create golf was simply to bolster various real estate deals with many of them tanking when The Great Recession hit with full force in '07.
Rustic Canyon is ground zero from when architect Gil Hanse really began to emerge as a top tier talent. The property is enclosed in canyon land and there's nearly 250 feet of elevation change although the land movement is not so onerous as to preclude people from walking the course if so desired and plenty do.
The main thing that excels Rustic Canyon is that while the fairways are quite generous -- the key to scoring rests on getting into the best position so your approach angle can be maximized. Hanse doesn't allow indifferent shotmaking. The player has to realize that big time rewards only come with flawless execution. If you want the gain -- you have to realize the pain involved if your efforts don't materialize. Rustic Canyon is not centered on a penal approach. It's a mind game -- thinking and executing go hand-in-hand when playing. Like the game of chess, Rustic Canyon is not about making a singular move but knowing how to link them together.
The par-5 1st starts the round and illustrates perfectly what I just mentioned. The hole slides to the right off the tee. Players can't go too far right otherwise you can reach an environmentally sensitive area (ESA). OB pushes hard on the left side all the way. If players reach the fairway with sufficient distance the temptation to go for the green increases, however, Hanse doesn't allow the hole to surrender simply to a long accurate tee shot.
The 2nd shot must avoid a pesky bunker ditch that runs parallel and the cuts directly in front of the green. Those bailing out left will encounter a very demanding pitch with the green running away from that side. Amazingly, when you stand on the tee you don't get much of an impression on all the strategic calculations. After leaving the 1st green you are keenly aware that any low score will need to be earned by marrying brain and brawn together.
Hanse constantly keeps players off balance when playing. There's no set pattern -- no way players can hone in with just one style. Adjustments are the hallmark of any great course and Rustic provides that constantly.
The only downside for me is the back-to-back par-5's at the 9th and 10th. The holes go in the same direction and are nearly identical in length. It seems to me Hanse needed to add some yardage to the experience and these two holes provided the means to do so. They are not bad holes -- they are just not at the highest of strategic elements found with all the others.
On the inward half the land rises noticeably. The 11th is a solid long two-shot par-4 with a superb greensite -- counter-balanced by a viperous short par-4 at the 12th that says "birdie" but can be just as quickly say "bogey" with anything less than purposeful play.
Along with the 1st the uphill par-5 13th is an exceptional hole. There's a greenside bunker smack dab in front of the green and the putting surface features a boomerang shape that invites a quick three putt or more for those lacking sensibility with their stroke.
The final five holes at Rustic Canyon ratchet up matters considerably. The dog-leg left cape 14th hole dares the bold play off the tee but wise thinking can go a much further way. The uphill short 15th is a brilliant counterpoint hole with a three-tier putting surface. A birdie two can be had -- but likely more bogeys will be the net result for the hapless player.
I see the long par-4 16th as Rustic's most demanding long par-4. You're standing at the highest point on the property, the hole plunging downhill. OB patrols the entire right side and there's an ESA area along the left. The fairway tapers down the longer the tee shot is hit. The green also falls off on the left and rear areas with any approach shot not flawlessly played. Just a fun hole to play because you know what is required and must be able to summon up the skills to pull it off.
The par-3 17th is quality short hole. The key is working the tee shot in a left-to-right manner so that you can more easily avoid the menacing waste area on the right.
The concluding hole at Rustic Canyon seems quite lackluster from the appearance when standing on the tee but it's more of an illusion than reality. Tee shots need to get to the right side for the better approach angle. The green is one last effort from Hanse to insist upon a well-played approach. The putting surface has a devilish swale that easily repels shots not gauged correctly. When the pin is placed in the far left corner it takes nothing short of total command and top tier execution to land nearby.
Anyone who is in the SoCal area and calls himself or herself a golfer needs to play the course. Hats off to the Superintendent Jeff Hicks and his hard working staff. The turf is kept firm and fast and controlling one's ball is always an item of concern when playing. Hanse has gone on to become one of the premier architects in all of golf but his effort at Rustic Canyon clearly shows what gifts he was able to do without overplaying his hand as is the custom of so many other architects today. Hanse used the site for maximum pay-off -- you don't see the inane and silly overreach that is all too common from architects who wish to make their mark and little realize that the mark made is badly done.
So much of golf today is expensive -- especially in the greater Los Angeles area. Those able to take the time to trek just across the LA County line into Ventura County -- will reap an experience you won't soon forget.
by M. James Ward
With all due respect to Mr. Ward, Rustic Canyon is good, but not a 6-ball course. There are more weak holes than strong; #11, 14, 15, & 18 are all solid. But #1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 10, & 13 have super flat and wide fairways that remind you of an airport runway and not of anything of interest. The approach shots on this course have merit and the greens are well contoured. You will need to visit Rustic Canyon a few times before you learn the where to be and not to be around the greens. Probably the best attributes the course has is the firmness of the course. Most courses in SoCal are watering way too much and Rustic Canyon plays firm and fast.
Rustic Canyon is good course, maybe a 4.5/6, but not a 6/6. Certainly not top 25 in California!
Whether it's a six ball course is up for debate. I think it is the best public south of Monterey - my opinion.
The reason for the width is strategy. If it were like a US Open course there would be no strategy, only one way to play the hole.
1 - Wide so you can choose how you want to approach the green. There are better sides depending on wind and pin position. The earthquake fault is all strategy.
2 - Closer to the road is the better angle. Play too far right and you can't get it close.
3 - One of the best short par 4s in California. Three ways or more to play this hole.
6 - Is a par 3 so not sure where the wide fairway is.
9 - I mostly agree with you here. But there is a speed slot if you can find it. Also it allows you to open your shoulders. It's probably the least exciting hole.
10 - Is a good par five. There is so much interest on this hole. There is a side that is preferred for approach angles. It's not that wide. I see people in the gunch every round on 10.
13 - Has a horseshoe green. That's the reason for the wide fairway. You have to think on the tee based on the pin position.
In my opinion it's top 10 in California. in SoCal Riv / LACC and maybe Bel Air are better. Nothing else comes close IMO. Very few courses in the US play firm and fast. RC is a treat.
Is Rustic Canyon the best value for money in the whole world? If not, then you only need one hand to count the other candidates. My friend and I arrived at 5.20pm mid-week. I got two green-fees and a small souvenir for a total of $33! I even asked the shop assistant if he didn’t charge me correctly for it all, but it was all accounted for on the receipt.
This is a Gil Hanse public course and one which I’ve no doubt he is most proud of. Darius Oliver confidently included it in his ‘Planet Golf USA’ book. The natural terrain here is superb, especially how Hanse routed the holes over and around the natural ravines / areas of vegetation. The land on the back nine has more change in elevation than the front, which offers up fabulous views across the property, but also provides for the most challenging shots.
Rustic is constantly ranked as one of the "best bangs for your bucks" in golf and its not hard to see why. The greens fees are relatively modest and decrease during the day but what you get for your money is a tremendous links-style golf course where second shots and putting rule the roost.
There are so many ways to play each hole and to putt each green and the course is always in great shape (even during the current California drought). Hanse and Shackelford teamed up to create a really enjoyable round of golf.
Pace of play can sometimes be an issue as word as spread about this course but it remains one of my favorite courses in all of SoCal!