In the dark days before Arnold Palmer, golf was mostly a game for the rich and the powerful. They played their rounds at pricey private country clubs, where valets parked their cars, caddies handled their bags and greenskeepers scurried to repair the scars they inflicted on the course.
But with the rise to prominence of Palmer in the late 1950s, golf began truly to become a public game. Unlike many golfers before him, such as the elegant Bobby Jones, who won tournaments with a velvety swing and smooth urbanity, Palmer flailed at the ball like a lumberjack, shirttail hanging out, then stalked up the fairway defiantly, hitching up his pants, cigarette in hand.
While he was an uncommonly fine golfer, he appeared to be a common man. And, following Palmer's example, millions of common men and women began to take up the game.
Not that there weren't public golf courses; there were, but the demand for them increased dramatically and has continued to this day, the number of courses lagging far behind the interest in playing them.
Today in Orange County there are 26 public golf courses of nearly every size, configuration and level of difficulty. Any golfer in the county who gets the urge to swat the ball around for a while can choose among courses ranging from the tiny 9-hole executive course at the Newporter Resort, where the longest hole is 85 yards, to the sometimes wickedly difficult Links at Monarch Beach, where the beauty of the seaside setting can disguise the traps that lurk for the unwary.
Professionals at some of the larger courses in Orange County reported that as many as 60,000 to 80,000 rounds of golf are played at their clubs each year. With such volume, starting times are sometimes difficult to obtain, particularly with the frequency and popularity of company tournaments and preferred starting times that are given to members of men's and women's clubs associated with several courses.
"With the continuing growth of (the number of) golfers, more courses for the public are needed," said Ward Lyon, the golf professional at Anaheim Hills Golf Course, which accommodates about 7,750 players a month. "If we had another 18 holes at our facility we would have no problem filling it up."
Still, the avid golfer will find a way. Because for most lovers of the game, the attractive course, the testing hole, the layout that combines both natural beauty and man-made danger (professionals tend to use the word "challenge") all are a kind of Holy Grail, the object of many a weekend crusade.
In response to a Times survey, a dozen golf professionals who work at public courses throughout Orange County offered their opinions about the best features of their own and other public courses in the county. They also listed the layouts they thought were most appealing to the average golfer who regularly plays public courses.
Two courses were the overwhelming favorites among the pros: the Links at Monarch Beach and the Green River Golf Club, both of which were endorsed by seven pros. In location and terrain, the two courses are vastly different, with Green River straddling the Orange County line near Corona and Monarch perched above the ocean in Laguna Niguel. But both were praised for their beauty and variety. Among the comments:
"Maintenance is A-1. Courses are always in good shape. The personnel are tip-top." (Both courses.)
"Good lengths, with large trees." (Green River.)
"Newer, in better condition. (Monarch.) "Good layout." (Green River.)
"Makes you play different shots. Greens tricky." (Monarch.)
"Right on the ocean, not too long, but very challenging." (Monarch.)
"Good layout, although gets a bit too windy." (Green River.)
"Mature, tough golf course." (Green River.) "Has the beauty of ocean views." (Monarch.)
"Hazards and trouble. Severe slopes and speeds on greens. Good use of water and bunkers. (Monarch.) Good mixture of length and finesse. Trees and wind make play more difficult." (Green River.)
Runners-up in the voting were Mile Square Golf Course in Fountain Valley, San Clemente Golf Course, Imperial Golf Course in Brea, Anaheim Hills Golf Course and Rancho San Joaquin Golf Course in Irvine.
Holes at the Links at Monarch Beach were listed 11 times by surveyed pros as ranking among the best in the county. Three holes at Green River Golf Club and two at San Clemente Golf Course also rated accolades.
Two holes in particular, the par-5 sixth hole at Monarch Beach and the par-3 fifteenth hole at San Clemente, were mentioned repeatedly. Both are scenic but can present terrible trouble.
The sixth at Monarch Beach is a tantalizing hole in which two long shots can place the golfer on the green with a putt for an eagle. However, a deep creek running the length of the hole must be cleared twice before the green can be reached. Also, fairway bunkers are strategically placed to attract errant shots. Comments from the pros:
- "Plenty of bunkers, an ever-present wind and a tricky green make this a difficult par 5."