Challenging StoneTree Golf Club in Novato tests you and then brings you back
NOVATO, Calif. -- After a glance at the StoneTree Golf Club scorecard, it doesn't take a degree in advanced logic to figure out that this course will test the skills and patience of all golfers.
The fact that the layout measures less than 6,800 yards from the championship tees but has a slope rating of 138 is the first hint. The second is that Johnny Miller had a hand in its design. Other Miller designs in the region -- including Eagle Ridge Golf Club in Gilroy and Bridges Golf Club in San Ramon -- have earned reputations as tough tests.
StoneTree, located 20 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is not all Miller. Jim Summers, Sandy Tatum and Fred Bliss all participated in the design and routing. Miller in his prime was one of the best iron players of his era, and StoneTree reflects that influence. Precision into the green is needed, but it's a fair proposition at StoneTree. The blue tees don't hit 6,400 yards and every par 4 on the front nine is less than 400 yards.
Decent drives will leave short irons into the greens, which is where StoneTree offers much of its defense. The greens have plenty of sentinel bunkers, and the putting surfaces feature humps and slopes that effectively create distinct landing zones. Precise distance and spin are needed to set up birdie chances.
Also, the poa annua greens, common in the region, are as firm and fast as those found in many PGA Tour events. On a cool and windy day that part of the game can become extra testy.
"I'm not long but I am straight, and that helps," said Jim Williams of San Rafael. "Accuracy off the tee helps a great deal, but the greens being that firm make this course stand out."
History in the making at StoneTree Golf Club
It took years for StoneTree Golf Club to become a reality as the developer worked through the Marin County approval process. During that time, much of the land became "hands off" in terms of what could be used for the course.
The front nine, in particular, feels a little cramped; the fairways generally are wide, but this isn't a course that rewards long, erratic shots. The holes have "hard edges." Miss a fairway (like on No. 5) and there's a good chance you'll end up in a hazard. The doglegs can be confusing your first time here, but after a couple of rounds your course knowledge will chop off a handful of strokes.
StoneTree is really two courses in one. Holes 1-6 are in the flats, then 7-9 climb into the oak-covered hillsides. Holes 10-12 return to the flats before heading back to the hills and trees on Nos. 13-16. The par-3 17th and par-4 18th return to the flats.
On my round the greens were rolling in the 10-11 range on the Stimpmeter; Factor in hitting off uphill, downhill and side-hill lies and you can see why this relatively short course is a test of skill and patience.
A hole like the par-4 ninth, a curling 400-yarder, can ruin your round. The drive must be long but land left-center of the fairway, and the slight dogleg left requires a right-to-left approach shot to maximize the landing area. The green is banana-shaped with a spine in the middle, just to make chipping and putting that more memorable.
There are other "scorecard killers" on the course, like the par-5 14th (uphill and narrow) and the par-4 15th, an up-and-down 429-yarder that requires a left-to-right approach shot off a slanting fairway.
The 487-yard par-5 16th seems benign enough but a good drive is needed to set up a precise layup that must manage to stay on a sliver of fairway no more than 30 yards wide. The long and narrow green requires more precision.
StoneTree Golf Club: The verdict
From the entrance off Highway 37, to the classy clubhouse to the condition of the course (thanks to course superintendent Stacy Wallace), StoneTree is a first-rate public golf experience.
It is a course on the first try that can bedevil even the single-digit handicapper, but it leaves you with a feeling of wanting to do better. From the course conditions to the demands of the course itself, particularly in hitting precise short-iron approaches, can leave a lingering desire to return as soon as possible.