Course Review: Napa Valley Country Club

As my reviews from this come to an end, I get to the best two courses I played on this particular visit to Northern California. One was Orinda Country Club, which I will review last because I played it last.

The other was Napa Valley Country Club.

The tease of playing this private club has been out there for years. A family member of a friend is a social member here. He doesn’t golf often and his membership only allows for a few rounds a year, so the timing has just never worked out when visiting the Napa Valley area on some of my past trips. This time, however, things worked out great and we were finally able to line up a round at this historic club.

We had a foursome of players and a 9:00 tee time behind some regular member groups. We teed off on time (maybe a few minutes) early and enjoyed a nice relaxed pace of around four hours. This is one of those courses you don’t mind slowing down and taking a bit more time to enjoy.

The Napa Valley setting is truly special and this club isn’t too far down the road from Silverado Resort, which is Napa’s most well-known golf destination. This course feels even more remote and isolated from the rest of town, and that is one of its many charms.

The roots of Napa Valley Country Club date back to 1915, when the original members constructed a simple nine-hole golf course with oil and sand greens. Over the years, it evolved into what is the character-filled front nine of this course today. Another 75 years later, they finally decided to add another nine designed by Ron Fream and make this an 18-hole championship course. John Harbottle III’s name is also listed on GolfAdvisor, but not on NVCC’s website, so I don’t know his exact contribution.

The two nines at NVCC are definitely very distinctive. You can argue it’s two quite different courses combined as one. That might sound like a turn-off at first to golf architecture purists, but it really works here. I think that’s because both nines are so fantastic in their own ways.

The front nine has the feel of an older Bay Area course. It is hilly and the greens are tiny. It is sometimes narrow and lined with mostly evergreen trees. It is often quirky with some tight doglegs and unusual angles. It even starts with a rarity: a par-3 as your opening hole (a beautiful little hole, I might add).

The 9th hole is a good example of this quirky charm. It is a short hole, listed at only 324 from the black tees on the scorecard. However, I believe that is as the crow flies because it plays much, much longer as an uphill hole that takes a sharp 90-degree left turn more than halfway up the fairway. You’d have to be crazy to attempt cutting the corner on this one (roads, clubhouse, parking lot, practice putting green and first tee boxes are all very much in danger if you do), so you have to carefully place your tee shot out completely past the corner to have any chance at hitting the green in two. That’s a lot easier said than done with the way the tall trees also come into play along this fairway.

Then, you head across the road and to the newer back nine, which is totally different. This side does feel more open and the greens are significantly bigger, though it is still just hilly. Here, the surroundings are golden hillsides dotted with dusty old oak trees and giant boulders. It’s amazing how much the terrain changes from one side of the road to the other.

The pinnacle of the back nine occurs when you reach the 11th and 12th holes, which had some similarities to what I encountered at Hidden Valley Lake the day before. First, the 11th hole is a slightly uphill, but short par-3 perched atop the hill. This is just a beautiful hole with a rugged desert look amongst the natural boulder outcroppings.

Then, like Hidden Valley Lake, you turn the corner and are greeted with a spectacular “top of the world” view from the next tee. The 12th hole is just awesome with a huge drop from the tees down to the fairway and a completely unobstructed view of the entire valley below. Where it differs from the elevated tee at Hidden Valley Lake is that this one is not a lay-up or a blind shot. This is a par-5 that plays pretty much straight with a fairly wide fairway. There is certainly plenty of trouble to find if you go way left or right, but it’s still one that allows you (nay, encourages you) to swing as hard as you want to from such a high vantage point.

The rest of the back nine is enjoyable and challenging with some water hazards in play. The final couple holes are also great playing into and out of a beautiful little canyon area as you loop back toward the clubhouse area.

Another unique feature of Napa Valley Country Club is that they kind of have a bonus par-3 hole in between the 16th and 17th. The green is set up more like a chipping green with three flags in place, but down the hill by the water hazard there are clear tee markers and the placement of the green sure doesn’t make it convenient as a practice area so far away from the clubhouse or driving range. I went ahead and played it and it was probably about a 150-170 yard shot from the blue tees (tees were there, but no signage or yardage indicators of any kind). It’s certainly an odd little extra hole that I’m sure sometimes gets used for practice and other times gets used as a tiebreaker hole. It made me wonder if it was part of the original back nine design and got replaced at some point along the way once an additional hole was built. Our member host didn’t know enough about the course to provide any clarity, so I may never know for sure.

Overall, NVCC is a shorter course by today’s standards, maxing out at 6,298 yards. Because of the hills and the angles you have to play, especially on the front nine, it definitely plays longer than that at times.

The course was in excellent condition all the way through. The tee boxes, fairways and rough were all lush and nicely maintained. Then there were deeper outer edges of tall fescue you wanted to avoid. The bunkers were fantastic and the greens were beautiful—just receptive enough and rolling smooth at medium/fast speeds. We got pretty friendly normal green speeds, though it was easy to tell they can get these running as fast as they want for tournaments.

Having two such different nines is something interesting, but it is like getting the best of Napa Valley golf in one round. You get the traditional old quirky course and the more modern course with a couple of stellar signature holes. And, you get two completely unique visual experiences with the natural surroundings of each nine. Yet, it all works together nicely for an incredible golf experience at a great private club. If you ever have a chance to play here, jump at the opportunity!

Some pictures from Napa Valley Country Club (6/21/19):

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


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