IN THE PUBLIC EYE: Presidio Golf Course in San Francisco.
THE LAYOUT: Built as a nine-hole course for members only in 1895 and designed by Robert Johnstone, Presidio was expanded to 18 holes in 1910.
On the grounds of the former U.S. Army base that guarded the Golden Gate, it was operated by the military from the 1950s until it became a public course in 1995, after the area was designated as a national park.
Presidio Golf Course, maintained beautifully by Arnold Palmer Golf Management, plays to a length of 6,424 yards from the tips, with a USGA rating of 72.3 and a slope of 136.
The course is located about 10 minutes from downtown in one of San Francisco's finest old neighborhoods, and you can see the century-old Victorian homes through the eucalyptus and cypress trees that line the fairways.
Although the course measures under 6,500 yards, it plays much longer because of the elevation changes on the hilly fairways, the general dampness of the Bay Area and the breeze off the ocean, making club selection critical.
GENERAL MANAGER: Don Chelemedos.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Playing the Presidio Golf Course is to walk where icons such as Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Ben Hogan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bing Crosby and Joe DiMaggio, San Francisco's favorite son, have left their footprints.
After the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration planted hundreds of eucalyptus and pine trees on the course, and they have reached maturity. While the course is not extremely tight, accuracy still is a must.
The layout's hilly nature is no more evident than on the first two holes, starting with a dogleg right, 352-yard par 4 that plays dramatically downhill from the tee box and then slightly uphill to the green. Big hitters will be tempted to drive it over the bunker in the dogleg, but anything right is in the driving range.
No. 2 is a roller coaster of a par 5, only 473 yards to a smallish, elevated green that is almost completely surrounded by bunkers. The smart play is to lay up about 100 yards short of the green to set up a short approach, but the hill is so steep that this is a blind shot.
Don't be deceived that the fourth hole is rated No. 18 on the card because there is a 35-foot drop from the tee to a green complex that is a virtual island, surrounded seven bunkers and natural vegetation.
The turn gives golfers to unusual opportunity to play back-to-back par 5s, the 522-yard ninth and the spectacular 504-yard 10th. Despite the yardage differences, No. 9 is the one that can be reached in two more often because No. 10 plays uphill to another elevated green.
No. 13 is a 175-yard par 3 that is memorable because of a tall tree in a large gully between the tee and green that can block the view of the flag. Be sure to hit enough club because if you miss the green, the chip is much easier on the plateau level of the elevated green than from below.
The home hole, a 516-yard par 5, requires another accurate tee shot through a narrow-ish swath cut through a stand of towering eucalyptus, but there is more room than it appears from the tee. Beware of the fairway bunkers right off the tee and another waiting slightly under 100 yards from the green on the left.
San Francisco weather can be unpredictable, so bring at least a windbreaker even if the day starts out sunny and warm, because the fog can roll in at any time and drop the temperature 20 degrees in a matter of minutes.
Course regulars are proud of the 7,000-foot clubhouse, which was the first new building constructed at the Presidio in decades when it opened in 1999. If you are in the area on the weekend, take advantage of the popular Sunday brunch.
OTHER COURSES IN THE AREA: Harding Park Golf Course is another exceptional course in the San Francisco public chain, surrounded by picturesque Lake Merced and located less than a mile from the Pacific Ocean. Harding, designed by Willie Watson and opened in 1925, underwent a $16 million renovation a few years ago and hosted the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship, in which Tiger Woods outlasted John Daly in a playoff, and the 2009 Presidents Cup.
Lincoln Park Golf Course, which opened in 1910, is a sporty par-68, 5,149-yard layout that winds around the hillsides on the grounds of the De Young Museum and the Legion of Honor. The 242-yard 17th hole is a stunning and treacherous par 3, with views of the Golden Gate.
Also in San Francisco are three fun 9-hole courses -- Golden Gate Park Golf Course, Gleneagles International Golf Course and the Fleming 9 at Harding Park Golf Course.
WHERE TO STAY: The venerable Fairmont San Francisco, flagship of the worldwide chain, has stood sentinel over the "City by the Bay" for more than 100 years from its perch on Nob Hill. It survived the Great Earthquake of 1906, when it was finished but not yet open, and housed many displaced San Franciscans over the next several years.
The landmark hotel has been fully refurbished to its original grandeur, from the 591 guest rooms and suites, to the magnificent grand main lobby with marble floors and Corinthian columns trimmed in gold.
Dine at the Fairmont in the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, which offers exotic Asian cuisine and the best Mai Tai in San Francisco in a tropical rainforest setting. Or try the Laurel Court Restaurant & Bar, a typical Northern California dining experience.
The Fairmont is located at the only crossing of San Francisco's three cable car lines -- and Chinatown, the Embarcadero, the Financial District, Union Square, Golden Gate Park and Fisherman's Wharf are easily reached from the hotel.
Also in the neighborhood on Nob Hill are the Mark Hopkins InterContinental, the Renaissance Stanford Court, the Huntington Hotel and the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco.
Other fine hotels in San Francisco include the Mandarin Oriental, Le Meridien San Francisco, the Westin St. Francis, the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, the Hilton San Francisco Union Square, the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, the Palace Hotel and the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.
ON THE WEB: www.presidiogolf.com
THE LAST RESORT: Ranch Course at the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Solvang, Calif.
THE LAYOUT: Noted designer William F. Bell crafted a classic resort course through the trees in a rustic valley on the outskirts of Solvang in 1955, and Steve Halsey upgraded the layout in 1991.
The course, which plays to a par of 72, stretches to 6,551 yards from the back tees with a USGA rating of 72.0 and a slope of 133.
The narrow fairways are lined by mature oaks and sycamores, with deer and other wildlife often seen on the course.
Al Geiberger, a native Californian who played at USC and was the first player in PGA Tour history to shoot 59, holds the course record of 65 on the Ranch Course at the Alisal.
HEAD PROFESSIONAL: Dave Hartley.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Even though the fairways are narrow in places, this is an ideal resort course because what you see is what you get -- there are no tricks to the course.
There are several elevated tees on the Ranch Course, which is lined by oaks and sycamores, and the Santa Ynez River runs along the West border of the layout, which is traversed several times by Alisal Creek before it meets the river.
Every hole is a picture postcard, but none is prettier than the 161-yard sixth. The tee shot from the top of a hill must carry the creek to a green 50 feet below that is heavily bunkered on the left. Pause for a moment to appreciate the view of Solvang and the Santa Ynez Valley.
The eighth is a demanding 416-yard par 4, the most difficult hole on the course. A barranca that bisects the fairway 236 yards from the elevated tee is reachable with a big drive. Once on the fairway, the approach shot must be hit with a fairway wood or long iron to a small green that is only 15 yards wide and is protected by traps right and left.
There are some interesting quirks to the course, which includes three par 3s, three par 4s and three par 5s on the front nine. Both nines open with a par 5 and close with a par 3, but the 208-yard ninth and the 201-yard 18th are anything but easy.
Players coming down the stretch with a good score must first get past the 420-yard 17th, a daunting par 4 that requires a tee shot to the right of the fairway short of a barranca in order to see the green on the big dogleg left. Anything to the left makes it virtually impossible to go for the green and probably means a lay-up short of the barranca.
Get past No. 17 and you still have the ticklish 18th to deal with.
OTHER COURSES IN THE AREA: Right down the street from the Ranch Course is its sister course, the public River Course at the Alisal, which plays through a wide-open meadow.
La Purisima Golf Course a few miles down the road in Lompoc is one of the best public courses in Southern California, having played host to the PGA Tour Qualifying School and U.S. Open qualifying.
Also nearby are some other outstanding courses -- Black Lake Golf Resort in Nipomo, Avila Beach Golf Course, Marshallia Ranch Golf Course at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Cypress Ridge Golf Club in Arroyo Grande and Rancho Maria Golf Course in Santa Maria.
Only 40 minutes away are several more top-shelf courses in Santa Barbara, including Rancho San Marcos Golf Club, Glen Annie Golf Club, Santa Barbara Golf Club and acclaimed Sandpiper Golf Course, which is known as the "Pebble Beach of Southern California."
WHERE TO STAY: The Ranch Course can only be played 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.
In addition to golf, the 10,000-acre Alisal Guest Ranch offers tennis, horseback riding, biking, swimming and hiking, plus boating and fishing on Alisal Lake. There are nature walks and bird watching on the property, which borders the Ronald Reagan Ranch 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.
The town features several themed hotels, including the Best Western King Frederik Motel, the Kronberg Inn and Svendsgaard's Danish Lodge.
Also close is Pea Soup Andersen's Inn in Buellton.
ON THE WEB: www.ranchcourse.com