This last Northern California trip was a whirlwind three days with plenty of driving and a lot of golf during the longest days of the year. I have one more course to review, though, and I certainly saved the best for last. Orinda Country Club is something special in the East Bay Area.
Like Marin Country Club at the beginning of the trip, Orinda was another private club where I had originally signed up for as an NCGA outing later this year. However, my friends and I also ended up buying a charity auction round here like we did with Marin. It ended up being close to the same price as the outing, but offered more flexibility in planning. So, we were able to make it part of this trip instead.
We had a threesome and we were paired with a longtime club member (who I believe is the one who donated the round). We teed off around 2:30 and the course was busy, so we enjoyed a nice relaxed round on a beautiful afternoon.
Orinda is another club steeped in history, with its roots dating back to 1924. The golf course was originally designed by Willie Watson and then more recently renovated by John Harbottle III and Todd Eckenrode.
Though I didn’t get to explore much of the clubhouse beyond the pro shop, it is quite an impressive structure. It is a four-story behemoth notched into a rocky hillside, overlooking the 1st tee and 18th green. The rest of the course loops out and back with no return to the clubhouse until your round is complete. They do have what they call the “Cardiac Nine” layout for members, which is a shorter 9-hole loop if you don’t have time for a full 18.
Orinda definitely has the feel of an older club where civilization has built up around it over the course of almost 100 years. You cross a few streets and they can come into play with a bad shot, but there really aren’t many houses in play. Some electrical towers cut through part of the course and kind of mar the scenery. It’s hard to explain, but the layout feels both spread out and condensed at the same time.
The terrain here is extremely hilly, which is no surprise in this part of the East Bay Area. Some holes are quite narrow while others are wide open. I actually expected this course to have more quirky ultra-target golf in its design than it does. It’s not a super long layout at 6,290 yards from the back blue tees and a par of 71, but when you see that 139 slope you know it’s going to have plenty of teeth. Though I found many of the fairways to be quite forgiving, proper positioning is still important on many holes and there is definitely a premium on hitting good approach shots. The large greens are very well-protected by bunkers and tricky undulations.
Because of the way the roads split up the course, Orinda kind of breaks down into a few different sections. A good chunk of holes are in the middle section that contains holes 2-5 and holes 11-15. Some of these holes blend with one another thanks to neighboring tee boxes and sprawling fairways that sometimes connect together. Parts of this section reminded me at times of Cal Club.
The bunkering really stands out at Orinda with deep faces and ragged edges (I’m going to guess Harbottle is to thank for bringing these back to life). Though the course has a few different personalities along the way, the distinctive bunkers and large green complexes help tie it all together nicely.
So many holes stand out from Orinda, but I will highlight a few. The 1st hole is one of the most unique and funky starting holes I’ve ever seen. You hit out of a somewhat narrow-feeling chute next to the clubhouse to a very wide fairway that drops off in the distance. That drop off leads down to the green that you can’t really see until you are standing at the edge of the steep hill. If you hit the right slopes on your tee shot, you can easily drive the green. If you hit the wrong slopes, however, you can end up in some serious trouble.
Orinda has a great collection of par-3s that are all very different from one another. The 3rd hole is a long one (251 yards from the blue tees), but it is straight downhill and super wide open. It’s one that pretty much forces you to land short and use the slopes to try and avoid the nasty bunkers as your ball rolls down to the green.
The 8th was my favorite hole. It is a very short par-3 (118 yards max) that plays downhill to a crazy two-tiered green that slopes away from you and is protected by some evil bunkers and deep fescue rough. The 15th is another highlight par-3 that has you hitting over a ravine for a fairly intimidating tee shot.
The other hole I won’t forget is the short par-4 10th, which requires a semi-blind placement shot off the tee as you hit over a mounded hillside. There is definitely more fairway there than it appears. After that, the hole narrows up significantly as you near the green. It is protected by some big trees and a deep bunker on the left. Anything too far right is in the street, so you really have to be accurate on your approach here.
There are so many excellent holes here and the course finishes strong with the par-5 18th that works its way uphill toward the towering clubhouse.
The conditions here were also great. Everything was lush, green and beautifully maintained. The only minor issue was that the fairways on most holes were maybe a tad bit fluffy and didn’t provide much roll-out on drives. That said, some of the downhill holes like 1 and 3 that require you to play the slopes were cut a bit tighter to allow for ground play. There are many other parts of this course that you wouldn’t want the fairways to play too fast because the slopes would be difficult to survive.
The greens were firm and fast, and the bunkers were absolutely perfect with soft white sand.
This is one of those older courses where the quirks only add more character and leave you entertained (and challenged) from hole 1 through hole 18. When you add a great setting that is only encroached upon slightly by outside civilization and a unique private club atmosphere, you get a course that is not easily forgotten. I mentioned Cal Club earlier as a comp on a few parts of Orinda. Other great courses that come to mind would be Hacienda and maybe even a little dash of Pasatiempo. Yet, Orinda kind of has a spirit that’s all its own and is hard to define.
In other words, play here if you ever have a chance!
Some pictures from Orinda Country Club (6/21/19):
(Click on any picture below to pull up a gallery slideshow.)
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