The setting is straight out of a Brothers Grimm tale: a redwood forest nestled in a bountiful valley where the silence is deafening and the fog adds an air of mystery. Here in Northern California’s Russian River Valley, a source of some outstanding wines, lies an intoxicating nine-hole course called Northwood Golf Club.
The layout was designed by Dr. Alister MacKenzie, but despite this pedigree Northwood is anything but exclusive. Blue jeans are standard dress, the "driving range" consists of a patch of grass and a net, and the general manager, the superintendent and the pro are named Gaylord, Edwin and Vern. Pretenses have no place here, and that’s a large part of Northwood’s charm.
The course was conceived in the 1920s as a playground for the Bohemian Club, the exclusive society that every summer gathers heads of state and masters of the universe at a nearby campground known as the Bohemian Grove. It was Bohemian member Jack Neville, Pebble Beach’s designer, who hired MacKenzie. Having worked his magic on the rocky coast at Cypress Point, the famed English architect welcomed the chance to lay out a course among the redwoods.
Making the most of the mesmerizing scenery—stands of mammoth trees, some of them up to two hundred feet tall—MacKenzie struck a brilliant balance between challenge and fun. The opener is a 293-yard dogleg-left par-four, tantalizing yet unreachable due to a blockade of redwoods cutting off the corner. And so it goes at every turn.
Leaving yourself on the wrong side of the hole can prove hazardous. I striped two balls to reach the short par-five fifth, only to wind up six feet above the flag. A dodgy putt for my first-ever eagle tumbled into the cup before it had a chance to slide past. As beams of sunlight broke through the trees, I thought, Somewhere MacKenzie is smiling.