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California Blend: Three Great Wine Country Tracks

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I had a chance to escape the hot, flat South Carolina coast last month for more temperate and, shall we say, curvier climes: California’s legendary Wine Country. I attended the wedding of a cousin and I’d be damned if I was going to travel all that way and not play some golf. I ended up with an itinerary that checked almost all the boxes: one classic layout that is accessible for guests of a nearby hotel, a thoroughly blue-collar public hidden gem and an ultra-modern, ultra-exclusive retreat.

Sonoma Golf Club

Sonoma Golf Club opened in 1928. Its designer, Sam Whiting, might be a household name if you come from a household of golf course architecture buffs. But the Olympic Club, host of the 2012 U.S. Open, certainly is. So is TPC Harding Park, host of a World Golf Championship and a Presidents Cup. Sonoma is no slouch either, having hosted the Champions Tour’s Charles Schwab Cup Championship from 2003 through 2009.

The 18th green, seen from the left, is perched between a stream and Sonoma Golf Club’s gorgeous Mission-style clubhouse, which has one of the best locker rooms the author has seen anywhere.

Whiting’s routing in juxtaposition with the spectacular scenery are the stars at Sonoma. Echoing 2013 Open Championship site Muirfield, the outward nine loops clockwise around the edge of the rectangular, rolling property while the back nine meanders mostly counterclockwise along the interior. This guarantees that the player encounters holes that play to all points of the compass, uphill, downhill and sidehill, as well as all sorts of roiling winds. A round at Sonoma is therefore a fairly classical test of ball-striking; Champions Tour players enjoyed it during its tenure and made a great deal of birdies.

The par-three 7th is known as an all-time favorite hole of Sam Snead’s. Surely the hole’s rustic setting reminded Slammin’ Sam of the likes of The Greenbrier and The Homestead

Those birdies come primarily because the green complexes at Sonoma are fairly uniform and not overly crazy or controversial. Architect Robert Muir Graves modernized the bunkering and greens in the early 1990s, resulting in 18 amoeba-shaped and cape-and-bay bunker-surrounded putting. The greens are very subtle, with most putts pulling slightly toward the second tee, the property’s lowest point. Players who grasp this little bit of local knowledge can score at Sonoma. But to be honest, just getting to spend a few hours on the property feels like victory—it is that tranquil.

The penultimate hole at Sonoma requires no more than a short iron from the tee, but the L-shaped green can be elusive.

Sonoma Golf Club is mostly private, but does accept outside play from guests of the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn. Current rates are $195 April through October and $135 November through March.

Windsor Golf Club

Windsor Golf Club enjoys similarly spectacular environs to Sonoma and Mayacama Golf Clubs, but is open to all at almost absurdly low rates, given the quality of the course.

Of the three courses I played during the week, this one was the wild card. It is as public as courses get and while my Google Maps advance scouting mission was promising, I wasn’t 100 percent sold until I played the course and realized that it has to be one of the best courses I have played in the under-$60 (before cart) greens fee category. If I lived in Windsor or Santa Rosa, Calif., this would be my home course, and I’d never be bored. The $27 weekday/$39 weekend twilight (walking) rate is as good a deal as you can find. For a course that opened in 1989, many holes have a fairly classic look. The short par fours, the 3rd and 14th, are absolute blasts, and the mid-length par four 15th has a terrific hanging greensite where missing a foot right of the green and missing 20 yards right suffer roughly equivalent fates. I hit my best drive of the round to within 60 yards of the elevated, narrow green and walked off with a brain-rattling bogey.

The par four 15th at Windsor is not long, but it demands precision and careful planning. Forget one of those two and par is a pipedream.

Whereas most public courses are fairly mundane after one’s first few plays, Windsor will test you in different ways every single day, and there are various ways to play multiple holes. It is a splendid blue-collar, everyday course in all the best senses of those terms.

It is not often that the golfer is asked to play around two silos, but such a task is part of any round at Windsor. In fact, players who want to challenge the green with a mighty tee shot on the short par four third, seen here, ought to aim just right of the structures.

Mayacama Golf Club

The fifth, like so many holes at Mayacama, was shaped in order to appear as though a relatively small amount of dirt had to be moved in order to coax it out of the terrain. Challenging the bunker on the right allows a well-hit tee shot to collect toward the day’s hole location.

In the waning years of the 20th century, some of Sonoma and Napa Valley’s top vintners got together to build themselves a place to enjoy their other great love: golf. They hired Jack Nicklaus and in 2001, Mayacama Golf Club emerged from the wild, spectacular property that scales sides of steep hills above Santa Rosa and darts down between them. The course ranks No. 86 on Golf Digest’s “100 Greatest Courses” list and No. 47 on Golfweek’s “Top 100 Modern Courses” list.

It is scary good, and just plain scary—it is probably the longest 6,785-yard golf course on the planet, sporting a 73.8 Rating and 150 (!) Slope from those tees. The severity of the property, plus the walking-only (with caddies) mandate necessitated terraced tee boxes, fairways and greens often accessible by wooden staircases. At times, it is impossible to tell whether the walk or the tough shot unfolding is the source of one’s huffing and puffing. Every single full shot on the course requires players’ undivided attention—there is no let-up. People who can play Mayacama well can stand up to pretty much anything a golf course can throw at them.

Typical Mayacama: the shortest hole on the golf course is still a toughie. This is the uphill, short par three 14th, with a shallow green guarded by falloffs and nasty bunkers.

This is not to say Mayacama is not fun to play—it is. Many of the putting surfaces have interesting side and back slopes that can be used to work the ball close to seemingly untouchable hole locations. Numerous elevated tees constantly tease the prospect of a career tee shot. Take for instance the tee-in-the-sky three-shot 15th, where a heroic tee shot that carries bunkers that bottleneck the fairway will careen some 80 yards down a hill to a plateau, leaving a mid-iron—all carry over a ravine, naturally—to the green. Non-members who get to play the course once are fortunate, but almost cursed because hindsight dictates many strategies that leave the player aching for another go-around the way defeated prize fighters ache for a rematch.

Mayacama Golf Club boasts a small army of maintenance workers who help keep the course in terrific shape. This is the par five 15th, where a tee shot that carries the left-hand bunker cluster receives up to 80 yards of extra roll. A great thrill.

As enjoyable as Sonoma and Mayacama are, a 54-hole vacation at Windsor Golf Club alone would have made for a hoot of a time. Keep that in mind when next you find yourself in Wine Country. And if you can swing the likes of Sonoma and Mayacama, you will be so happy you will almost forget to enjoy some of the rich red and white product for which the region is so famous. Almost.

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Tim grew up outside of Hartford, Conn., playing most of his formative golf at Hop Meadow Country Club in the town of Simsbury. He played golf for four years at Washington & Lee University (Division-III) and now lives in Pawleys Island, S.C., and works in nearby Myrtle Beach in advertising. He's not too bad on Bermuda greens, for a Yankee. A lifelong golf addict, he cares about all facets of the game of golf, from equipment to course architecture to PGA Tour news to his own streaky short game.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Chuck

    Oct 3, 2013 at 9:39 am

    I played Sonoma Golf Club before they took it completley private. Great course. My brother used to volunteer for the Champions Tour event and got to play there once a year. He still gets to play there from time to time through work (one of the wineries in Sonoma). He just moved from Sonoma to Santa Rosa so we’ll have to play Windsor the next time I visit.

    Neal – On the Napa side, probably the “best known” course is Chardonnay http://chardonnaygolfclub.com/course/ but my favorite is the Johnny Miller designed Eagle Vines http://eaglevinesgolfclub.com/course.html

  2. Neal

    Sep 30, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    Anything in the Napa region? These all seem to be closer to Sonoma

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Courses

Hidden Gem of the Day: Oak Hollow Golf Club in High Point, North Carolina

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These aren’t the traditional “top-100” golf courses in America, or the ultra-private golf clubs you can’t get onto. These are the hidden gems; they’re accessible to the public, they cost less than $50, but they’re unique, beautiful and fun to play in their own right. We recently asked our GolfWRX Members to help us find these “hidden gems.” We’re treating this as a bucket list of golf courses to play across the country, and the world. If you have a personal favorite hidden gem, submit it here! 

Today’s Hidden Gem of the Day was posted by GolfWRX member thejuice, who submitted Oak Hollow Golf Club in High Point, North Carolina, as his hidden gem of a golf course. In his description, thejuice charts out what exactly he loves about the course, and why the Pete Dye designed track is now going to be his go-to-stop in North Carolina.

“It’s a Pete Dye design that has a lot of the unfair Dye slopes in the greens, with the normal Pete Dye risk/reward setup on several holes.  I played it with some cousins during my family reunion and thought it was fantastic.”

“We normally play Starmount Forest (I’m a ClubCorp member), Grandover, or Bryan Park (both have 36 holes, and both are fine facilities), but I think I want to make Oak Hollow my preferred course when I go to visit my NC fam.  For the price, it just can’t be beaten.  I think we paid $40 on a Saturday morning (8 am tee time) and it was definitely worth more than that with several holes on a large lake and excellent fairways and greens.”

Sounds good, right? Well according to Oak Hollow Golf Club’s website, that Saturday morning rate comes with a cart, and should you want to play during the week, an 18 hole round will set you back just $33. They have plenty of specials listed on their site too, but the one that stands out the most is the 18 hole weekday walking fee, which costs only $17.

@rcausey25

@TeamSC11

@HPCBison_Golf

Check out the full forum thread here, and submit your Hidden Gem.

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Hidden Gem of the Day: The Wilderness at Lake Jackson in Texas

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These aren’t the traditional “top-100” golf courses in America, or the ultra-private golf clubs you can’t get onto. These are the hidden gems; they’re accessible to the public, they cost less than $50, but they’re unique, beautiful and fun to play in their own right. We recently asked our GolfWRX Members to help us find these “hidden gems.” We’re treating this as a bucket list of golf courses to play across the country, and the world. If you have a personal favorite hidden gem, submit it here! 

Today’s Hidden Gem of the Day takes us to “The Lone Star State” and The Wilderness at Lake Jackson in Texas. The course was submitted by GolfWRX member pearsonified, who calls The Wilderness “the best value in Texas”. Pearsonified also believes that the course contains “perhaps the most memorable green sites” he’s ever seen as he went into full detail on why he believes The Wilderness is such a gem.

“This Jeff Brauer design is a RIDICULOUS sleeper with perhaps the most memorable green sites I’ve ever played. The par five 7th plays to a kidney-shaped green that’s nearly 70 yards long and features a few different plateaus. The long par three 16th—one of my favorite holes anywhere—is a classic Biarritz with a 5-foot-deep swale cutting right through the middle. Honorable mention goes to the short par four 11th which properly balances risk with reward and goads players to bite off as much as they can.”

According to The Wilderness at Lake Jackson’s website, a weekday round for a resident will cost $49, while for a non-resident the fee rises to $59. Although rising above the hidden gem “less than $50” rule, to play after 2 pm at the Wilderness will set you back just $44, and all of these rates include a cart fee.

@SilverStarGolf

@SilverStarGolf

@thewildernessgc

Check out the full forum thread here, and submit your Hidden Gem.

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Hidden Gem of the Day: Quail Hollow Golf Course in Boise, Idaho

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These aren’t the traditional “top-100” golf courses in America, or the ultra-private golf clubs you can’t get onto. These are the hidden gems; they’re accessible to the public, they cost less than $50, but they’re unique, beautiful and fun to play in their own right. We recently asked our GolfWRX Members to help us find these “hidden gems.” We’re treating this as a bucket list of golf courses to play across the country, and the world. If you have a personal favorite hidden gem, submit it here! 

Today’s Hidden Gem of the Day was posted by GolfWRX member PixlPutterman, who submitted Quail Hollow Golf Course in Boise, Idaho as his hidden gem of a golf course. PixlPutterman calls Quail Hollow a “target golfers dream,” and judging by his description of the 18 hole course, it’s easy to see why.

“Nestled in the foothills at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains. The course is kept in country club level condition and is very challenging. Its a target golfers dream, you can play it with about six clubs and you rarely “need” a driver. Greens are in great shape, and there are some great elevation holes. Pic (below) was taken from the Champion Tee on the 18th Hole. You basically tee off over two other holes, and the view is AWESOME.”

According to Quail Hollow Golf Course’s website, a weekend round with a cart at the course nestled in the Boise foothills will cost you $48, while playing during the week is just $44. Both senior and twilight rates come in at around $39.

@Ron_White

@fnf2017

Check out the full forum thread here, and submit your Hidden Gem.

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