4th of July Road Trip, Day 1: Grapes and Greens Galore in Livermore

With a holiday weekend, you could be sure I had another little road trip in mind. There are many different directions I could consider, but I decided to make my way back up to the Bay Area.

I got my start in the East Bay (or Tri-Valley, as locals may prefer in this particular region) with Livermore as my home base for a few days. It was a good place to set up camp because I had easy access to different areas and a couple of my top priorities were right in that town. That includes my very first stop, which is a course that’s been high up on my wish list for a while…

The Course at Wente Vineyards • Livermore, CA • 7/2/15

I’ve never golfed in the East Bay, but I knew when I did finally visit that Wente Vineyards would be a must-play option. It has always looked like a really cool course.

As the name would suggest, the course is tied to the vineyard of the same name. The popular restaurant is right across the parking lot from the clubhouse and you can do all the tours and wine tasting if you’re into that sort of thing. The course itself plays through some active vineyards and the rolling golden hills. It is very much woven into its natural landscape for a beautiful and inviting golf experience.

The layout at Wente offers drama in abundance because of the secluded hilly terrain, old oak trees and those sections of grapes growing throughout the course. There is a great mix of holes playing uphill, downhill and along the ridgelines. There are a number of short target/strategy holes and a few longer, more wide open ones. I played the blue tees and used every club in my bag. Though everything is presented with a dramatic flair, I’d say the layout is more forgiving than it looks at times, but will still present more than enough challenge for anyone to enjoy. There are a few quirky holes that not everyone will appreciate, but I walked away with a smile on my face.

I had a 7:06 tee time, which was in the third group out. The staff was a little too laid-back on a Thursday morning, so there was a little confusion as to who I was playing with and when to head up to the first tee. The first tee is located way up the hill and away from the clubhouse, but we got it all sorted out there without the help of a starter. Things moved along nicely and we finished in about 3 hours, 45 minutes, which was fantastic pacing.

The first hole features a pretty wide open par-4 with a dramatic drop from tee to green so you can take a healthy rip to get warmed up. That is followed by the short and very tight second hole playing down in the valley through some big oak trees. All the par-3s have a great “signature” look and then there are many memorable holes throughout. It’s not a course that will ever leave you feeling bored, though I did feel the finishing stretch down in the flattest part of the valley leading back to the clubhouse was a tad bland after such drama the rest of the way.

The course was in good overall shape. Obviously, they are needing to conserve some water here like everyone else in California, so it was far from pristine. That said, the playability throughout was great. The tee boxes were nice for the most part. The fairways were a little mushy at times and there were some weak spots here and there, but I almost always had a great lie. The rough was relatively lush, but cut low so it was not overly penal. I was in a couple bunkers and they had excellent sand. The greens were good. On the front nine, they seemed rather slow, but they really sped up on the back nine when things dried out and firmed up. It went from not being able to get the ball to the hole to not being able to get it to stop running past the hole!

All in all, Wente Vineyards was well worth the wait. I do not drink wine, so I had no interest in the rest of the things happening here. I came just for the golf and was more than satisfied enough. This is a really neat course that I would highly recommend.

Some pictures from The Course at Wente Vineyards (7/2/15):

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At Wente, they have a stretch of cart path going up the hill between holes 9 and 10 aptly named “Lombard Street” as seen below.

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I wasted no time heading across town to my next golf stop. Though rather close as the crow flies, it was about a 20-minute drive through some back roads of Livermore…

Poppy Ridge Golf Course • Livermore, CA • 7/2/15

Poppy Ridge is another one that was high on my list for East Bay/Tri-Valley golf. As one of the home courses for the NCGA (along with Poppy Hills), it holds some esteem.

I originally had a 12:30 time and was aiming to play all 27 holes. I got there closer to 11:30 and the staff was great in working with me to get me out early and around all three nines in an efficient manner. I started on Merlot, then played Zinfandel and finished on Chardonnay, taking about 5 hours, 15 minutes to play all three nines. In fact, it was the first time I’ve ever played a 27-hole course with different playing partners on each nine, which was kind of fun.

As you can tell by the course names, they also embrace Livermore’s strong wine-centric culture at Poppy Ridge. The course doesn’t directly play through any vineyards, but some holes do play right along a big one as you’ll see in the pictures.

Poppy is another fairly dramatic layout that uses the hilly terrain to its advantage. It was designed by Rees Jones (his brother and rival, Robert Trent Jones, Jr. did Poppy Hills), which gave me pretty high expectations going in. Some of my favorite courses have been Rees’ designs or renovations (Cog Hill #4, Lake of Isles North, Cascata).

Each nine here plays pretty similarly. I’m sure locals have their favorite combinations, but I think any routing would satisfy someone wanting to get a round in at Poppy Ridge.

Visually, Poppy Ridge is suffering somewhat from the drought and water restrictions. They are doing their best to keep primary playing areas in good shape, but the outer edges and hillsides look a bit barren at times. When there is a good growth of tall fescue in these native areas, it really helps frame the course better. As it is, there’s a bit less visual definition and it doesn’t show off the great contours of the course. I ran into this more than once this weekend.

That said, the course is in solid shape overall. The greens are the highlight. You can still see some minor remnants of a recent aeration on a handful of holes, but they had no effect. Otherwise, the greens were firm-ish, rolling very smooth and relatively quick on putts. The tee boxes were good. A couple of the whites were a bit unlevel, but it was never a major issue. The fairways were mostly good with some spotty areas found throughout. The rough was much more patchy. It was kind of clumpy and dried out in several of the places I found. The ball would always nestle down between two hard tufts of grass with a firm surface underneath and it made for some tough (and a bit painful) recoveries. The bunkers had great soft beach sand.

I probably wasn’t as blown away by Poppy Ridge as I wanted to be. Part of that is the visual presentation suffering from water restrictions. Still, it was a very enjoyable experience on a solid, challenging course and the staff was exceptionally nice. This seemed like a great facility all around.

Some pictures from Poppy Ridge Golf Course (7/2/15):

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Merlot:

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Zinfandel:

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Chardonnay:

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