The main reason for my most recent trip to the East Bay Area was because I was signed up for an NCGA member outing at TPC Stonebrae Country Club. This is one I’ve been looking forward to since I registered earlier this year.
It was a noon shotgun start with a full field of 120 players, so I expected a slow round. Once I got a look at the course on the drive in and saw how challenging it was going to be, I reset my expectations for an even slower round. Once I stepped out of my car and felt how chilly and windy it was on this day, I strapped in for a really slow afternoon!
That’s a lot of players (most of whom have never played here) to put out on such a dramatic and demanding golf course, but obviously they knew it would be a sellout event on a desirable course and money is money.
From the time my group teed off (we were the second group starting on the 10th hole) to the time we finished, it turned out to be about 5.5 hours. Our front nine (which was the back nine) took three full hours because it is definitely the more challenging side of the course. We were pretty much thrown right into the fire with a line-up of very tricky holes that will be intimidating and probably a bit confusing for any first-time player, even with GPS on the carts.
TPC Stonebrae was opened in 2007, making it one of the newer courses in the East Bay. It was designed by Scottish architect, David McLay Kidd, who is best known as the man behind the original Bandon Dunes course. I was looking up his architectural chronology and I think he must have evil thoughts during one stretch of career where he wanted to go a little more over the top in his designs. The only other course of his I’ve played thus far is Tetherow in Oregon (sounds like “Death Row”), which opened in 2008. That would be another pretty dramatic and very challenging modern links design set in a very non-links landscape.
TPC Stonebrae is set up in the hills of Hayward in the private Stonebrae community. It’s a swanky part of town that feels pretty well removed from the hustle and bustle of the East Bay. It’s a beautiful spot and the course has unspoiled views of the bay throughout. Even on a cloudy day, we could see the city from certain vantage points. Unfortunately, the dark skies did not do any favors when it came to my photos. I did my best to lighten them up below, but they really don’t show how visually striking this course is.
The first half of the course does ease you in a little bit. Though I wouldn’t consider any of it easy, the first few holes seemed a lot more welcoming after we had started on the back nine. There are some houses being built on this side and that helped block out the wind (and unfortunately the views) on this early stretch of the course. Eventually, the front nine loops around those residential areas and starts to get to the meat of the course. Things start getting more interesting and more demanding as you go.
I think it’s safe to say the layout had its way with a good majority of the field, including me. However, I personally loved every minute of it. I like courses that offer something different and bring the drama. This course has no shortage of either.
Whereas most of the front nine is right out in front of you, the back nine provides a number of blind and semi-blind shots (staples in links design philosophy) that are disorienting. The 10th hole is a prime example of this. It features a severely elevated tee with perhaps the best view on the property. You are hitting over this big hump in the hill to a fairway that you can barely see a few portions of from the tee. Most people will want to take less than driver on this one and stay to the left as much as you can, though the fairway is much more generous than it appears from above. It’s just more wide than it is deep. Separating the fairway and the green is another huge mound that has one of the deepest and nastiest (and coolest) fairway bunker complexes you will ever see. My approach shot was directly over it—a completely blind shot staring right into the teeth of this sandy, fescue-y behemoth!
Though awkward and intimidating upon your first play, I actually think that TPC Stonebrae is a course that you can post a decent score on the more you get to know it. If you know where to hit and how to play certain holes, you can avoid trouble and play smart. There are many risk/reward opportunities and a number of short holes that you can attack with proper strategy and execution. Most fairways are more generous than they appear to the naked eye, though any shot that’s well off the mark will punish you greatly.
The best example of this will be the par-5 12th. Really, all five of the par-5s here are portraits in risk/reward design and each insanely awesome holes in their own ways, but the 12th stands out in my mind. Its fairway is essentially a giant crescent moon that doglegs left. The tee shot requires a forced carry uphill over another big hump to a fairway you cannot really see at all. The fairway then turns left and back downhill. A big hitter can catch the right angles and slopes to get really far down the hill. The fairway continues downhill and tapers out quite a bit at the end. There is another section of fairway long and right up a hillside near the green, but I do not know how often that gets used. The approach is then a forced carry over some junk (deep native rough lines the entire left side of this hole, as well) before you get to a large and crazy green on the other side.
This hole got the better of me. My tee shot just barely made the fairway and I was left with a blind shot down to the lay-up area. I thought I hit it perfectly to run down to the end of the fairway, but my aiming point was wrong and I ended up in the nasty stuff on the left. I punched out from there to where I thought my other shot would end up, hit onto the green and proceeded to three-putt from there for a fun double bogey.
Meanwhile, one of my playing partners played the hole beautifully. He got far enough and on the right line to take advantage of the fairway roll-out, leaving himself with only about 200 yards in on his second shot. He came up just a few feet short of the green. I won’t say what he did after that, but he did have a really good look at eagle.
Every hole on the back nine and during the latter half of the front nine feels like a signature hole, so there are too many to highlight here. The course features five par-5s and five par-3s, which I like. They are all memorable holes, as well. With the par-4s, there’s an interesting mix of holes that either play short or long (not many “tweeners” distance-wise), so there are times you can choose to be aggressive and other times where you just want to walk away without too much damage. We played the silver tees at only 6,031 yards, though I would argue the course plays longer than that.
It can be stretched all the way out to 7,188 from the tour tees. They are named this because TPC Stonebrae is host to the Web.com Tour’s Ellie Mae Classic, which will take place later this summer. I look forward to watching some of that action to see how some really good players approach this course. I bet they make it look a whole lot easier than us mere mortals!
Regarding conditions, TPC Stonebrae was in excellent shape. The course is designed to play firm and fast, and that’s what we got. The heavy air with some moisture probably didn’t give us things at full tilt, and that’s probably good. The tee boxes, fairways and primary cuts of rough were all in really good shape. I never had a bad lie. Then, there are a lot of outer native areas where sometimes you will find your ball and sometimes you won’t. My only complaint is there was no posted local rule about these areas as lateral hazards or ESAs, so we had to play lost ball rules if we couldn’t find them. That definitely contributed to the slower pace of play. Probably not a huge deal for normal member play, more casual play or competitive play with spotters in a tournament, but not ideal for a big NCGA outing where they give everyone an option to buy into a handicapped net competition.
The greens were incredible. They were very firm and very fast. I haven’t even really talked about the greens yet, but they are perhaps the course’s biggest defense (which is saying a lot). They are huge and severely undulated. And of course, it’s all built on a steep hillside, so there are natural slopes in play, too. So even if you survive from tee to green, you will be faced with some difficult putts. Expect at least one three-putt (if not a four-putt or two) before your day is through!
Lastly, I cannot talk about TPC Stonebrae without commenting on the bunkers. The sand traps themselves are large, deep and very strategically placed throughout the course. If you are hitting toward one, you will want to pray that you actually end up in the sand. Every bunker is lined with deep, tangled fescue (often on steep slopes with poor footing) that is just plain evil. It looks cool, but it is not to be trifled with. I dealt with it a few times and am still a bit scarred. I’m just happy my ankles survived a couple of those awkward stances.
I’m not sure everyone will enjoy the “links course on steroids” design of TPC Stonebrae. Everyone out there looked pretty exhausted by the end of the round, but the weather and slow play also contributed to that feeling. However, you cannot deny that this is a very unique and spectacular course that you won’t soon forget. It truly is something else, which is why I would recommend it to anyone if you ever get a chance to play out here. Don’t worry too much about your score or how many balls you lose the first time around. Just strap in and enjoy the roller coaster ride. If you are lucky enough to get to play here a few times, then you can start setting more realistic expectations as you have an opportunity to learn the course a bit more.
Some pictures from TPC Stonebrae Country Club (5/6/19):
(Click on any picture below to pull up a gallery slideshow.)
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