In Southern California, between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, there is a lesser-known region that offers some of the finest affordable golf in the United States. That region is Ventura County, and the courses include Buenaventura, Olivas Links, Rustic Canyon, and Soule Park. Last week, my dad and I played all four of these courses, and not once did we pay a green fee over $35.
Before getting into specifics, though, I’d like set up some context for what places like Ventura County mean more broadly for American golf.
Snobbery and the Appreciation of Golf Course Architecture
Two recent professional events, the World Golf Championship at Firestone Country Club and the PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club, revealed a fissure in the world of golf fandom. Before and during those tournaments, aficionados of golf course architecture pointed out that the designs of Firestone and Bellerive are dull and repetitive, demanding little strategic thought or shotmaking variety. Some tour pros even agreed.
On social media, however, Firestone and Bellerive had their defenders. Most did not make substantive arguments for the architectural virtues of those venues, instead choosing to paint the critics as snobs.
Although I find these takes lazy and unfair, I get where they come from. Students of classic architecture can be adamant about their views, a tendency rooted in decades of being a fringe voice in a field dominated by Tom Fazio and the Jones family. Furthermore, in the United States, most of the well-preserved courses from the “Golden Age” of golf design (1910-1940, approximately) belong to old-money private clubs. The preference for these courses has more to do with their strategic and aesthetic traits than with their social pedigree, but to some, it seems like a case of East Egg looking down on West Egg.
This misconception worries me. Good golf architecture does not have to be an aristocratic luxury, and it was not born on Long Island in the 1910s. Rather, classic design dates back to the game’s origins on the linksland of Scotland, where to this day golf remains more affordable and attainable for locals than it is anywhere else in the world. There, the best courses are wide, undulating, firm, strategically sophisticated, playable for the hacker, and challenging for the stick. But they were also cheap to build, and they remain relatively cheap to maintain and play.
Appreciation of vintage golf architecture is not about a snobbish fascination with old, exclusive clubs. Instead, it is—or should be—about a vision of a fun, welcoming game that serves communities and honors their shared land.
In the Scottish model, and in the celebration of its architectural principles, we may be able to find a way forward for American public golf. For example, CommonGround in Aurora, CO, functions as a kind of community center, offering an 18-hole layout designed by Tom Doak, a short course for juniors, a learning center, and a caddie program. In Florida, Winter Park Golf Course, a municipal nine-holer, boasts a renovation by up-and-coming talents Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb, encourages walking, and charges $15 per round.
CommonGround and Winter Park have received a lot of attention from the media, and rightly so. Aside from Rustic Canyon, however, the courses in Ventura County have flown under the radar. But with their low green fees, casual vibes, and first-rate designs, these places embody the core principles of the Scottish game as well as any American golf facilities I have seen.
My dad and I arrived in the area on Monday, August 13. We played Buenaventura Golf Course in the early afternoon and then checked into the Best Western in downtown Ventura. The next morning, we woke up early and drove 45 minutes to make a 6 AM tee time at Rustic Canyon Golf Course in Moorpark. After a breakfast burrito in the clubhouse, we returned to Ventura for an afternoon round at Olivas Links. We finished the trip on Wednesday morning in Ojai with a dew-sweeping jaunt around Soule Park Golf Course.
Green fees vary according to time and day, but we paid $35 for Rustic Canyon, $30 apiece for Buenaventura and Olivas Links, and $25 for Soule Park. All of these courses are owned by city or county governments, so rates are likely to stay low.
My dad and I have a distinct perspective on golf in this region. From the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, basically my childhood, we lived in neighboring Santa Barbara, and my dad worked for the Ventura County schools. As avid golfers, we played all over the region the 1990s. It was not until the following decade, however, that Rustic opened, and that Buenaventura, Olivas, and Soule underwent renovations. So my dad and I remember the previous iterations of these courses, and we can recognize how immensely they have improved.
We also know we skipped a few. We did not have time to play Ojai Valley Inn, a grand old George Thomas design that, in spite of poor custodianship and the encroachments of the surrounding resort, retains the aura of a classic. Nor did we visit the private Saticoy Country Club, which is closed for bunker renovation and tree removal, a process that architect and shaper Brett Hochstein has been documenting on social media.
Buenaventura Golf Course
The architectural history of Buenaventura stretches back to the 1920s and centers on the father-son duo of William P. and William F. Bell. The elder Bell worked with George Thomas on a number of Golden Age gems in Southern California, including the country clubs at Bel-Air, Los Angeles, and Riviera. Bell helped create the wild look of the original bunkers and greens at those courses.
Buenaventura began in the 1920s with nine holes designed by Bell. In 1958, it expanded to 18 under the direction of his son, William F. Bell. By the end of the 20th century, Buenaventura had gone the way of many Golden Age municipal courses: the corridors had narrowed, the greens had shrunk, the bunkers had deteriorated or disappeared, and the demand for tactical shotmaking had faded. Brought in by the city of Ventura to renovate the course in 2001, Forrest Richardson decided to pay tribute to the old Bell style.
The course now looks and plays like a vintage Southern California design. Packed into a tight, flat parcel, the layout never seems repetitive, with the front nine exploring the interior of the property and the back nine pushing against the edges. Bunkers, trees, ponds, and out-of-bounds lines dictate strategy from tee, often urging bombers not to pull driver.
At 274 yards, the par-4 6th is a small but tricky puzzle. From the tee, you can see only a few sections of the fairway winding through three flashed bunkers. The third bunker guards the left side of the green, but the green itself is blind. The comfortable play, a mid-iron to a visible patch of fairway on the left, leaves a wedge over a large, serpentine bunker. I took this approach myself, and I drained the putt for my lone birdie of the day. Even so, when I return to Buenaventura, I will be tempted to launch a fairway wood toward the front-left edge of the green or, better yet, a driver straight at the hidden pin.
Rustic Canyon Golf Course
The newest course we played, Rustic Canyon opened to much fanfare in 2002. It was designed by Geoff Shackelford, a golf writer and historian, and Gil Hanse, at the time a rising star who worked in the neoclassical, “minimalist” mode of Bill Coore and Tom Doak.
The aesthetics and playing characteristics of Rustic Canyon will be familiar to anyone who has visited Bandon Dunes, Streamsong, or any of the new breed of remote “dream golf” resort. The bunkers are ragged and sometimes hard to distinguish from waste areas; the greens have humps and channels, and are surrounded by expanses of short grass; and the holes present an array of options and angles.
Unlike Bandon and Streamsong, however, Rustic could be your once-a-week home track if you lived nearby. Green fees do not exceed $50 on weekdays.
Hanse and Shackelford laid out the course on a valley floor in two out-and-back nine-hole loops, the first extending to the south and the second to the north. The back nine occupies more striking terrain, with cliffs closing in on both sides and a deep arroyo running through the middle, but the front nine, in my opinion, has more interesting holes.
The par-5 5th affords plenty of fairway for your drive but ratchets up the pressure on the second shot. The closer you position your ball to the pot bunker 60 yards short of the green, the simpler your approach. But if you attempt to reach in two, trouble awaits short and left of the green, where the apron falls off ten feet. You do not want to find yourself chipping either out of this hollow or toward it.
Hole for hole, Rustic Canyon is one of the best pieces of golf architecture I have played. Its excellence is such that I cannot help pointing out a few faults in its routing. Some of the green-to-tee walks are too long for a course that seems otherwise to welcome walking, and the stretch of holes from 9 to 14, which includes three par 5s over 560 yards and two par 4s of 452 and 498 yards, strikes me as incongruously long and hard.
But as a wise man named Frasier once said, “What’s the one thing better than an exquisite meal? An exquisite meal with one tiny flaw we can pick at all night.”
“It was painful to play.”
This was my dad’s reply when I asked him to help me remember what Olivas Park Municipal Golf Course was like before Forrest Richardson transformed it into Olivas Links in 2007. Unlike Buenaventura, Olivas Park had little in the way of an architectural heritage, especially after floods disfigured the course in the 1970s. From our rounds there in the 1990s, my dad and I recall an uninspired, worn-out track dotted with dying trees and artificial ponds. When Forrest Richardson arrived, he decided, as he put it, “to view the site as if there were no golf course there.”
Richardson proceeded to install a variety of engaging holes, from the bunkerless par-4 1st to the lagoon-haunted par-5 18th, which shares a sprawling green with the 9th. While the new Olivas Links, with its containment mounding and cushy turf, gives off a whiff of American “links-style” artifice, it overcomes that category with sound shot values.
The 12th hole wraps around a lakebed to a pushed-up green. Placing your drive near the hazard produces a double reward: your approach not only is shorter but also does not have to contend as much with the pot bunker fronting the left half of the green.
What has stayed with me about Olivas Links, however, is not its strategy but rather its loving attention to detail. Along the edges of many holes there are well-tended natural areas: colorful wetlands, grasses, plants, and—along one side of the property—a bamboo forest. These spots used to be covered by rough, non-native trees, and sad little ponds; they now stand as a testament to how golf architecture can revive a piece of land and create a habitat.
There are other crafty touches, such as barrel-mounted tee signs and sets of Adirondack chairs behind the par 3s, but my favorite feature is the absence of something. Olivas Links, unlike the former Olivas Park Municipal Golf Course, has no clubhouse. The golf shop and bathrooms are located in a pair of trailers by the parking lot. Like Sweetens Cove Golf Club in Tennessee, where the off-course amenities include a port-a-john, Olivas Links put the money where it belonged: into the land, and into the golf holes.
Soule Park Golf Course
We came to Soule Park last, teeing off early on Wednesday, August 15. Already we had played three exceptional courses. Our Tuesday double feature of Rustic and Olivas had me speculating that you could not find a better 36-hole day for under $80 anywhere in the United States. I had no specific expectations for Soule Park. I had played it several times years prior, admiring the hilly yet walkable topography, the mature oaks and sycamores, and the ravines slashing through the main paddock, but ultimately finding the layout bland and tired. I knew Gil Hanse had touched up the course in the mid-2000s, but I had no notion of the extent of his work.
As soon as we reached the 1st green, I understood that what Hanse had done was transformative. He had not changed much of William F. Bell’s original routing, merely relocating a green or two and swapping the 17th and 18th fairways. But by widening the corridors, rearranging the bunkers, and rebuilding the greens, Hanse revealed what Soule Park may have once been, or at least what it was meant to be: a stone-cold California classic in the mold of Alister MacKenzie’s Pasatiempo.
Both nines plunge down from the clubhouse, cross the forking barranca of San Antonio Creek, and probe the southern edges of the property before climbing back up the hill. The holes wind through well-spaced trees and Hanse’s rough-edged bunkers, asking the simple questions of Golden Age golf: Are you willing to aim at a fairway bunker for a chance to see the putting surface? Do you want to club up and fly it to the hole, or club down and use the contours to feed it back? Chip or putt?
The par-5 4th tumbles downhill and can be reached in two, but the green complex introduces complications. Perhaps in tribute to George Thomas’s 1st at Riviera, the green is shaped like a boomerang, but it wraps around a closely mown mound instead of a lion’s mouth bunker. If your ball ends up on the wrong side of this hump, you can attempt a flop shot, a chip-and-run, or a putt—all equally delicate. If, on the other hand, you lay your second shot back and to the proper side of the fairway, you can use the mound to filter your ball to either right or left pins. On this hole, as throughout the course, brawn is good but brains are better.
While I’m okay with evaluating golf courses (obviously), I try to avoid ranking them. But I have no qualms about naming Soule Park my favorite in Ventura County. The kikuyu of the fairways alongside the bent of the greens; the landscape of live oaks, barrancas, and hills; the architectural echoes of Bell, Thomas, and MacKenzie—this is California golf at its purest.
The Future of Golf in Ventura County…
… is uncertain, sadly. Municipal courses are subject to the whims of markets and bureaucrats. Buenaventura and Olivas Links are owned by the city of Ventura; Rustic Canyon and Soule Park are operated by private firms but owned by Ventura County. All become vulnerable in times of economic downturn, fiscal austerity, and rising anti-golf sentiment.
Last year, the Ventura City Council voted 4-3 to “explore ways in which to change Ventura’s municipal golf courses—Olivas Links and Buenaventura—that could include developing part or all of the former and/or a portion of unused land on the latter.” Specifically, “part of the Buenaventura course will be under consideration as a site for a new water treatment facility.” (Awesome!)
The truth is, we as golfers have little control over whether any given course, especially one owned by the government, lives or dies. We can play it over and over, we can tell our friends about it, and we can champion it ad nauseam on the internet: the course may still close for reasons that have nothing to do with us.
As long as they exist, though, places like Buenaventura, Olivas Links, Rustic Canyon, and Soule Park give golf—and the love of golf course architecture—a grounding in the unsnobbish principles of affordability, accessibility, and fun.