Pelican Hill – Ocean North

Pelican Hill GC, Newport Coast. Ocean North Course by Tom Fazio, 1993.

On Pelican Hill’s Ocean North course the Pacific is nearly always in view (unless you should have the misfortune to play on an especially foggy day). Unfortunately, it is never in play.

From a strictly golf architecture perspective, this is the better of the two courses at the resort. But for the rates they charge, that you’re almost never within a thousand yards of the beach is certainly unfortunate.

That said, Fazio delivers his usual aesthetic grandeur in abundance here, crafting holes into canyons and draping them over hillsides, never letting the dramatic ocean views vanish for long. The course is wide but needs to be—the edges of the holes drop way severely and into thick growth where golf balls go to die. Couple the unforgiving edges with a site always exposed to ocean breezes and you want all the extra fairway you can get.

After a lengthy cart ridge to the first tee, the view looking to the left back down the 18th is great, but then you turn a play a handshake sort of par 5 that heads mostly inland. It could be reachable if you are feeling brave enough to challenge the bunker of the right with your first swing of the day. There’s less trouble surrounding this green than most on the course—the trees left protect the 17th tee and there’s grass all around this green if you miss, even if much of it is thick, its a better option than most misses on this course.

A case in point presents itself at the second, a classic do-or-die par 3 with the green perched on the other side of a canyon and well below the level of the tee. The trick is gauging the elevation change and the wind.

The green at #2 (Credit: Golf Pass)

The third plays down into a canyon while the fourth and fifth come back up and play on top of the hills. Six is another canyon-crossing par 3, before the seventh, another hilltop par 4. Here the wide fairway is divided by a long bunker. The best play is a drive over the top of this bunker but it’s a long carry uphill. If you can carry the sand, or hit a draw or cut that takes the slop around the trouble, you can catch a significant slope in the fairway that turns this long par 4 into a much shorter one.

Eight heads back toward the ocean, hugging the cliff on the right. Playing downhill, this par 5 can be reachable in two but the second shot is always key on this hole. There’s a centerline bunker 60 or so yards short of the green here and if you can carry this with your second shot, it will have a good chance to take the slope and reach the green. Miss too far right of the bunker and you may never see the ball again.

The ninth is a classic Fazio hole, a midlength par 4 playing down into a canyon with the fairway narrowing the further you hit it. If you lay back to where the fairway is wide, you leave a longer approach to a green that is slightly above you, but the further you drive it the more narrow the fairway gets.

After the rather bland uphill 10th, Fazio comes back with a clever short par 4 at the 11th. Though listed at 369 yards on the card, the hole bends right and plays significantly downhill toward the ocean—it is very easy to imagine that if you can just cover the bunkers at the corner of the dogleg, the slope will feed your ball right down to the green. However, playing back toward the ocean and thus into more breeze than you are likely to feel on the tee, chances are—unless you are Bryson DeChambeau—you cannot cover that bunker, and if you don’t clear it you will be facing one of the most awkward shots in the game. I think this is the rare short hole where, most of the time, it is better to safely play to the dogleg and try to hit a wedge close.

But at the 13th you find another short par 4 where I think the best best is to swing away. From the back tee this hole is 345, and though the tee is elevated the green is also raised, so it doesn’t really feel reachable. But the worst of the trouble are the bunkers that pinch the fairway. If you can hit driver pat those bunkers, that seems like the best play, rather than trying to squeeze a lay up between them, and leaving a longer uphill approach after that.

#14 plays back toward the Pacific (Credit: Golf Pass)

After several holes played through canyons, the vista of the Pacific from the 14th tee is fresh all over again. This is a strong par 4 bending right around a cluster of bunkers to an infinity green just slightly benched above a central bunker. Into the ocean breeze, this hole is one of the most difficult on the North. You are likely to have a long approach shot and the bunker in front tells you that you do not want to be short, meanwhile, the site of nothing but blue Pacific beyond the green clues you in that long is no good either. While on some infinity greens this is a trick, it’s true here, the back of the green is shaved and runs down to the cart path—your best hope is the curb of the path will stop your ball if it goes long, otherwise it’s over the edge and into the tick stuff on the hillside above the 17th hole on the South course.

The last hole playing out toward the ocean is the 17th, which if you’ve ever seen a picture of the North course at Pelican Hill is the picture you’ve seen (even at the top of this page). This is a better hole than most signature holes. A long par 5 playing back into the breeze off the ocean, this hole is not going to be reachable for the vast majority of people who play here but the way the fairway bends keeps the hole interesting. The closer you play to the trouble—a long fairway bunker and a pond—on the right, the shorter the hole becomes. Wherever you drive it, the second shot asks how much trouble you want to take on to get close to the green. The right side falls away hard with only a couple bunkers that may save a shot to that side. You can bail left into the safety of the hillside there, but there are a few nasty bunkers waiting to punish that play. There are no halfhearted layups here, you must decide on a target for the second shot and execute. And the view’s not bad either.

Looking back down #18 (Credit: Golf Pass)

The finisher is probably the course’s toughest hole, at least for higher handicaps. 430 yards and uphill all the way the biggest challenge is the second shot, the only one on the course that asks for a forced carry once more over the canyon to a green benched into a hillside below the first tee.

You can expect immaculate conditions befitting a resort of this statute and the views are great, but this is also cart golf in the extreme and rounds tend to take forever. As the old adage goes, they aren’t making any more land and they especially aren’t making any more oceanfront land—if playing golf while looking at the ocean all day makes the price tag worth it, you shouldn’t have any bad things to say about a round here.

California 2nd Quintile [2019]