THERE ARE FAMILY road trips — “Daddy, how much longer until we get there?” — and there are golf road trips: “Joe, we’re playing golf five consecutive days; you in?” It’s a time-honored truism that golfers love to travel and play on bucket-list courses in far off exotic locales. But what if a distant journey wasn’t required to try the game’s crème de la crème venues? Therein lies the distinct advantage of California. In fact, all golfers need to do is view a map of the state from south to north to see it gives the impression of a left-to-right dogleg fairway.
Regardless of which direction you start in, it’s evident that when Mother Nature was distributing her genes within these borders, she bestowed an extraordinary pool of geological assets, including mountains, rivers, lakes, valleys, forests, desert and 1,264 miles of Pacific Ocean coast to help shape the most spectacular assortment of golf courses on the planet.
While various regions around the Golden State may claim bragging rights to the finest fairways and greens, none of them would be wrong. With just over half the state’s 1,100- plus golf courses open for public play, the primary quandary usually concerns how deep to dip into the pocket for green fees, which run the gamut from low double- or triple-digit figures to as high as $495 for Pebble Beach Golf Links. But if you take cost out of the equation and simply factor in the combination of scenery and quality, the Monterey Peninsula becomes ground zero for the greatest concentration of celebrated golf courses in California. So for a five-day opportunity of a lifetime, gather your best buds, load up the sticks, and take a couple hours’ drive south from Marin for a multicourse adventure throughout this renowned golf paradise.
Tucked in the gently rolling terrain of the Santa Cruz Mountains, seemingly light-years from the chip universe and a short drive from storied Steinbeck country, this Robert Trent Jones Jr.–designed property boasts 18 masterful and walkable holes, played predominantly by the sultans of tech. The 7,169-yard layout, void of any homes, has already hosted the PGA Tour’s Frys.com Open (2010–13), and in July 2016, the titans of the women’s golf world will compete in the U.S. Women’s Open Championship. After the round, swing into the vino fueling stop located on-site at the Clos LaChance Winery. cordevallegolf.com/golf
Pasatiempo Golf Club
Acclaimed golf course architect Alister MacKenzie (Cypress Point GC and Augusta National) conceived a magical formula in 1929 that transformed a scenic parcel in Santa Cruz into a course rich with history, and where World Golf Hall of Famer Juli Inkster honed her game growing up in a home along the 14th fairway. Situated up Highway 1 from the 17-Mile Drive in Monterey, the 6,500-yard layout in 2007 underwent a complete restoration by one of today’s supreme architects, Tom Doak, after slides were uncovered in the early 1990s detailing the original design from golf’s “golden age.” pasatiempo.com
Spyglass Hill Golf Course
Bordering Monterey Peninsula’s 17-Mile Drive and taking its theme from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, this Robert Trent Jones Sr.–designed masterpiece features golf holes with names such as Black Dog and Billy Bones. The notoriously long and demanding 6,960-yard challenge, ranked No. 11 on “America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses List” by Golf Digest, maintains its reputation as one of the toughest on the PGA Tour, with two distinctly different types of terrain influencing the way holes look and play. The first five holes roll through sandy seaside dunes; the remaining 13 cut through majestic pines surrounding elevated greens, with bunkers and lakes strategically placed to grab errant shots. pebblebeach.com/golf/spyglass-hill-golf-course
Pebble Beach Golf Links
No other 18-hole layout in Northern California offers better boasting creds: it’s one of the game’s most rarified grounds, America’s No. 1 golf course, and host site for the annual AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am PGA Tour, as well as five U.S. Open Championships (1972, 1982, 1992, 2000 and 2010, with No .6 coming in 2019). The hefty public entry fee proffers the privilege of playing in the shadows of golf legends. Undoubtedly inspired by the seven oceanside holes, Jack Nicklaus once said, “If I only had one more round to play, I would choose to play it at Pebble Beach.” pebblebeach.com/golf/pebble-beach-golf-links
Bayonet and Black Horse
With an inland setting, yet still providing views of Monterey Bay, these two 18-hole gems renovated in 2008 by Gene Bates are sometimes overshadowed by the aforementioned courses. The PGA Tour Q-School Stage III tournament has been a longtime fixture on the 7,104-yard Bayonet constructed in 1954. The course is famous for its “Combat Corner” (the green is located at Fort Ord, a former military base), and this year (Oct. 15–18) will host the Senior PGA National Championship. Its sibling, the 7,024- yard Black Horse, was designed in 1964 and has been transformed from a tightly tree-lined layout to one that’s more open. If there’s one day to play a doubleheader, these courses will help lower the trip’s average green fee while not disappointing on quality. bayonetblackhorse.com
Five world-class courses with 23.42 breathtaking miles of fairways and greens — there’s little chance any golf buddy would turn this adventure down.