Canyon Lakes Country Club: Another Great Robinson Design
SAN RAMON, Calif. - Canyon Lakes Country Club is a public course. Anyone can take the Bollinger Canyon exit off of route 680 in San Ramon, drive up to the clubhouse, right next to a small shopping center, and play golf. (With a reservation, of course.)
Canyon Lakes is one of the most stunningly beautiful, toughest, and well-manicured (with special planting amenities I'll mention as we cover the various holes) courses in Northern California. Canyon Lakes was ranked number four in Northern California by the NCGA. I mistakenly thought this kind of course was the exclusive purview of private clubs.
Canyon Lakes is an 18-hole bent grass course built in 1987 and designed by Ted Robinson. From the blues it is 6,379 yards, it has a 71.4 rating, a slope of 129, and a par of 71. It has no driving range, but they do provide green mats with nets to warm up on and it has a fine chipping and putting area by the first hole. Weekday green fees are $60 and weekend fees are $75, including a required cart.
On the scorecard, Canyon Lakes provides an inch and a half map of each hole right over the numbers for that hole. The maps have most of the holes appearing to be straight away which they aren't.
For instance, the 1st hole, a 340 yard, par 4, is hidden over a hill and if you don't know how far to hit the ball to the green, you might put your ball in a small lake.
Staying to the right, however, is complicated by the presence of a sandtrap, a little past half way on the right and another trap by the green. You may want to lay up between those two traps along the path. This first hole is a fair representation of what is to come.
For being only twelve years old, the plantings are not only mature, they're extensive in their numbers, placement, and variety. The fairway competes with very close cropped greens for roll. What they laughingly call the rough is about an inch high. You might think that all of this gives you an unfair advantage over wilder courses. Think again duffer. What it does is lull you into a false sense of security and then trick you over and over.
For instance, on the 2nd hole, a 550 yard, par 5, from the tee...play the slope from right to left. The look from the tee doesn't seem steep, but if your ball is to the left at all it will roll into some rough down below the tree line. Up on the right, along the cart path are maples, pine trees, and even some bay trees.
The fairway here might be as wide as 75 yards, but it narrows considerably as it gets to the green. The green is protected with octopus shaped sandtraps which could be difficult to get out of. The green itself is convoluted and multileveled. There won't be any flat greens today thanks to Mr. Robinson.
The 3rd hole is the first par 3, and it's 213 yards. At the tee there is a large birdhouse in a tree.
No sooner did we spot the birdhouse then up flew a handsome, mature, sharp-shinned hawk which likes to eat, among other things, small birds. Adjacent to the 3rd you might also notice a number of flowers and shrubs including English holly and a Washington hawthorn with white winter roses.
At the 4th hole, a 292 yard, par 4, Mr. Robinson makes his point by putting the green on a small island. In this case water and willow trees come into play twice...once when you tee off and once when you go for the green. The first pond is stunningly beautiful...something out of Jurassic Park, only it's real. If you're not too preoccupied, you might appreciate the handsome mallards swimming in the second pond. Of course, not happy with making the approach difficult, Mr. Robinson has surrounded the green on all sides with sandtraps.
This is our first sign of miniature palm trees, no more than 10 feet high, very thick at their base and sometimes strategically placed on a grass outcropping peninsula into one of those octopus sandtraps...shades of the desert.
I mistakenly thought this kind of course was the exclusive purview of private clubs.
The 7th hole, a 501 yard, par 5 is also quite steep from right to left as you play your way back down the canyon on the other side. Tee off way up to the right to avoid that roll into the water. The 7th hole also has three levels on the green.
The only serious criticism I have of the course, is the lack of signage. There are signs which say NEXT TEE with an arrow, but if you get turned around, as we did, the NEXT TEE might be in the opposite direction. After the 7th, we almost played the 2nd twice. Also, at the tees themselves there are only sometimes those nice little signs giving you the basic information, such as the number of the hole you're about to play.
These oversights are even more amazing as you enjoy the immaculate and thorough grounds work consistent through the course.
The 9th hole, a 390 yard, par 4 is almost a dogleg right up to the green which peaks at the clubhouse. If you don't make an accurate shot, it will roll down hill forever.
The drive to the 10th hole on a narrow cart overpass over Bollinger Canyon Drive is probably the reason for the required carts...it's quite a ways. I would prefer a shuttle for people who like to walk. However the lengthy trip gave me a chance to notice the variety of trees Canyon Lakes enjoys.
It's impossible to mention them all, but I notice white oak, blue oak, live oak, digger pine, knobcone pine, California buckeye, sycamore, cottonwoods, ponderosa pine, Oregon ash, black oak, California laurel, big leaf maple, sugar pine, white alder, and even some white fir.
The 11th hole, a 368 par 4, is a dogleg left over the hill. You're blind to the green until you get to the top of the hill which is at about 200 yards. The tee shot should be along the tree line on the left side of the fairway.
The 14th hole, a 523 yard par 5 dogleg left, is the signature hole. This is more trouble than I'd been in since I was a teenager. Once again you have to go over water twice. I wish I'd known to approach it as if it were two par 3s. I would have been very happy to take a bogey.
If you muff it off the tee, do not go down the bank towards the water on your right to hit the ball out. It's far too steep. Take the penalty and tee off again. I know.
On the first pretend three, hit your tee shot up to the right along the cart path. Depending upon your skill level, your second and third shots may be down hill to lay up before the small water course in the middle of the steep canyon which separates you from the green.
Your second set of three then begins on a very steep uphill shot to the green, so you may want to go down a club or two to reach the far bank. If you get ahead on strokes, you'll need them once you get to the green. It has at least three serious levels all surrounded by sandtraps except the back.... where it drops off. This hole, simply put, is outrageous!!
The 18th hole, a 433 yard, par 4 is at the pinnacle with an excellent view of the surrounds. You can see Bishop Ranch and a variety of other corporate headquarters far below just this side of route 680. At this time of year, you're surrounded by hills which have responded to the recent rain and turned a moist green in color.
When you tee off on the 18th you may want to stay to the right along the tree line and avoid the drop off to the left. It's downhill to the green which, finally, is relatively flat.
My playing buddy and I were flabbergasted by this excellent golf course hidden in the middle of San Ramon shopping centers and housing developments...which don't come into play at all.
What makes Canyon Lakes such a tough course is that for every significant positive characteristic, there is at least an equal and opposite one. For instance, you may love the fact that the fairways are cut so tight your ball will roll forever. That is until you hit the ball onto a mildly sloping fairway only to see it roll and roll and roll downhill into the real rough.
All of that water, and all of those birds are really swell until your ball commits suicide in the midst of the terrific loveliness and you are not consoled.
Russell Dicks is the head pro. Reservations can be made seven days in advance.
Canyon Lakes Country Club
640 Bollinger Canyon Way
San Ramon, CA 94583