Norcal in September, Day 1: North Bay Bound

I recently returned from another four-day golf adventure in Northern California. I was able to add 13 more courses to my list, and I surpassed the 900-course mark in the process. Also, I reached the 700-course mark in my home state of California!

I got started on Saturday as I drove up during the morning and began my golf in the afternoon in the North Bay Area…

Mare Island Golf Club • Mare Island, CA • 9/16/17

I had booked a 12:30 “hot deal” on GolfNow for $33. I used two different $10 rewards on the booking, as well, so it ended up being just $16.49 total with the booking fee. I arrived a little early and was teeing off around noon, paired with another threesome. Unfortunately, these guys were slow. One was a brand new player and the other two just weren’t very good (even though they were trying to give lessons to the newbie). When a twosome played through us on the third tee, I jumped ship and joined them. It probably shaved a good hour (or maybe two) from my round. I finished in four hours instead of what would have easily been five or six with those other guys.

I was drawn to Mare Island for this trip for a couple reasons. One is my friend and I were meeting up to split a hotel in nearby Vallejo ahead of golf in Napa the following day. The other reason is because Mare Island Golf Club has a very rich history. In fact, they claim to be the oldest golf course west of the Mississippi.

This point is up for debate, however, as other courses claim to be the “oldest” in one way or another. Mare Island’s original nine holes reportedly opened in 1892. However, Gearhart Golf Links in Oregon claims its original three holes were opened in 1888. Victoria Club’s first course opened in 1893. Presidio Golf Course in San Francisco opened in 1895. Redlands Country Club opened in 1896. Meanwhile, Del Monte Golf Course in Monterey claims to be the oldest “continuously active” course west of the Mississippi. Its original nine holes opened in 1897, though.

In other words, there is kind of a race and debate between which is considered the oldest. Because of their military connections, both Presidio and Mare Island closed course operations for several years during wartime. Victoria Club and Redlands CC’s courses has been changed and moved around from their original locations/designs. Gearhart only started with three holes and the course has evolved a lot since. That’s where Del Monte stakes its claim as the oldest in continuous operation. However, Tacoma Golf & Country Club in Washington will beg to differ since it opened in 1896 and has supposedly stayed in continuous operation.

Needless to say, it’s all confusing and you’ll get different answers depending on who you ask. Researching the histories of these various old courses every time I play one makes my head spin a bit, but it is also kind of fun and fascinating.

The safe thing to say is that Mare Island is one of the oldest courses on the West Coast. At some point, they added nine holes and the result is two fairly different course designs coming together as one. The original nine holes now comprise the back nine, as the routing was switched in recent years for some unknown reason.

I found the front nine (the newer nine) to be more interesting. It plays through a hilly area with a more open links-inspired design mixed with a more modern “canyon” style that is found throughout California. The greens on this side are very large and feature a ton of undulation. Because this course is on an old military base, there are many abandoned munitions bunkers scattered throughout the hillsides of the front nine. They are built into the hills and give off a creepy cool vibe. Just driving past the old abandoned military/hospital buildings of the defunct Mare Island base to get to the course is in an interesting experience.

The back nine is a more traditional old school style. It has some elevation changes, but nothing near as severe as on the newer front nine. There are more trees in play, the doglegs are more pronounced and the green complexes are much smaller and more basic. This nine overlooks the waterfront and some marshy areas, so it’s a completely different vibe than the front which overlooks the marina on the other side of the island. Both nines are very enjoyable and have plenty of character

The clubhouse is a basic old building that reminded me of some other older Bay Area courses I’ve played like Sharp Park or Lincoln Park. I kind of like the old fashioned feel and simple golf-first presentation.

Unfortunately, that old run-down feeling applies to the course, as well. You can tell they battled with the drought and just let a lot of outer areas go. It’s too bad because the layout deserves better. The tee boxes were adequate. The fairways were mostly okay, with plenty of weak spots and inconsistencies to be found. The rough is really just dirt and debris. You definitely want to stay away from the outer edges because you will likely lose a ball or have a terrible lie at best. The greens were pretty good. They were very soft and rolling on the slow side, but not too beat up. Some bunkers looked like they hadn’t been maintained in years, while others appeared okay with at least enough sand to get by. It is definitely best to avoid them when you can, though.

Mare Island will be one of those courses I root for. With such a rich history and distinctive layout, it deserves a good restoration and better care. Otherwise, you just have to take it for what it is and there’s still some charm to be found. It’s not one I’d recommend to my fellow traveling golfers, unless you are a golf history buff and want to experience one of the oldest tracks in this half of the country.

Some pictures from Mare Island Golf Club (9/16/17):

I wasn’t sure if I’d have time for more golf on Saturday, but I was finished at Mare Island a little after 4:00 and saw plenty of daylight to work with. I looked at several options and called around before making my decision…

Blue Rock Springs Golf Club (East) • Vallejo, CA • 9/16/17

Blue Rock Springs seemed like the best option because it was reasonably close and they have two courses to choose from. When I called, the really nice guy in the pro shop recommended I play the West Course because they had just aerated the East greens a few days earlier.

When I arrived, everything looked fairly open, though I could see a few groups out on the West Course. I asked inside and it seemed like East would be the safer bet if I for sure wanted to finish 18 holes before dark. I probably still would have had a good chance on West, but I opted for the safe pick despite the aeration. One added benefit was they only charged me $16 to play the aerated course at super twilight.

I did play through a couple groups, but otherwise had the East Course to myself for a very fast round. The aerated greens were a bit annoying, but really not that bad. I’ve seen much, much worse and could tell they are normally in really nice shape. Great greens would turn out to be a recurring theme for this trip.

The East Course is the newer of the two at Blue Rock Springs. The West Course is the original Vallejo Municipal course that underwent a major renovation in 2006. The East Course was built during the real estate/golf boom of the 1990s, if I am not mistaken.

The East Course was designed by Robert Muir Graves and has a great look to it. It is built along a hillside and has the prototypical North/East Bay scenery with the golden hills in the background. It offers some nice changes in elevation and an open concept design. There aren’t too many trees in play and the landing areas are largely forgiving. There are some creeks and native hazard areas that will come into play, but there is always ample bail-out room.

The two holes that stood out to me were the 7th and 8th. The 7th is a crazy par-5 that features a 90-degree dogleg right around a native hazard area. The elevated tee shot begs you to try and cut off as much of the corner as you can, which is easier said than done. If you opt to play it conservatively as a three-shot hole, there is plenty of room to make it fairly routine. It’s definitely an interesting risk/reward design and one of the more severe dogleg par-5 designs I’ve ever seen.

The 8th is a nice little par-3 with a slightly elevated tee. You hit over a creek to the green. There isn’t anything overly distinctive about the design, but it’s just a good presentation and use of the natural surroundings. I guess it also helps that I birdied it!

Other than the greens being under maintenance, the course was in rather good shape. It was fairly lush and green throughout. The fairways were a tad on the shaggy side, but I had mostly good lies to hit from. The tee boxes, fairways and rough were all fairly nice in general. The bunkers were pretty well kept, as well. Give the greens a few weeks and they will be just as good as the rest of the course.

I didn’t really come into the round with any expectations, but I found myself really liking Blue Rock Springs. The staff was great and the facilities are nice. From what I could see of the West Course, it looks perhaps even more interesting and fun than East. I look forward to a chance to come back and play it.

Some pictures from Blue Rock Springs Golf Club (East) (9/16/17):

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