Last summer Ty Warner Hotels & Resorts purchased Rancho San Marcos Golf Course. It can be said that had it not been for Warner, Rancho would have ceased as a golf course and returned to being a cattle ranch. Instead, Rancho is now in line for major improvements, both to the course and public facilities.

Robert Trent Jones, II was the original course architect; it will be his office that will oversea the proposed changes. I took a tour of the course with architect David VanHoy, who will be responsible for designing the new buildings, though he also has firsthand knowledge of the proposed course changes.

There are some changes to the first couple of holes to restore the original routing and solve some course delays. On hole Number 1, the green will be moved back and to the right, making it play at least 50 yards longer. Since the hole usually plays downwind, many players could reach the green in two. Because of this, play backed up as golfers waited for the green to clear. With this additional length, only big hitters will be waiting. The setting for the new green, which will be framed by oak trees, seems like a good choice.

Number 3 will change and play more like the original design, which was lost soon after the course opened when a storm washed the green away. It will be a short par-4 of just more than 300 yards. The green will be just past the large oak trees on the left currently guarding the fairway. Once again, the Santa Ynez River will be in play long and to the right. The new 4th tee will shoot in between the oaks and across the current 3rd green, which will no longer be used. This will create a much longer and tougher par-4 that can be stretched to 490 yards and into the wind.

On the back nine the famous 15th hole should be greatly improved. The large oak and hill that you had to shoot over on the right side will be removed. The oak will be replanted near the clubhouse and the hill will be graded down so that players can see the fairway. This means that the tee shot will no longer be blind, and thus fairer. I hope they will also look at the cart path by the green, which is too close to the green. With the prevailing left to right wind, a shot just right of the green can be carried onto the path and carom out of play.

Historically, Rancho’s fatal flaw has been its property’s scarcity of available water, often leaving fairways discolored and indecipherable from the arid Santa Ynez Valley landscape. The Warner team fixed the water problems by enlarging water pipes to gain more draw on existing well, capital expenditures that most course owners would rarely take on.

As a result, course fees will no doubt go up on weekends and holidays with expected heavy demand from visitors to our area. The weekday rates will continue to stay attractive for county residents, though. Right now, you can play during the week for $45, including cart and range with a Santa Barbara Access Card. With more than 200 acres of rolling terrain dotted with oak trees following a river basin up to views of Lake Cachuma, this is a special site and a bargain for golfers.

There are several new structures proposed, including a golf school building. VanHoy said Warner was negotiating with a “well-known and highly regarded golf instructor” to run the new school. The back end of the range will become a practice hole where the short game and uneven lies can be taught. The end closest to the current pro shop will still serve as the primary practice tee. There will be an indoor hitting bay for video purposes. The new pro shop and restaurant will move closer to the range and thus not in the way of errant shots off the 9th tee, as is currently the case. The new buildings will be small and keep the “authentic California ranch feel,” says VanHoy.

Rancho is currently applying for a beer and wine license. It is currently the only golf course in California that does not have such a permit, a restriction that was tied to the property’s conditions of approval in 1991. The Live Oak Camp next door is allowed to sell alcohol. In fact, there are 475 licenses to sell alcohol within 20 minutes of the course.

The County Planning Commission approved unanimously upgrades to Rancho on June 28. However, Warner representatives say an appeal of the decision to the County Board of Supervisors is imminent. If Rancho passes through the approval process, officials say course improvement could begin as soon as this fall. The course would be closed for one year.