Eons ago, I ventured to northern California to tackle two oceanside tracks that from their photos, looked spectacular. On the ground, it was a different story. Back then, neither Bodega Harbour nor Half Moon Bay's Ocean course came close to meeting my expectations-nor did they live up to their enviable, cliff-top settings. Thanks to recent renovations, however, I'm happy to say that's all changed. Both are worth your time and money. Just bring a camera and your windshirt.
Movie buffs recognize Bodega Bay, Calif. as terror central for Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds.' By most accounts, flocks of berserk seagulls are no longer a problem, but this quaint seaside town's namesake course might have you scratching your eyes out at least for the first five holes. The longest 6,290 yards in golf opens with four consecutive uphill holes tucked snugly between homes, followed by the bizarre 5th, a unique, Z-shaped par-5 that calls for a layup drive and likely a blind second that avoids a working ranch.
Thereafter, Bodega Harbour is all great fun and thanks to its misty, breezy summer weather, foghorn blasts and stunning ocean views, it's a true touch of Old World golf an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Robert Trent Jones Jr. crafted nine holes here in 1976 and nine more in 1987, but what's new in 2009 is everything else. Significantly, Bodega added bunkers, pushing the number to more than 100, yet reconfigured them so that they're smaller, shallower and more strategically placed. Most notably, new bentgrass greens replace the old poa putting surfaces, resulting in some of the finest, fastest greens around. For pure flatstick challenge, Bodega Harbour rocks. Just mind the diving pelicans. They looked like they were auditioning for a sequel.
When I first saw photographer Joann Dost's images of Half Moon Bay's new Ocean course back in 1997, it set me to drooling in anticipation. Stark cliffsides, ocean views, treeless, linksy terrain wow! When I played it the next year, my reaction turned to "ouch!" Fog obscured vistas until round's end, the front nine was pure side-by-side hard-hat areas and the anticipated firm, links-like conditions proved a fantasy. The course played as soft and wet as any other regular NorCal course.
Which brings us to 2009. What a difference a decade makes. Hey, weather can still be a factor, and the front nine is still pretty tight, but everything else about the Ocean course and the entire Half Moon Bay experience is superb. Admittedly, the rooms, service and amenities at the on-site Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay are so good that you might enjoy the golf experience even if they forgot to insert the flagsticks that morning. Sipping a California Pinot, or perhaps a single malt, around the Ritz' fire pit and gazing out at the crashing waves, will cure whatever's ailing you.
That said, the golf now holds its own. OK, I'm not sure that the Old course, a 1973 Arnold Palmer/Frank Duane parkland design, is all that memorable, except for the all-world par-4 18th. (Of course, history's greatest wide receiver, Jerry Rice, told me he prefers the Old over the Ocean, but I'll counter that Jerry took one too many hard hits in the secondary to arrive at that conclusion.)
Nonetheless, the Arthur Hills-designed Ocean course has never looked or played better. New management has committed to making the course play firm and fast, like a classic links. Green surrounds have been shaved and sanded, providing more ground game options. Natural contouring now plays a huge role in where your ball ends up. They've also cut back fairway rough, which cuts down on bad lies and searching for balls, thus speeding up play. Brownish, irregular fescues are sprouting, lending more British Open ambiance to the proceedings. Greens are properly firm and quick. And yes the sun shone the day I played, providing for grin-inducing ocean looks throughout the round. The closing trio of holes, awash in water, cliff and hotel views, are unforgettable. At long last, this special-occasion course is truly special.
((Unlimited golf stay-and-play packages at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, 650-712-2228, ritzcarlton.com/hmb, start at $399 per person.)