There are several lists in the golf media that rank the best courses "you can play." (Our publishing partner Golfweek Magazine has a really good one you can view here.)
California courses dubbed "best you can play" tend to include courses that are attached to famous resorts like Pebble Beach (and carry the commensurate greens fee), or Trump National and Pelican Hill in Southern California. All of these can set you back $200-500 for daily greens fees.
One of the best values I've found lately in California is SilverRock Resort, in the shoulder or off season -- which in the desert's sake is summer. The city of La Quinta-owned course is about the nicest city owned course I've ever played -- it gives new meaning to the word, "muni." As a matter of fact, SilverRock hosted the PGA Tour's Humana Challenge (formerly the Bob Hope Classic) for several years.
The course is a real test, especially the back nine, where holes 13-18 will either make you feel like a real hero or bring you down to earth, depending on how you did on the first twelve.
Silver is the theme -- if you're playing the back tees they will be painted silver, as are the carts and even the tees. Here the Santa Rosa mountains make a gorgeous backdrop, and the Arnold Palmer designed layout provides plenty of challenge. (My host suggested avoiding the 7578 yard tips, in a "go for it if you want to shoot 90" kind of way and I was happy I heeded his advice).
Water comes into play on plenty of holes, including all the par fives, especially the 7th, which has the most water of any hole on the course.
The fourth hole is the only real "target golf" style hole on the front nine, and despite appearing tight and blind off tee, there is plenty of room to the right side of the fairway.The mountain behind the green and a large Tamarisk tree frame the fifth hole, where Bubba Watson drove over the trees and hit the green in 2010 for a tap in eagle, when he shot the course record of 62. Most mere mortals are fine with a fairway wood down the right side and wedge to the green.
The back nine builds in difficulty with the gorgeous tee shot off the 16th tee (shown in the photo above) setting up a downhill second shot to a shallow green fronted by a lengthy bunker.
Get by that one, and you will face the challenging 17th, a par three of 200-yards plus with water fronting the green and plenty of questions presenting themselves about whether to bail left or go for it.
Without a doubt, SilverRock is worth testing in or out of season. If you go for the off season specials, I suggest getting an early tee time, because temperatures frequently reach triple digits in June, July, and August.