Pure Golf: La Purisima
“La Purisima? Heck, I play at PGA West Stadium Course, one of the toughest in Southern California.”
Yes, it’s tough there. Now check La Purisima.
Situated in the golden hills of the Santa Ynez Valley, La Purisima (pronounced “La Pure-EZ-ma by locals) is truly one of the wolverines of Southern California golf. Everyone knows about the Stadium Course, La Quinta, Pelican Hill, Riviera, the Valley Club of Montecito, etc. When players want to test their games in Southern California, these are the among the courses they want to experience.
Then there’s La Purisima, sometimes referred to as “La Piranha” by regulars. One tour around the Robert Muir Graves-designed course is all any frisky, confident player needs to realize they’ve encountered a formidable foe.
While trouble is often right in your face on other “difficult” courses, La Purisima is stealthy; the trouble doesn’t seem that troublesome. A shot might seem like it’s there for the taking. But when you can’t take it, it gets in your head. When it gets in your head, you get out of position. When you get out of position, that’s when La Purisima bares its unforgiving teeth.
It’s one thing to stand on the tee at No. 17 at PGA West and see an island green 170 yards away, or contemplate your tee shot on No. 18 at the La Quinta Dunes Course, which is wrapped around water that threatens any mistake on every shot. Those courses have made their reputations by petrifying golfers at every turn with clear and obvious visual hazards.
But it’s another to peg it at La Purisima’s 542-yard (black tee), par-five first hole, see what appears to be a benign dogleg left, then take three (or even four) to get up and down from a perfectly placed second shot. It’s another to stand on the tee at the 432-yard par-four second, see the fairway over the hill and wonder where the best place to land your ball might be. Or contemplate what iron will hold the green between the yawning, punitive bunkers front and back on the 158-yard par-3 third. Or somehow manage to get the 167-yard, par-3 17th to fit your eye.
Combine all those intrinsic design challenges — “classic” Robert Muir Graves, some might say — with a howling wind that picks up almost every afternoon, and the 75.4/142 back-tee rating starts to make a lot of sense.
It’s the must-play on all the Central Coast, without question,” said General Manager Russ Sandy, who also serves as GM at the nearby Mission Club. “It’s the only place that’s hosted a PGA Tour qualifier where even par got you to the PGA Tour. We held Canadian PGA Tour qualifying, where the week before, 25 under won the qualifier at Orlando International, and here, 4-under wins. If you want to have a golf tournament and test your players, this is the place. It’s not just a putting contest out here, it really will determine who your best golfer is.
NEW OWNERS = IMPROVING CONDITIONS
Built in 1986 on 322 acres of pastoral splendor, the course sprawls over rolling land between Buellton and Lompoc, surrounded by vineyards on almost every side. Aside from its difficulty, La Purisima’s other great draw has always been its solitude; no homes or developments could be seen from any spot on the course for many years, and even the residential “cabins” designed for small groups are set well back from the first and 10th teeing areas.
Time and “progress” have changed that look slightly. A few homes are now scattered in the surrounding hills, as development in the area has slowly encroached on La Purisima’s domain. But the course’s isolated feel and integrity remain, with the only other signs of civilization appearing when the course rubs up close to Route 246 on the closing holes.
Like many golf courses nationwide, La Purisima suffered through hardships earlier this century; conditions waned, paths deteriorated and paid rounds began an annual slide. However, in 2013, the course was purchased by Protek Investments, based in nearby Santa Barbara, and the leadership set about bringing the course back to its original glory.
Sandy said that basic improvements were immediately implemented, with the primary goal of restoring playing conditions. The bent grass greens were rehabilitated, existing bunkers were restored and the bent grass rough was coaxed into flourishing.
The improvements were welcomed by locals, who helped the course experience a bump in business during the peak of COVID-19 in 2020, along with Angelenos taking advantage of the course’s proximity. Day-trippers from L.A., around two and a half hours south, still provide a big chunk of the course’s regular play.
“When you have a place that’s gone through a period of neglect for a while, it takes a while to bring it back to where it needs to be,” Sandy said. “(Protek) has come in here and put a lot of money in it, and we’ve put in a lot of time and effort to try to make the golf course the best it can be.
“The owners had an idea of trying to ease it up, but I wasn’t for that, because I believe you just need to be who you are,” he said. “The conditions of the course are better than they have been in probably 15 years. We’ve done an immense amount of work and spent over a million dollars just to get where we are today.”