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Journey to the Garden of Youth

That alone had me dialing my travel agent, and soon after, I was motoring over the bay under a blue sky. Turning north, I mingled with rush-hour traffic as low clouds dropped a curtain over the treeless hills. Had there been a few Volkswagen Beetles, or just one psychedelic minivan with a peace symbol painted on the rear window, I might have slipped comfortably into a sixties groove. Instead, I felt vaguely foolish--a man of middle years on a ghost highway.

The next morning, I played a quick and solitary eighteen at the Sonoma Golf Club, a daily fee course regarded as one of Northern California's best. If I found the golf curiously uninvolving, I placed little blame on the course, a 1920s layout upgraded in 1990 by California architect Robert Muir Graves. It was more a case of the golf being too conventional and the landscape too serene to satisfy decades-old expectations. I wanted Gypsies to dance out of the trees ringing the seventh green; instead, I got a bored workman watching from the seat of an idling tractor.

Determined to steer my golf trip off the paved cart path, I drove west on Highway 116 past Petaluma, a bedroom community thick with ties to the sixties counterculture--the surviving members of the Grateful Dead live nearby, among others--and on toward my next golfing destination, Sea Ranch, on the Sonoma coast. The road wound through fragrant apple orchards and vineyards. fortunes told--tarot read the sign on a roadside cottage, a reminder that the region trafficked in sorcery as well.

I hit Highway 1 at Bodega Bay and turned up the coast at nightfall, onto one of those stretches of road that twist through hairpin turns and slide zones. My fingers were stiff from clutching the wheel by the time I reached Stewarts Point, a dozing crossroads at the southern edge of Sea Ranch. I collected my keys from a drop box and then stopped for dinner at the Sea Ranch Lodge.

Darkness reigned. From the inky parking lot to the candlelit dining room, incandescence foundered, and I found myself wondering what appeal such a primal coast could have for golfers used to posh resorts. "The place could use a moon," I muttered.

Fourteen hours later, on the sixth fairway of the Sea Ranch Golf Links, I saw the light. Don't ask me why the sixth fairway. I loved this unpretentious golf course from the moment I pulled into the parking lot and looked past the golf shop at a meadow riven with stands of twisted cypress and bishop pine. Braced by a freshening wind, I went off alone. As I walked up the second fairway, the sun broke out of the clouds. On the third hole, a woodland par three, I hit a six-iron over the heads of deer grazing at the end of the tee box.

But it was on the sixth, a wind-swept par-five dogleg left around marsh and pond, that I felt that singular contentment golfers sometimes know. I've felt it at Seminole and Ballybunion, at Pebble Beach and Spanish Bay, on obscure courses in Scotland and Australia. Terrain and light suddenly conspire with ocean air to create an almost translucent atmosphere--what Michael Murphy calls "that sense of an enormous presence suffusing the world."

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