Perhaps even more so than at winery tasting rooms, Sonoma County’s golf courses might be where you can find the most mixed crowds of both locals and visitors. And, just like at a winery bar, a little local knowledge can add lots of extra enjoyment and feed one’s desires for plotting a return visit or your next round.
There are just as many golf courses (18) in Sonoma County as there are wine viticulture appellations (17). Wine regions are known for their distinct microclimates, soil types and terrain and, similarly, golf layouts also possess singular character, environmental settings and even local weather.
To share a taste and some local knowledge of the region’s many golf offerings and opportunities, we have assembled a survey of nine favorite or more unique holes. Each has been selected for its fun factor, varied challenges and a chance for visitors to rub against some friendly locals.
Hole #1. The starting hole at Bennett Valley Golf Course in Santa Rosa (par 5, 457-482 yards) offers both a relaxing first tee shot down a wider fairway and a challenging third shot over Matanzas Creek to a roller coaster green. The municipal Bennett Valley is many locals’ favorite, both because of its affordable rates ($25-$43, $14 for carts) and its playability. We’ll return to the course for a special finishing hole.
Hole #2. Not literally a number two hole, the sixth hole (par 4, 291 yards) at Healdsburg Golf Club at Tayman Park is as unique as they come. From the tee, a golfer feels like he or she must drive the ball up a mountain, because that is literally what the layout requires. The elevated green sits 500 feet above the tee level, perched on the flank of Fitch Mountain. Many a golfer has watched a poorly bounced shot roll backwards almost to his feet.
The reward of this hole is the 270-degree view from the green, overlooking Healdsburg and Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River beyond. Can the wine tasting be too far off? Tayman Park green fees ($14 for 9-holes, $29 for 18 holes on the weekend) are so affordable, golfers can buy an extra bottle of wine at one of the many nearby wineries for the trip home.
Hole #3. Sonoma County’s only “island green” is the number 15 (par 3, 90-173 yards) at Petaluma’s Rooster Run Golf Club course. The par-72, 18-hole course in east Petaluma can be windy and the adobe soils remind golfers they are not too far from the Carneros wine region at the top of San Pablo Bay. (Fees are $39 weekdays and $58 weekends, plus carts.)
Hole #4. At the other end of Sonoma County, on the wilder northern shore of the local Pacific coast, sits The Sea Ranch Golf Links, home to a true Scottish links-style golf layout. The number eight hole (par 3, 158-190 yards) requires an expert tee shot over an ocean canyon formed where Salal Creek ends at a public access ocean cove. Many a putter has been distracted here over the years by the sighting of a migrating gray whale, just yards from the blufftop green. (Green fees are $57-$67, plus $15 for riding carts, a must for most golfers.) The Sea Ranch golf course is just south of the Gualala River, about 70 minutes north of Jenner.
Hole #5. Located in the Valley of the Moon, beneath Hood Mountain and Sugarloaf State Park, sit the two golf courses inside the Oakmont senior community. Not many tourists find their way here, but there’s a great variety of golf holes to be played. The West Course is a conventional par-72, 18-hole layout and the East Course is a par-63, executive layout, perfect for golfers who need to save some time for wine tasting in the same day. Hole number 9 (par 4, 306 yards) can be intimidating. A large pond borders the angling fairway on the left and will collect all hooks and pulled shots. Willows hang over the water’s edge as well, narrowing the approach to a medium-sized green. (Green fees are $29 weekdays, seniors walking and $54 weekends, with a riding cart.)
Hole #6. Windsor Golf Course offers a devil’s bargain between a long, uphill par 3 or a par 4 hole fortressed by water from both the tee and second approach shot. They play back-to-back at the popular course (fees $39 weekdays, $56 weekend, carts $15.) Windsor’s hole number seven is a 195-yard, elevated green, with gaping sand traps, pinching a narrow approach apron. Getting on the putting surface is just half the battle. The split-level green can turn many a potential two-putt into a triple bogey. The next hole, number eight (368 yards) features a large pond, extending on the right from the 150-yard pole to the green’s edge. Sliced tee shots get very wet and any forced approach shot is likely to get just as wet. Besides a favorite for blue herons and egrets, Windsor’s number eight pond may be home to thousands of ProVs and other golf balls.
Hole #7. The Links at Bodega Harbour are a favorite of frequent visitors, offering stunning ocean and bay views. The layout includes a finishing three holes that play across and along a saltwater marsh on the shoulder of Doran Beach. Hole number 16 (par 4, 280 yards) demands a full-carry tee shot over the cattails and marsh. It’s a dramatic scene that is often framed by stiff ocean breezes and the sound of crashing waves. Hole number 17 (par 3, 150-185 yards) reverses back across the marsh, guaranteeing all golfers at least one shot into the wind, no matter the day’s prevailing direction. Bodega’s hole number 18 (par 4, 365-461 yards) has awed many a golfer with its sly beauty and high rewards. The tee shot looks south toward Tomales Bay and Point Reyes beyond. Coastal fog can often limit the view to just the closer Doran Beach. A strategic tee shot is required to avoid a severe sidehill lie. Next comes an exhilarating long-iron approach shot to a medium-sized green, surrounded by dunes and brush.
Hole #8. Only a few miles from Bodega Bay is a study of golf contrasts, Northwood Golf Club in Monte Rio, a tight layout carved from a majestic redwood forest a long time ago. The course was designed by famed golf architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie in 1925. The number nine hole on the 9-hole layout (par 5, 527 yards) is as narrow as they come. Locals have given the course the nickname of “Knockwood” because of the routine sound of golf balls thudding against the giant redwood trees. Number nine’s green is a signature MacKenzie design, a false front with no chance for any golfer to benefit from a generous roll. (Northwood fees are $25 weekdays and $56 weekends with a cart. Nine-hole rates are also available.)
Hole #9. Now we finish back where we started at Santa Rosa’s Bennett Valley, but not with a golf club in hand, but rather a drink napkin. The Legends Sports Grill is an outstanding 19th hole in all the best golfing traditions. There is a big bar, featuring plenty of local wines, naturally. There is also a large outdoor flagstone terrace with umbrella tables and views of the oak tree-studded course. Inside, there is a large dining area with a half-dozen large screen TVs, all tuned to the day’s live sporting events and games, one always switched to the Golf Channel, of course. Legends also offers a suite of banquet rooms for larger gatherings. The menu is fairly standard sports bar fare, but the kitchen’s performance is worthy of the wines available for pairings. SD