My playing partner and I took off in a dead run in the direction of the 15th tee, racing the setting sun.
Running on the course is generally a sign of something good. It’s a sign of a special round (something worth running for) and a solid pace of play (room to run ahead). Granted, most golfers don’t do much running. But diehards know the feeling of chasing daylight and charging towards the finish because there’s something satisfying about finishing 18, even if it’s in the dark. Especially if it’s in the dark.
My coworker James and I were hell-bent on finishing this particular round. In part because we’d traveled to Los Angeles, searching for the soul of the city’s golf ahead of the Genesis Invitational and, later in the summer, the U.S. Open. (It’s a big year for L.A. golf.) In part we rushed because we’d anticipated the City of Sun but had been greeted with a torrential downpour instead, suffering through a rainout the previous day plus more drowned plans that morning. And in part we wanted to finish because we’d secured a prime tee time at Los Verdes — and that’s an accomplishment in itself.
Los Verdes is, simply put, one of the most competitive tee times in the world. That means something different than the list of “most desired” tee times — those are likely the exclusive, mysterious bucket-list courses like Augusta National or Cypress Point. Plenty of people want to play those and never will. But of the tee times you supposedly have access to, Los Verdes is among the toughest tickets, calling to mind the words of Yogi Berra:
“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
Los Verdes is here for you. It’s a muni. It’s affordable. It exists to be accessible. And yet it’s hard to access. The course is owned by the city of Rancho Palos Verdes, a coastal city southwest of downtown L.A. It sits atop a bluff overlooking the city and boasts sweeping views over the Pacific and nearby Catalina Island. And it costs less than 50 bucks to play.
Fifty bucks is a lot of money to do any activity, but let’s put that in perspective. The peak green fee at Los Verdes is $48.25 on weekends and holidays. That drops all the way to $18 on weekday afternoons. It drops to $22.50 if you’re a senior. It drops to $5 if you’re a junior. Just down the bluff, Trump National offers the same sweeping views and its rates can rise to $500 or more on weekends — and even at that rate, it typically sells out. I’m not suggesting both courses are offering the same product, but one thing is for sure: Los Verdes is a screamin’ deal.
As a result, it’s frequented by wealthy residents of surrounding Rancho Palos Verdes as well as enthusiasts from every corner of the county. This is southern California, after all, which has golfers and golfing weather aplenty. Despite the objections of Malcolm Gladwell, the supply of L.A. courses is actually far outstripped by the demand, particularly given the golf boom of the past two years. Daily-fee courses have increased their rates accordingly. But the county’s munis have done their best to stay relatively affordable. Even among those, Los Verdes stands out thanks to its awe-inspiring views.
We’d made a deal with the devil on this afternoon, a Tuesday in early January: We’d traded cold, rain and mud in exchange for limited crowds. The starter, layered against wet and wind, laughed as he observed our good fortune.
“This never happens here,” he said.
The top inch of turf was slick. Our tee shots plugged or gathered turf on their sides. But the pace was excellent and our surroundings got better as the day went on. The rain gave way to harmless clouds and then, as we got to the end of our first nine, rays of sun came charging through.
What’s the responsibility of a municipal golf course? It depends who you ask. One obligation is to provide community access to a famously inaccessible sport. That’s weighed against the obligations to provide a top-tier golfing experience, of course. And both of those are balanced with the obligation to make (or at least not lose) money for the city.
Behind us the course filled with eager high schoolers, each of whom had paid $3 to play. (Revenue maximization clearly wasn’t the priority there, either.) Up ahead we crossed paths with Dan Burns, a longtime member who’d waited a decade for a spot to open up. He seemed to take pride in telling us that Los Verdes is one of the most-played courses in the world. He considers it home.
There are drawbacks to a course being this popular, of course. Because Los Verdes has maxed out on demand, there’s no real incentive to max out the potential of the course itself. A small, nimble crew tends to its fairways and greens, and while our putts rolled true (the clear priority, as it should be) there were plenty of bare lies, uneven cuts and dead spots. You’d never mistake it for last week’s PGA Tour host, fellow California muni Torrey Pines. But then, Torrey Pines charges close to $300. And they’re always sold out, too.
At Los Verdes (and Torrey Pines, and plenty other desired munis) a new dilemma has emerged as locals fight for tee times: Bots. Eager, innovative golfers have devised ways to trick the booking systems and crawl the site instantly, ensuring they get first crack at tee times the moment they’re released. Some authentication systems have slowed their success, but they haven’t shut down automated approaches altogether. Getting the tee time you want at an L.A. muni sometimes means having a bot guy. How strange is that?
We couldn’t help but wonder at Los Verdes’ calculations as we made our way to the back nine, spirits rising as the sun was setting. Surely, if it were better conditioned, this nine could measure up against some of the great munis in America. But again, the point of Los Verdes isn’t to compete with the great munis in America. It’s to provide golf to its constituents. And there was something appealing about the way the course felt stripped down to its core components.
The 10th hole was a neat par-4, doglegging left between trees. The 11th tee gave the first hint of the views to come and set up a thrilling downhill tee shot on a drivable par-4. But it was 15 — the hole we’d been running to — that got us up against the edge of the world. We stopped in wonder at the back of the green, which is set onto a cliffside, looking down at the community around and everything beyond.
James beat me on the 16th, a dogleg left par 5 that begins with a tee shot over a deep ravine. His nifty approach sealed my fate, though hopefully I’ve buried that detail far enough down in the story that most readers won’t make it this far. We’d battled through a game of “Longest Yard,” a skins game where every hole is worth its value in yards (a 490-yard hole is worth 490 points, for example). He cozied his first putt into gimme range, silhouetted against the impending dusk. I’d raced and I’d lost.
But we continued on up the 17th fairway. The last two holes would be just for satisfaction.
You can watch the first part of the video chronicling our 48 hours in L.A. below.