February in the Bay Area, Part 3: Drama in San Ramon

After a windy round at Delta View on Thursday morning, Day 2 of my Bay Area trip continued a bit further southwest in the city of San Ramon. The next course we played was one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time…

The Bridges Golf Club • San Ramon, CA • 2/22/18

Of all the public East Bay courses left on my list, The Bridges was at the top. It’s one of the courses up there that I’ve wanted to play for awhile, but just hadn’t been able to fit into any previous trips. Finally, it made sense to play here this time.

We booked a 10:10 tee time and the price was $49. That’s the most we paid for any round on this trip, but it was worth it because this ended up being my favorite course of the bunch. We teed off a little early and played through one group on the front nine. It really wasn’t too crowded, but there were some groups scattered on the back nine. There aren’t many opportunities on this course to jump around, but we found a few ways to mix it up and save a little waiting around on slower groups. We finished all 18 in just over three hours.

The Bridges was opened in 1999 and was designed by Johnny Miller and Damian Pascuzzo. Though I’ve never been a big fan of Miller as a TV commentator, I’ve become a fan of his golf architecture. He doesn’t design run-of-the-mill courses. That’s for sure. Some would call his courses very “tricked out” and I can understand why they are not for everybody. It’s definitely a more modern design style with drama and challenge as key elements.

Because of this, I’ve always heard very mixed reviews about The Bridges. I heard it was beautiful and interesting, yet at the same time overly challenging and downright unfair. It’s one of those courses locals love to hate because it’s clearly one of the nicer courses around in terms of setting and conditioning, but it’s also one of the meaner courses around in terms of layout. Needless to say, I had to see it for myself.

I can understand why some people don’t like it and it’s certainly not for everyone. It is challenging and at times you could say it’s unfair when you get an unfortunate bounce. It is a true target style golf course where positioning is key. You have to know what you need to do and then you need to execute if you want any chance at a decent score.

When people talk about it being unfair, it applies very much to someone like me who plays a ball that cuts from left to right. A majority of holes favor a righty draw or lefty fade with a hillside on the left, fairways that slope from left to right and a canyon/environmental hazard along the right of most holes. There are a handful of holes where the opposite arrangement comes into play, but those are in the minority.

Yet still, I never found this course to be that unfair. Once I figured out where to aim and how to manage the slopes, I had little problem getting off the tees safely. Approach shots were a different story, but that was more about my terrible shot execution than any design flaws. There are some forced carries and the greens (most of which are elevated) can be hard to get at.

I didn’t find the greens here to be as crazy as other Miller courses I’ve played, though they have plenty of character. The one green that stood out was the 16th, which absolutely massive and has all sorts of shelves and sections where they can put the pin to make it a completely different hole on any given day.

I’m not sure what is considered the signature hole here, but it is probably the par-5 15th. It’s a big dogleg right with a downhill tee shot and then a double-jump over two ravines before you get to the green. It’s a hole that presents multiple options and any mistake will likely cost you big time.

One of my personal favorite holes was the par-3 13th, which is a short hole that features a downhill tee shot to a green set within the canyon. It’s not as dramatic as that sounds, but it’s a fun hole compared to the other much longer par-3s that are more about survival than pinseeking.

The par-4 18th is also a strong finishing hole with the nice clubhouse overlooking the green.

One thing that struck me about The Bridges is how much it felt like a Southern California canyon style course set in Northern California. I wonder if that’s why people around here have mixed feelings about it. When you’ve played courses like Oak Quarry, Eagle Glen, Hidden Valley, Morongo, Maderas (speaking of Miller designs), etc. many times over, The Bridges really doesn’t seem that intimidating. I think this same stigma is shared by The Ranch down in San Jose, which has a similar love/hate relationship with its locals. However, in my opinion The Bridges is nowhere near as crazy as The Ranch. That course was truly nuts, though I also kind of enjoyed it, as well!

I guess what I am trying to say if you picked up The Bridges and dropped it in the middle of the Inland Empire, it would fit right in—whether you love it or hate it. The golfers in the East Bay should be appreciative to have something this unique and high-quality in their own backyard.

I have to mention the quality because the facilities here are very nice. The Bridges has a grand clubhouse overlooking the course and good conditioning. The conditions (especially for winter) were very good. It was lush and green throughout. There were some thin spots here and there, but the fairways mostly in nice shape. The rough was good where it mattered, with some patchiness as you near the canyon hazards. The greens looked a little funny being so dappled in different shades of green, but they were actually very nice. They were moderately receptive and rolling well at medium speeds. They had really good sand in the bunkers, as well.

It wasn’t quite as windy at The Bridges as it was at Delta View in the morning, but there was some steady wind all round and the gusts picked up quite a bit as some storm clouds rolled in. We got some dark clouds overhead toward the end of our round, along with a few sprinkles of rain, but nothing too bad. Certainly, the more wind there is in this canyon (and I’m sure it gets windy here often), the more difficult The Bridges will be. I’m sure that adds to the frustration of some players.

As for myself, I enjoyed The Bridges a lot and it will rank near the top of my personal East Bay list. If you like dramatic canyon target golf, you will probably like it, too. If that’s not your style, then you’ll probably want to stay away.

Some pictures from The Bridges Golf Club (2/22/18):

(Click on any picture below to pull up a gallery slideshow.)

The next course was just a short drive away (literally right down the street), so it made sense to play it immediately after finishing at The Bridges…

Canyon Lakes Golf Course & Brewery • San Ramon, CA • 2/22/18

We called ahead and they said it was pretty wide open. With the wind continuing to pick up and some dark clouds overhead, the weather probably helped keep away any other would-be players. Before heading over, we booked our tee time online because they have some pre-paid specials on their website. It ended up being $45 for two players with a cart rather than the normal $30-each rate, so that was worth the booking.

We played through one player on the front and basically had the course to ourselves until a few holes into the back nine. That’s when we caught all the morning groups and had nowhere to go. Still, we finished in just over 2.5 hours.

Canyon Lakes was designed by Ted Robinson, Sr., but it’s definitely a different style than most other courses of his I’ve played. That is largely due to the landscape he had to work with. Canyon Lakes is kind of jammed into a property surrounded by some busy streets and houses. Both nines go way out away from the clubhouse before circling back and there are a few long drives in between holes. The back nine is located all the way across the street and its holes are fairly spread out as they work through residential communities. The homes never feel too much in the way of the course, though.

The terrain of this course is rather hilly and this would also categorize as a target style design. There are a lot of mature trees lining the fairways and, like The Bridges, many of the fairways tend to slope one way or the other. There are some fun downhill holes that you can really take advantage of, while there are also some brutal uphill holes made tougher by the strong winds we had on Thursday afternoon.

Canyon Lakes is another course that isn’t super long (6,373 yards from the back blue tees and playing to a par of 71 with five par-3s). Like The Bridges, it’s all about hitting your targets. That’s about where any comparisons to The Bridges end, though, because Canyon Lakes is a very different course because of its setting.

The funny thing is that I found many of the tee shots at Canyon Lakes much more intimidating and uncomfortable than any at The Bridges. I was paying special attention because the guy in the pro shop made a big point about how much more “fair” this course was compared to the one we just played.  The difference for me is that The Bridges doesn’t have hardly any trees, so if you play a curving shot (curving more because of the wind) you can take any line you want. At Canyon Lakes, that is rarely an option thanks to all the trees. Bigger hitters might never pull out their drivers at all on this course.

Once you are safely out in play, however, that’s where Canyon Lakes is much more forgiving than The Bridges. The greens here are more accessible and the complexes aren’t too tricky to figure out other than the prevailing slopes of the hills. As long as you are clean off the tee, you can go after these greens and look for a good score. If you find trouble off the tee, you will have a long day.

Probably the hole that stood out to me most on the front nine was the par-4 4th. It stands out because it is visually a departure from the rest of the course and is probably the most Robinson-flavored of the bunch. It’s a short hole (292 max) that requires a lay-up off the tee. The green is a peninsula that juts out into a lake, so it requires a very accurate approach. There are some palm trees up around the green that feel out of place with all the pines and firs around the rest of the course. Whereas the rest of the course has kind of a Pacific Northwest feel, this hole feels more like Florida or Palm Springs for a brief moment. Just as soon as you are done with it and the kind of marshy par-3 that follows, you are back in the hills and woods the rest of the way.

The signature back nine hole is undoubtedly the par-5 14th. It’s a dogleg left that has a slight forced carry off the tee and then another forced carry before the green. The green itself is elevated and protected by numerous bunkers, making this a real fun risk/reward hole for the longer hitters. I wish some of the conditioning was better around the green on this hole because it loses a little something in the pictures.

The conditions at Canyon Lakes were decent, though inconsistent at times. The tee boxes were fine. The fairways were adequate for the most part with some thin sections, so some spots were definitely better than others. The rough was pretty rough. It was very patchy with a lot of bare areas. Some holes were nicer than others, though. The greens were good. They were firm-ish and rolling well at medium-fast speeds. The bunkers not that great. Overall, the course was okay enough for winter season, but definitely somewhat rough around the edges.

For being so close to one another, The Bridges and Canyon Lakes are very different courses and most people will probably strongly prefer one over the other. I actually enjoyed both to varying degrees and I really liked that they are so distinctive in their own ways, but The Bridges would still be the far-and-away winner of the two for me.

One last thing to note is that Canyon Lakes has its own brewery (as the name would suggest) if you are into that sort of thing. I popped into the restaurant/bar a couple times to use the restroom and whatever food they had cooking smelled great. We considered eating here, but wanted to get back on the road and head north toward our next destination before rush hour traffic got even worse than it already was.

Some pictures from Canyon Lakes Golf Course & Brewery (2/22/18):

 

 

 

 

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