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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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Branson, Missouri Continues to Evolve as a Golf Destination

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If you think you know Branson, Mo., it’s time to think again. While the live music venues that put the bucolic Ozark Mountains town on the map continue to thrive, its reputation as a top notch golf destination has grown … and continues to evolve.

Heck, golfers who’ve visited just a few years ago will find the scene almost unrecognizable. Sure, the awe-inspiring Top of the Rock — designed by legendary Jack Nicklaus and holding the honor of being the first-ever par-3 course to be included in a professional PGA championship — is as striking as ever, but its sister course, Buffalo Ridge, has undergone a metamorphosis.

No. 15 at Buffalo Ridge

Designed by renowned architect Tom Fazio and originally opened in 1999, Buffalo Ridge has done the unthinkable – make its list of previous accolades pale in comparison to what now graces the land. In conjunction with owner and visionary conservationist Johnny Morris, Fazio has exposed massive limestone formations, enhanced approaches and added water features to make every hole more memorable than the last.

Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio masterpieces not enough? Gary Player has stamped his signature in the Ozarks with the recently opened Mountain Top Course. This 13-hole, walking-only short course is unlike anything you’ve ever played.

Strap your bag to a trolley and let your imagination dictate your round. There are stakes in the ground with yardage markers nearby, but they’re merely suggestions. Play it long or play it short. Play it from different angles. The only mandate is to enjoy the course, nature and camaraderie.

No. 10 at Mountain Top

The Mountain Top greens are huge and as smooth as putting on a pool table. Nearly as quick, too. And the bunkers are as pristine as the white sands of an isolated Caribbean beach. Capping off your experience, the finishing hole plays back to the clubhouse and the green boasts multiple hole locations that enhance golfers’ chances at carding an ace. Hard to imagine a better way the end an already unforgettable round.

It shouldn’t take you much longer than two hours to get around Mountain Top Course. If it does, you were likely admiring the stunning panoramas. One notable addition to those views is Tiger Woods’ (TGR Design) first public access design — Payne’s Valley (named to honor Missouri golfing legend Payne Stewart) — which is full speed ahead on construction and scheduled to open in 2019. As a treat, the 19th hole was designed by Morris. Named “The Rock,” it’s a short par-3 that promises to be amazing.

Payne’s Valley will be both family-friendly and challenging. It has wide fairways and ample landing areas along with creative angles and approaches that shotmakers love and expect from a championship course.

If two years is too long to wait for new golf, then Morris and his Big Cedar Lodge have you covered with the yet-to-be-named ridge-top course by the industry’s hottest design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. With all the heavy lifting complete, the Ozarks is scheduled to be unveiled in 2018.

The Ozark Mountains form the backdrop on No. 5 at Buffalo Ridge.

Once opened, this par-71 (36-35) track will play “firm and fast” and offer multiple avenues into each green. Both Coore and Crenshaw bristle at the notion that there’s only one way to approach the playing surface. Bring it in high or run it along the ground. Considering the exposed nature of the course and propensity for high winds, the latter may be your best option.

There’s more. Tiger won’t be finished with Branson when he wraps up Payne’s Valley. He’s also designing a family-friendly par-3 course on the grounds of Big Cedar Lodge. There isn’t a date attached to this project, so stay tuned.

These new tracks join the likes of Thousand Hills, Branson Hills and Pointe Royale Golf Village to make Branson a powerful player on the golf destination scene. Combine that with world-class fishing and camping, as well as countless museums, restaurants and points of interest and this bustling Ozarks town is a must-visit spot in Middle America.

Learn more or plan your trip at explorebranson.com.

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Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club

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Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own. 

Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.

All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.

A view from the ninth fairway

Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.

Trees, or no trees?

The 18th tee

The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.

The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.

Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.

A good variety

Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16.  What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14.  These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set.  The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.

A view of the ninth fairway from across the Pennsylvania Turnpike

The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s tempt the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.

Green complexes are…complex

The green on the 18th hole

Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world.  They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.

The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a decent lie.

Ari’s last word

All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.

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Coming Up: A Big Golf Adventure

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My name is Jacob Sjöman, and I’m a 35-year-old golf photographer who also enjoys the game we all love. I will be sharing some experiences here on a big golf trip that we are doing. With me I’ve got my friend Johan. I will introduce him properly later, but he is quite a funny character. According to Johan, he is the best golf photo assistant in the world, and we will see about that since this is probably his biggest test yet doing this trip. Previously on our trips, Johan almost got us killed in Dubai with a lack of driving skills. He also missed a recent evening photo shoot in Bulgaria while having a few beers too many… and that’s not all.

Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve been packing my bags over and over. I came home from the Canary Islands this Sunday and I’ve been constantly checking and rechecking that we’ve got all the required equipment, batteries, and that the cameras are 100 percent functional and good to go for this golf trip. I’m still not sure, but in a couple of minutes I will be sitting in a taxi to the airport and there will be no turning back.

Where are we going then? We are going to visit some of the very best golf courses in New Zealand and Australia. There will be breathtaking golf on cliffsides, jaw-dropping scenic courses, and some hidden gems. And probably a big amount of lost balls with a lot of material produced in the end.

I couldn’t be more excited for a golf journey like this one. Flying around the globe to these special golf courses I’ve only dreamed about visiting before gives me a big kick and I feel almost feel like a Indiana Jones. The only thing we’ve got in common, though, is that we don’t like snakes. Australia seems to be one of the worst destinations to visit in that purpose, but all the upsides are massive in this.

First, we will take off from a cold Stockholm (it’s raining heavily outside at the moment) and then we will do our first stop at Doha in Quatar. Then after two more hours, we are finally heading off to Auckland on the north island of New Zealand, a mega-flight of 16 hours. I believe that could very well be one of the longest flights available for a ordinary airplane. I need to check that.

Flights for me usually mean work, editing photos from different golf courses I’ve visited, writing some texts, editing some films, and planning for the future. Last time, though, I finally managed to sleep a little, which is a welcome progress for a guy that was deadly scared of flying until 2008.

Now, I am perfectly fine with flying. A few rocky flights over the Atlantic Sea to Detroit helped me a lot, and my motto is now, “If those flights got me down on the ground safely, it takes a lot of failures to bring down a plane.”

Anyway, I hope you will join me on this golf trip. Stay tuned!

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