The Congressional Country Club has nothing on River View Golf Course.
No matter how much the world’s best golfers may complain about the toughness built into the track they’re using for this weekend’s U.S. Open golf championship near our nation’s capital, just be glad they’re not at a place that’s once been called “America’s Worst Course.”
It was from a magazine story written more than 10 years ago about River View Golf Course in Santa Ana that used that headline. Don’t even go looking for the publication any more — “Schwing!,” which tabbed itself as an “alternative golf magazine” for the radical Gen X readers who were part of the links craze at that time, has already signed its card and disappeared.
River View, a place that the reviewer noted had neither a river nor a view, is like the cockroach that can’t be killed off.
Technically, a river does run through it. But that depends on your point of view.
It is, for all utilitarian functions, a somewhat grassy flood-control channel that separates two branches of the Santa Ana River/sewer, one end that eventually empties into the Pacific about six miles south between Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, and the other possibly carrying debris from the parking lot at Angel Stadium.
Geometry and gravity dictate unplayable lies and balls that roll unnecessarily into the ditch, unless you’re fortunate enough to have a drive plop down in a mud puddle that’s often situated in the middle of a fairway. It’s the perfect definition of a duffer’s dilemma — there’s usually two options on every shot, none of which are particularly enjoyable.
Short on distance (6,100 yards from the tips if you’re lucky), just a par 70 (unless a par 5 is washed out and shortened to a 3, so there’s math involved), and unnecessarily freeway close (at the Orange Crush, where the 5, 57 and 22 collide into a rush-hour mess), this has all the makings of a messy few hours.
All these years later, could this piece of sacred land not far from the bankrupt Crystal Cathedral really be worthy of the label “worst” in the entire country? And if so, did River View maintain its reputation poorly enough to keep the title?
Reviews posted online by some recent customers piqued our interest.
Japen G of Anaheim: “Their (sic) is a reason that there are always good deals to play this course. … Be prepared to play a ridiculously crazy layout.”
Kione E. of Fullerton: “Ghetto, I thought to myself as I rolled into the parking lot. Oh well, I’m here and I already paid for this.”
Kunney T. of Costa Mesa: “This place is a dump! … When it’s a non-drought season, the ugly ditches are actually river beds. … all you see is dead dirt and rocks. However, it does make it easier because technically a lot of the areas are ‘grounds under repair.’ Woohoo, free drop. When all is said and done, this place is still a dump.”
Randy G. of Paso Robles: “I have never heard ‘fore’ yelled as much as I heard it yesterday.”
Audra R. of Orange County: “Last time there we saw a bum dancing naked in the river bed … kinda funny, kinda horrible.”
Where do we book a tee time?
Our first attempt to pay a visit was in April. But the website offered this warning: The back nine was closed. Recent rains knocked out a bunch of holes. That can’t be a good sign.
Hoping things might have been cleaned up and dried out, we ventured out this week, with at least the idea that this could be our version of the U.S. Open — open season on trying to determine the worst golf course known to recreational golfers.
Let’s take a tour, if you’re so prepared:
== First, setting up a tee time online at RiverViewGolf.com is fairly painless — especially when you click onto the “Tee Time Specials.” Weekdays before 1 p.m. you can find spots that go for $31 (instead of the usual $34), and that includes an electric cart that has GPS, and a bucket of balls to warm up. After 1 p.m., it drops to $24. Weekends, it’s $44 until 11 a.m., dropping to $39, then to $27 after 1 p.m.
== Pulling into the lot, we’d been warned not to be lured into some of those empty spaces right near the golf shop (see Hole 9, below). We parked what we thought was a safer distance away, but then realized we were prone to a shanked tee shot no matter where we left the vehicle.
== My friend, Bob, asks another golfer in the lot if it’s OK to wear jeans on the course. He laughs. “Jeans … whatever you want,” he says. The suggestion is that clothing is optional.
== The starter handed us a basket of balls and said he’d call us when the first tee had cleared up. My friend, Bob, immediately found a nice pair of sunglasses that someone left on the bench at the driving range. The trip had already paid for itself.
== Hole 1 – 325 yards, par 4: Nice and straight. Except, with it parallel to the driving range, the entire fairway is littered with white balls. It becomes an Easter egg hunt to find yours among the beat-up range balls. A playground is off to the left, kids screaming. A small plane overhead, maybe in search of the Fullerton Airport, buzzes overhead to add to the ambience. A guy from the third fairway comes over near the first green to look for his tee shot.
== Hole 2 – 178 yards, par 3: Two Little League fields to the left. Still no sign of any kind of major sewer sightings. You don’t know it yet, but the quiet trip around the track is about to get crazy …
== Hole 3 – 199 yards, par 3: Bob is about to chip on from the right of the green when a woman pushing a stroller comes down the cart path. She stops. Bob stops. “Are you hitting it there?” she asks, pointing toward the flag. “That’s the objective,” Bob says. It’s like a boulevard stop — who has the right of way? Bob waves the woman and baby on. She heads toward the 3rd tee box — where a twosome behind us is now wondering when they should hit (above).
== No. 4 – 392 yards, par 4: The No. 1 handicapped hole, for a reason: It’s the jolting realization that you’re about to enter land that isn’t fit for human recreation. You’re at the top of the ridge, looking down at the trickling water, in view of the cement basin where the flood control channel really kicks in during heavy rains. There is some grass below. Mostly mud. And no sight of the fourth green — oh, there, up and across the slow-moving stream. You take aim and wail away with the driver, or play it safe down to the left, then hit up. Meanwhile …
Things get far more interesting then they should. Hit across the stream, and there’s not much to land on …
And the interesting collection of spectators on the other side fence in the adjacent park offers some encouragement if you were to hit too far to the left …
And don’t mind us: A group of teens decide to cross the fairway. “Hey, heads up!” the twosome behind us yells at them. They seem not to be bothered as they eventually go sit under a tree next to the fourth green.
Here’s a review we found of the fourth hole by Kim C. of Huntington Beach: “There is absolutely no feeling of peace or security that you expect on a course. Women should never golf there alone, especially early or twilight hours. I hit my ball below the hill on the 4th hole and was too afraid to go get it. There was a scary looking group sitting along the wall (that was tagged all over) right at the green. I thought, ‘Wow if I wasn’t with three men I would have kept driving.’ What a weird feeling, I’ve never felt that way before on a golf course. Golf is supposed to feel relaxed and secluded but not in a “oops I just wandering down a dark street in a bad neighborhood” kind of way. Ok, so I send one of the guys to pick up my ball, no way I hit it near those guys.”
== Hole 5 – 545 yards, par 5: You must trust there’s a green somewhere around to the left. The fairway looks as if it’s about 5 yards wide. Go anywhere right, and you’re into the rivermuck. But …
Stay too far left, and you’re in search of a somewhat lost cause …
You’ve reached the fifth green, but not without some more consternation. There’s a man standing along the fence (above, left) wearing headphones, holding a 40-ouncer and yelling. As he spots golfers below, the obscenity level goes up a notch. Stay classy …
== Hole 6 – 195 yards, par 3: Standing at the tee box, a ball comes flying through the tree on the right and lands almost at my feet. It has come up from the 17th fairway, as the guy is trying to wedge his approach shot onto a green sandwiched between two tee boxes (for the 6th and 18th). You get to see for the first time what looks to be pontoons, or docks for boats. Find out later, those are used when the water levels get higher, and there’s a need to get the carts from one side to the other.
Bob’s tee shot goes pin high, but lands about 30 yards short — and disappears into a pile of mud. Walking up to the spot we think it landed, we finally spot a small sliver of white underneath all the wet brown stuff.
“A natural hazard,” I guess.
== No. 7 – 375 yards, par 4: This hole is sponsored by a local cremation facility. Makes sense. After teeing off back across the water, you take the cart at about a 90 degree angle down and make a hard right to avoid going straight into the water at a higher rate of speed than you’d really like to be going. You cross a beat-up piece of plywood to get over more “ground under repair. Upon visiting the 7th green, look left and you see the top of the “Big A” from the Angel Stadium parking lot.
== No. 8 – 525 yard, par 5: Far enough from the water that there’s very little damage to the tee box, fairway or green. Rate this hole a strong B-plus.
== No. 9 – 110 yards, par 3: We found a review of this one online from Mike M. of Costa Mesa: “(Watch out for the ) goofy par 3 to finish the front 9. About 95 yards over a pond that’s backed up to the parking lot. I’ve seen at least 6 shots miss the net that protects the cars. Don’t park over there.”
Definitely wedge-worthy, with what looks to be a oversized sprinkler in the pond before the green there as a slight distraction.
== Out – 2,844 yards, par 34: If that’s all there was to it, it might be worthy of taking the rest of the afternoon off. But after a trip to The Golfer’s Niblick for a turkey melt (sorry, no more tuna), there’s enough time to actually sit in the place and take 15 minutes to eat. Why? Because, that’s how they roll …
== No. 10 – 198 yards, par 3: Beware of all the trash on the right side. Seriously. Go in there at your own discretion.
== No. 11 – 340 yards, par 4: Another surprisingly decent B-plus hole. Again, no sign of the river. Yet ..
== No. 12 – 470 yards, par 4: Back to reality …
Pass by the woman in the beverage cart, and wave, because you just got all the stuff you needed at the clubhouse. A ball that should be sitting in the middle of the fairway is now in the middle of rocks, drainage hoses and unmanageable weeds.
Finally find a way out and you learn why it’s not safe to be here when it’s raining.
== No. 13 – 548 yards, par 5: First off, getting to this point is like going on a scavenger hunt. You’ve finished No. 12, and you know No. 13 is next, but how to get there? There’s a small homeless encampment under the bridge past the 12th green. A dirt path leads under a street. You close your eyes and proceed.
Then, you find out the hole has been shortened to a 144-yard, par 3, since half the fairway has been washed away.
== No. 14 – 160 yards, par 3: Now, you’re right next to the Garden Grove (22) Freeway. On the other side of it, the cement river continues. You’re forced to play this one across the entire quagmire valley, hoping to land it short enough so that it won’t go into someone’s carport. Don’t worry. The fence will knock it down. Bob chips in for a birdie, and then finds out it’s good that he didn’t have to putt, since whoever cut the hole wasn’t sure the whole time where it going to end up:
== No. 15 – 480 yards, par 5: At that distance, it better be the 18-handicap hole. Except for the strong, afternoon wind you’re hitting into. We do our best to keep our spikes off the bench, as the sign says, but that’s pretty much all we can read about what we’re about to attempt. Bob’s tee shot goes left, and upon further review, lands up in a pile of leaves next to a sewer opening. It’s just a few yards off the middle of the fairway:
Look into the setting sun, and there’s another chance to get a look at what’s ahead, bridging one side of the course to the other:
== No. 16 – 418 yards, par 4: Back under the underpass, with another assault from a homeless man on the bridge above yelling down.
== No. 17 – 538 yards, par 5: Nasty. Down along the water again, then up and across. This isn’t so much a well-crafted, interestingly designed hole as is it a necessary plot of land to connect the 16th green to the 18th tee box in the most indirect path. Of course, I ended scoring a 5 on it — one of the few pars carded on the day.
== No. 18 – 194 yards, par 3: Sponsored by a lawyer who promises to save your pretty little butt if you’ve had too much to drink during your round and plan to drive home.
== In – 3346 yards (more or less), par 36 (or 34, depending on how you look at things).
One last review, from Anhers P, Santa Ana: “This place is a solid three stars. I liked the course because it was extra tricky but you could definitely get hurt here. The courses are jam packed together and there’s a lot of hitting upwards and you’re not sure if the other golfers ahead of you are done.
The course – 3 stars
Customer service – 2 stars
Location – 1 star
Homeless man asking for money on the 10th hole – 5 stars”
From EK of Los Angeles: “If you are a beginner and don’t know any better, check it out. If you have played golf before on half-decent courses, pass.”
And from Daniel C. of Irvine: “Ok, so not the greatest course by any means. I’ve played here a few times with my friends and can say, you get what you pay for.”
We caught up with the twosome behind us and asked for their opinion.
“Yeah, I played here four years ago,” one said. “I’m still not that impressed.”
But he didn’t say it was the worst course he’d ever played. There may be something to be said for that.