IN THE PUBLIC EYE: River Course at the Alisal in Solvang, Calif.
THE LAYOUT: Created by Halsey Design Group of Bonsall, Calif., and opened in 1992, the River Course runs alongside the Santa Ynez River with scenic views of the Santa Ynez Mountains on California's Central Coast.
The course plays to a par of 72 at 6,930 yards from the back tees, with a USGA rating of 73.1 and a slope of 126.
John Pate, the 1999 Southern California Amateur champion whose brother Steve played on the PGA Tour, set the course record of 66, which was tied by Chad Wright, who played at USC and on the Canadian PGA Tour.
HEAD PROFESSIONAL: Robert Scarpati.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Although the River Course is less than a mile from its sister course, the resort Ranch Course at the Alisal, they are located in two entirely different settings.
The River Course plays through a wide valley and has a feeling of openness on most holes. Since it is newer, the trees have not matured, but even when they do, it will never look like the more traditional Ranch Course, which is located in a woodsy area.
The most dramatic and difficult hole on the River Course is the 438-yard, par-4 seventh, which has trouble everywhere you look. Hit a big slice off the tee and your ball can wind up in a vineyard of Mission Meadow Winery, which runs the length of the hole. Hit a hook and your tee shot might wind up at the bottom of the lake that runs all the way up to the green.
The front nine finishes with a scenic par 3, 172 yards down the hill into the prevailing wind across Alamo Pintado Creek, which crosses the course in several spots.
The back nine opens with the No. 2 handicap hole, a 430-yard par 4, but it plays downwind on the tee shot through a chute of trees. Another stand of trees runs down the left side of the fairway, and a gaping bunker guards the right side of the green.
The last four holes cover a plateau below the clubhouse. The 123-yard 17th looks simple enough but is almost surrounded by water and sand, although the most challenging of the final four is No. 15, which plays uphill across the creek and often into the wind.
The golf scenes in the movie "Sideways," starring Paul Giamatti, were filmed on the River Course.
OTHERS COURSES IN THE AREA: La Purisima Golf Course a few miles down the road in Lompoc, is one of the best public courses in California, having played host to the PGA Tour Qualifying School and U.S. Open qualifying.
Also nearby are several other outstanding courses -- Blacklake Golf Resort in Nipomo, Avila Beach Golf Club, Marshallia Ranch Golf Course at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Cypress Ridge Golf Club in Arroyo Grande and Rancho Maria Golf Course in Orcutt.
Only 40 minutes south are several more top-shelf courses in Santa Barbara, including acclaimed Sandpiper Golf Course (called "the Pebble Beach of Southern California"), Rancho San Marcos Golf Club, Glen Annie Golf Club and Santa Barbara Golf Club.
WHERE TO STAY: The 10,000-acre Alisal Guest Ranch and Golf Resort offers tennis, horseback riding, biking, swimming and hiking, plus boating and fishing on Alisal Lake.
The Ranch Course can be played only by club members and guests at the Alisal Guest Ranch, which was founded in 1946 and became a hideaway for Hollywood icons such as Doris Day and Clark Gable, who married Lady Silvia Ashley in the old library on the grounds. There are nature walks and bird-watching on the property, which borders Ronald Reagan's Rancho del Cielo that served as the Western White House during Reagan's presidency.
Solvang, an authentic Scandinavian village founded by Danish settlers in 1911, is one of the top tourist sites in California. Of course, the Spanish padres arrived much earlier, in 1804, and founded Mission Santa Ines on the edge of town.
Solvang features several themed hotels, including the Royal Scandinavian Inn, the Best Western King Frederik Motel, the Kronborg Inn and Svendsgaard's Danish Lodge.
Also close is the Best Western Pea Soup Andersen's Motel in Buellton.
ON THE WEB: www.rivercourse.com
THE LAST RESORT: Circling Raven Golf Club in Worley, Idaho.
THE LAYOUT: For destination golfers, the Coeur d'Alene Resort Golf Course deserves its lofty praise; the well-manicured course is picturesque, has a famous floating green and all the amenities one could ask for, from pre-round massages to world-class food.
But ask avid Northwest golfers for their favorite course on the east side of the Cascades, and they are likely to point you 40 minutes south to the small town of Worley, Idaho. Tucked a short drive away from the Washington border sits Circling Raven, the gem of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe that operates the casino and hotel next door.
Designed by Gene Bates, Circling Raven winds through 620 acres next to the Coeur d'Alene National Forest. The par 72 course is 7,189 yards from the tips, and heed the advice of the starter to play from the blues (6,589) or whites (6,108) unless you're an accurate bomber who has played the course before.
There are five tee boxes in all, and a true test of golf awaits from each.
Circling Raven weaves along its expansive property with significant elevation changes and a well-thought-out design on every hole. No two shots feel the same, but a good score can certainly be had with fairly wide fairways on most holes and receptive greens that roll true and fast.
There is a distinct feel of Bandon Dunes-style golf. You won't find much trouble unless you're wayward off the tee, and most of the score-busting comes in the form of plentiful bunkers and errant shots snagged by the wetlands and grasslands.
When Golf Digest re-ranked it biennial list of America's 100 Greatest Public Courses to factor in greens fees in 2009, Circling Raven ($65-95) was ranked No. 19.
Golfweek ranked Circling Raven No. 89 among its top 100 resort courses in October 2012, and Golf.com ranks it No. 90 among the best public golf courses in the United States.
DIRECTOR OF GOLF: Tom B. Davidson.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Tony the starter is chock full of information, and soak it all in while you can because Circling Raven's undulations, bunkers and waste areas aren't all easily viewable for first-time visitors to steer clear of. Once you're out on the course, the state-of-the-art golf carts provide GPS guidance and hole-by-hole overviews.
Consider your clubs selections very carefully. The elevation changes -- particularly on several of the par 3s, can turn a good swing into a sideways bunker lie in the blink of a 6-iron when a 7-iron would have done the job.
The 18-hole journey begins with the No. 7 handicap on the course, a 513-yard par 5 with a hard dogleg left. A well-placed drive -- Tony will caution you about anything left -- makes this a reasonable opening birdie look on a green that slopes right to left.
From there, you're through the tunnel under the railroad tracks and to a 395-yard par 4 that plays uphill and has a dogleg to the right. One of the prettiest views of the course awaits at the par-3 third, which plays 217 yards, with a two-club drop down the valley and a green that is well-protected by big, deep bunkers you want no part of.
If you appreciate scenery and not ducking shots from other holes, Circling Raven has more than eight miles of cart paths. Enjoy the wide swaths of blue grass as you approach No. 4 -- the hardest hole on the course at 406 yards from the gold tees.
The front nine also features the short eighth, 386 yards down the hill, but with danger to the right and a green again protected by bunkers. It's drivable, depending on the tee box you choose.
The trek back to the clubhouse on the outward half closes with the 474-yard ninth, which requires a big drive that avoids the wetlands down the left side.
The back nine begins with a fun carry off the tee at the 336-yard 10th, where it's wise to play to a full club and not leave yourself an awkward approach if you're not able to drive the green.
Bates' unique vision for each hole continues on the 11th, a winding uphill par-4 that showcases the bluegrass and huge space that Circling Raven takes advantage of.
If you play the tips, the 253-yard 13th with a forced carry of the wetlands is a monster. Heck, at 218 from the blues it's no picnic.
When you reach No. 15, trees greet you on all sides for a downhill 426-yard par-4 that includes another dogleg.
The 18th plays alongside the road, where white stakes definitely come into play and can snag a solid back nine score right out of your hands. And don't get overaggressive with the approach shot -- anything long or right will be stolen by the wetlands.
OTHER COURSES IN THE AREA: The Coeur d'Alene Resort Course really should be on any golfer's bucket list, but it will run you between $150-$250 depending on the time of year, so check for good specials on twilight and replay rates.
A favorite of the locals, and where many of the employees of the resort frequent, is Avondale Golf Club about seven miles away in Hayden.
A 6,573-yard course that weaves among the trees, Avondale has a fun layout with water coming into play on several holes. Bring your straight driver, however, as the course is littered with white stakes that can balloon scores quickly.
Worley is less than an hour from Spokane, Wash., which has five fun courses that you wouldn't expect to see from a city-run operation. Each is unique and well worth the $30-35 greens fees.
Palouse Ridge on the Washington State campus in Pullman and the University of Idaho course are also local favorites.
WHERE TO STAY: The Coeur d'Alene casino has more than 300 rooms and gaming that includes slot machines, high-stakes bingo, off-track betting, table games and entertainment. Call well ahead of time, however, as events like the Ironman triathlon sell the hotel out quickly.
The Coeur d'Alene Resort also can book up quickly and is very pricey. For more reasonable accommodations, head to Spokane. You can drive from Spokane to Worley, up to Coeur d'Alene and back for 36 holes in a well-traveled day. We'd advise staying in Spokane and replaying Circling Raven if you can't stay at the casino.
On the web: www.circlingraven.com
--Circling Raven review by Derek Harper, The Sports Xchange