For serious students of golf course design, the chance to try their hand at sculpting a course of their own poses both a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a potential risk—the risk coming from exposing one’s work to the slings and arrows of those whose work you’ve critiqued in the past. In 2000, just such an opportunity came to noted golf historian and author Geoff Shackelford; so far, the plaudits have far outnumbered the slings and arrows.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve drawn golf holes and have been fascinated by both the game and its architectural aspects,” Geoff Shackelford began. “When I finished college, I had the chance to travel to many of the great courses in Scotland with my dad, who worked with American Golf. I also studied George C. Thomas, Jr.s Golf Architecture in America cover to cover. This propelled my writing career, and I started doing books on golf architecture. I happened to meet an architect from Pennsylvania named Gil Hanse. It turned out he had read a few of my books, and he said in an off-hand manner, “If a project ever arises and you want to work together, I’d love to do it.” In 2000, that project materialized; a friend of my father was developing a property called Rustic Canyon in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles. A number of developers and architects toured the site – dry, hilly scrub land, for the most part – and came away feeling it wasn’t much good for golf. When I walked the land I thought that it could make a remarkable golf course, though any design would have to be sensitive to the site.”
Soon after his first walk-through, Geoff teamed up with Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner and began laying the plans for Rustic Canyon. He spent in the vicinity of 200 days walking the site, trying to envision the routing. These exacting efforts resulted in a fine example of what Geoff terms “rustic golf” – an offshoot of classic links fused with an aesthetic inspired by the look and feel of certain Australian courses. “Golf in America has become extremely lush, often greatly at odds with the environment,” Geoff continued. “Our goal was to place the course in the midst of the terrain we had to work with, rather than reshape the land to meld with our vision of what the course might be. In southern California, we have a dry climate, and in the region of Ventura County where Rustic Canyon is, there are many ranches. We tried to incorporate the feel of the surrounding ranch land into the layout – split-level fences, rugged, untamed terrain outside of the immediate field of play. I’ve described it as rustic golf, but it could also be called ranch golf. There are some severe contours and other quirky features on the course, but nearly all of them were there when we started; we just followed the natural characteristics of the land. Some players will initially reject such design elements, sensing they are man-made. If they understand that these elements are natural, they’re more willing to accept them.”
The many appeals of Rustic Canyon do not seize the first-time visitor upon arrival. There’s no crashing surf, lonely cypresses, snowcapped mountains or dazzling fountains. Instead, there’s a seemingly flat expanse of land in pleasing, if unremarkable Happy Camp Canyon. The greens of the fairways and putting surfaces stand in sharp contrast to the earth tones of the native vegetation – much of it sage scrub – that’s been left as undisturbed as possible. (California’s motto is “the golden state,” though in the dry summer heat, it might well be called “the brown state.”) A dry wash bisects the property, and figures frequently in the course of play. Once you’re on the course, its subtle attractions begin to reveal themselves. Though it may seem flat, there’s actually an elevation change of 243 feet from the thirteenth green at the top of the canyon to the fourth green at the southwest end of the course. Geoff points out in his course notes that putts tend to break in this direction.
Geoff Shackelford and his fellow conspirators are well-versed in the design tenets from the golden age of golf architecture, a canon that preaches playability for the less gifted golfer, encourages strategic shot selection for the low-handicapper and lastly, an ethos that beseeches the designer to work with what the site has given him. At Rustic Canyon, you’ll find a thoughtful application of those principles. Wide fairways provide even directionally-challenged drivers a decent chance of hitting paydirt. (Geoff notes that many of the areas immediately off the fairway are occasioned by brown or sandy patches, both to prevent irrigation from reaching the native grass areas, and to minimize the anguish of lost balls.) Though the fairways are wide, there are certainly quadrants that provide birdie hunters with more expedient access to the pin; precision is not required, but it sure helps! (“Many regulars at Rustic Canyon will drive slowly into the course to scout out the pin placements,” Geoff added, “as this will influence which side of the fairway you’ll want to play to.”) In a nod toward a links sensibility, many holes at Rustic Canyon have generous entrances to the greens blanketed in the same bent grass as the putting surfaces, in hopes of encouraging players to play the bump and run shots that are so much a part of old country golf.
For many golf design buffs, there’s nothing quite so pleasing as a well-conceived short par-4, the kind of hole that tempts you to swing away, yet has potential to punish those who throw caution to the wind and err. Rustic Canyon has three such holes – the 3rd, the 7th and the 12th. At 315, 330 and 340 yards respectively, with sprawling fairways and relatively few hazards, all hold out the promise of easy birdies. Yet less fortunate outcomes are more often the case. The third and the seventh offer different approach options, and it generally takes a few plays of these holes to find the plan of attack that best suits your game (and confidence level). The 12th seems absurdly straightforward, but things aren’t always as they seem. “Number 12 was inspired by the tenth hole at Riviera Country Club, though it looks nothing like it,” Geoff explained. “It plays to a massively wide fairway with an open fronted green that’s slightly to the left. It’s tempting to try to drive it, though if you lay up, you have a much better chance of making four. After all the times I’ve played it, I still get suckered into trying to get on in one…and I make a six!”
Geoff Shackelford is the author of ten books, including Lines of Charm: Brilliant And Irreverent Quotes, Notes, And Anecdotes from Golf’s Golden Age Architects; The Future of Golf: How Golf Lost Its Way and How to Get It Back; Grounds for Golf: The History and Fundamentals of Golf Course Design; Alister MacKenzie’s Cypress Point Club; and The Golden Age of Golf Design. His writing has also appeared in every significant golf magazine; in 2004/2005, The Golfer named him one of modern golf’s ten most influential writers.” Geoff is currently a contributing editor to Golfdom Magazine, where he writes a monthly column as well as feature stories for the respected industry publication. He co-designed Rustic Canyon Golf Course with Gil Hanse, and is collaborating on other designs in Cabo San Lucas, Vancouver Island, and Valentine, Nebraska.
IF YOU GO…
Getting There: Rustic Canyon is in Moorpark, California, roughly an hour north of Los Angeles, and midway between LA and Santa Barbara.
Course Information: Rustic Canyon (805-530-0221; www.rusticcanyongolfcourse.com) plays 6,988 yards from the blacks to a par 72. Green fees are a modest $37 to $60.
Accommodations: There are many lodging options in the area, including the Best Western Posada Royale (800-994-4884; www.posadaroyale.com) in nearby Simi Valley and the Four Seasons at Westlake Village (1 800) 819-5053; www.fourseasons.com/westlakevillage) in Thousand Oaks.
(from Fifty More Places To Play Golf Before You Die)