The Northern California Golf Guide’s three-state coverage area is resplendent with opportunities to get away for a weekend—or more—of spectacular play. We explore three regions worthy of your next trip. By Alan Humason
Bandon Dunes Golf Resort
It’s a trek of about 475 miles from Sacramento to the resort at Bandon Dunes, the golf haven along a remote stretch of the south Oregon coast. But if you really love, and appreciate, the game of golf, it is a more than worthy trek. How so? The beautifully crafted courses—rife with ball-swallowing gorse, pothole traps, unpredictable winds and sheer physical splendor—coupled with excellent amenities, make this one of the great golf destinations in the West, if not the world.
In fact, Bandon Dunes is fast on a course to becoming an American legend. Named Best New Upscale Public Course by Golf Digest in 1999 and the America’s Best Resorts Gold Medalist in Golf Magazine in 2002, Bandon Dunes has earned positions on other notable lists: Golfweek’s America’s Best Modern Courses in 2004 and Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in 2003.
The links courses here—Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes and, due to open in June, the new Bandon Trails—approach the game of golf from a purist perspective, striving to capture the traditional essence of the game by exploring its roots. Owner Mike Keiser, who made a fortune in the greeting card business, bought the initial property for just one course in the mid-1990s. The locals thought he was nuts, given that other courses already in the area weren’t making much money. But Keiser had a vision, inspired by the great courses of St. Andrews, Turnberry, Troon and Royal Portrush, and shared by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, who have helped along the way.
Wanting a course architect who would not impose a design but craft one from the land, Keiser hired then-little-known Scottish architect David McLay Kidd to create Bandon Dunes. Opened in 1999, it became an immediate success. Next, Keiser had Tom Doak, a “minimalistâÂ€Â who understands the ground game, create Pacific Dunes; opened in 2002, it cemented the resort’s reputation as a top-shelf destination.
Carefully rendered (not hewn) from the massive sand dunes running atop a tumble of mostly exposed bluffs and cliffs overlooking the sea, and true to the links style, each course thoughtfully threads its way through its sublime setting, testing your skill and your nerve, especially when the mercurial weather kicks in. They are walk-only, with no power carts. Hiring a professional caddie is encouraged (see sidebar). And these courses are tough, at once alluring and sinister. Every hole has its own character, offering specific challenges of design married to landform that command your attention and respect—and if you make a mistake, penalize you appropriately. “One local rule of thumb is: Take what you normally score anywhere else and add 10 strokes; if you shoot that here, you’re doing well,âÂ€Â says course superintendent Troy Russell.
A True Test of Skill
Little can prepare you for the intense topography, tight lies and undulating greens. Some preliminary advice: Check the course layouts and photos on the website (bandondunesgolf.com). Practice your draw and your fade—you will need both to play the doglegs and compensate for the wind—and at hitting balls low to get long rolls on the firm fairways. Know how long you hit your clubs; “course managementâÂ€Â means playing smart at all times, selecting your shots and landing zones right. You’ll find few side-by-side fairways to hit through; if you go awry and your ball isn’t lost, you’ll be working hard to recover from trouble, probably blind to the flagstick.
In summertime, approach shots usually don’t leave dimples in the skillet-hard greens. “Balls just land, bounce and wind up in the swales or bunkers if you don’t have good control of distance and loft,âÂ€Â says professional caddie Rich Capanna. “That means angles to the green are critical, which of course means you have to be accurate off the tee.âÂ€Â (Another practice tip: punch-and-runs from 100 yards in.) The courses aren’t meant to be deliberately intimidating, but rather to offer a true test of skill or, as the literature puts it, “Golf as it was meant to be.âÂ€Â
With its expansive ocean views and seductive yet dangerous routing, Bandon Dunes (6,732 yards, par 72) is a true gem, willing to be had but full of trouble if you don’t keep safe; making par on any hole is solid play. Hole No. 5 (handicap 1 on the card) is a prime example. This sinewy 428-yard par 4 has its emerald fairway split in two by hummocks of brush-covered earth; from the tee, the prevailing wind is in your face. The approach to the multitier green (itself pinched between a ring of dunes) is a taper that resembles—and can bite like—a green mamba snake. By contrast, at No. 16 (363 yards, par 4) the wind is usually at your back, making it easier to carry your tee shot over the deep gorge directly in front you, setting up your dog-right approach to the cliff-edge pin.
Years ago, the locals used what is now Pacific Dunes (6,633 yards, par 71) to romp around the sandy steeps on motorcycles. What it lacks in length it more than makes up for in demanding sheer grit. Greens are smaller than at Bandon, and wavier, many guarded by the most harrowing of bunkers. “You’ll need to be creative around the greens if you aren’t in good position coming in,âÂ€Â notes caddie Capanna. The rippling fairways look like they once might have been ski runs, well carved and full of moguls, laid horizontal then sealed with hard-packed sand and Marine-Corps short-cropped fescue. Elevation changes aren’t steep so much as they are incessant. You seldom have a flat lie and stance, and if you do, don’t expect to be so lucky on your next shot—but do expect to assume some weird stances should your shots go astray.
With holes similarly open to the sky and sea, Bandon Trails (6,849 yards, par 71) also takes players through stands of coastal pine and up into the wooded ridges. The No. 14 tee offers a tremendous view of the entire property and on out over the ocean; the fairway lies far below, beckoning your most majestic drive. Enjoy the moment if you strike it well; holes 15 through 18 (par 4, 5, 3 and 4 respectively) finish into swirling headwinds. The green at No. 5 is perhaps the nastiest of all: a white-knuckle roller coaster bound to induce more than its share of yips.
A Complete Resort
Bandon Dunes is a fully contained resort; you can stay right here the entire time. Lodging runs from single rooms (at a low of $90/night November–April) to luxurious cottage suites ($1,200/night May–October). For meals, the resort has the white-linen Gallery Restaurant, the Scottish-style McGee’s Pub, a clubhouse lounge and downstairs poker-and-billiards bar. The fitness center includes weights and exercise equipment, locker room, sauna, spa and massage rooms.
Besides the existing layouts, at least 27 more holes are on the drawing boards. The practice facility includes a driving range (unlimited balls with your room key), very large putting green and, also due in June, a nine-hole par-3 course, with some of this layout meant for chipping practice in the morning.
The resort also offers the Golf Academy, a special three-day package of lodging, meals and professional instruction; inquire for dates and rates. The pro shop carries a wide selection of clothing.
“Besides golf, the staff can help arrange guided horseback rides on the beach, fishing, whale-watching, sea kayaking and other outings,âÂ€Â says executive assistant Marla Taylor. “We don’t lack for amenities or things to do nearby.âÂ€Â To experience this majestic stretch of coast firsthand, get directions to the Beach Loop Drive, or walk the resort’s own trail system.
Just four miles away, the town of Bandon offers numerous diversions and beautiful beaches. Check out Bandon Golf Supply on Michigan Avenue. Visit the picturesque Bandon Lighthouse, or simply gaze from your table at the Bandon Boathouse Restaurant, where the Coquille River meets the sea. For help with vacation rentals, call the Bandon Chamber of Commerce at (541) 347-9616.
The Wine Country: Napa
Best known for wining and dining, the Napa area has its share of golfing options, too. In a sense, Napa is representative of the game itself: a combination of timeless respect and steady change.
Consider the venerable Silverado Country Club & Resort, long one of Napa Valley’s prized properties. Anchored by the impressive main mansion, which dates from the early 1870s, accommodations range from cozy studio-size rooms to two-bedroom condo suites, with king-size beds, fireplaces and complete kitchens, clustered around hidden courtyards and quiet alcoves.
For golf, Silverado offers the long, dogleggy North Course (designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr.) and the shorter but tricky South Course (by Robert Muir Graves) with more than a dozen water crossings. Graced by splendid views of the surrounding Atlas Peak neighborhood and almost exclusively Bermuda grass, both courses are adorned by mature pine and branchy walnut trees that definitely come into play if you miss the fairways. Traps are abundant, shallow and broad; you’ll have to grapple with that nasty “which way do to I want to missâÂ€Â scenario. Beautifully refurbished, sneaky-quick greens are teeming with subtle leans, angles and breaks, but the rolls are true, so take your time and savor your birds.
Starting with a 436 par-4 on No. 1 (rated 1 handicap on the card, so be forewarned), the North Course gives big hitters plenty of opportunity to clobber away. (Holes 5, 9, 16 and 18 exceed 525 yards from the tips.) The South Course requires a bit more pure shot-making and finesse; when you do have a chance to air it out, be careful. The 569-yard No. 11 beckons and threatens with two left turns and a potential drink.
After you’ve taken your hacks, head to the spa. Modeled on a classic Roman design, the resort’s rendition is a state-of-the-art world unto itself, with swimming pool, sauna and steam room, cafe, exercise equipment and treatments from deep-muscle massage to facials and pedicures.
This summer a new golf center will open, housing the pro shop, new restaurant and gift shop. Several stay-and-play packages make the resort ever more affordable for all ages; if you have a family, you can even arrange bonded, activity-filled care for the kids.
For dining, the Royal Oak restaurant presents the admirable work of Chef Peter Pahk, a leader in the sustainable cuisine movement. His protein-oriented menu emphasizes organics and environmentally sound products: wild salmon from Alaska, hormone-free pork, beef and poultry. Be sure to ask about the abalone—fork-tender, in a delicate lemon butter sauce with fresh watercress.
The newest course in the Napa area, Eagle Vines Golf Club will surrender eagles grudgingly. Opened in June 2004, this beautiful, tough Johnny Miller course incorporates 11 holes purchased from neighboring Chardonnay Golf Club (which is being transformed under new ownership). A new, fully equipped clubhouse is due to open in May, to complement the existing practice range.
You’ll find it all here: length (No. 16 is a monster 610 yards), four sets of tees (on No. 2, each one is separate, surrounded by water), hills, big, soft traps, a kennel-full of doglegs, and situations to demand every club in the bag. Be sure to consult the excellent yardage book from the pro shop. For sheer charm, No. 6 (163 yards, par 3) fires from an elevated tee enlivened by a cascading waterfall, a grand vista of the Bay Area and a touchy shot to an island green. An exact replica of the famous St. Andrews Bridge graces the course’s toughest hole, No. 14. Feel like Arnold Palmer, especially if you’re about make par 4 from 473 yards. Several areas are designed as wildlife preserves, attracting hawks, kestrels and the occasional golden eagle. Add 200-year-old oak trees and 30 acres of working vineyards—you’ll love it.
If big-time greens fees are too rich for your blood, opt instead for Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park, blending decent-length (549-yard No. 5 and 527-yard No. 18), varied, mature terrain and lots of water—you can get wet on 16 holes.
The lovely Meadowood Resort, in the rolling wooded foothills off the Silverado Trail, isn’t really a golf destination, with its short private nine-hole course. But the accommodations are truly outstanding, so if you choose to stay here, be sure to try its Hickory Program. You get to play the course using genuine hickory-shaft clubs and replica pre-dimple-era balls. Imagine you are Bobby Jones as you tote a canvas bag and make your way around this serene par-3/par-4 layout. Charming, innocent, low-tech: You’ll thrill at making par the old-fashioned way. For more information, call the resort toll-free (800) 458-8080.
Where Else to Stay in the Wine Country
Midway between Napa and Sonoma on Highway 12, you might swoon at the comforts of the arresting Carneros Inn (4048 Sonoma Highway; 707-299-4900). All rooms are individual cottages, designed to ensure as much comfort and privacy as possible. Bathed in natural light, each room has a private patio garden with lounges and chairs. Bathrooms have heated floors, deep soaking tubs and multihead showers. Wood-burning fireplaces, flat-panel TVs and lush bedding will lull your senses. For more pampering, venture up to the spa for a massage, scrubs or dermal treatments. The spacious Hilltop Dining Room serves meals all day; dine alfresco and enjoy sumptuous views.
To conserve ducats, the convenient Embassy Suites in Napa (1075 California Blvd.; 707-253-9540) offers complimentary hor d’oeuvres and cocktails in the evening and breakfast in the morning with your room. Or check your bag in one of the Napa Valley’s many B&Bs, such as the Burgundy House in Yountville (6711 Washington St.; 707-944-0889), with six handsome rooms in a distinctive fieldstone and river-rock home.
For die-hard carnivores, Cole’s Chop House in Napa (1122 Main St.; 707-224-6328) is a classic-style American steak house, with dry-aged steaks, New Zealand lamb, Iowa pork, Wisconsin veal and fresh seafood. Start with one of the name cocktails such as Maintenance Free Martini, then savor the oysters Rockefeller or lobster and shrimp bisque. With your generously portioned entree, choose sides such as asparagus with hollandaise or Chop House hash browns. And where else are you going to find bananas Foster for dessert? From your head down to your toes, Cole’s satisfies.
Up the road in Yountville, enjoy the inventive specialties of Hurley’s Restaurant and Bar (6518 Washington St.; 707-944.2345), opened just two years ago. Chef Bob Hurley’s changing menu includes house-cured gravlax with crème fraîche, delta crayfish risotto, succulent poached tuna pan bagnat, artfully prepared wild game specials, and fabulous marinades, sauces and sides.
Elsewhere in Napa
Be sure to visit Jessel Gallery (1019 Atlas Peak Road; 707-257-2350), especially for Jammin’ at Jessel’s on Mondays, when effervescent owner Jessel Miller hosts a freewheeling session of live music and entertainment, with excellent appetizers, desserts and wine—all for $20. In Napa, stop by Cafe Society (1000 Main St.; 707-256-3237), a slightly French-funk retail shop and diner with live music Saturdays plus tasty a selection of tartines, crêpes, quiches, baguettes and desserts.
For the rest of this story pick up a copy of Sacramento magazine’s April issue.