To the west, the sun starts to sink into the perennial mist obliterating the horizon. The sky above colors a deeper shade of blue and starts to bleed stars. Memory after memory, like a fusillade of arrows, assails me: the seventy-five I shot from the tips in a three-club wind; the wild boar I saw lumber across the fairway and crash into the underbrush, utterly unnerving me; playing one last round with my old friend and La Purisima habitué, Pem McGirt, just before he died. I have played a lot of golf in California, from Tijuana Country Club (featuring nine holes designed by Alister MacKenzie) to the Links at Bodega Harbour north of San Francisco, and I truly believe, if you factor in greens fees, course design, degree of difficulty, natural beauty, overall course conditions, lack of crowds and speed of play, that La Purisima is the finest golf course open to the public in the entire state.
And for years I had it all to myself.
Was it really fifteen years ago, after yet another round at the Sandpiper Golf Course near Santa Barbara, that my playing partners beseeched me to head over the hills another forty miles to play La Purisima?In L.A., where I live, playing golf is fraught with long waits and exorbitant greens fees unless you're a member of a private club. Back then I was an impecunious screenwriter-cum-novelist, so I could take off midweek to Sandpiper, paying the twilight rate of $25 to play until it was too dark to go on. The one hundred miles up from L.A. was well worth the drive. But yet another hour?That was pushing it. Nevertheless, one day the nagging feeling that I was missing something got me over the hills into the Santa Ynez Valley and on to La Purisima. I haven't stopped at Sandpiper since.
It was only a year ago when Fox Searchlight Pictures put me up at the posh Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara for the premiere of Sideways, the movie based on my novel of the same name. Sideways chronicles the adventures of Miles and Jack, two thirty-something guys who decide to spend the week before Jack's wedding in the Santa Ynez Valley, prowling the region's wineries and playing golf. After its opening in Santa Barbara, I celebrated alongside the actors Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, director Alexander Payne and other bigwigs from the movie. The local wine flowed—it was a heady time. Sideways went on to win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Golden Globes for Best Screenplay and Best Picture, six Independent Spirit awards and five L.A. Film Critics' awards, among many others.
Now, just six months after the Oscar, the valley has been transformed. Since the movie, pinot noir sales have skyrocketed and travel to the Santa Ynez Valley is on a similar trajectory. And though I couldn't really imagine it at the time, my life would change forever.
Back in the early nineties, when I made my first pilgrimage to the valley, I would head straight to La Purisima and play it all day—sometimes thirty-six holes—shower and change at the nearby Windmill Inn, then walk the half mile or so to the Hitching Post II and plop myself down at the bar. Midweek it was quiet. There was a waitress working there, a gorgeous woman on whom I very loosely based Maya, the woman who my character Miles falls in love with, played by Virginia Madsen. I never really got to know her, but she was every wine geek's fantasy. Locals would trickle in. Winemakers and other people in the wine world would drift in and settle at the bar. The conversation was always convivial. One night I got a lecture on beermaking from the young brewmaster at Firestone, which makes beer as well as wine. After a few glasses, I might have let slip that I was writing a book that was set in their area. More idle chatter. I was blissfully anonymous.