Landing the Sweet Spot

The Story Behind Pelican Hill Golf Courses

By Scott Kramer

When Tom Fazio was asked to design a pair of golf courses along the Newport Beach coastline back in the mid-1980s, the world-renowned golf course designer examined an aerial photograph of the lush coastal property and thought he was given the wrong image.

“The land was green that day the picture was taken, and with the dramatic rolling hills, I thought it was Ireland,” recalls Fazio. “My first impression was that someone mixed up the photograph. I thought I knew the area from being out there several times… it was an interesting setting. I showed a friend in Newport Beach the picture and he said that’s what it looks like after a rain, which isn’t often. That made me go look at the property firsthand and see its scale.”

The spectacular oceanfront land Fazio was scrutinizing would become Pelican Hill,. comprising of about 500 sun-drenched acres perched along the Pacific Ocean. He instantly realized that this was an ambitious undertaking because of the elevation changes, the property’s visibility from Pacific Coast Highway and the planned Newport Coast® development.

“I knew this was going to take a lot of effort and development,” says Fazio, who initially declined the Irvine Company’s offer to develop the courses. After all, he was an East Coaster with six young kids at home, and thought it would keep him from spending time with his family. “I also had plenty of work to do in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida,” says Fazio.

Several weeks later, he received a phone call from then-Major League Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth—friend of the Irvine Company.— telling him he couldn’t pass on the opportunity. “I told him I had kids, and that I can’t be there,” says Fazio. “He said he could get me a house there, I could bring my kids and we could spend weekends together. I tried every excuse to get out of it, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Ueberroth ultimately invited Fazio’s entire family out west for a week. “I got them into the ocean and on boogie boards and was hopeful they could understand the quality of the assignment,” recalls Ueberroth. “I remember driving his wife Susan in a convertible along the coast and tried to have her convince Tom to put his mark here. She did, and the rest is history.”

The Irvine Company. coveted Fazio due to his reputation for respecting the natural landscape. Fazio was known to walk a prospective property in all seasons, understand the land’s history and design accordingly. Other architects were considered, but they all sculpted courses into developed land. This would be something different, a signature project for The Irvine Company. “It was an important decision,” says Ueberroth, who was impressed by a Fazio course in Maryland he’d visited because the designer seemed to lay out the golf holes seamlessly, without agitating the land.

“I remember driving his wife Susan in a convertible along the coast and tried to have her convince Tom to put his mark here. She did, and the rest is history.” —Peter Ueberroth

When Fazio first walked the Pelican Hill. site, he was accompanied by his staff and several Irvine Company executives. From the top of the property, he looked down at the elevation changes and immediately realized the land’s potential. “We also had to plan how the residential land west of the roadway would fit, because that was a very integral part of the project,” says Fazio, who designed all 36 holes at once, even though Ocean South opened well before Ocean North.

From a golf playability standpoint, Fazio wanted to ensure spectacular views. “It was no accident that at the 7th hole on the South course, when you stand on the tee and look at that green, it looks like the green is hanging right in front of the ocean,” says Fazio. “It’s the elevation of the tees and the green and contouring the land, and situating all of it in such a way that when you stand on a tee, you think you’re hitting a ball right at the ocean in the background. It’s all well planned. Again, The Irvine Company. was so much into doing it the right way, and giving me the resources.”

Of all of Fazio’s fond memories building the property, one stands out: “I couldn’t wait until the end of the day to walk the property, then sit and watch the sunset over the ocean and think about what we did that day and what we were going to do tomorrow.”

He returned in 2007 to rejuvenate the property. Again, he was awed by The Irvine Company’s insistence that everything be done properly—including closing down both courses for a year.

“They’re about the long term,” says Fazio. “While we renovated, they got us new drainage, fairways, bunkers, grasses and new technology to recycle water that had evolved since the course originally opened. That’s why it’s gotten better and people who go there are instantly enamored. It’s why it’s one of the great places in the world.”

“You drive in through the entrance, see the setting, walk out into the environment and before you even tee it up, you’re in awe.” — Tom Fazio

Aside from all of the latest technology, the unparalleled natural setting and the marvelous golf courses, Fazio says that the entire experience of visiting makes Pelican Hill. so alluring. “You drive in through the entrance, see the setting, walk out into the environment and before you even tee it up, you’re in awe,” he says. “You’re looking at the ocean, vegetation, greenery and native plants. It looks like it’s never been disturbed, like it has always been there. You know you’re at one of the finest golf facilities ever. And you won’t want to leave.”

Course designers have control over each hole’s playability, set-up, tee shot direction and landing area, movement of how it plays, hole lengths, its twists and turns and its elevation changes. But Fazio goes a step further, wanting each Pelican Hill guest to “get to one hole and say, ‘Wow, I really like this hole.’ And then you get to the next hole and say you really like this one, too. It’s part of the total ambience. The whole place is so special. You can even enjoy it if you’re not playing golf. I’m glad to have been a part of it. And it keeps getting better.”

For tee-times, please call 877.735.4266