Goat Hill Park

Goat Hill Park, Oceanside. Original 9-hole design by William H Johnson (1952), redesign by Ludwig Keehn (1990s) and Todd Eckenrode (2014).

Quite simply, this is what I want golf to be.

It’s inexpensive—just $40 to walk on a weekend morning.

It’s quick—paired up on a busy Saturday, my group still finished in three and a half hours.

It’s sustainable—they water what they need to, so the tees and fairways and greens are all green and in good shape, everything else will vary in color and condition with the season.

It’s fun—there are plenty of chances to make birdies here, thanks to a few short holes.

But it’s also plenty challenging—anyone who shoots their handicap here will have had an excellent day striking and putting their ball; par 3s after all are often some of the toughest holes relative to par for better players, since they eliminate the advantage of being able to drive it far.

And that of course leads to the final point. Despite being “only” a par 65 and “just” 4,582 yards, Goat Hill is real golf. It’s USGA rated. There are 8 par 3s but while the 10 other holes (9 par 4s and a par 5) are short, I still hit driver on all but one of them.

These revetted bunkers (here at #7, but common throughout the course) are just one way Goat Hill challenges

And of course, if you know anything about Goat Hill, you probably know that the community loves it. In 2014 when the city was considering eliminating the rundown course (one considered option was a new football stadium), John Ashworth stepped in and not only saved the course but started improvements that continue. Play Goat Hill tomorrow and you will probably find crews out working on a new tee, building or re-building new bunkers, or otherwise improving the course. The driving range now includes several protected bays with Foresight launch monitors. There’s the Playground, a 3-hole short course for kids; there’s the full disc golf course; there’s the Mini Goat Tees for kids or beginners that play anywhere from 40-200 yards on each hole.

And moreover, there’s simply the vibe. The clubhouse is a great spot. There’s a fire pit going from early in the day, hot dogs grilling right outside the pro shop, easy to pick up at the turn or after the round. They have great events, great merch, famous ambassadors wearing that merch.

Not all of this can be recreated in every city, of course. Austin has Save Muny and Oceanside had Save Goat Hill, but Bill Murray isn’t going to show up on the SNL stage wearing a short for every city’s pet course cause. But that doesn’t mean the Goat Hill model wouldn’t work in Denver or Phoenix or Minneapolis or Tampa.

Because in the end, no matter how good the vibe is, no matter how cool the merch, none of this works without the golf course. And the golf course is a blast.

You start with a short par 4, 290 yards playing to a fairway that is much wider than it seems with plenty of room right of the trees that run down the right side if you get past them about 180 yards out. As is often the case, the green is the real challenge. Like all greens at Goat Hill it is small but has a notable tier in the back half and anything long of the green goes down a severe slope.

Then comes the first par 3, 182 yards over a low area to one of the bigger greens on the course. There are no bunkers here but a couple trees immediately left of the green signal bad news on that side; anything left falls away in a hurry.

The tee shot on the third plays back across a deep canyon and while the carry isn’t terribly long (this is another par 4 of just 289 yards), it looks intimidating. The green is to the left a bit, but large eucalyptus trees protect down the left side of the fairway, so the best line for a tee shot is at or right of the dead tree in the distance, with a draw if possible. This is a shared green but the left half that you play to for the third if not overly severe so a drive in play makes this a birdie hole.

Walkers will discover through three holes that, even though the first three holes are relatively flat in terms of how the tees and greens relate (the second plays somewhat uphill) there are no flat walks at Goat Hill. Even at the first there’s a dip in front of the tee and a hill to climb to get out of it. And this is all well before you head down the actual hill on the course! It’s hard to imagine another course of under 5,000 yards asking so much from a walker (perhaps only Painswick).

The fourth is the only par 4 where almost everyone will need to lay up as the fairway ends about 80 yards short of the green on this 328 yards hole. You layup leaves a short shot over a low area to a green that is extremely sloped from back to front.

Right of the green at #5 is no good (Credit: Golf Pass)

The fifth is one of the most attractive holes on the course, but also one of the nastiest. Just 145 yards, the green is cute out of the hillside and you absolutely cannot miss right or you will end up far, far below the level of the green. Missing left might get you a kick onto the green, or might leave you with a terrifying pitch onto a narrow green sloping away from you.

The eighth, a blind par 4, probably doesn’t require a driver (and it may be too much club off the tee for some) but with a slight fade it leaves a short uphill pitch to the right side of the green shared with the third hole.

Nine is a short par 3, just 135 yards and downhill slightly, but the green is a tiny circle, set in a bit of a bowl. Any miss short will funnel off into the low area in front and the green slopes well front back to front, but it’s a great natural setting with tall eucalyptus trees to the left and palms behind the green.

The 10th green beckons from the tee

The 10th heads straight down the hill with a wide fairway but a shallow green. At just 305 yards and downhill significantly, the temptation to is grip and rip off the tee, but the green is offset left of the fairway and separated from the fairway by thick rough and broken land that makes a recovery chip difficult. Unless you can fly a drive all the way to the green (and expect to stop it), playing for the fairway may be the better option.

After an uphill par 3 at the 11th, the 12th is a par 4 that plays back uphill, doglegging hard around trees. If you can hit a very high ball of a hard, high hook you can try to drive this green, which sits in its own little hollow below the ninth green, but for most the play is a layup into the fairway and then a short shot to another very sloping green.

Looking back down #12 from above the green

The 13th is like a mirror image of the fifth hole, but at 175 yards. Here, left is no good, but a shot to the right might get a favorable kick. Also the hillside isn’t quite as severe and the green is a bit wider on this hole so a miss has a better chance of staying up and chipping from the right side isn’t nearly as terrifying than chipping from the high side on the fifth.

The course’s two longest holes come at the 15th and 16th. The 15th is the sole par 5, at 451 yards and only slightly uphill though it is really just a long par 4 for many good players. The fairway turns slightly right and long drivers can drive through into a fairway bunker on the left if they don’t fade the tee ball. The green is protected by a big cross bunker in front but is otherwise not one of the most severe around.

The 16th is the course’s longest par 4 at 346 and the tee shot is very narrow. About 230 yards out the fairway drops steeply downhill and any tee shots that reach this slope should run to the bottom, if they are in the fairwya, but the fairway is very narrow here and it’s quite easy to hit a drive that hangs up in the rough halfway down the hill, or gets to the bottom of the hill but finds itself behind a tree. The second shot is uphill to yet another small green with significant back to front slope.

Looking back down #16 from the green (Credit: Golf Pass)

You’ll have plenty of short irons and wedges at Goat Hill, especially if you drive it well, or even if you keep driver in the bag and just wisely hit tee shots safely into the fairway. So you should have birdie opportunities. But there are some longer par 3s and the greens are small enough that they’ll make you sweat even with short clubs. And misses can be severely punished. Even hitting the green sometimes is only the start of your adventure. Sure, it’s a par 65, but I doubt many people walk off feeling like they’ve played a lesser course (and fewer still will have brought the course to its knees).

The thing is, it’s not like this is an all-world spot for a course. It’s on a severe slope—the original course was called City Center but it earned the name Goat Hill honestly—with the freeway running by one side. You can see the ocean briefly and there’s a couple nice views of the hills looking east, but there’s certainly not the aesthetic appeal of a Torrey Pines or Balboa Park. The course was nine holes originally and it was quite a feat to squeeze 18 in here, even at a par of 65.

My point is, it’s replicable. Short, entertaining holes can be built anywhere. What makes Goat Hill special is that not every city has a Goat Hill. Chattanooga has Sweetens Cove. Orlando has Winter Park. Oceanside has Goat Hill. In America, that’s pretty much the list. Scotland, of course, is overrun with these kinds of courses. The game has been in America for over 125 years but we’re only starting to get back to those roots, it seems. Can’t do so quickly enough.

California 1st Quintile [2021]