Course Review: Berkeley Country Club

One of my primary reasons for this most recent road trip to Northern California was because of an NCGA member outing scheduled at Berkeley Country Club on Monday, July 16. If you are keeping with my countdown to 1,000 courses played, this would represent #998 on the list. This was the middle round on a three-course day that found me playing Franklin Canyon (#997) in the morning and Mission Hills of Hayward (#999) in the evening. Those have already been reviewed in a separate article, which you can check out here.

The shotgun outing was scheduled for an 11:00 start. We actually arrived very early because our morning round went so quickly, so I had plenty of time to explore the clubhouse and look around this historic club.

The roots of the club date back to the 1920s and the course was designed by Willie Watson and Robert Hunter. At some point along the way, they ended up changing the name to Mira Vista Golf & Country Club.

More recent renovations to the course found them rebuilding the greens to pure bentgrass surfaces, doing some turf reduction in outer areas and also adding back in some original bunkers that were lost over time. Basically, modern renovations were made while preserving the course’s past design legacy. Even more recently came the name change back to Berkeley Country Club (even though it is technically located in the town of El Cerrito).

Our group started on hole 8, which was my favorite of the three par-5s on the course. It also only has three par-3s, so the 12 par-4s (including a stretch of five in a row on the front nine) can be a bit of a grind.

The course is located up in the hills of the East Bay, which brings good and bad elements depending on how you want to look at it. First and foremost, you cannot deny the incredible views throughout much of this course. It was overcast and foggy when we arrived, but the clouds burned off enough by the time we teed off to reveal blue skies and stunning vistas. You can see almost the entire bay from the course, including the San Francisco skyline, along with the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges if you look closely. It’s a truly breathtaking spot to have a golf course.

The hilly terrain also offers no shortage of character throughout the course. There aren’t many flat lies to be found. The hills and mature trees shape the layout, and you can tell the original architects just worked with the landscape they were given. The design can be quirky at times, but it is certainly anything but boring. I should also mention that the greens here are extremely undulated and difficult to tame.

The hills, which are at times very steep, also provide plenty of challenge. From the back tees (known as the Vista tees), Berkeley Country Club stretches out to only 6,503 yards. The NCGA had us playing the Hunter tees, which were 6,106 total yards. However, this course plays so, so much longer than that. We also had some wind in play, and it almost always seemed like any uphill shots were also into the wind.

The two best examples of the course playing longer than the scorecard are definitely the 7th and 18th holes. The 7th is a short par-4 that tops out at 254 yards (231 from the Hunter tees), but it is straight uphill and well guarded by two big bunkers about 30-40 yards short of the green. Big hitters can probably still reach it, but it’ll take a good poke.

Likewise, the finishing 18th hole is only 344 yards from the tips (320 from the Hunter tees), but it features an even steeper climb than the 7th as you work your way up to the clubhouse behind the green. I was joking that this could be considered the only 320-yard par-5 on the planet, even though it is actually a par-4.

Though I am not sure I’d want to deal with these uphill (and usually pretty blind) approach shots every day, Berkeley Country Club definitely offers an entertaining layout, and of course there are a few fun downhill holes to help balance things out. However, it never really seemed like we ever had a downhill/downwind shot to really let it fly. The wind was swirling all day atop the hillside and there were a lot more head winds and side winds than anything directly behind us.

The course was in good condition, but I wouldn’t say great. Honestly, the conditions didn’t quite match the quality of the course nor the high-end vibe of the club itself. The tee boxes were good. The fairways were good for the most part with some thin/firm areas throughout. Some of the rough was nice, but it would dwindle in consistency as you got further away from the fairways and greens. Then, there are some outer native areas that were cut down, but still provided brutal lies with clumpy fescue, gopher holes, rocks, etc. You can tell they did a major turf reduction here and let some of the less crucial areas go in recent years. The bunkers were good. Lastly, the greens were in very nice shape. They were rolling smooth, but kind of slower than they looked. With all the slopes here, I can imagine them getting very challenging if made super firm and speedy.

I think Berkeley Country Club is definitely interesting and historic enough to recommend if you ever get an invite. The club has a great classic feel and the course is a real old school adventure without the design having changed much since its inception in the 1920s. Conditions may not be top-notch, but you won’t soon forget the views if you have a reasonably clear day like we had.

Some pictures from Berkeley Country Club (7/16/18):

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

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