The Top 5 Courses to Play in California Right Now

Golf where the pros play.

TPC Harding Park

Designers: Willie Watson and Sam Whiting

Completed: 1925 (built); 2005 (renovated)

Distinguishing Characteristics: Set along the shores of Lake Merced, with cypress trees lining many of the fairways, TPC Harding Park epitomizes the natural beauty that many associate with Bay Area golf courses. The 7,169-yard championship course is defined by gently rolling fairways punctuated by soft-sand bunkers, and it impressed many PGA Tour pros during their first visits in 2015. “As soon as I played the course, I liked it,” Rory McIlroy told reporters. “It’s just breathtaking, beautiful views,” added Hunter Mahan.  

Why Now: It’s not often that a municipal course earns much time in the spotlight or gains critical acclaim for its conditioning or course design. Yet, both of those things occurred last August when the 102nd PGA Championship was played at TPC Harding Park. In doing so, the layout became only the fourth municipal course to host the prestigious major championship.

 Aviara Golf Club

Designer: Arnold Palmer

Completed: 1991

Distinguishing Characteristics: Generously wide fairways with sweeping undulations, sprawling sand bunkers, and even larger putting surfaces. Those features, which were revered by course architect Arnold Palmer, define Aviara Golf Club. However, the course is equally known for its always-in-bloom flora, which has inspired some to describe rounds there as “golf played in a botanical garden.”

Why Now: The club is set to celebrate its 30th anniversary in July, yet it annually hosts an event on the LPGA Tour in March, which means the course’s championship-level conditions never waver much from their pristine quality. The adjacent Park Hyatt Aviara just debuted a $50M renovation.

Stadium Course at PGA West

Designer: Pete Dye

Completed: 1986

Distinguishing Characteristics: With its championship tees stretching the layout to 7,300 yards in length, the Stadium Course at PGA West is a dramatic venue for golf, both in terms of its heavily contoured topography and the striking mountain vistas that it provides. Make no mistake, the course’s creator, Pete Dye, designed it to be an incredibly difficult test of golf. “Golf is not a fair game,” he once declared, “so why build a course fair?” You’ve been warned.

Why Now: PGA West hosts an annual PGA Tour event each January, where the Stadium Course enjoys most of the spotlight. Every other year, the Stadium Course plays host to the tour’s qualifying school (better known as Q-School), which means the venue is always primed to offer tourlike conditions.

Spyglass Hill

Designers: Robert Trent Jones Sr.

Completed: 1966

Distinguishing Characteristics: Unlike the more famous Pebble Beach Golf Links nearby, Spyglass Hill offers golfers a departure from the busier areas of the Pebble Beach Resort. Its design, which in many ways resembles both Pine Valley and Augusta National, was created specifically to draw those parallels; and the course’s layout, which starts in the sand dunes just off 17 Mile Drive, gradually guides golfers up into the hills of Monterey Peninsula.

Why Now: Spyglass Hill makes up one-third of the trio of courses that hosts the AT&T Pro-Am event every February, so like many of the courses on this list, its conditioning is always at a high level.

North Course at Silverado Resort 

Designers: Robert Trent Jones Jr. (original design); Johnny Miller (renovation)

Completed: 1967 (built); 2011 (renovated)

Distinguishing Characteristics: Thanks to Johnny Miller’s renovation of the course almost a decade ago, this historic, California wine country layout is now a serious championship venue. Holes were lengthened, which allows the course to play more than 7,200 yards from the back tees, and bunkers have been reshaped and filled with striking white sand, which gives each hole better definition and draws subtle references to Augusta National, a course that long has tugged at Miller’s heartstrings.

Why Now: With the course’s annual PGA Tour event in the rear view (the Safeway Open was held during the second week of September), Silverado’s North Course is more easily accessible and in tip-top shape.

Photo: Joann Dost