Why Sonoma County?
So, you might ask, what makes golf in Sonoma County so special? All you have to do is just visit our gorgeous area and experience our surroundings and climate, which are arguably as good as it gets. Where can you find rivers, agriculture, rolling hills and a couple of not so distant mountain peaks, and then throw in the Pacific Ocean?
Our temperature ranges from the 60s (mornings) to mid, to high 80s (afternoons) during the summer. A few days will reach the 90s and sometimes actually top 100, but the fog generally rolls in during the evening to cool us down. We’re also just an hour away from two major cities, San Francisco and Oakland. But there’s something else that makes Sonoma County special.
Don’t take my word for it, here’s what one of the worlds most famous horticulturalist, Luther Burbank, had to say about Sonoma County (SC) back in 1875.
“I firmly believe from what I have seen that this is the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned.”
Well said, Mr. Burbank. What a perfect way to describe SC by singling out nature. Webster’s Dictionary defines nature as, “The physical world and its phenomena,” and defines phenomena as, “An extremely outstanding or unusual person, thing or marvel.”
Yes, Mr. Burbank was speaking of the incredible beauty of Sonoma County that he perceived some 138 years ago.
I think Mr. Burbank hit it pure, and that’s why I think Sonoma County is so special.
SC has been blessed with a marvelous landscape of rolling hills, Redwood groves and Mr. Burbanks’ favorites, flowers and trees. Over the years, SC was best known for its family owned chicken, pig, sheep, horse and cow farms and ranches. Crops ranging from hops, olives, cherries, wheat, almonds, walnuts, dates and apples have also covered our landscape. But that was back in the day. Today small farms are mostly a thing of the past. Now almost every available acre, as far as one can see, is filled with grape vines, clustered with our world famous grapes. There are approximately 325 wineries that produce some of the worlds’ best wine here in SC.
Oh, and I almost forgot, there are also 22 nature-drenched golf courses in Sonoma County, including five spectacular private courses, eight exceptional 9-hole layouts, and 13 beautiful 18-hole venues to choose from, and each as unique as every Merlot, Cabernet or Chardonnay ever tasted.
ON THE FIRST TEE
So which of theses 22 courses was the first to stake its flags in Sonoma County?
Santa Rosa Golf and Country Club earns that honor when it opened its doors way back in 1916, just east of Santa Rosa on the slopes of Rincon Valley. Approximately 10 years later, SRG&CC realized it needed more expansion room and pulled up its flags and moved west of Santa Rosa to its existing property, just north of Sebastopol. The new course eventually opened in 1957.
In 2002, SRG&CC went through numerous renovations, including tearing down its existing clubhouse and replacing it with a new one. The cost was in the $9.6 million range. SRG&CC has a wonderful design, lined with oak trees, specious greens, and a layout that can easily be walked.
Santa Rosa Golf and County Club is one of our illustrious private courses. Other private venues include Sonoma Mission Inn Golf and Country Club (1928), Fountaingrove Athletic and Golf Country Club (1985) and one of our newest and most exquisite courses, Mayacama Golf Club, in 1999.
Petaluma Golf and Country Club (1922), our third oldest course in SC, is also private but is the only one limited to nine holes. PG&CC is rated 70.0 with a slope of 117, with very few flat lies and target greens.
Sonoma Mission Inn Golf and Country Club, or Sonoma National, was my favorite, long before it went through extensive renovations before going private. The SMIG&CC is actually semi-private. You must either be a member of the club or stay at the lovely Mission Inn to book a tee time. It’s far from cheap, but it’s worth it for both a great place to stay and play.
SMIG&CC is probably best know for hosting the Charles Schwab Cup men’s senior Championship from 2003 through 2009. Jim Thorpe, one of the few African/Americans on the PGA Tour, won the first year the championship was held at Sonoma. He also won it in 2006 and 2007. Mark McNulty (2004), Tom Watson (2005), Andy Bean (2008) and John Cook (2009) also claimed the trophy at Sonoma.
Next is the Fountaingrove Golf and Athletic Club, located in the beautiful rolling hills north of Santa Rosa.
Established in 1985, the course was one of the toughest public courses around before it was purchased by its membership and turned private in 2008. But like the Sonoma Mission Inn G&CC, FGAC also offers a stay and play plan at the Fountaingrove Inn. If you do get a chance to play, be sure and take a cart as some of the distances from green to tee are quite lengthy. The course also sports incredible elevation changes.
Our next course was private from its inception. Mayacama Golf Club, which is located near Healdsburg, is the epitome of luxury. This Jack Nicklaus designed creation sports a slope of 150.
Just to give you an idea what Mayacama has to offer, here’s what its membership enjoys besides outstanding golf. The club’s list of amenities include: hiking trails, swimming and tennis centers and a 40,000-square-foot Clubhouse, which features lockers for nearly 500 members. If that’s not enough, throw in a European spa, 3,000-square-foot wine cellar, and of course, gourmet dining. And by the way, this club uses caddies, not GPS.
Mayacama and Petaluma G&CC are the two Sonoma County courses I haven’t had the pleasure of playing.
LET’S PLAY NINE
So that’s it for the private sector, let’s take a look at Sonoma Counties 9-hole layouts.
Each of our courses offer something special, but none, in my opinion, can compare to Northwood Golf Course, which is an absolute marvel. Northwood is nestled in the Giant Redwoods along the Russian River in Monte Rio. It is arguably one of the most beautiful courses in the world. Yes I said, world, and no, I haven’t played most of the courses in the world to rightly compare this one to. I just can’t imagine any place being any more beautiful.
It was designed by architect Dr. Alister Mackenzie (Augusta National, Pasatiempo, Cypress Point) and opened in 1928, the fifth oldest in Sonoma County. What makes this course so special is its entire layout is surrounded on both sides of its fairways by giant Redwood Trees. Anyone that has played there will recall that distinct sound (like thumping a ripe watermelon, only much louder) when an errant shot hits one of those magnificent sentinels. And if you stray into another fairway, you can always try and return by going under and through, but never, and I mean never, going over these trees.
If you’re visiting the area and you forget your clubs I would still recommend going out to Northwood, have some lunch, and just sit back and take in the beautiful scenery.
Another special treat along the way to Monte Rio is Korble Winery. If you’ve got an extra hour to burn, stop by and take the free tour Korbel offers of the history of its champagne business. Of course after the tour there’s always the free tasting to enjoy.
Heading back toward the heart of Sonoma County you’ll find Sebastopol GC.
The Sebastopol course was originally surrounded by Gravenstein apple orchards. The course is 2,992 yards long from the back tees. It’s a par 62, with a rating of 57.8 and a slope of 86. Guess what surrounds the course now? Yes, beautiful grape vines.
Next up is the Fairgrounds Golf Course. No, this one isn’t surrounded by grapes but actually located in the middle of the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds horse racing dirt and grass tracks. Here’s a great place to play if your funds are running a little low.
Sebastopol GC and the Fairgrounds GC were both established in 1960.
Moving north of Santa Rosa, be sure and check out Wikiup GC (1963). Wikiup is definitely not a pitch and putt course. You can let the big dog hunt on a couple of holes.
Heading farther north, you’ll fine Healdsburg’s Tayman Park. Tayman Park is the second oldest course in Sonoma County, opening its gates in 1921. TP is a challenging course that offers many elevation changes. It has also gone through some dramatic changes over the past few years, including a new clubhouse. It also offers a 3-tiered covered driving range.
And last but not least, we head south to Cotati where you’ll find our newest layout, the Washoe Creek Golf Course.
Washoe Creek (2006) offers two separate 9-hole layouts, the Executive Course and the Short Game Course. Both are perfect for honing your short irons. You can traverse either of these courses in about an hour, so leave the big dogs at home. These courses also offer the best bang for you buck. Washoe Creek offers “Unlimited Play” so play as many rounds as you want for one small fee.
WHO LET THE DOGS OUT?
So that pretty much sums up our private clubs and 9-hole courses. Let’s move on to Sonoma County’s 18-hole courses.
Well, I’ve mentioned the Russian River area, now we’ll test your abilities along the Pacific Ocean. Let’s start from the farthest and work are way back home.
First up is Sea Ranch Golf Links, which pushes the boundaries of Sonoma County just south of Gualala.
Sea Ranch began as a 9-hole links course back in 1990. In 1996, another nine was added (6,649 yards). Designed by Robert Muir Graves, this par 72 course is open year round, weather permitting. The sea breezes and wild life make this links course a must experience on your golfing to do agenda. The only knock against Sea Ranch is that it will take over an hour to get there, depending on where you live in Sonoma County. It’s still worth the effort.
Approximately four years after Sea Ranch opened its doors, the Links at Bodega Harbour offered its own Scottish style 9-hole link course in 1978. Robert Trent Jones Jr. was chosen as the architect. In 1987 a new nine was added. Sixteen of the 18 holes have spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. The views on holes 16 and 17 are blocked by sand dunes, but you can still hear the rhythmic pounding of the surf just on the other side. Bodega Harbour is always a challenging experience, and that’s when the wind isn’t blowing the flags sideways. Throw in a gusty day and you can figure you’ll have to add a few strokes to your score.
Bodega Harbour also holds a special place in my heart after watching my son Phil ace the 148 yard seventh hole. Yes, I’m still waiting for my first ace.
Heading back inland, we’ll head south to Petaluma’s two 18-hole courses, Adobe Creek and Rooster Run.
Adobe Creek, which opened in 1993, was forced to close in Dec. of 2010 and then reopened under the direction of its sister course Rooster Run in August of 2011. Bring a few extra balls as the word creek in Adobe Creek is a little misleading. To be exact, AC has four lakes, and each one can come into play on more than just one hole. If you haven’t played it in a while you’ll notice part of the recent restoration was the elimination of some of the 72 sand traps. Adobe Creek also offers a free round of golf on your birthday, but you must take advantage of this gift from one day before to one day after your B-day.
In 1998, Rooster Run opened its doors. This course is over 7,000 yards from the back tees, is a par-72, and is well known for its great drainage system. Oh yes, that free birthday offer also stands here.
Before we leave Petaluma, I want to mention the Petaluma Golf Center. The PGC is a driving range that’s opened seven days a week, including after dark in some cases. This is also a great place to practice even if the weather doesn’t cooperate because the tee areas are covered.
Next stop up 101 is Foxtail Golf Courses in Rohnert Park.
The South course, which opened in 1963, is 6,596 yards long. It’s a par 72 with a course rating of 70.1. It has a slope rating of 115. The South course follows a design with many of the holes running side by side.
The North course, which opened in 1980 and was renovated in 2003, is a much tougher test. The north’s design has numerous dog legs, forcing you to use your imagination in setting up your approach to the greens.
A very unique feature at Foxtail Golf Club is the SoloRider golf car for golfers with limited mobility issues. The car seat swivels 350 degrees allowing for a much easier entry and exit. Golfers can also swivel the seat to the rear so they can make a swing from the seated position. According to my knees and hips, a couple more years and I’ll be flying solo.
Now we’ll head up Highway 101 to Windsor.
Windsor Golf and Country Club (1989) offers many challenges, including elevation changes, water holes and excellent greens. WG&CC was once included on the Nationwide circuit, giving local fans a chance to watch the up-and-coming players compete right in their own backyard. Two of best known PGA stars to win at Windsor were Tom Lehman in 1991 and Stuart Appleby in 1995.
Moving east of Santa Rosa we have two excellent golf courses around the Oakmont Retirement Community.
Oakmont West, which is a par 72, with a rating or 70.8 and a slope of 128, is celebrating its 50-year anniversary this summer. Back in 1963 Oakmont opened as a 9-hole course, but the final nine was added just a few months later. Former golf pro Dean James, who spent 29 ½ years at the course, was a big reason for the popularity of this course.
In 1975, Oakmont opened its executive East Course (9 holes) in 1975. Five years later, another nine was added. The East Course is a par 63, with a rating of 61.2 and a slope of 100. Both courses are surrounded by beautiful retirement homes. The fairways are plenty wide, but if you yank one right or left all you can do is close your eyes and start praying the ball doesn’t hit a window or a glass patio door. Oakmont also drains exceptionally well, so don’t hesitate to get out and knock the ball around almost any season.
OK, so much for the out-lying areas, it’s time to head back to Santa Rosa, which leaves us Bennett Valley Golf Course.
Bennett Valley, which was established in 1969, is actually owned by the City of Santa Rosa. It features very reasonable rates and one of the best club restaurants (Legends Sports Grill) in Sonoma County.
Head grounds keeper John Flachman (retired), was as well know as any of our local golf pros, because of his invaluable ability to keep BV in such outstanding shape, despite all the play the course got.
Bennett Valley is a par 72, and plays 6,500 from the tips. I remember playing BV back when you could slice or hook a ball one or two fairways over and still have a clear shot on your return effort. Of course now that the trees have reached maturity you better just hit it straight and true.
Well that pretty much sums it up. I hope I’ve given you an idea what Sonoma County has to offer in golf courses. And like I mentioned before, don’t take my word for it, go out and play and let me know what you think.