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.

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  1. 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

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