Going Back to (Northern) Cali, Part 2: Triple Contrast

Friday of my recent Northern California trip was very interesting because it took me from the coastal region of the North Bay Area all the way out near Sacramento. I played three courses, and each one couldn’t be more different than the last.

The day started with a visit to an old favorite…

The Links at Bodega Harbour • Bodega Bay, CA • 7/21/17

Though I am always trying to play new courses on these trips, I don’t mind revisiting some courses that are near and dear to my heart. Bodega Harbour is one of those courses. I only played here once, probably over 10 years ago. It was long before I had played so many courses (or had this blog), so it was a special treat back then to experience such a quaint and relaxed seaside golf course.

Therefore, I was eager to play it again to see how it would measure up with everything else I’ve played since then. Well, if my first experience at Bodega Harbour was great, then this one was absolutely incredible! I enjoyed it even more than before.

Part of that has to do with the weather. The first time I played here (also on a summer morning), it was cold and the course was entirely socked in by fog. I couldn’t see too far on any given hole and most ocean/bay views were quite obscured. I could still smell the salt in the air and sense the ocean nearby. There is a foghorn that is going off constantly and you can usually hear the sea lions at play on the rocks just offshore. The fog kind of added to the charm of the experience, though I wasn’t able to get many good pictures then.

This time was a complete 180 in terms of weather. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. There was some wind, which certainly added some extra challenge. It was still pretty chilly, but I warmed up quicker with the blue skies above.

I knew there were a lot of ocean views from the course, even if I couldn’t quite see much last time. However, I didn’t realize that there is literally a great ocean and/or bay view on almost every single hole at Bodega Harbour. Granted, it is basically the same vista throughout as the course is built on a hillside facing northwest. Still, it is pretty gorgeous and the scenery never lets up at any point in the round.

This time, I was also able to see more of the contours of the actual course. This is quite a layout crafted by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., and the two nines have somewhat different vibes. The front nine is very dramatic with a lot of mounding and moguls throughout the fairways/rough and around the greens. There is not a flat lie to be found anywhere and it’s quite demanding.

Most of the back nine feels a bit more open and dare I say “plain” in comparison to the front. It has a similar layout in general, but there aren’t many of the crazy mounds and moguls in play.

Both nines start with an uphill stretch. The front nine is especially brutal from holes 1-4 as you work your way up steeply to the top of the hillside. Then, the 5th hole is an absolute roller coaster of a wacky par-5 as you come back down the hill. It’s kind of a triple-dogleg with some severe angles. Frankly, it’s the one hole most people don’t like here, but it sure makes you think and work for a good score.

My favorite hole on the course is the par-3 6th, which has a nice elevated tee view and a difficult green complex. It is protected by hills and bunkers. The green itself isn’t that deep and has a big shelf in the middle, so it demands an accurate tee shot to get on the right level.

Though the first half of the back nine is less interesting than the front nine, it makes up for it with a very distinctive finishing stretch of holes starting with the 16th. Holes 16 and 17 are down in wetlands area just a few hundred feet from the ocean’s edge. If you are riding in a cart, you are forced to disembark your vehicle and walk these two holes (primarily for environmental protection reasons, I believe). After you hit your tee shot on the short par-4 16th, you leave your cart and then walk across a neat wooden foot bridge. You go through tall reeds and it’s kind of a different world down there. It’s really cool, especially on a windy day where everything is swaying around you. They do have some pull carts set out there if you don’t want to carry your bag for the two holes.

The 16th is a short and fun risk/reward par-4. It is followed by the par-3 17th that has you hitting back over the wetlands hazard toward a slightly elevated green. We had about a two-club wind blowing in our faces when we reached that hole, so it definitely made things tough. You pick up your cart after you finish this hole.

Lastly, the 18th is an interesting finisher with an uphill, semi-blind tee shot (stay left!!!) and then a demanding downhill approach as it doglegs right back down into the wetlands area. It’s a unique hole and caps off a very distinctive finishing stretch. These last three holes are definitely a departure from the rest of the course at Bodega Harbour, but they are a wonderful part of the overall experience.

We were first off as a threesome with nobody pushing from behind, so we enjoyed a relaxed pace and had time to take many pictures.

The conditions were very good tee to green. The tee boxes were nice. The fairways were excellent. I really like the turf here that provides some rollout, but also has fluffy lies to hit from. The rough was mostly good other than some bare or gopher mound areas scattered throughout. The primary rough wasn’t too much trouble, but there was plenty of the deep, deep stuff around the outer edges. Some areas were recently trimmed, so you might be able to find your ball and play it. In other areas, good luck! The greens were pretty good, with maybe some slight inconsistencies and bumps here and there. They were rolling at medium/quick speeds (natural downhill/uphill slopes are such a huge factor here). I wasn’t in any bunkers, but most looked nicely maintained.

Bodega Harbour is one of California’s true hidden gems. It doesn’t get the attention it deserves because of its somewhat obscure location. Some people may only know Bodega Bay as the place where Alfred Hitchcock filmed “The Birds”—or they don’t know of it at all. It is a cool area with an awesome golf course that is typically more affordable than most any other seaside/ocean view course in California. It is absolutely a must-play if you are ever north of San Francisco.

Some pictures from The Links at Bodega Harbour (7/21/17):

I went from one of the North Bay’s must-play courses to another on Friday, while continuing the contrast theme for the day…

Northwood Golf Club • Monte Rio, CA • 7/21/17

Speaking of hidden gems, Northwood definitely qualifies in that category (especially the “hidden” part). It is well off the beaten path, but worth every effort to get there. It’s actually not that far from Bodega, so it made for a good combo to play.

Northwood is built in the middle of a large redwood grove along the Russian River. One thing that helps it get overlooked is the fact that it is only a 9-hole course. It is regulation length, however, and it has some other special qualities. Oh I don’t know, maybe the fact that is was designed by none other than Dr. Alister MacKenzie!

As a self-proclaimed “Golf Nomad” with personal ties to Northern California, and as an avid supporter of obscure short courses, I almost felt embarrassed that I hadn’t played Northwood until now. It has been eating at me for years, but there just has never been a convenient time to get out there. It’s really not on the way to my hometown of Crescent City on the far north coast, so it never fit into any previous road trips.

Since I grew up in Crescent City, where redwoods reign supreme (my backyard growing up was a redwood grove), I wondered if part of the hype of Northwood was the uniqueness of playing amidst the towering trees. I’ve played golf in and around big redwoods before further north in Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, so how much different could Northwood be?

I have to admit this course is better integrated into the redwoods than any other listed above. Brooktrails is actually more immersed in the trees, but it is a far inferior layout. Northwood gets the attention it deserves because it is a good layout in a spectacular setting.

The golf course was originally built to be an extension of the Bohemian Grove club. The original plan was for a full 18-hole course, with nine more holes situated on the other side of the river. However, the Russian River is known as one of the most temperamental in the state. It tends to overflow in the winter and cause problems for the local residents (and the golf course). Building on the other side of the river proved not to be that feasible, so MacKenzie only crafted the nine hole layout you find today.

Now, if I didn’t come into my round knowing the course had such a design pedigree, I wouldn’t have guessed it. There are a few interesting elements. Primarily the greens, which are small. Some of them are also very tricky with unique slopes and undulations.

I’m not knocking the layout because it’s a solid course. It reminded me more of MacKenzie’s Sharp Park approach with a simpler “working man’s” design. He let the natural setting and scenery do the heavy lifting and didn’t go overboard with the course features. In other words, don’t come here expecting to find a 9-hole version of Pasatiempo or Cypress Point in the middle of the redwoods.

At one point, the 9th hole at Northwood was regarded as one of the toughest par-5s in the state. It is a double-dogleg through the trees and requires several good shots to score well.

Otherwise, there are plenty of good scoring opportunities at Northwood if you keep the ball in play. The key is to not hit trees. Obviously, that is easier said than done. There are a few narrow gaps and some sharp doglegs.

The conditions were good. It was nice and green here, which looked great under the bright blue skies. The tee boxes were fine. The fairways had some weak spots here and there (lots of soft areas and some bare spots), but were mostly pretty good. The rough was more of a mixed bag, but decent enough around greens and in areas that mattered. I wasn’t in any bunkers, but they appeared pretty nice (there aren’t really too many here). The greens were in good shape, firmer than you might expect and rolling well at medium/fast speeds.

Pace of play was the only negative for me, as it took 2.5 hours to complete the 9-hole round. I got out right away, but there was a lot of waiting on every shot. The picture-perfect weather brought everyone out in droves and this is just a popular course. It attracts tourists in town who are primarily there for the local arts scene. It attracts traveling golfers like me who want to see what all the hype is about. It attracts locals, who play here just about every day. My price was $35 with a cart, though this would normally be a great course to walk.

I would consider Northwood another must-play and a definite hidden gem in Northern California. Even if you can’t take a 9-hole course seriously, you won’t be disappointed in the setting and you can say you played a MacKenzie course that not everyone knows about.

Some pictures from Northwood Golf Club (7/21/17):

I had hopes of playing Bennett Valley GC in Santa Rosa before heading east, but they had a tournament going on. Instead, I decided to try and beat the worst part of the North Bay Area traffic. It was still a long drive with plenty of traffic, but I made it into Woodland with plenty of daylight to spare, so I was able to squeeze in one more…

Wild Wings Golf Club • Woodland, CA • 7/21/17

This was a geographically convenient option, plus I had heard some decent things about this place. Like Northwood, it is a 9-hole regulation layout. However, it is unlike Northwood in just about any other way.

It’s a solid layout, but the open farmland of this area was a stark contrast to the ocean views of Bodega and the majestic redwoods of Northwood. On this day, Wild Wings did not stand much of a chance to win me over.

I arrived a little after 6:00 and the place was pretty deserted. It was just under 100 degrees at the time and quite stuffy out as there is not much shade out here. I paid my $15 green fee and was hoping to rent a cart for expediency, but the kid in the pro shop told me they weren’t letting them out that late in the day. I told him I would be done super fast, but he was a young teenager. He clearly just wanted to avoid any extra work and close up the shop as soon as possible.

So, I had to walk in the heat at the end of a long day. I survived, but it sure sucked. The sad thing is that when I was teeing up on the 9th hole, I saw that pro shop kid just leaving the parking lot. I also noticed a different guy working the cart barn and still cleaning up carts for the night. I would have been done even quicker with a cart and wouldn’t have hindered their lazy plans in the least. Oh well, it is what it is.

Wild Wings plays to a standard par of 36 and has pretty average distances for holes. From the blue tees, it would total over 6,300 yard for an 18-hole round. Some 9-hole courses will have different tee boxes set up for front and back nine play. That is not the case at Wild Wings. However, they do the more unusual thing of having two holes/flags on every green. I’ve only seen this a couple times and I’m not really a fan. The saving grace here is that the greens are quite large and the two holes don’t ever really infringe upon one another.

Otherwise, Wild Wings features a solid layout. It’s pretty straightforward with a few hazards in play. The routing is kind of spread out after the first few holes. You go back into the residential community and there are some long drives (I mean walks) in between several of the holes. It’s a good, average course design that feels like many other courses scattered throughout the Sacramento area and down in the Central Valley.

Conditions were also pretty decent. The tee boxes were fine. The fairways had good coverage. Plenty of roll-out and mostly good lies to hit from. The rough was a little spottier, but mostly fine. I wasn’t in any bunkers. The greens were receptive and rolling at medium speeds. A bit bumpy late in the day showing footprints and lots of ball marks.

For what it is, Wild Wings serves its purpose just fine. The service left a little something to be desired at that time of day, but it was another one in the books for me and that’s what matters most!

Some pictures from Wild Wings Golf Club (7/21/17):

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