Unless you're the golfing equivalent of a wino, the game isn't the first thing that leaps to mind upon hearing the words "Napa" or "Sonoma." These adjacent counties, about fifty miles north of San Francisco, are better known for the works of Robert Mondavi than those of Robert Trent Jones. Hundreds of wineries call this home, from E&J Gallo and Kendall-Jackson to Francis Ford Coppola's Niebaum-Coppola and Silverado Vineyards, owned by Walt Disney's daughter Diane.
But the area now transcends grape growing. It is for many America's answer to the south of France—the home of the Good Life. The fruits (and vegetables) of the California cuisine revolution, emphasizing fresh local ingredients, are on full display. Five-star resorts vie with delightful B&Bs; elegant spas showcase the abundant natural hot springs. The area's remarkable geography—mountain ranges, craggy coastline, imperial redwood forests—affords a vast menu of activities to wear out almost any type of outdoor enthusiast. This includes golfers, and thanks in part to several courses flowing through vineyards heavy with the coming season's harvest, never has searching for a lost ball been so pleasurable.
Golf was slow to arrive, but the prosperity brought by the explosion in American wine consumption beginning in the 1960s and the subsequent flood of vacationers here who also played golf transformed the region: Developers eventually doubled the number of area courses.
SILVERADO COUNTRY CLUB & RESORT, SOUTH
1600 Atlas Peak Road, Napa; 800-362-4727, silveradoresort.com. Yardage: 6,685. Par: 72. Slope: 131. Architect: Robert Trent Jones Jr., 1967. Greens Fees: $150-$170. T&L Golf Rating: ****
A former Champions Tour stop, the South is shorter than the North but prettier and a better test of placement and nerve. The smallish contoured greens are deceptive, and the fairways can be tight. Water toughens several holes, especially the 569-yard eleventh. It's unusual for a signature hole to rank the easiest, but the 185-yard fifteenth, with a lovely pond and a curtain of brilliant white and pink flowering oleanders surrounding the green, is one of the most spectacular in the region.
SONOMA GOLF CLUB
17700 Arnold Drive, Sonoma; 707-996-0300, fairmont.com/sonoma. Yardage: 7,087. Par: 72. Slope: 132. Architects: Sam Whiting and Willie Watson, 1928; Robert Muir Graves, 1991. Greens Fees: $110-$150. T&L Golf Rating: ****
Designed by the same duo who fashioned the Olympic Club's famous Lake course, this is the region's most visually compelling layout; only guests at the nearby Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa have access to this otherwise private course. Set in the Valley of the Moon with views of the Mayacamas Mountains, the fairways sit naturally on the graceful undulations of the landscape, and the obstacles—three lakes, stands of redwood, oak and eucalyptus, and more than seventy Rorschach blot-like bunkers—are eye-catching as well. There is also more than enough challenge to be had. From the tips, approaches require fairway woods and long irons, and the well-guarded, often multitiered greens have enough deception to mislead Brad Faxon.
CHARDONNAY GOLF CLUB, SHAKESPEARE
2555 Jameson Canyon Road, Napa; 707-257-8950, chardonnaygolfclub.com. Yardage: 7,001. Par: 72. Slope: 138. Architects: Johnny Miller and Jack Barry, 1992. Greens Fees: $100-$130. T&L Golf Rating: ***1/2
A U.S. Open qualifier host (and ostensibly private but with play available through almost all Napa Valley lodging), Shakespeare is surrounded by acres of vineyards planted with chardonnay, merlot and pinot noir, and the design enhances its splendid setting. Both driver and long irons get a workout, gaping traps (sometimes pocked with small islands of fescue) lurk alongside most fairways, and the pure greens often sport two and even three levels, making two-putts a worthy goal. The ninety-degree-dogleg par-five seventh around an imposing lake will tempt bombers to cut the watery corner, while the nerve-racking par-three thirteenth, playing downhill to an island green, is worth several photos. Last but not least is the nineteenth hole, which is not a wine bar but a seventy-yard par-three folly dubbed "Much Ado About Nothing."
CHARDONNAY GOLF CLUB, VINEYARDS
2555 Jameson Canyon Road, Napa; 707-257-8950, chardonnaygolfclub.com. Yardage: 6,816. Par: 72. Slope: 129. Architects: Johnny Miller and Jack Barry, 1992. Greens Fees: $40-$95. T&L Golf Rating: ***1/2
This fetching, busy layout crisscrosses the nearly ever present Fagan's Creek and traverses the local hills. The panorama from the elevated tee on the par-three fourteenth stretches for miles across the valley floor and the foothills beyond; the shot, all carry to an island green surrounded by vineyards, is not only exacting but also tough to judge. Snaking around three yawning bunkers, the three-tiered fourth green is one of the biggest (22,000 square feet) and most unusually shaped anywhere. Like the Shakespeare, Vineyards is a virtual wild-game sanctuary, with egrets and herons poking around in shallow waters, massive hares galloping down fairways, and hawks gliding purposefully overhead.
SILVERADO COUNTRY CLUB & RESORT, NORTH
1600 Atlas Peak Road, Napa; 800-362-4727, silveradoresort.com. Yardage: 6,900. Par: 72. Slope: 134. Architect: Robert Trent Jones Jr., 1967. Greens Fees: $150-$170. T&L Golf Rating: ***1/2
Rated tougher than the South for its length from the back tees, the North used to be a PGA Tour stop and is a favorite of those who like to let out the shaft a bit. The fairways are flat and commodious; should you stray into the rough, there are often openings to the green through the redwoods, firs and oaks. The greens are fast and true, and every bunker has recently been returned to its original position as part of a $4 million general renovation that was completed last winter.
THE LINKS AT BODEGA HARBOUR
21301 Heron Drive, Bodega Bay; 707-875-3538, bodegaharbourgolf.com. Yardage: 6,253. Par: 70. Slope: 127. Architect: Robert Trent Jones Jr., 1977. Greens Fees: $50-$80. T&L Golf Rating: ***
The sights alone are worth the trip. Every hole enjoys a view of the Pacific, seaside marshes or Bodega Bay (site of Hitchcock's The Birds). The course plays longer than the card, with holes climbing mounded fairways on the front nine, then descending on the back but often with hurting ocean breezes. Miss the target and you could be searching for your ball in someone's backyard or a nest of gnarly coastal grasses.
OAKMONT GOLF CLUB, WEST
7025 Oakmont Drive, Santa Rosa; 707-539-0415, oakmontgc.com. Yardage: 6,379. Par: 72. Slope: 124. Architect: Ted Robinson, 1963. Greens Fees: $32-$47. T&L Golf Rating: ***
This is an ideal place for the family outing. The Valley of the Moon setting is sublime and the well-tended course none-too-taxing for its lack of length, generous and flat fairways, close-cropped rough, and traps often set well off the greens. Nonetheless, golfers don't get a free pass. Creeks run alongside or across half the holes, often feeding into or out of one of the eight lakes here. The seventeenth is postcard pretty, with a shimmering lake lining the right side. Oaks stand guard throughout, sometimes in the fairway itself, making placement key.