The Summer of Golf examines the sport’s post-pandemic popularity boom at local courses in South Orange County and showcases the play of each course through the eyes of our resident normal, below-average new golfer.
By Zach Cavanagh
Out of all the public golf courses in South Orange County, San Juan Hills Golf Club in San Juan Capistrano is the only one that can offer the true full-day experience.
“We look at our business as three separate businesses,” San Juan Hills Golf Club General Manager Ryan Brown said. “The driving range is its own entity. It’s got ambience with the targets, music. The lights stay on until 10 o’clock. There’s food and drink, patio furniture. At the clubhouse itself, the sports bar is a busy restaurant already. If the golf course wasn’t there, it would still be a popular spot for locals. There’s always gameday specials available, and live music three times a week in the summer. There’s always something going on.”
San Juan Hills GC is one of only two public courses in San Clemente, Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano with its own dedicated driving range, which gives you ample ability to warm up before your round—and immediately lose whatever mechanics you had “locked in” between the range and the first tee. It’s not as extreme as a Topgolf venue, but as Brown mentioned, it is its own type of outing you can take in during the week for practice or pleasure.
The San Juan Hills Sports Bar & Grill is one of the best “19th holes” in all of Orange County. It’s legitimately a spot that many enjoy without even taking a swing on the course. It’s a full-on sports bar restaurant with more than 25 TVs for any game. There’s an excellent selection of beer, whiskey and cocktails to pair up with more than decent food on its breakfast, lunch and dinner menus. (Post-round, the pulled pork sandwich or smashed Wagyu burger certainly hit the spot.)
All of that before even talking about the actual golf course, which, despite how busy San Juan Hills can be with more than 75,000 rounds a year, features some of the best-manicured greens in all of Orange County and a challenging but forgiving track through the hills.
“I feel like it’s in really good shape,” San Juan Hills Golf Club Director of Golf Victor Placeres said. “I’d put our greens up against a lot of other courses, for sure. Perfect, markable speed with enough run-out on the downhill putts that it’s a challenge. Every time I play it, I’m blown away at the quality and condition of the greens for the amount of golf we do.”
As value has been mentioned in the past couple entries of this Summer of Golf series, it’s clear that San Juan Hills Golf Club provides a lot extra, even if it’s not included in the price tag of a round. The prices for a round feel appropriate for the course, with $82 in prime weekday hours and $115 in prime weekend hours.
However, the real value for San Juan Hills comes with its In-Club membership. While other public clubs also offer these type of membership deals, it’s hard to beat all that comes with San Juan Hills’ version. First, those weekday rounds drop to $58 for members and the weekends down to $89. Then, there is the earlier reservation window for tee times, as well as an extended booking window for a small fee. There’s also anytime happy hour pricing at the driving range, discounts at the pro shop and monthly food and beverage promotions. The memberships are $125 for the first year and $99 for renewals.
“We take a lot of pride in that,” Brown said. “We have a lot to offer in our experiential package, not just the prices.”
The full package at San Juan Hills will also expand in coming years, with plans to remodel the driving range and provide a bigger clubhouse, pro shop and restaurant on the driving-range side of San Juan Creek Road.
San Juan Hills Golf Club offers a lot of extra shine, but how does the course actually play?
While there wasn’t the spectacular progress in my score like last week at Talega, my round at San Juan Hills was pretty darn solid.
I shot a 41-over-par 112 from the 5,970-yard white tees, which may not seem spectacular, but when you compare it to my last round at San Juan Hills in September of last year, it’s a step up. Last year, I shot a 57-over-par 128 on the same white tees.
My blow-ups were limited with one quintuple-bogey on both the front and back nine, but we can forget about those, because there were some truly incredible shots that I managed in this round.
On hole No. 1, despite sending my tee shot well left (but thankfully clearing the water), I saved double-bogey by draining a 25-foot putt from the left side of the green.
We’ve talked about how being lucky is better than being good, and that played out on hole No. 4. My uphill drive went left and sat behind a pair of small trees, and my only play was to try and split the trees. So, I lined up and swung, and as the ball went toward the left tree, I managed to zing the ball through the middle of the tree, between two branches, and set up my chip shot.
Hole No. 8 was an adventure in luck, as well. My drive sailed right and again landed in a gathering of trees. I had the opening to split the trees, but my shot was lined left, directly off a tree and backward into the fairway. However, two shots later, I nailed a 4-iron shot within inches of the hole. An extra bit of roll would’ve given me a spectacularly saved birdie, but instead I took the “gimme” putt from my group for the par.
“I think off the tee, it’s forgiving enough that you can make a mistake and not just blow a score up on a hole,” Placeres said of the course. “On most holes, you can make a little bit of a mistake and not get crushed for it, but it’s challenging enough that you have to pay attention to each shot.”
Later, I saved myself from the sand on the picturesque par-3 No. 14 to knock in for par.
Moral of this round is just keep playing and take your shots. You never know how they may bounce.
Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.