Golf in Napa and Sonoma, California

Sonoma Golf Club
John & Jeannine Henebry
Sonoma Golf Club, hole 7
When a professional golf tour comes to your home course, looks over every last blade of grass, then awards you its season-ending championship, you know you've got a winner.

Such was the case at Sonoma Golf Club, in the heart of northern California's wine country. The course will host the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, the season-ending Champions Tour event, October 23-26. And while vineyards far outnumber golf courses in this region -- winemaking in California is a multibillion dollar industry -- there is a handful of solid tracks that provide a memorable diversion from the more serious business of comparing the latest chardonnay with a vintage merlot.

Sonoma is a Sam Whiting-Willie Watson creation that dates to 1928. While architect Robert Muir Graves did some remodeling here in 1991, the character of the course, which has hosted U.S. Open local qualifying and various minitour events, has remained the same. The Champions Tour finale is the perfect 75th anniversary gift for the Sonoma course (7,087 yards, par 72), described by Sam Snead as the best-designed course he'd ever seen. As a bonus, the course is affiliated with Sonoma Mission Inn Resort, well known for its luxurious spa treatments. Check out the packages offered by the resort since you have to be a guest to play the course.

The front nine winds around the perimeter of the property, while the back nine moves to the interior land. On the front, holes 3 through 7 stand out as good tests. Snead was especially fond of the 7th. With water on the right, bunkers left and right of the green, and some 220 yards between you and the hole, it's easy to see why. In fact, except for the 142-yard 17th, all of the par 3s at Sonoma play to more than 200 yards from the tips.

The back nine opens with the two best holes on the course. The 425-yard 10th is a dogleg-left that requires a drive over water, followed by an approach to a small green that slopes hard to the left. At 359 yards, the 11th is a classic short par 4, with a fairway bunker in play on the right. The uphill approach shot to a fairly deep but not very wide putting surface is all about club selection.

If you're still not convinced about Sonoma Golf Club, check out the course this fall on The Golf Channel, which is broadcasting all four rounds of the tournament.

The loss of a Champions Tour event after 13 years of hosting one has actually benefited the Silverado Resort in Napa. The 1,200-acre property, which features two courses designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., hosted an event each year from 1989 to 2002. Prior to that, it was home to the PGA Tour's Kaiser International and Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic.

But when sponsorship fell through after last year's Champions Tour event, Silverado's owners saw it as a chance to work on the course -- all 36 holes. Through a $4 million renovation they rebuilt greenside bunkers, leveled tee boxes and installed new turf throughout, all reinforced by a new irrigation system. Course conditions now are vastly better than those played under during the tournament years.

The North Course (6,900 yards, par 72) is the more traditional and longer of the two, and is also the more challenging. There's no easy start here, whether it's on the 436-yard opener, or on the 418-yard 10th. Bring your driver -- you'll use it often.

The South Course (6,685 yards, par 72), which hosted the Champions Tour event due mainly to clubhouse proximity, demands more accuracy than its sibling, thanks to tighter fairways. Hillier terrain often leaves you with uneven lies and means frequent changes in elevation.

While these courses fit well with the terrain and conditions have improved, the green fee for 18 holes ($150 for resort guests, $170 for the public) is far too high. For a better value, take advantage of a package offered by the resort, starting at $320 per night, based on double occupancy, including green fee and accommodations.

The ultimate wine country golf experience can be found at the aptly named Chardonnay Golf Club, in the southern end of Napa Valley. Here you play over and around -- but hopefully not through -- working vineyards. This former ranchland site is home to a pair of fine 18-hole layouts, originally designed in the late 1980s by Algie Pulle but reworked by Jack Barry with assistance from Johnny Miller.

The 6,816-yard, par-72 Vineyards Course is open to the public, while the 7,001-yard, par-72 Shakespeare layout caters to members but allows limited public play. The Vineyards is best known for the enormous size and slope of its greens. You won't find many larger than the one on the 176-yard 4th, a 22,000-square-foot monster made up of four tiers. One of the smallest greens comes on the opening hole, a 446-yard downhill dogleg-right that tumbles to a long but narrow putting surface. From the tee, take in a view of the surrounding Jamieson Canyon and even San Pablo Bay on a clear day.

Befitting a members course, the Shakespeare layout is a bit more lush and manicured, with a stretch of holes on the back side as good as any in the area. It starts with the 11th, at 355 yards the shortest par 4 on the course, followed by the 450-yard, par-4 12th, a hulking dogleg-left. The 163-yard 13th plays to an intimidating island green from an elevated tee. Finally, the 392-yard 14th tempts you off the tee to carry one of the vineyards down the left side, but the safer option is out to the right.

Just a few minutes north of Chardonnay is the only city-owned layout in Napa. Opened in 1968, Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park (6,704 yards, par 72) was designed by Bob Baldock and Jack Fleming. Over the past two years, architect Gary Linn has enhanced the course, creating new bunkers and improving tee complexes but retaining the original routing.

Like most municipal tracks, Napa handles plenty of golfers -- approximately 55,000 rounds a year. It also hosts the city championship each September, and while conditions are not pristine, the turf situation has improved. Water is in play on 16 holes, but you only have to carry it twice -- on the 486-yard, par-5 8th and the 527-yard, dogleg-left 18th.
Quick Facts
Sonoma Golf Club
707-996-0300 $110-$150
www.sonomamissioninn.com

Silverado Resort
800-532-0500 $150-$170
www.silveradoresort.com

Chardonnay Golf Club
707-257-1900 $70-$130
www.chardonnaygolfclub.com

Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park
707-255-4333 $31-$41
www.playnapa.com

Fountaingrove Golf & Athletic Club
707-579-4653 Call for rates
www.fountaingrovegolf.com

Vintner's Golf Club
707-944-1992 $24-$38
www.vintnersgolfclub.com

For more information, go to www.sonoma.com, www.napavalley.com or www.winecountry.com.

The front nine is a bit easier than the back, but if you can get through the first four holes (a quartet that includes three of the top seven handicap holes) in even par, you're doing well. Overall, this is a solid layout, and best of all, it's very walkable.

Heading north in Sonoma County, you'll come to the town of Santa Rosa and Fountaingrove Golf & Athletic Club (6,940 yards, par 72). This design by California native Ted Robinson opened in 1985, but a group of golfers bought the facility last year and plans to make it a private club. Fortunately, it will remain available to guests of the 124-room Fountainrove Inn, a mile down the road. The inn offers golf packages starting at $119 per person, which includes accommodations, breakfast and a round of golf.

Robinson returned in 1996 to execute a yearlong renovation after new ownership took over, and he made a good course better. The layout cuts through secluded glens and hillsides, with wild turkeys and deer looking on. Adding to the high-end feel is another designer's dream -- enough land to support a routing in which very few holes parallel each other. Good-sized greens are well protected by deep bunkers, and elevation changes often dictate club selection.

If your wine-tasting schedule leaves you with less time for golf, stop by nine-hole Vintner's Golf Club (2,819 yards, par 34) in Yountville. This fun layout opened four years ago and can be had for less than $25 on weekdays. This is not an executive course -- its longest hole is 530 yards and the greens are pretty slick. The course sits just down the street from the Domaine Chandon vineyard and its selection of sparkling wines.

Of course, you don't want to miss California wine country's famous vineyards. But practice moderation: Mix a little golf with your wine, and you'll fall for this beautiful corner of the country.

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