The adventurous two-hour trek from Carlsbad, through the backroads of San Diego County, down twisting mountain roads, was worth the trouble. Over the last 15 months, I’ve been lucky enough to tee it up on a handful of spectacular, highly-rated Nicklaus-designed courses along the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean in Mexico and Hawaii.
Rams Hill Golf Club, a Tom Fazio layout given up for dead a decade ago, is on par with all of them. Tucked between the Santa Rosa Mountains in the Anza-Borrego Desert, Rams Hills is almost too green, too pristine, with mountain views too stunning to believe.
So how is it possible that a course in the middle of nowhere could be this magical?
“I get it every day,” said Bob Gelesko, head pro at Rams Hill. “People pull up after driving for hours; they see that first fairway and that deep green grass and they fall in love with it instantly. Driving through the desert you wouldn’t think that a paradise like this exists, but it does.”
It almost didn’t. From 2010 to 2014, Rams Hill closed its doors. For over three years, the land lay fallow after being abandoned by its previous owner. Without any water source, over 360 non-native trees died and lush green fairways turned brown.
“Once the financial crisis hit, the previous owner sold all the water rights and got whatever he could get,” said Harry Turner, Rams Hill’s general manager. “This place was completely abandoned.”
It appeared Rams Hill was going to be another victim of a depressed economy and depressed golf market. In the last 10 years, nearly a dozen courses have been shuttered in San Diego County and several more are on life support.
In 2013, new ownership bought the distressed course – for under $1 million – and immediately poured $10 million into the property, securing irrigation from six native wells, planting new seed and investing in bentgrass greens. Native trees that survived the drought became showpieces of the rebirth and a 3 1/2-acre solar farm was installed, saving Rams Hill nearly a half-million dollars a year in energy costs. The clubhouse was remodeled and expanded to include a fine-dining restaurant and bar.
Five years into its rebirth, Rams Hills has been turning heads in the golf world. Golfweek rates it as the fourth best resort course in California, behind only Pebble Beach, Pasatiempo and Spyglass. Golf Advisor has ranked the par 72-course No. 1 in California two of the last three years and No. 1 in the U.S. for 2016. Rams Hill has never made Golf Digest’s coveted top 100 U.S. courses. But Mike Graham, an avid golfer from Orange County who has played all over the world, said he has a feeling Rams Hill will be cracking the list soon.
“I’d even put it as a top 50 course,” said Graham, 58, on a two-day golf trip with college friends. “It’s very unique. It has a lot of Alister MacKenzie nuances to it, the undulation changes in the greens, the immaculate condition of the entire course.”
With five sets of tee boxes, Rams Hill plays just over 7,200 yards from the back tees. Massive fairways give the course the appearance of a pushover, but elaborate fairway bunkers and undulating, lightning-fast greens bring double or triple bogey into play on most holes.
“The strategically-placed traps can get you into a lot of trouble of the tee, but I think the course is really about the greens,” said Graham, who plays to a 6-handicap. “They’re big and deep. Some of them are so big they feel like four-club greens. And they’re a lot faster than you’ll see on most resort courses. If you’re in a bad spot, it’s pretty easy to three-putt if you don’t know where to land it.”
Mountain backdrops and elevated tee boxes on several holes, including the par-five, 577-yard 18th, give golfers the impression they are playing at altitude but highest point on the course is only 800 feet. Those having a tough time finding the fairway on the front nine will welcome the back-to-back par 3 on holes 9 and 10, which measure just 126 yards and 171 yards from the blue tees.
The back nine features fairly short par 4s on No. 12 and No. 17, both under 300 yards from the blues. But bunkers surround both greens, making a layup with a long iron or hybrid the wiser play.
The fairways are so well-manicured and colored such a deep shade of green, they almost don’t look real.
“People actually ask if we put artificial grass on this course,” said Gelesko who came to Rams Hill from Del Rio in Brawley and La Costa in Carlsbad. “It’s real rye grass and it’s so perfect out there. We don’t do anything special. It’s just proper watering, proper care and proper fertilizing.”
Green fees are more than reasonable at Rams Hill–$115 on weekdays and $130 on the weekend. Twilight rates are $85 and $95. Tee times and stay-and-play packages can be booked at Ramshill.com. The best deal is a “House on the Hill” weekend getaway for $799 per person through the end of January, $899 in February and $999 in March and April, the busiest months at the course. The getaway, which is perfect for friends, family or buddy trips, includes two days of unlimited golf, one breakfast and dinner at the clubhouse restaurant, tacos during your round, guaranteed prime time tee times, a one-hour post-round Full Swing simulator and a two-night stay at the ultra-luxurious House on the Hill, a four-bedroom, two-story house that accommodates 4-8 guests and overlooks the 15th fairway.
It might not be too long before there are plenty more lodging options at Rams Hills and possibly another golf course to play.
“I would think that in the next three to five years we’ll see another golf course and a 350-room hotel out here,” Turner said. “We’re within a 3 ½-hour drive of 24 million people. So we need more golf. I think we’d love to be thought of as a remote destination golf course in the same vein of quality as Bandon Dunes in Oregon or Sand Valley in Wisconsin.”
Story by Dave McKibben