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Deep Culture Travel:

Linksland: Golf on the California Coast

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 at it.

"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, Jr.

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 green.

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 Beach."

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.
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