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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Mayacama Golf Club
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.
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.
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.
Kingston Heath: The Hype is Real
We touched ground late in the afternoon at Melbourne Airport and checked in very, very late at hotel Grand Hyatt. Don’t ask about our driving and navigating skills. It shouldn’t have taken us as long as we did. Even with GPS we failed miserably, but our dear friend had been so kind to arrange a room with a magnificent view on the 32nd floor for us.
The skyline in Melbourne was amazing, and what a vibrant, multicultural city Melbourne turned out to be when we later visited the streets to catch a late dinner. The next morning, we headed out to one of the finest golf courses that you can find Down Under: Kingston Heath. We had heard so many great things about this course, and to be honest we were a bit worried it almost was too hyped up. Luckily, there were no disappointments.
Here’s the thing about Kingston Heath. You’re driving in the middle of a suburb in Melbourne and then suddenly you see the sign, “Kingston Heath.” Very shortly after the turn, you’re at the club. This is very different than the other golf courses we’ve visited on this trip Down Under, where we’ve had to drive for several miles to get from the front gates to the club house.
Nevertheless, this course and its wonderful turf danced in front of us from the very first minute of our arrival. With a perfect sunrise and a very picture friendly magic morning mist, we walked out on the course and captured a few photos. Well, hundreds to be honest. The shapes and details are so pure and well defined.
Kingston Heath was designed by Dan Soutar back in 1925 with help and guidance from the legendary golf architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie, who added to its excellent bunkering system. Dr. MacKenzie’s only design suggestion was to change Soutar’s 15th hole from a 222-yard par-4 (with a blind tee shot) to a par-3. Today, this hole is considered to be one the best par-3 holes Down Under, and I can understand why.
I am normally not a big fan of flat courses, but I will make a rare exception for Kingston Heath. It’s a course that’s both fun and puts your strategic skills to a serious test. Our experience is that you need to plan your shots carefully, and never forget to stay out of its deep bunkers. They’re not easy.
Kingston Heath is not super long in distance, but it will still give you a tough test. You definitely need to be straight to earn a good score. If you are in Melbourne, this is the golf course I would recommend above all others.
Next up: Metropolitan. Stay tuned!
Barnbougle Lost Farm: 20 Holes of Pure Joy
Another early day in Tasmania, and we were exploring the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw-design, Barnbougle Lost Farm. The course was completed in 2010, four years after the neighbor Barnbougle Dunes, resulting in much excitement in the world of golf upon opening.
Johan and I teed off at 10 a.m. to enjoy the course at our own pace in its full glory under clear blue skies. Barnbougle Lost Farm starts out quite easy, but it quickly turns into a true test of links golf. You will certainly need to bring some tactical and smart planning in order to get close to many of the pin positions.
The third hole is a prime example. With its sloping two-tiered green, it provides a fun challenge and makes you earn birdie — even if your tee and approach shots put you in a good position. This is one of the things I love about this course; it adds a welcome dimension to the game and something you probably don’t experience on most golf courses.
The 4th is an iconic signature hole called “Sals Point,” named after course owner Richard Sattler’s wife (she was hoping to build a summer home on the property before it was turned into a golf course). A strikingly beautiful par-3, this hole is short in distance but guarded with luring bunkers. When the prevailing northwesterly wind comes howling in from the ocean, the hole will leave you exposed and pulling out one of your long irons for the tee shot. We left No. 4 with two bogeys with a strong desire for revenge.
Later in the round, we notice our scorecard had a hole numbered “13A” just after the 13th. We then noticed there was also an “18A.” That’s because Barnbougle Lost Farm offers golfers 20 holes. The designers believed that 13A was “too good to leave out” of the main routing, and 18A acts as a final betting hole to help decide a winner if you’re left all square. And yes, we played both 13A and 18A.
I need to say I liked Lost Farm for many reasons; it feels fresh and has some quirky holes including the 5th and the breathtaking 4th. The fact that it balks tradition with 20 holes is something I love. It also feels like an (almost) flawless course, and you will find new things to enjoy every time you play it.
The big question after trying both courses at Barnbougle is which course I liked best. I would go for Barnbougle Dunes in front of Barnbougle Lost Farm, mostly because I felt it was more fun and offered a bigger variation on how to play the holes. Both courses are great, however, offering really fun golf. And as I wrote in the first part of this Barnbougle-story, this is a top destination to visit and something you definitely need to experience with your golf friends if you can. It’s a golfing heaven.
Next course up: Kingston Heath in Melbourne.
Barnbougle Dunes: World Class Golf
We arrived to Launceston Airport in Tasmania just before sunset. Located on the Northeast Coast of Australia’s island state, Tasmania, Barnbougle is almost as far from Sweden as it gets… yet it immediately felt like home when we arrived.
The drive from the airport was just over an hour, taking us through deep forests and rolling hills before we arrived to Barnbougle Golf Resort, which consists of two courses — The Dunes and Lost Farm — a lodge, two restaurants, a sports bar and a spa. Unfortunately, it was pitch black outside and we couldn’t see much of the two courses on our arrival. I would like to add that both Johan and I were extremely excited about visiting this golf mecca. We later enjoyed a tasty dinner at the Barnbougle Lost Farm Restaurant before we called it a day.
The next day, we woke up early and got out to The Dunes Course as very first guests out. Well, to be quite honest, we weren’t actually the first out. There were a few locals — Wallabies, lots of them — already out on the course. The natural landscape at Barnbougle is fantastic and my cameras almost overheated with the photo opportunities. After two intense hours of recording videos and producing photos both from ground, we headed back to Lost Farm for a wonderful breakfast (and view). After our breakfast, it was time to try our luck.
Before describing our experience playing the courses, I would like to mention about Richard Sattler, a potato farmer and owner of Barnbougle. In the early 2000’s, Richard was introduced to U.S. golfing visionary Mike Keiser, who had heard about his amazing stretch of farmland in Tasmania and came down to visit. Mike convinced Richard that Barnbougle (which at that stage was a potato farm and still grows potatoes and raises cattle today) might be perfect for creating a top quality golf course.
After an introduction to well renowned golf architect Tom Doak and the formation of a partnership with former Australian golf pro and golf architect Mike Clayton, the development of the Barnbougle Dunes Course commenced.
Featuring large bunkers dotted between fun rolling fairways shaped from the coastal dunes, Barnbougle Dunes offers the golfer some tough challenges, in particular on the first nine. This is indeed a course that will entertain all kinds of golfers.
After our round, we looked back at some fantastic highlights such as playing the iconic 7th hole, a short par-3 called ”Tom’s Little Devil,” as well as the beautiful par-4 15th. We were just two big walking smiles sitting there in the restaurant to be honest. Lets also not forget one of the biggest (and deepest) bunkers I’ve seen at the 4th hole. The name of the bunker is “Jaws.” Good times!
As a small surprise for Johan, I had arranged a meeting after our round with Richard Sattler. Richard, ever the farmer, entered the car parking just in front of the clubhouse in a white pick-up van with a big smile un his face. We talked to Richard for almost 30 minutes. He is an extremely humble man and left such a warm impression on us. Richard explained the Barnbougle story: how it all began and the property today.
To me, this is a high-end golf destination offering something very unique with two world-class courses in Barnbougle Dunes and Barnbougle Lost Farm, both ranked in the top-100 greatest golf courses by Golf Digest and Golf Magazine (U.S.). With the courses located just next to each other, it’s probably one of the best golf resorts you can find down under and a golf resort that I would like bring my hardcore golfing friends to visit. Everything here is exceptional with the resort providing spacious rooms, comfy beds, good food and spectacular views.
Barnbougle Dunes is a real treat to play for any golfer and will leave you with a sweet golfing memory. Compared to the golf courses available on the more remote King Island, Barnbougle is accessible (given Tasmania is connected by better flight connections) and the hospitality and service at is much more refined.
The golf resort is one of the absolute best I’ve been to. I can also highly recommend playing Barnbougle Dunes; I had great fun and you can play it in many ways. Tomorrow, we will be playing and experiencing the other course at Barnbougle: Barnbougle Lost Farm, a Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw course with 20 (!) holes.
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