Everyone in our group on the green. Someone’s closer! 6th hole, Los Lagos Course at Costa Mesa CC.

There’s an old plot line in movies where the answer to the great mystery was right under their noses the whole time.  Whether it’s the murder weapon that was in plain sight or the murderer was someone everyone knew, it’s an old trope.  It’s what I’ve been thinking about over the last week.

A month ago, I was at home, enjoying Memorial Day weekend (remembering it was cool and rainy for much of it) and not really thinking about much.  I had played a couple rounds this year and hadn’t done that well.  Then, a week later things got turned upside down and not in a good way, and I found myself driving out west to Southern California for family reasons (given the complete shit-show that air travel has become, I declined that option, not to mention paying hundreds of dollars a day for a car rental).

Mostly out of habit, I took my clubs with me, thinking (correctly) that I’d have free time to play.  Since playing at sunrise is kind of my thing, it worked out, which left me plenty of time for the horror show that the last week-plus has been.

Southern California was where the golf bug first bit me, influenced heavily by my Aunt who was an avid player (not a big hitter off the tee but I remain envious of her short game).  While she was a member at a couple private clubs in Texas and Oklahoma, our rounds were played on public (muni) tracks in Southern California (specifically, Orange County).  Nondescript places that seemed beneath her, but that she seemed to enjoy playing nonetheless.  Still remember her clowning a couple guys we got paired with who weren’t thrilled at getting paired with a female player (she easily beat them by 25 strokes).  She died the day of the final round of the 1987 Masters (watching it, of course).  Literally on death’s door, watching to see if Greg Norman could finally get over (he didn’t).

Turns out that you can go home again, even if you didn’t really want to.

My golf adventure last month started at the fancily-named (but very much not fancy) Costa Mesa Country Club, a 36-hole facility with a few holes that border a mental hospital, a few holes that border a high school, and a few holes that bordered a jogging/biking path.  I played the longer of the two courses (Los Lagos) for both rounds, which runs just over 6500 yards from the tips and a very manageable 6200 yards from the middle tees (I played it twice; once from each set).  The course is quite flat with only a few holes having any kind of elevation change.  Walking rates are $36 Monday-Thursday, $39 Friday, and $52 Saturday-Sunday.  The shorter Mesa Linda course maxes out at just over 5,400 yards and is quite flat.  It’s only $29 to walk Monday-Thursday, $34 Friday and $43 Saturday-Sunday.  The Mesa Linda would be a GREAT place for a shorter hitter to play.  It’s just fun.

First tee at Los Lagos course. Not much of a marine layer on the day.

Fairways are generally pretty generous, rough is minimal.  Greens were in good shape; certainly not tour speed but they were rolling consistently with very few burned-out areas.  Okay, there were a few bare spots in fairways and some of the paths weren’t pristine (a mix of dirt and rock), but at these rates the course clearly has their priorities in shape.  It’s fun.  The people you’ll play with are the salt-of-the-earth types who make the game great.  Waiting in line to check in for my 5:34 a.m. time, I got to chatting with a few guys who are regulars.  The course is quite popular for people who will play the back nine early.  If that’s you, get there early.  There will be a line.

Pre-sunrise at Costa Mesa CC. Already a dozen or so other cars in the parking lot behind me.

No expense spared on this handy map. But who cares? It’s a great place to play.

Los Lagos starts with back-to-back par 5’s, and finishes with a par 5 as well for a total of five par-5’s on the course with yardages ranging from 520-567 yards (from the tips).  Water only comes into play on a few holes.  The par 4’s are also widely varied (from 320-420 yards).  There’s yardage plates in the middle of the fairways at 200, 150 and 100 yards that can appear to be hidden, so a rangefinder/GPS device isn’t the worst thing to have.  If you play in the afternoon expect a breeze off the ocean (only 5-6 miles from the ocean).

Teeing off on #10 at Mile Square (classic). This sums up the vibe pretty well.

My next port of call was Mile Square Golf Course, another 36-hole facility in Fountain Valley, the town where I went to high school and spent some formative years getting into various kinds of trouble (my attorney has advised me from making any additional statements).  The town may lack a certain verve and excitement (I mean, the city’s motto is “a nice place to live”) but it gets golf right.  There are two main courses (the older ‘Classic’ course and a newer ‘Players’ course that there are rumours about it shuttering; hopefully this doesn’t happen), plus an 18-hole ‘Executive’ course (David L. Baker) on the north side of the park that is lit should you want to play at night (why more courses don’t do this remains a mystery).  Of the two main courses, it’ll run you $41 Monday-Thursday and $55 Friday-Sunday to walk.  Both courses are easily walkable.  Flat and with minimal distances between holes.  The majority of people playing either carried or were part of the Push Cart Mafia.  There’s a driving range and several practice greens.

Like Costa Mesa CC, the cart paths are beat up, but the fairways (and especially the greens) were in good shape.  The greens are especially good.  They use recycled water so best to not lick your ball if it rolled in the dew.  In the DC area this course would be full at $70-$90.  The 9th hole runs parallel to a busy street so going right is highly unadvisable.  Both courses are very busy so expect a 4-5 hour round (I played early on a Saturday morning and finished in 4:15; the group in front of us were lagging a bit but they were apologetic about it and were trying to keep up).  Like Costa Mesa (and Meadowlark, below) playing in the afternoon means you’re getting a sea breeze coming from the ocean almost every day.

From the rough on #1 at the Classic Course at Mile Square.

Mile Square Park is very much a public park, and it was playing here that a light came on in the normally empty space that is my head.  On the front nine, a few holes border a series of baseball fields where kids were out practicing and playing.  Soccer fields sat empty but it was obvious that they’d be in use that day.  Outdoor basketball courts were visible as well.  On the back nine, more soccer fields and several softball fields were getting used, with the softball games drawing heavy crowds.  There’s even a nature preserve, and of course lots of running/walking/biking trails.

Unless dirt/rock cart paths bug you (and they don’t bug me), Mile Square is a great place to play. It’s flat (I was at an angle).

The country club set would probably shiver and require fainting couches for having to play amid young girls and their parents cheering wildly at base hits and runs, but I found that it didn’t detract from my round.  And shouldn’t THAT be the standard?  Why can’t we co-exist?  Shouldn’t a public park that has golf (and other sports) be able to exist peacefully?  Why yell at each other when it just seems easier to get along.

Flirted with a watery grave on the 14th hole at Mile Square.

If I did have a complaint, it’s for a lack of a short (under 130 yards) par 3.  The 13th hole (below) is the shortest hole at 144 yards from the middle tees.  The other par 3’s are 155, 170 and 165 yards from the middle tees.

13th hole at Mile Square (classic). Shortest par 3 on the course (144 from the middle tees).  Behind us were a few softball fields that had games going on.  Wish they were cheering for me but such is life.

My last round was at Meadowlark GC in Huntington Beach.  It was a challenge to get on at Meadowlark since they don’t take walk-ins as of this writing but I managed to get a tee time.  It would have been nice if I’d have managed to charge my phone to take a few photos but I dropped the ball on that one.  Meadowlark is relatively tame on the scorecard, topping out at just over 5,600 yards from the tips.  However, the ocean is only a mile or so away so an ocean breeze should be expected most of the time.  Meadowlark is tighter than the other courses and wayward shots can bring some challenges into play.  Rough was a non-issue; greens were good (all of the courses have poa annua greens if you care; it’s quite common here as are the kikuyu fairways and tee boxes; you’ll find the same down the road at Torrey Pines); maybe not as good as those at Mile Square but decent.  Some areas weren’t lush but were burned out a bit, but generally speaking the fairways and greens were more than playable.

The course very much fits on the small plot of land it occupies.  With a couple exceptions the course is relatively flat, and the pricing is quite reasonable.  Walking rates vary from $34-$50 depending on day of week.  When I was there I saw a significant number (close to, but not quite 50%) of players using pull/push carts.

In four rounds, I didn’t lose a single ball.  I didn’t play that well and certainly didn’t score well, but I was able to avoid any big trouble (not that these courses have much).  Meadowlark probably has a couple holes with water very much in play where losing a ball is fairly easy (water at Mile Square is only on a few holes and a couple at Los Lagos at Costa Mesa).  Like Mile Square, there are a couple holes where getting wild puts your ball on a busy street so please don’t.

Look, if you’re visiting Orange County, a trip to some of the tonier public courses (Pelican Hill, Strawberry Farms, Coyote Hills, Tustin Ranch, Monarch Beach) is certainly a fantastic day out especially if money isn’t an object (Pelican Hill’s views are especially fantastic; played it once in 1996 when a colleague paid for us to play), but I’d argue that you don’t need to break the bank in order to play good golf.  While Costa Mesa, Mile Square and Meadowlark don’t have million-dollar views, they’re what public golf should be.  Affordable, fun, and a vital part of the community and populated by your fellow public golfers who love the game.  Mile Square is where I came to love this game, and while she may not be the belle of the ball, she can dance with me anytime she wants.  Just don’t go right on #9.