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.”
This must be the best value in America. Having played this course 3 times, it continues to elude me how this track can be played for such a low price point, or why the rest of the world's courses can't be played and maintained at this price point.
The accommodation of high handicappers and challenge of low handicappers is something we often laud well designed courses for. This track lays that quality bare for your appreciation. Wide fairways with huge canted greens that favor a particular approach make for a day spent making conscious decisions. The par 3s offer a wonderful mix of distances and visual challenges. The considerable afternoon winds make approach play here a real challenge. The mountains, barrancas, washes and plentiful wildlife make for a truly special walk.
Simply put, this is one of my favorite courses for its mix of fun, challenge, and everyman vibe. The only item that left something to be desired is the pace of play - a 5 hour round is considered standard.
Unfortunately, the first time I played Rustic Canyon was the second round of the day after playing LACC. It was like having to go back to your girlfriend after seeing Margot Robbie in public, your girlfriend is still beautiful and amazing and you love her, but its hard to see that when you just saw one of the most beautiful women in the world.
That being said Rustic Canyon is hands down one of the best municipal courses in the country. Sure its always packed and the kikuyu grass is the most annoying thing to hit off of on the planet, but its perfect for what it is. It occupies a valley near Simi and plays strategically on the ground. Similar to Gil Hanse's work at Streamsong Black, the approaches are maintained almost identically to the greens, allowing for a variety of options around the greens. The main hazard seen throughout the course is the barranca which is terrifically used on holes 1,5,7,and 14.
To me, the real stand out holes on the course are the par 3's. Each one is unique and plays great with the natural landscape. 6 is a redan style hole playing back towards the rim of the valley. 15 is one of my favorite holes in golf with its 3 tiered green that has endless pin positions. 17 is another great reverse redan with an awesome kicker.
There are several other great holes on the course, most of which occupy the back nine. The front nine isn't dull in any sense, it just lacks the topography. The course is a must play if in the LA area, and is great for a day trip along with Ojai Valley.
Considering the public options for golf around LA, Rustic Canyon is clearly the best deal around. About a one hour drive from Downtown (without traffic), I make the drive pretty consistently to play the course. I've seen the course playing impossible and extremely tame as the wind, ground firmness, and pin locations change the difficulty more drastically than most courses. Rustic is extremely playable while providing very interesting greens and strategy one almost every hole. The layout is super playable tee to green but can be extremely difficult near and on the greens. While the super bold greens and firm conditions are what allows this course to stand out, it also provides some of the clear issues the course has. The course does a great job of keeping the natural land movement, but doing so has caused many of the approach shots to be either awkward looking or overly difficult when landing on the green. The best holes like #1, #3, #5, and #13 are all birdie holes on the card but invite you to challenge the hole. Each shot has a clear bailout but usually a fairly difficult recovery for the safest of lines. But unfortunately, all of the Par 3's greens are simply overdone with the amount of slope and feel like Hanse was trying to add difficulty by making some pins impossible to get near. Additionally, the conditioning of the course is rarely an issue, but the quality of the fairways and greens are definitely not to the standards of most courses rated near it for me personally.
With some challenging holes and an interesting layout, the course is nonetheless poorly maintained and close in terms of quality to other courses rated below it.
This course was truly phenomenal. It didn't help that I played it terribly but it was still one of my favorite rounds ever. Every single hole was truly fascinating and offered its own challenges. Some of the standouts were the drivable par 4s 3 and 12, the par 5 13 and the long par 3 6 into a punchbowl green. I thought both 9s were really fun but the back really stood out due to its elevation changes and really distinct routing. The green complexes were all fantastic and I really want to play it again now that I have a better idea on where to hit it. I'd love to come back in the winter when the weather's a bit cooler and really walk and enjoy the course. For $40 weekend fees you can't find a better deal in the state, and if you're in LA it's a must play.
This course is everything golf needs. It is accessible to the public, affordable, and playable for all skill types. The course features wide fairways which help high-handicappers keep the ball in play but requires the correct positioning in order for low-handicappers to give themselves birdie looks. Rustic Canyon also features an even shorter cut of fairway surrounding the greens which makes me uncomfortable to chip off as a scratch player but always allows for a putt or bump and run.
The twilight rate often get down near $20 which may be one of the best deals in golf. Twilight is also one of the best times to play as golden hour looks beautiful with the back nine landscape.
1 - A Par 5 that features are a very wide fairway starts the golfer off with a good "handshake" hole to get a few swings in. A hazard cuts in front of the first green which challenges any player attempting to reach the green in 2.
2 - A risk reward par 4 that uses the property line as a hazard. A long accurate drive could find the green but any pull left might end up out-of-bounds on the road. A layup is challenged by a centerline bunker and the line-of-play could change based on the pin position each day
11 - A long par 4 that runs alongside a hazard on the left but allows the play to bail as far right as they want. However, you want to play have the correct angle and be able to spin the ball from the fairway in order to get close to the hole.
This was the last stop before heading home after my trip to Arizona. We drove back via Rams Hill which we loved and Torrey Pines also very good and then to RC. It was a long hike out on the LA freeway system so to arrive in this tucked away corner was quite a surprise after passing through the huge built up area. Paired up with a couple of locals the round was fun from start to finish. But due to the flat terrain on the front nine I found it hard to navigate without some assistance. Eventually got into a rhythm and started holing a few putts which was just as well because I was leaking strokes tee to green. The conditions were hard and fast so hard work to control the ball. Particularly loved the middle of the back nine with excellent holes such as 16 and 17. Cheap as chips and well worth a return visit.
I don’t think any golf course has ever touched my soul quite like Rustic Canyon did. Playing this beautiful and supremely well-designed course on a calm, cloudless morning in excellent company was one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve ever had in golf.
The first thing you notice about Rustic Canyon is the turf. Coming from the Midwest, where firm and fast is defined a little bit differently due to the climatic extremes of that area, seeing balls roll 50-100 yards on brown grass is an entirely new experience. (When our grass is brown, e.g. dormant zoysia, it’s usually very soft and spongy.) To provide a contrasting hue, the green complexes and collar areas were nice and green, but still firm and smooth as can be. For a player used to winter greens in the Midwest, even the collar areas were faster than I could prepare for. Given the speed of the collars, the green complexes played as though they were absolutely enormous.
We arrived in a bit of a huff about five minutes before our tee time, as LA traffic was its typical nasty self even in this distant corner of the metropolitan area. Unfortunately, that meant zero warm-up swings and more importantly, zero time on the practice green. The resulting three-putt show was not pretty, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Thankfully, my partner (the lovely Mrs. Kissel) and I were paired with a couple of locals who knew the course well and were patient enough to answer my barrage of questions. One of the most important things they told me was that even though it doesn’t look like it, as a general rule holes (and putts) directed down the canyon play shorter than the distance, and the opposite applies for holes up the canyon. It seemed counterintuitive on many occasions since everything looks so flat, but it rarely failed to be good advice.
#1: The front nine sits in the flatter part of the valley, where the holes run more closely together. The first fairway is so wide it almost makes you relax too much; however, a solid drive is necessary to attack the green in two, avoiding the natural fissure penalty area to obtain an opening birdie. The green itself is pretty straightforward as far as the greens here proved to be.
#2: The second fairway is even wider than the first, though it doesn’t feel like it from the tee. However, the area around the fifth green is a decent spot for a bail out shot, even if it doesn’t provide the optimal angle into the green as I ultimately learned. This was where I first learned to heed the down canyon vs. up canyon advice mentioned earlier; I thought I judged my putt from the collar short and left perfectly only to see it go another 15 feet by the cup!
#3: What a hole. A devilish short par four with a split fairway, it’s drivable for longer hitters, but the wider fairway to the right proved too enticing for someone like me who still didn’t feel 100% loosened up. From there, I was left with a very awkward angle to the smallish green, leading me to believe that I didn’t necessarily make the right choice off the tee. (If I had it over again, I’d probably lay up to the left.)
#4: A semi-blind par three with a knob in the middle of the green, this hole proved pretty easy if you could put the ball on the correct portion. The only drawback to its blindness was not being able to see my wife’s well-struck 6-iron nestle itself 8 feet behind the flag.
#5: The view on the tee shot on this par five made me seriously uncomfortable, as it felt like the fairway was going to run out sooner than it was. It didn’t play quite as short, and laying up proved to be a mistake. The green features a massive swale short and left which captures any misses to that side.
#6: This par three provides a punchbowl-like effect if the pin is in the right place, which it thankfully was for us. Our partners explained that a front pin – atop the horizontal ridge spanning the entire front of the green – is nearly impossible to get close to.
#7: Another risk-reward par four, where a successful aggressive drive can cut off some serious distance over the canyon wash – but it comes with a potential cost of a penalty stroke if you fail. The green itself is perched on a mound and is downright funky when it comes to the bumps and swales.
#8: This postage stamp green is one of the few on the course to require a fully aerial approach, but the hole is short enough (145 from the longest tees) and the severe back-to-front slope on the green ensures it can be held with a good shot.
#9: A somewhat straightforward par five with a wide fairway, but the green features a nasty false front and a subtle spine across the center of the green. Missing in the wrong portion of the green can all but guarantee a three-putt. Trust me, I know.
#10: The inward side starts with yet another par five, this one requiring a more careful tee shot to keep clear of the cross bunkers. The long skinny green here doesn’t have much to it, making this hole one of the few reasonably good birdie chances out there.
#11: This difficult uphill par four features yet another spectacular green complex. From the right is the best angle into the green; however, too far to the right (such as in the 12th fairway where I was) makes for an awkward shot over some trees.
#12: Yet another incredible short par four. From overhead, the hole doesn’t look like much, with a wide fairway and a small but not particularly well-protected green. Wrong! The green is surrounded by deep depressions on nearly all sides, with the one on the right being the most treacherous. Even a tee shot right next to the green does not guarantee a birdie.
#13: The last par five on the course is arguably the best one of all of them; it certainly has the best green. With two solid shots you can attack it in two, but the flag location matters. Being stuck on the wrong side of the Lion’s Mouth-style bunker isn’t as tough as it seems, as both sides potentially offer backstops for you to nestle in a pitch. It’s a wild ride.
#14: Probably the sharpest dogleg of any hole on the course, this hole presents you with what appears to be a ridiculously wide fairway as it trundles down the hill towards the green on the left, but it doesn’t play that way. The prudent play is out to the right, leaving a much longer approach, but due to the slopes, the approach can be bounced onto the putting surface off the slope to the right, so it plays easier than it looks. It’s really enjoyable to watch one’s ball bound onto the green from 20 yards short and 10 yards right of the flag, especially if one is planning to play the shot that way.
#15: A slightly mundane short uphill par three, but nonetheless with a false fronted and rippled little green.
#16: Long downhill par four featuring a bowl-shaped fairway that plays a lot wider than it looks from the tee. The green, on the other hand, is smaller than it appears, with some big slopes falling off on nearly every side.
#17: Another par three, this one slightly downhill and featuring a green that gently kicks approaches to the right and rear of the green, allowing for lower trajectory shots to get close to a pin tucked next to the bunker to the right. Fun hole.
#18: A longish par four that doesn’t play quite its length, this hole features a really deceptive approach. I was told by my playing partner to avoid landing my approach on the green, as it would almost assuredly roll off the back, so I clubbed down and bounced one to pin high, although with the pin on a nasty shelf to the right, getting close was nearly impossible. The green itself shares its surface with the practice green, which was a bit disconcerting as there were players on it that looked to be right behind the hole when in reality they were a good 30 yards past it.
As far as rankings are concerned, without any question to me, this is the best daily fee layout in the state of California outside of Pebble Beach. (The only one that I haven’t played with a reasonable chance of competing with that rating is Pasatiempo, so perhaps my impression will change once I do that.) I’ve long told people that if I were forced to choose one course I’d played to be the only course I could play over and over for the rest of my life, it would be the spectacular Lawsonia Links. After playing Rustic Canyon, I think I’d change my vote to this lovely slice of land in Ventura County. It’s far from the highest-ranked, the most challenging, the most scenic, or the best-conditioned course I’ve ever played, but it’s certainly the most fun. Nearly every hole presents a unique challenge with all sorts of different ways to play it. As it stands, reliving the wonderful memory of my round here in my mind has helped tide me over through the particularly challenging two-month layoff from the game due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I absolutely cannot wait to return to Rustic Canyon someday and give it another go, and I am beyond jealous of Angelinos who get to play it whenever they want.
Played February 12, 2020
Awesome review. RC is the best public course in California south of Monterey. That's not even considering the value.
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.
Forgive the delayed reply as I only recently became aware of your comments. In reflecting on my original review for Rustic Canyon I do agree my score of six (6) was a tad too high. Such a score should be a rare event -- saved for the likes of Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Shinnecock Hills, Oakmont, etc, etc.
Therefore, I am lowering it to 5.5 but your statement Rustic Canyon is "maybe a 4.5" woefully underplays the totality of what the course does provide.
Keep this in mind, the sum total of the array of design elements found at Rustic Canyon is truly remarkable. When you tout the belief, the layout is "certainly not top 25 in California" I see such a conclusion as overzealous and simply in error. Feel free to list the 25 courses in the California as being architecturally superior. More than happy to have that debate -- especially if you believe Torrey Pines / South is among that grouping.
The statements made by Brent in response to your comments that there are more "weak holes than strong" is clearly your opinion but the details enunciated by Brent identify elements you quickly dismissed.
The topography is the often-underplayed element. Incredibly, there's over 200 feet in elevation change and during the course of a round you don't get the sense of it happening -- but the sum total of its impact is certainly presented in the shotmaking challenges encountered. Even with the so-called flatter holes the angles and the manner in which the putting greens are contoured puts a premium on getting to the best fairway positions to max out scoring opportunities.
So much of the California golf landscape - especially when the go-go times of courser building reached its zenith starting in the late 80s thru the Great Recession was about adding more golf -- but clearly not better golf. A number of the classic courses from years gone by also had to be restored / updated to truly return to their former glory (see the work by Doak at Bel-Air and Hanse at LACC, to name just two examples).
As I am sure you will agree there is no other course in the State that offers such a rich mixture of design elements for such a bargain price.
Anytime I venture from the NYC metro area to the greater LA area I have Rustic Canyon on my return list to visit.
Kudos to Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner and Geoff Shackelford for their brilliant effort. I urge anyone going to SoCal to enjoy the golf that's presented.