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Vine Drives: Golf in Wine Country

Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

Published March/April 1999

Golf in The Grapes California's Wine Regions Offer a Vineyard Haven for Duffers

By Jeff Williams

In the sun-rich valleys of Napa and Sonoma, north and east of San Francisco, grapes are the local currency and the international calling card. Hundreds of vineyards set cheek-by-jowl upon thousands and thousands of acres beckon millions of tourists a year to never-ending wine tastings. The grape is good. The grape is gold. The grape is god.

But on the coastal fringes, interior perimeters and even at the very heart of wine country, the grape is occasionally supplanted by grass. There is golf amongst these grapes, with a number of courses placed against the vineyards that line the fairways with galleries of Chardonnay, Merlot and Cab-ernet. Many have a rich bouquet of charm and challenge, courses for the serious player who is also serious about wine.

One player who likes his golf,and likes his wine, is Senior PGA Tour member Bob Murphy. Murphy looks forward each year to The Transamerica tournament at the Silverado Resort and Country Club in Napa. "This is one of the best destinations on the tour," says Murphy. "You can spend a great day on the course here, then still have time to do a little wine tasting. At night you eat at some of the best restaurants anywhere."

Another such Senior PGA Tour player is Jim Colbert, who won The Transamerica this past October. "There are certain places you play because you have to, and there are certain places you play because you want to," says Colbert. "I really look forward to coming to Napa every year. I like my Cabernets, and the golf isn't bad, either."

Silverado is the spiritual home of golf in wine country. The resort has two courses set on 360 acres: the North Course, designed by renowned architect Robert Trent Jones, and the South Course, designed by his son, Robert Trent Jones Jr. The fairways meander past the resort's rooms, condominiums and homes, and the landscape is defined by large pines, oaks, ponds and streams. On Silverado's membership rolls is Johnny Miller, the former PGA Tour star and current NBC television commentor, who owns a spread just up the road.

The North Course is the tougher of the layouts, longer with more severe greens and bunkers, and some decidedly unfriendly trees. Played from the forward tees, the spot from which any double-digit handicapper should play, the North Course is pleasant and manageable. But check out the difference between the championship tee and the regular tee on the first hole of the North, and you will get a different picture. From the regular tee, the first hole is a straightaway par-4 of modest length. From the championship markers set some 40 yards to the rear, big trees that don't pose much of a danger from the forward tee suddenly narrow the driving corridor.

The Transamerica tourament is played on the South Course because it is more spectator-friendly and the 18th green finishes in back of the clubhouse. The par 3s are the best part of the course. They tend to play long, to smallish greens. It's a good idea to take one more club for your tee shots on these holes, as it is on many of your shots in wine country. The heavy Pacific air tends to make the fairways soft, which restricts the flight and roll of the balls.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at two seaside courses overlooking the Pacific at the western edge of Sonoma County: Bodega Harbour Golf Links and Sea Ranch Golf Links, two absolute gems that sparkle, at least when the sun breaks through the fog.

Let's get one thing straight. Though these two courses call themselves links, they are not. Neither is California's most famous course, Pebble Beach. These are headland courses, played across the rocky lip of the continent. Links courses are those that play through the sandy-soil littoral of the ocean's edge.

Nevertheless, Bodega Harbour and Sea Ranch do share the same seaside weather as links courses. The winds can get up something fierce at both courses. Then there are those days when the air is perfectly still, with fog sitting upon the courses like frosting on a cake. Those are the kinds of days, with the air the consistency of Jello, when your best-hit drive goes 205 and you can't hit a pitching wedge 100 yards.

Bodega Harbour is another Robert Trent Jones Jr. course, built in two nine-hole stages nearly a decade apart. "The members thought that since Jones did the first nine, he should do the second nine to be consistent," says head pro Dennis Kalkowski. "Well, it didn't turn out quite that way."

No, it didn't. The front and back nine at Bodega Harbour are remarkably different. The first nine holes that Jones built (in 1979) were done in a softer style, with broad, flattish fairways that have gentle slopes with greens that complement that style. The next nine (now played as the front nine) were built eight years later and are far more rugged, pitching and rolling over the landscape and capable of humbling even the best players.

>From the back tees Bodega Harbour's 6,265 yards play to a par of 70. That's a pretty short course by contemporary standards; today, championship tees routinely extend courses well beyond 7,000 yards. But don't be fooled or lulled by Bodega Harbour's length, and don't let your ego get in the way of playing from the regular men's tees, where the length seems to be a puny 5,685 yards. This is one tough little course. The competitive-course record is a 2-under-par 68. The North Coast Amateur, a 36-hole event for the best amateur players, has been contested at Bodega Harbour for the past 20 years. The winning score this year was 151, 11 strokes over par.

"We had a group of players that travel all over the West playing top-notch golf courses call us once about setting up an outing," says Kalkowski. "A gentleman representing the club said he was concerned that the course couldn't be that tough if it was only 6,200 yards. I told him that it would be wise to check the ego at the door when you play here."

Kalkowski's advice is especially apt for the newer holes, such as the escalator climb of the fourth hole and the waterslide descent of the fifth. On both holes, hummocks make for uncertain bounces and pot bunkers make for uncertain sand shots.

The fourth hole is one of the toughest par 4s you'll ever play, and it's only 407 yards from the back tee. But it's rather like a mountain climb, the green perched at the highest point on the course, the way up fraught with danger for even slightly errant shots. The drive must avoid a series of pot bunkers along the left side of the fairway and the unkempt area that skirts the hole along the right side. The approach shot, usually with a long iron or fairway wood, is very much uphill and very much blind, except for the top of the flagstick. A bogey on this hole will seem a relief, a par a bonus, a birdie a miracle.

After the challenge (or could that be torture?) of the front nine, the first six holes of the back nine give the player time to exhale, and to get ready for the fine finish. The last three holes come close to true links golf. Your tee shot on the 16th crosses a reedy marsh and what remains of Les Read, once the acting dean of Humanities and Fine Arts at Sacramento City College. Read loved the golf course so much that his ashes were tossed into the marsh in 1992; a memorial tournament bearing his name was played one year.

If you are taking a cart at Bodega Harbour, you must take clubs with you to play the approach shot to the 16th and the tee shot on the par-3 17th since there are no cart paths linking those holes. You pick up the cart again at the base of the 18th tee, where you must steel yourself for an extremely difficult and beautiful closing hole, a par 4 of 467 yards.

Rivaling Bodega Harbour in beauty and challenge is the Sea Ranch Golf Links at the northwestern tip of Sonoma County. This Robert Muir Graves design features an abundance of wetland holes, with the par-4 16th requiring as much courage as a player can summon to pick the correct angle for his tee shot over the wetlands to the fairway. The par-3 eighth hole is a beguiling beast of 182 yards from the back tee. The green on a rocky outcrop overhangs the Pacific. Wind makes it difficult to choose a club and play the correct line. Sea Ranch seems more like a links than Bodega Harbour, largely because it is not quite as hemmed in by housing as are some of the holes at Bodega Harbour.

Heading back inland you are likely to pass through Santa Rosa, where if you're lucky you might run into Bill Carson, the general manager of the Fountaingrove Inn, a dandy modern building of impeccable design and an excellent choice of lodging for access to the coast and interior of Sonoma County. Should you stay at the inn, you might find Carson out by the small swimming pool, enjoying a cigar. Carson plays much of his golf at the nearby Fountaingrove Country Club, a recently revitalized Ted Robinson layout that is open to the public though not directly connected to the Fountaingrove Inn. (The inn offers golf packages at the country club.)

"I like Fountaingrove because it's got a lot more contour and elevation change than the valley courses," says Carson. Indeed, Fountaingrove plays through some wild and woolly arroyos and you might want to take note of a message posted in the golf carts: "Caution, rattlesnakes in the rough." The snakes are far less of a threat than water hazards and out-of-bounds stakes.

In the village of Sonoma is the Mission Inn Golf & Country Club, recently purchased by the Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. This is a well-conditioned public course that's worth a visit. It's long (7,069 yards from the tips, 6,621 from the regular tees), and though fairly flat, the contour molded into the course keeps it visually interesting. An egret does some fishing in the ponds here, and you can sometimes find it standing sentinel on the bridge that crosses the water hazard at the front of the par-3 14th. Only when you get close enough to spook it do you realize it's not a water-garden ornament.

In the Carneros region south of Napa is the Chardonnay Golf Club, the wine country's closest approximation of a golf mill. Chardonnay consists of a public course called the Vineyards and a private course called the Shakespeare. Both play around--and in some cases over--vineyards of Chardonnay and Merlot grapes that are grown by the owners of the complex. Members of private clubs may be able to play the Shakespeare course under a reciprocal agreement. Either course is worthy of a timeout from the wine trail.

The Vineyards course has something of a linksy feel to it even though it's 40 miles inland. Humps and bumps in the fairways are kept as hard and fast as the superintendent can make them. Many of the greens are quirky, none more so than the astounding 103-yard-wide green of the par-3 fourth hole, which has enough levels to qualify as a small mountain range. The hole can play as short as 132 yards or as long as 216. Don't spend all day on the tee trying to make a club selection, but do give it careful consideration, and as a rule take one more club than you usually would select for any given distance, since the hole plays a little uphill and it's better to go long than end up in the bunkers short.

The Shakespeare course is a 7,000-yard challenger that has been good enough to host a first stage of the PGA Tour qualifying school; it also serves as a qualifying tournament for the U.S. Open. All the holes on the Shakespeare have been given names taken from the Bard's writings, such as the par-3 13th called A Midsummer Night's Dream.

And a bit of a dream it is. This is one of those artificially composed holes that really works. Playing to an island green surrounded by water, the 13th has a Disneyesque teeing area with a waterfall running down its elevated front. With the abundance of flowers and shrubs, the tending of the teeing area captures the full attention of one member of the grounds crew each day. All the bells and whistles aside, it's a substantial hole, playing 163 yards from the back tee. If you aren't pressed by the group behind you, take a minute to take in the tranquil view of the hole's landscape and the city of Napa to the north. Employees of the course have been known to sneak away to the 13th tee for some rest and relaxation.

The par-5 seventh hole on the Shakespeare is named Romeo and Juliet for the ponds on either side of the fairway that will never join each other. You should already know the name of the 18th (answer at the end of the article).

A wine region that's close to San Francisco but off the well-worn trail of Napa and Sonoma is the Livermore Valley, about an hour's drive east of the city. It's home to the Wente Vineyards, whose Wente wines have been a fixture in U.S. wine shops since before the California wine boom began in the mid-1970s. The three Wente siblings who today run the winery--Carolyn, Philip and Eric--have created a stunning addition to their vineyard property, a 6,949-yard championship course designed by Greg Norman.

>From the tee of the opening par 4, you immediately get the sense that this is a uniquely beautiful layout. The tee is about 70 feet above the fairway, which is bordered on the left by an old Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard and on the right by a dried-out creek bed. The front nine roller-coasters its way through the line of hills near the main vineyards, and half the holes play along active vineyards. The back nine runs along the valley floor, with three spectacular holes in the hills. The two finishing par 4s are long and difficult.

The restaurant and tasting room at the winery beckon after a round, sating you before you drive back to the city or stay at lodging in Pleasanton, about 20 minutes away. In the future you may be able to sleep among the vineyards, as the Wentes hope to build a small inn on the property.

Just a few minutes from the Wente course is Poppy Ridge, a 27-hole layout designed by Rees Jones and owned by the Northern California Golf Association, which also owns Poppy Hills on the Monterey Peninsula. Poppy Ridge is treeless and wide open, though some elevation changes are significant. The par-5 18th plays around a lake down the left side of the fairway, and with a good drive there's a chance to get home in two for an eagle putt. But that reward has its risks, and the average player shouldn't spoil an otherwise good round by drowning a ball or two on the final hole.

While some players shun playing a course with the word "municipal" in it, you shouldn't be dissuaded from playing the Napa Municipal Golf Course, which the locals sometimes refer to as Kennedy Park. Bring a lot of balls, especially if your driving game has been a bit erratic. Water comes into play on 16 holes at Napa Municipal. Much more appealing are the greens fees. Golf in wine country is already a bit of a bargain, with greens fees seldom topping $100, but Napa Municipal's special weekday rate is especially attractive. Call in advance, and two people can play for less than $50, cart included, after 10 a.m.

Alister MacKenzie, the architect who helped design Augusta National Golf Club and the Sterling Cypress Point Club, on the Monterey Peninsula, left a small mark in Sonoma County in the form of the Northwood Golf Club, a nine-hole course that plays through magnificent redwoods near the Russian River. Another small course can be found at the Meadowood Resort in St. Helena. This is an executive-style course, short and sweet.

The explosion of the wine industry in Napa and Sonoma over the past three decades notwithstanding, there's still room for golf among the grapes. Then again golf, like wine, has been a passion for centuries.

And, as the name of the 18th hole at the Shakespeare course reminds us: "All's Well That Ends Well."

Jeff Williams writes about golf for Newsday.

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