Must-play courses in Northern California

July 30, 2013

Between the iconic tourist stops, memorable scenery in both sun and fog, Giants games and some of the best wine and food in the world, golf is rarely a priority in Northern California.

But it should be. The region produced major championship winners Johnny Miller, Ken Venturi, George Archer and Juli Inkster and has hosted four U.S. Opens.

From the Pacific Coast to Lake Tahoe, the area has enough quality layouts that you should try and squeeze in at least 18 holes before the next tasting or photo opp.

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Must-Play Courses
CordeValle (, 408-695-4500, $125-$295)
Ranked No. 8 on Golf Magazine’s Best Public Courses in the state, this beautiful 1999 Robert Trent Jones Jr. design has hosted a PGA Tour event for the past three years and does so again this October.

Located 45 minutes south of the San Jose airport, the course is open to resort guests only and sits in a valley bordered by the Santa Cruz Mountains. A winery runs along the left side of the par-5 sixth, while the downhill par-4 17th offers memorable views of the rolling landscape.

Check with the resort for golf package rates, especially during the high season from April through October.

TPC Harding Park (, 415-664-4690, $155-$175)
Long beloved as host of the annual San Francisco City Championship, this layout was given new life in 2004 with an extensive and much needed renovation spurred by being named a venue for multiple Tour events.

The latter started in 2005 with the WGC American Express Championship (won by Tiger Woods) and continues this November with the Champions Tour season-ending Schwab Cup.

After that event concludes, all 18 greens are expected to be regrassed, with temporary greens in use until that work is finished (expected by next April).

New green fees that will go into effect during the project are expected to be announced this summer.

What will remain unchanged is an impressive stretch of holes from the 13th through the 18th, each with views of Lake Merced (and from the 14th tee, a glimpse of the famed Olympic Club’s distinctive clubhouse to the west). A rare forced carry off the tee comes on the dogleg left closing hole, which bends around the lake for 400 yards before finishing across from the two-story clubhouse.

Saddle Creek (, 209-785-3700, $59-$105)
This 1996 Carter Morrish design is located in the Sierra Foothills, two hours east of the Bay Area. Water is in play on more than half of the holes on the 6,826-yard layout. Accommodations are available in both a lodge and individual bungalows (one- and two-bedrooms), all within walking distance of the course, which is ranked 18th on Golf Magazine’s Best Public Courses in California.

Old Greenwood (, 530-550-7010, $100-$160)
This Jack Nicklaus design 30 minutes southwest of Reno and just north of Lake Tahoe is actually a walkable 18 despite being in the mountains.

Fairly flat overall, the front side may just have the better holes, including the par-5 sixth, a risk/reward situation thanks to a lake coming into play on approach shots. Ranked 19th on Golf Magazine’s Best Public Courses in California, Old Greenwood also has two-, three- and four-bedroom accommodations overlooking the front nine.

Package deals are available with Gray’s Crossing, a nearby Peter Jacobsen design that is tighter off the tee and has flatter greens than Old Greenwood.

Coyote Moon (, 530-587-0886, $95-$149)
If you have never experienced a true mountain golf layout, this is a great introduction. No homes are on this well-maintained layout 12 miles north of Lake Tahoe.

Opened in 2000, the Brad Bell design includes the 13th, a 200-yard par 3 that drops 80 feet from tee to green. Granite outcroppings and long-range views are part of the scenery, as is plenty of nature and wildlife. The playing season here usually lasts from mid-May through late October.

BOOK TEE TIMES: Millions of Rounds at Your Finger Tips

Best of the Rest
Darkhorse Golf Club (, 530-269-7900, $49-$69)
This Keith Foster design turned 10 last year, and its numerous elevation changes remain the prime challenge. Located in Auburn — 45 minutes north of Sacramento and twice that far from the Bay Area — the par 72 layout is capped by a risk/reward 18th hole, with water up the entire left side and in front of the green. The club also posts the daily green speed (usually averaging around 10) on its website.

Silverado, North Course (, 707-257-5460, $99-$169)
This former PGA and Champions Tour stop in Napa had lost much of its luster in the past decade, but a new ownership group, which includes Johnny Miller, took over in 2010 and is making impressive changes.

Miller, who lived for a few years in a home near the 11th hole, transformed the North Course magnificently in 2011 by removing trees, reshaping fairways and renovating bunkers. It’s a subtle yet superb effort.

Plans call for the adjacent South Course to be renovated in the future. One catch: to play you have to stay at the resort (made up of 435 condos adjacent to the course). But you’ll be in the heart of wine country, so it’s worth spending few days.

Presidio (, 415-561-4661, $110-$145)
Built on a former military base, this 6,477-yard layout, crisscrosses hilly terrain with unending ups and downs that can be exhausting.

The back nine (with three par 5s) is significantly harder than the front side, although each has a cool, downhill par 3 (the 93-yard fourth and 132-yard 15th). Often damp conditions create a grueling test for high handicappers not finding fairways, but the course is in better shape than in years past.

If you want a good workout, carry your own bag. If not, pay the extra $15 for a cart.

Best Bargain
It’s not easy to spell or pronounce, but Callippe Preserve (925-426-6666, is easy on the wallet.

Situated in the East Bay town of Pleasanton, this 2005 Brian Costello-designed, municipally owned layout is pronounced “Kuh-LIPP-ay,” and is named for the Callippe Silverspot Butterfly, an endangered species indigenous to the region.

Routed along ridges and hills, with a front nine hewn from a valley and a back nine that moves through higher ground, the premium here is on shotmaking, not length.

The back tees measure just 6,748 yards, but out-of-play environmentally sensitive areas can wreak havoc on wayward shots, as do native oaks, 59 bunkers and the near-constant presence of Happy Valley Creek.

Most memorable is the downhill 163-yard, par-3 13th, which boasts a camera-ready view of towering Mt. Diablo. Strong legs can walk Callippe during the week for $45 and the most riders will pay on the weekend is $80. Non-resident Twilight rates start at $29. If you’re anywhere near San Francisco, San Jose or Oakland and you’re spreading your wings looking for invigorating, affordable golf, drop down at Callippe Preserve.

Worth The Money
For its first 10 or 12 years, Half Moon Bay’s Ocean course (, 650-726-1800), 23 miles south of the San Francisco Airport, was priced too high compared to what it delivered.

In the past four years, that’s all changed.

Now it’s worth the $189 bucks to play on the weekend in prime time-though it’s considerably less during the week, and is under $100 at Twilight, after 3 p.m.

In the old days, the course played as soft and wet as any other regular NorCal course. Today, the Arthur Hills design plays firm and fast, like a classic links.

Green surrounds have been shaved and sanded, providing more ground game options. They’ve cut back the fairway rough, which cuts down on bad lies and ball searching time, thus speeding up play.

Brownish, irregular fescues are sprouting, lending more British Open ambiance to the proceedings. Admittedly, the front nine will always be cramped for some tastes, but on fog-free days, you get nice views of the ocean, especially on the spectacular par-4 16th and par-3 17th, which scoot along the cliff edge above the Pacific, with the handsome Ritz-Carlton in the backdrop.

At long last, this special occasion course is truly special.

Premier Resort
CordeValle (, 408-695-4500)
This 45-room boutique hotel located 45 minutes south of San Jose is a Golf Magazine Gold Medal Premier Resort. A variety of upscale accommodation options, most with course views, were upgraded last year. The atmosphere of low-key luxury is hard to beat, as is the spa, onsite winery and three dining options.