For more than a half-century, Pauma Valley Country Club’s splendid isolation has made it a go-to place for those in the know.
Much like the fuyu persimmon orchard behind its first green, Pauma Valley Country Club provides a treat about which few people know. But as with anyone who savors the succulent, tomato-sized fruit, those fortunate enough to get a taste of this Southern California Eden often find themselves indulging time and again.
Until last winter, I counted myself among the uninformed. Despite 20 years of covering golf and myriad visits to SoCal, I had never heard of Pauma Valley, which sits at the base of Palomar Mountain, an hour’s drive northeast of San Diego. (However, I did know persimmons were more than just the woods preferred by better golfers for most of the 20th Century.)
Bill Milam, the CEO of Centennial’s International Jet and a member at Sand Hills and Colorado Golf Club, first tipped me off about Pauma Valley last December. He and his wife, April, had recently joined and raved about Pauma’s secluded setting, its reasonably priced national membership, its tree-lined course, its 26 guest cottages, and—remarkably—its own airport with 20 hangars and 3,000-foot runway.
Pictured: Pilot Fred Clarey calls Pauma's airport, just steps from the course, “impossible to replicate.”
Two months later, Pauma Valley came up again. Colorado Golf Hall of Fame member Gary Potter regaled me with tales of the club of which he’d become enamored shortly after competing in the 1972 Pacific Coast Amateur. “At the time it was a top 100 course in the country,” he said. “I joined, and a group of us from Denver Country Club would go every year. We just fell in love with it.”
Months would pass before I would get to see why.
A CELEBRATED PAST
A quick bit of history bears out Pauma’s pedigree. Developed in the late 1950s by real-estate investors, Pauma Valley Country Club enlisted Robert Trent Jones Sr., to create his first California layout. Ted Robinson helped implement the design, and the course, which now tips out at 7,077 yards, opened to the public in 1961 to high praise.
As word of the course spread, three years later Pauma welcomed Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf. Arnold Palmer and Gary Player took on Jack Nicklaus and Mike Souchak. Playing the course from the tips, none of these prime-time pros (who at the time had already won 12 majors between them) broke 80. They reshot the entire match from the white tees.
By that time, the Utah Construction and Mining Corporation had acquired control of the club with the goal of making it “an exclusive private club for select members,” according to a club history. Those members would eventually buy the club from Utah in 1966.
Palmer so loved Pauma that he tried to purchase it from the members in 1970. They wouldn’t sell, and the King went on to buy Bay Hill in Orlando.
The challenging course, stunning setting and unpretentious seclusion that enticed Palmer also appealed to such highprofile members as prosthetic heart-valve pioneer Donald Shiley and the evangelist Billy Graham, who, when asked what he thought Heaven looked like, said he hoped “it looked a lot like Pauma Valley, California.”
John Wayne’s ranch house, which once served as the clubhouse, now bestrides the 14th tee. Phil Mickelson would tune up at Pauma for the Bob Hope Classic, and Ann Quast Sander, the winner of three U.S. Women’s Amateurs, one British Ladies Amateur and four U.S. Senior Women’s Amateurs, has a room in the clubhouse dedicated to her feats. Notable current members include 1980s rocker and 7-handicap Huey Lewis and actor Bill Murray. The Caddyshack star owns three houses there and plays to an 8.
A one-time Regis University student, Murray is far from the only Colorado tie to Pauma Valley. Ray Stenzel, the Colorado Golf Hall of Famer who would build Fox Acres Country Club in Red Feather Lakes, was a charter member. He later entreated Don Brandenburger, the architect of many homes in the gated Pauma Valley Country Club enclave, to ply his craft at Fox Acres.
And those persimmons behind the first green? The late, legendary automotive dealer and philanthropist Kent Rickenbaugh of Denver planted the original 2,000 trees that now produce the fuyus cultivated by club members Ron Slifka and Ann Kezeor.
Today 50 members come from Colorado—that’s 13 percent of the total membership. Denver Country Club members include Potter, Henry Higginbottom, Rich Schierberg and new Colorado Golf Association director Doug Jones. Business leaders Doak Jacoway and Bob Albin head up the Cherry Hills contingent (only an airport runway too short to accommodate his private jet reportedly prevented John Elway from joining Pauma). Bob Bauers and Jim English come from Boulder Country Club; Hal Johnson and John Baxter from Fort Collins Country Club.
“Most of the players are good golfers and don’t need to be partying all the time,” says Potter, who calls Pauma “an understated alternative to the ritzier clubs in Palm Springs and Scottsdale. Nobody’s here to impress anybody.”
“ A TOTAL GAME-CHANGER”
That low-key approach, however has its pitfalls. “It amazes me that I know some serious players at Aviara and La Costa— less than an hour away in Carlsbad— who have never heard of Pauma Valley,” says Johnson.
“If you’re a player, you would think you’d know the best golf course in San Diego,” echoes club president Steve Wehr. He and his wife moved to Pauma from Marin County, where he belonged to Meadow Club and Olympic. “At some point in time you can’t just say ‘build it and they will come.’ Otherwise, we’d become Lonesome Dove.”
Sitting in the clubhouse’s cozy sunlit dining area, Wehr explains the challenges the club faced a few years ago, when a combination of aging membership, economic recession, and perceived exclusivity and remoteness conspired to put Pauma in a less-than-ideal financial situation.
“We weren’t running it like a business in those days,” he admits. “We thought we could run a hospitality business, and we couldn’t.”
A year after helping institute a modestly priced national membership, in 2012 Wehr joined Johnson at Fort Collins Country Club, where Sequoia Golf—the company that also owned Colorado’s Blackstone and Black Bear clubs—had the management contract. Sequoia had turned around the memberowned FCCC’s fortunes.
After looking at a number of golf management companies, Wehr and the board decided to go with Sequoia. The contract began in early 2013. “We ceded management, not operational, control,” Wehr says. “It was a total game-changer.”
Sequoia brought in as the general manager Steve Vlahos, whose experience included Yorba Linda and Marbella country clubs in Southern California. The Pauma members immediately embraced his commitment to maintaining the mystique and overall classic feel of the club, while invigorating it with new ideas and energy. He made sure he remained visible and accessible, often staying overnight because of his dedication.
“He understood the delicate dynamic of keeping it a best-kept secret and exposing it without losing the quality that makes it special,” member Fred Clarey, who until recently belonged to Bel-Air, says of Vlahos.
“This club was on the launching pad waiting for someone to put a match to it,” Vlahos says.
And that’s what Sequoia did, cutting hundreds of thousands in expenses and resetting dues from $895 to $695 per month to bring them in line with the market. They also incentivized members with referral programs.
Vlahos and new Food and Beverage Supervisor Eric Stear fired up the creative juices of Executive Chef Juan Ibarra, who’d been there 21 years. “Grilling with Juan” has become a Friday night staple, and inspired dishes like his shrimp martini, deep-fried avocado and honey-ginger miso-glazed cedar plank salmon are just part of the reason the food and beverage operation will exceed $1 million in revenues for the first time. And this September, the club hired highly-regarded Jerry Hixson from La Jolla Country Club as its head PGA professional.
The moves succeeded. Pauma Valley has already signed up 60 new members this year. A regular membership runs $10,000, with $695 monthly dues, a $1,800 annual food and beverage minimum, and unlimited golf. Non-residents who live more than 40 miles away for at least six months of the year can join for $5,000, with $412.50 in monthly dues, $900 in F&B and 45 rounds per year at no charge. Another attractive option to Coloradans is the national membership. An initiation of $2,000 and monthlies of $175 gets you and your significant other 15 rounds each, and no F&B minimum applies.
After ClubCorp purchased Sequoia in August, the Pauma board elected not to renew the contract. So as of November 1, Vlahos and his team will remain in charge and “somebody on a corporate basis is now overseeing and auditing everything,” explains Wehr.
“Sequoia sent us in the right direction,” he continues. “The word on the street is that Pauma Valley is the real deal again.”
WHAT ABOUT GOLF?
An aircraft consultant who hangars his six-seat Beechcraft Bonanza A-36 at the Pauma Valley Airport adjacent to the course, Clarey calls the VFR daytime airport “an extraordinary amenity—impossible to replicate.” He could say the same for the club’s Woodworking Shop, where skilled members have created beautiful pieces, many of which appear throughout the club; and the art gallery at the clubhouse entrance that displays the works of the many talented members.
The golf, however, is where Pauma distinguishes itself. Like many older California courses, it features poa greens and bermuda fairways framed by dozens of mature tree species, including ash, eucalyptus, pepper, willow, poplar and pomegranate. Even after 50 years of equipment advancements, the rolling layout ably exemplifies the “toughpar, easy-bogey” approach that defines Jones’ Colorado courses at The Broadmoor and Air Force Academy. The many right and left doglegs entice no shortage of risks, while nests of white sand—often with ball-snaring fingers— usually make you pay for the gamble.
It’s especially challenging for women, as my first playing partner, Heidi Person, points out. A University of Colorado grad and multiple women’s club champion, Person grew up in a house on Pauma’s fourth tee and has qualified for numerous USGA championships. “The length from the women’s tees really makes a difference, especially on holes 4 and 14 which are 400-yard par 4s,” she explains. “It’s 5,875 yards; most other area courses are much shorter, like 5,500 to 5,600 yards. Mission Viejo is 5,200. Playing a longer course gives us an advantage in interclub matches.”
At 6,811 yards, the blue tees present a fair but stern test for a mid-handicap male accustomed to playing at altitude.
That test begins on the uphill, right-dogleg first, a 520-yard par 5 with a quick, sloping green that’s also accessible from the second fairway, should you push your drive. Situated in full view of the gallery on the clubhouse patio, the green on the picturesque par-3 third has more waves than the adjacent water feature, while the number 1-handicap, 420-yard sixth requires a river carry off the tee and an approach that avoids the minefield of bunkers guarding the green. Similar bunkering protects the par-3 seventh and 400-yard par-4 ninth, where the long, narrow, peninsular green features water on three sides in addition to the sand.
The scorecard rates the tenth hole—a tight, uphill 380-yarder with a devilish green—as the toughest hole on the back nine, though that distinction could easily go to par-5 11th, with its bitty, fiddly green. Or the bunker-lined par-4 13th. Or the 450-yard brute that is 14. The 513-yard 17th, with its “Big Mouth” bunker yawning in front of the green, qualifies as well—no chance you’ll get on in two. A tough par 4 provides a stirring finish, but the most memorable hole is the par-4 15th, which plays right into the majesty of Palomar Mountain. Since Jones coined the term, it’s fair to call this Pauma’s “signature hole.”
As the sun sets on our round, Person and I watch Palomar Mountain’s crenelated flanks begin to blush. “When the mountains turn pink,” she says, “it’s time to drink.”
But as I learn the following day, after finishing another fun 18 holes, this time with Fred Clarey, Pauma has no “signature cocktail.” That lack of gimmickry, I think, seems entirely appropriate at a club whose members are as humble, welcoming and gracious as their modest clubhouse is. It’s a friendly humility that belies their status—or, better, confirms it.
That so many Coloradans connect with this place, therefore, comes as no surprise. Count me among them.
For more information: paumavalleycc.com; 760-742-3721.
Colorado AvidGolfer is the state’s leading resource for golf and the lifestyle that surrounds it. It publishes eight issues annually and proudly delivers daily content via www.coloradoavidgolfer.com. Jon Rizzi is the founding editor and co-owner of this regional golf-related media company producing magazines, web content, tournaments, events and the Golf Passport.