Founded in 1901, Santa Ana Country Club has operated from its present location in Costa Mesa since 1923 after John Duncan Dunn laid out a course for the members.
Remodeled a number of times down the years (by Des Muirhead, Harry and David Rainville, Ron Fream and Ted Robinson) substantial club investment in the new millennium resulted in the renovation of the clubhouse and the complete redesign of the course by former RTJII project architect, Jay Blasi, who was hired in 2014 to develop a masterplan for the golf course.
The following passage is an extract from Golf Course Architecture magazine:
“While working on the masterplan, we conducted an audit of the current course and determined there was about US$5 million in deferred maintenance, including irrigation, drainage, bunkers and greens,” Blasi told GCA. “At that point, we studied all options for renovating the golf course. We developed multiple concepts that ranged from no rerouting, to partial rerouting, to a complete rerouting. The project committee was almost unanimous in support of the complete rerouting as it best met the goals outlined.”
Blasi identified four main benefits of rerouting the course: improved safety, better natural landforms, added variety, and enhanced practice facilities.
“In terms of safety, the boundary holes now slice into the property where the old holes were slice side out,” Blasi explained. “The new routing takes full advantage of some great slopes, bowls, hillsides, and valleys, and there will be greater variety thanks to the range of par three, four and five holes in the new layout.”
Pre-construction work got underway at Santa Ana Country Club in January 2016 and work completed by year end.
It's not unusual for golf clubs that have been open for a considerable period of time -- especially those over a hundred years of existence -- to have an assortment of design elements planted on the original canvass. When this happens the core essence of the golf can slowly but invariably morph into an unwelcome hodge-podge of different contributions -- clearly not meshing together and actually working in opposite directions.
Golf clubs finding themselves in such a predicament can decide upon a number of options. They can continue down the path in hiring another architect and with that you get another glob of paint foisted onto the marred landscape. At other times, clubs will create an internal committee consisting of members and active enthusiasts all well-meaning, but more than likely only adding more confusion with a range of ideas half-baked and therefore not implemented smartly.
This was the dilemma facing Santa Ana Country Club -- Orange County's oldest private club dating back to 1901. When the club first opened it was a 9-hole facility called Santiago. A move was made to another property in Newport Beach for a short time before settling in on the property that exists today. Scotsman John Duncan, the professional at Los Angeles CC in the 1920s, did the original design.
The Duncan layout remained in place from 1924 through 1961 when the first of a number of design changes were made. One change piled upon the next and after a number of years the course was literally a potpourri of head-scratching inclusions. No less than nine different architects had their fingerprints on the property.
The piling up of the past actions prompted the leadership at Santa Ana to wonder aloud about could be done. These are never easy decisions because even when a series of ill-informed decision have been made from the past the outcomes are hard to jettison away from because existing membership has become tired of the constant promises to "improve" and the related costs to absorb when implementing such efforts.
Under the leadership of project chairman Mike Petitt, Santa Ana opted to move in a clear direction that entailed a trip "back to the future."
Architect Jay Blasi was hired to provide a systematic complete overhaul to the course and provide a thorough master plan that would maximize the limited footprint of the property -- roughly 120 acres.
Blasi had formerly been with Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and was part of the team that made possible the finished result at Chambers Bay -- the 2015 site for the U.S. Open.
The ultimate goal was to revitalize itself from a smorgasbord of concepts. Bringing to fruition a golf course that would embody the golden age of golf design from the 1920s and be in alignment with some of the finest results that came of age during that period in SoCal via the likes of Bel-Air, Riviera, LACC, The Wilshire, Ojai, et al.
The desire to move a vastly different direction was not uniformly accepted. A good percentage of membership was not keen to the proposal given all the past changes and the uncertain future. Nonetheless, the project was approved and work moved forward. The reopening took place in November 2016.
The net result that exists now is a golf course clearly coherent and sporting a retro look from the heydays of California architecture from the 1920s. Over 30 acres of previously irrigated turf was removed; ditto non-native trees and water features that were clearly out of place. There was also the inclusion of a quality practice facility. Overall water usage was also lessened given the diminished turf allotment.
Santa Ana is completely re-routed -- essentially a "new" course and provides a much more engaging and thoughtful design. Blasi created a range of different hole lengths with corresponding strategies that challenge the broadest range of handicap levels. The most notable aspect rests with the varied greens. They come in different shapes, sizes and possess a vexing mixture of puzzling riddles to discern. Ground game options are also accentuated so players of varying handicap levels can decide which line of attack they wish to pursue.
You see this right from the start with the strong par-4 1st called "Santiago." Playing 441 yards from the championship tees. Fairway bunkers are placed in an offset position -- both the left and right. The green is smartly angled with a frontal bunker that ensnares all but the surest of approaches. The look is clean, defined and utterly specific on the shotmaking required.
The 2nd, called Ridgeline, is a devilish short par-4 -- playing 310 yards. The hole uses the terrain superbly turning left to a green with a myriad of internal movements and fall-offs. When you leave the 2nd green you feel the rush of excitement -- wanting to see what lies ahead.
The long par-4 3rd -- called "Shore" -- keeps the excitement going. The tee shot must account for a tree on the right side of the fairway and the approach must also avoid a water penalty area that hugs the right side of the green like a kindergartner clutching his mother on the first day of school. The more you play away from the water the more demanding the hole becomes as land movements add to the challenge.
The first of the fine five par-3s starts with the 4th. The green is exquisitely placed beyond a water penalty area and flanked with ever ready bunkers looking to snatch the hapless effort.
The par-5 5th reverses course and it's a good hole and helped considerably by a center-placed bunker that inserts itself on the 2nd shot.
The short par-4 6th is another gem -- playing just 316 yards and somewhat reminiscent of the renowned 10th at Bel-Air.
The final three on the outward nine feature a diverse combination of par-4, par-5 and par-3 holes respectively. Each is helped considerably by the varied green types. At the 7th you encounter a Cape hole. At the 8th you must deal with a Biarritz and at the 9th a Hogback.
Blasi's land plan is quite inventive. Three of the four par-5's use the outside perimeter of the property as well as the long par-4 10th which features no greenside bunkers but is played to a deep skinny green where the back half is two feet lower than the front.
The 11th showcases moves left and after a successful tee shot players have to decide how aggressive to be with their second. The landing area tapers in considerably and Blasi has inserted a native wash area that plays a key role in more than just one hole.
At the long par-3 12th there are no greenside bunkers but again the green is very specific on what is needed at the 223-yard hole.
The 13th and 14th are two good par-4s -- both varying in length and challenges.
At the par-5 15th you again encounter the native wash area. The tee shot is central to the hole. Playing aggressively and successfully up the right side can mean a major dividend. Those going left have to take into account the pin's location and what type of shot they wish to play with the 3rd.
The final two holes are a solid contrast. The penultimate hole is short -- 137yards -- but the green dictates everything. The target is a variation of a "double plateau" -- a high left side, low middle and high right side. The right "finger" actually falls off into the adjoining sand bunker. The key is total control of the ball flight's trajectory and being able to land the ball as called upon. Often times one doesn't see a short par-3 this late in the round and it works exquisitely here.
The 18th plays back into the general prevailing wind off the nearby Pacific and there's a bit of risk/reward at the tee. The par-5 hole turns right and being able to either skirt or fly over the two inside corner fairway bunkers can lead to an opportunity reach the green in two. The green is well-defended and there's a small center-placed "Lion's Mouth" bunker that cuts into the frontal portion of the putting surface. Birdies are certainly doable -- but for those too greedy the end result may be an ending that turns out differently than planned.
The routing includes five par-3 and par-5 holes respectively. Generally, when routings go beyond four par-3 and par-5 holes the wherewithal to create sufficient differentiation is no small task. Blasi's creativity has clearly kept the interest level high and avoided the usual banal holes sapping player interest. Interestingly, the club can easily change two of the par-5 holes to longer par-4s and the difficulty meter would clearly rise.
Overall, Santa Ana deserves considerably plaudits with the ambitious effort carried out through committed club leadership and architectural creativity of a high order. Undoubtedly, there were a number of minefields that had to be avoided and Blasi was clearly front and center in having to deliver the goods. The retro look is very impressive, particularly so given the small acreage the site provides and having to accomplish a number of necessary items. The next time I am back in the SoCal area I look forward to returning to the course. Well recommended.
M. James Ward