The Links at Bodega Harbour in Bodega Bay offers a true Scottish golf experience
BODEGA BAY, Calif. -- There are certain courses out there that just aren't the same unless played under their stereotypical conditions. You can't get the true Scottish links experience without playing at least once in a sideways rain. True desert layouts aren't true desert layouts without a dry heat in the high 90s or low 100s.
The same holds true for the Links at Bodega Harbour, an unheralded beauty located on northern California's Sonoma Coast. While the layout holds up under the best of conditions, the seaside links phenomenon of the place is somehow best felt under a gray sky, a little fog and the typically prevailing breeze.
For years Bodega Harbour has been well respected while not widely recognized, and remains a haven for the bulk of golfers who yearn for the majesty of a seaside links but can't afford the British Isles or Pebble Beach. And because it's a reasonable drive from the Bay and Sacramento areas, it is much more accessible.
Nine holes of the Robert Trent Jones II design -- now the back nine -- were opened in 1976, with another nine coming 10 years later. That gap is evident in the variance of the two nines, as the newer front has more pronounced undulations on the fairways and greens. The swarm of hills, slopes, mounds, hollows, knolls, rises and falls do much to add a Scottish element to the course. They also bump up the challenge of the layout, along with the frequent gusts blowing off the coast.
"It's kind of a hidden gem or a well-kept secret," Head Professional Bob Caldwell says. "It's just a nice getaway. You're on the coast and you have beautiful views and it's just wonderful."
Bodega's resemblance to Scotland isn't Bodega Harbour's only nod to traditional golf. At a modest 6,253 yards from the back tees, the layout refreshingly offers a stout challenge without gargantuan length. Instead, premiums are placed on well-placed tee shots and approaches -- around the 90 deep bunkers on the course -- and a deft putting stroke on the contoured greens. And in deference to the frequent gusts, almost every green is designed to warmly greet a bump-and-run approach.
You're first intrigued by the course on the fourth hole, a demanding par 4 that runs uphill. The drive should avoid deep bunkers that split the fairway's two levels, both of which look about as big as throw rugs when the wind picks up.
After you negotiate the blind approach to the elevated green and putt out, you climb even further uphill to the fifth tee and one of the most inspiring views on the golf course. That par 5 is a classic double-dogleg with narrow landing areas for both the drive and layup second shot (the required conservative tee shot all but negates going for the green in two).
Although the back nine is relatively flat, it is just as deliciously testing. The 13th and 14th weigh in at 418 and 442 yards, respectively, and sometimes play dead into the wind. But both are enhanced with enticing views of the marina in the distance.
The Links at Bodega Harbour's back nine
The jewels of the back nine -- and the entire course -- are the final three holes, known locally as "The Pit." The unique 303-yard 16th, a hard dogleg to the left, requires a 180-yard tee shot over the fresh water marshland to the fairway. From there, even cart-riders are required to grab their bags (pullcarts are available) and walk across the narrow bridge to the fairway. That walk through the marsh, with the ocean crashing just over the bluff on the edge of the hole, is about as spiritual as it comes on a golf course. (It's even better if your tee shot has found the fairway.)
The Links at Bodega Harbour's 17th demands another tee shot over the marshland, made even hairier by the 188 yards of carry from the back tee and the prevailing winds, which are usually in your face. Survive it, and you reunite with your cart for the 18th, nothing less than one of the best closing holes in northern California. The 461 yards on the scorecard are eased by the often-helping wind. Pull off the requisite left-to-right drive around the bunkers and marshland and you are treated to a downhill approach to the green, featuring a striking Pacific Ocean backdrop.
An even-par trip through those last three is no small feat, making "The Pit" a perfect representation of the inspiring difficulty of Bodega Harbour, especially the first time around it. Whether you survive the layout or it gets the best of you, chances are you'll be eager to battle it again -- even (or especially) under the grayest sky and the fiercest wind.
October 12, 2003