by Karen Misuraca, published in Distinction Magazine
As on traditional links land in Scotland, the
birthplace of golf,
these courses along the California coastline gently undulate with low
hills and dunes left overgrown with native grasses. They are generously
watered by creeks, natural ponds and estuaries rich with wildlife, and
always, they are windswept and subject to unpredictable marine weather.
On this rugged edge of the continent the sun comes and
goes, chasing away fingers of fog in the mornings, glimmering across
wildflowery bluffs, and turning fiery red as it sinks into the horizon
behind rocky sea stacks offshore, a daily performance of weather and
landscape unmatched in its drama anywhere else on earth.
A northern outpost, a three-hour drive from San Francisco, the Sea
Ranch is a rustic resort and lodge known for a unique architectural
style of shed-roofed, driftwood-hued buildings half hidden in fields of
native grasses. The Sea Ranch Golf Links, for years a jewel of a
nine-holer, was recently expanded to eighteen. Course architect, Robert
Muir Graves, planned this design for the bluffs and meadows of Sea Ranch
more than twenty years ago. He said, "This is the closest I've ever come
to a true links course and it reminds me of Scotland every time I look
"As on true Scottish links land, we incorporated forced carries,
where wild vegtetation or a natural hazard is allowed to cross or
encroach upon the fairway. The rough is natural and left unmowed, right
up to the edge of the fairways. Depending on the growth each year, this
does not always make me a popular person."
The 8th and 9th holes run along a windy clifftop. From here, you
can spot whales spouting a few thousand yards offshore, from November
through March, migrating to and from Baja, California, where they spend
the winter. There is plenty of sand, knee-high rough and several lakes,
natural creeks and gullies, and groves of mature pines and cypress. A
deep gulch runs parallel to the 16th hole and onto the 17th, a par three
where the sea breezes can affect club selection, by two or three clubs.
Deer wander down from the forest above, and serenely observe the golfers
on the 18th.
Wildlife such as loons, grebes, gulls and
pond turtles, distracts
golfers at Bodega Harbour Golf Links in the fishing village of Bodega
Bay, about an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The ability to
sandblast comes in handy here in the fifty-eight bunkers on the front
nine and thirty-six on the back nine, designed by Robert Trent Jones,
Bordering a protected bay and crossing a huge freshwater marsh, the
last three holes present a spectacular finishing sequence. The 16th
requires a deft touch to hit the landing zone across an expanse of
gorselike scrub, and depending on the wind, you may need anything from a
pitching wedge to a fairway wood on the 17th. The 476-yard 18th commands
your last scrap of concentration with a green lurking below the fairway
in the watery clutches of the marsh and grassy dunes.
Nearby Bodega Bay Lodge has luxury suites and fireplace rooms with
ocean views, and a new facility, the Ocean Club Fitness Center and Spa,
where golfers relax with "Salt Glo" massages, kelp facials and marine
mud wraps. Fourteen of the warmest of Northern California's beaches lie
along the Sonoma Coast, from Bodega Bay, north to Jenner at the mouth of
the Russian River.
San Franciscans waited for decades to play the Presidio Golf Course in the shadow of the Golden
Gate Bridge. Built in 1895, it was the much-coveted private
sanctuary of the U.S. Army from the 1950s until 1995, when the Presidio
Army base became a National Park. A $9 million upgrade by Arnold Palmer
Golf Management Company added bent grass greens, a glitzy new clubhouse
and the Presidio Cafe, where golfers enjoy a view of the 18th green,
live jazz and California cuisine on the heated terrace.
On a peninsula of woodlands and bluffs between the Pacific and San
Francisco Bay, the Presidio layout winds among dense stands of
100-foot-tall Monterey cypress, eucalyptus and pines. Peregrine falcons
and eagles are often seen circling above, and wild rhododendrons explode
into clouds of red and white blooms from January through April.
Sidehill, uphill and downhill lies are the order of the day, plus
erratic winds off the Bay. Rare and endangered native plants are marked
with interpretive signs.
Nature and the sea also take the lead at
the new Half Moon Bay
Ocean Course, a half-hour drive over the hills from Silicon Valley and
San Francisco. A favorite of fledgling millionaires spawned by the high
tech industry, the Ocean Course is a traditional Scottish links-style
layout with spectacular clifftop views. Architect, Arthur Hills, kept
turf to a minimum, uniting each hole with the original native grasses,
retaining low hollows and mounds, and adding no trees. Only eleven
cypress trees grace the course, where constant sea breezes, and
sometimes gales, call for the irons. As the Scots say, "No wind, no
golf," which doesn't seem to bother San Francisco Giants star sluggers,
Barry Bonds and Jim Davenport, often seen battling the elements here.
Walking is the way to best enjoy the 6,732 yards of these gently
rolling links. The 7th is one of the prettiest holes, a short par three
requiring true target golf, with a 155-yard carry over a large pond, a
thirty-foot-high grassy bank on the right and a domed, lightning-fast
The crashing waves create a soft curtain of sound on the finishing
holes. 16 plays along the ocean, down a 350-yard slope and levels off
for a view of miles of coastline and hills. The short 17th, carpeted
with wildflowers in the summertime, has no fairway, simply a carry over
a yawning crevasse complete with plunging waterfall, and a green with
sound effects -- barking sea lions. The boomerang-shaped, par-four 18th is
532 yards from the back tees and right on the edge of the world. You
shoot uphill, then down a fairway liberally dotted with bunkers and
grassy knobs, to a huge green laid on a windy plateau. Be happy with a
bogey and head for a window table at Caddy's restaurant here, or into
the quaint, Victorian town of Half Moon Bay for a well-deserved seafood
dinner. Just beyond the 18th hole, perched a hundred feet above the
Pacific, is the 268-room Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Golf Magazine calls the Ocean Course a "rip-roaring experience".
For a milder but no less rewarding game, the tree-lined and protected,
twenty-five-year-old Half Moon Bay Links Course is nearby, an Arnold
Palmer-Frank Duane designed beauty, with the 18th meandering to a
graceful conclusion just below the terraces of the Ritz.
In tribute to the spiritual home of golf by the Scottish sea, a lone
bagpiper plays every night at sunset on the Links at Spanish Bay on the
Monterey Peninsula, a golf mecca two hours south of San Francisco, with
more than twenty-one courses on or near the shores of Monterey Bay.
The Links at Spanish Bay is marked by waves of low, sandy mounds,
fescue grass fairways and few trees, with sand dunes up to twenty-four
feet high, and a platoon of merciless pot bunkers. In the lee of the
dark, brooding Del Monte cypress forest, the luxurious Inn at Spanish
Bay lies a few hundred feet from the shoreline, on the world-famous
Seventeen-Mile Drive. On the opposite end of the drive, Pebble Beach
Golf Links on Carmel Bay is the dream course of every golfer, where
Nicklaus, Watson and Kite won the U.S. Open. The 100th Open was played at Pebble Beach in 2000,
where Tiger Woods won by the largest victory margin in any major tournament ever played.
Pebble Beach Golf Links rides the headlands over Stillwater Cove as
it has since 1919, when Jack Neville laid down a rippling figure-eight
design along a series of jagged palisades and sandy moors, placing a
miraculous eight holes within sight and sound of the pounding surf. The
notorious combination of swirling winds and misty hazes, long tee shots
over gaping crevasses and tiny greens, remains an unequaled golfing
challenge. Not for the faint of heart, the par-four 8th hole asks for a
blind tee shot to the cliff's edge, then it's 190 yards over the beach,
a hundred feet below, to a little bitty green encircled by traps. Jack
Nicklaus ended a string of five birdies here in the 1982 Open when he
landed in the high rough and took a bogey. The 14th has been declared
the toughest par five on the PGA Tour.
The experience of Pebble is brought to a smashing conclusion at the
18th, on a rocky point above a boiling cauldron of waves. Barking harbor
seals seem to laugh while gangs of sweet-faced sea otters float,
unconcerned, in their kelp beds. With one of the world's great
hostelries -- The Lodge at Pebble Beach -- in sight, you tee off, hoping the
wind doesn't blow you off the skinny fairway before you arrive at the
final green menaced by trees and a quartet of bunkers. On this hole at
the 1976 and 1984 Opens, respectively, Nicklaus' ball ended up in the
drink, and Hale Irwin's tee shot smacked into the rocks only to arch
gracefully back onto the fairway.
Nonetheless, Jack Nicklaus holds to the statement: "If I had only
one more round of golf to play, I would choose to play it at Pebble
Just off the first fairway, the Spa at Pebble Beach treats golfers
with post-sports revitalizers, complete with aromatherapy massage and
warm seaweed packs on tired back muscles, fitting reward for hard-won
fortunes on the links of the California coast.