What a Year It's Been: Great Courses, Great Memories

By Ben Malone, Contributor

It's once again time for year-end awards, and because I have played a relatively small amount of courses in my day, a list of my favorite courses won't include as many as it could, were I to have the opportunity to play them.

Having said that, I do consider myself a connoisseur of public courses, and what follows is a pretty comprehensive list of some of California's best. Well, not really, but I'm writing and you're not, so read on...

1. By far, my favorite course is the Sonoma Mission Inn Golf and Country Club (formerly the Sonoma Golf Club). Everything about this course puts a smile on my face. The setting for this masterpiece is the beautiful Napa Valley, just a short drive to the north of San Francisco. The course is challenging yet fair, and it is kept in pristine condition.

I've played rounds in 110 degree heat in the middle of August, as well as in the mist of a rainy November morning. No matter the weather conditions, the course stands up to the test. Its tee boxes are kept clean, the fairways are well-manicured, and the greens are smooth. Every round I've ever played at this course has been among my most enjoyable rounds ever.

2. Next on my list has to be Eagle Crest Golf Club in Escondido, Calif. This is a course that demands nothing but the best from everyone who plays it, but in return, the course provides a beautiful setting and superb conditions.

True, there isn't much room for error at Eagle Crest, but the layout makes golfers play intelligent golf. You can't just swing hard and hope the ball goes where you want. Sometimes you have to play target golf, hitting your spots on the course and being happy with a par.

3. I have only played my next course once, but my round there left an indelible mark on my memory, enough so that I have ranked it third on my list of favorite courses. The Presidio Golf Course in San Francisco only recently became open to the public, after the military base was closed in the mid-1990s. And when the Arnold Palmer Golf Company purchased the facility, the public was finally allowed onto of the finest courses in Northern California.

Maybe the best way to describe this course is to call it "the poor man's Olympic Club" (although admittedly I have never played the Olympic ... it's just from watching it on television). Its tight fairways are lined with Redwood trees, and every hole provides a new challenge. You have to hit through elevation changes and maneuver your way around difficult greens. A round at the Presidio will make you appreciate what golf is all about.

4. San Diego's River Walk Golf Club makes my list, and even though it is a fairly wide open golf course, you can't take anything for granted when you play there. It plays long and you have to negotiate the wind that runs through Mission Valley. The greens are huge and undulating, and the fairways are wide open.

No matter how bad you're playing when you get to River Walk, the way the course's design will provide you with ample opportunity to shoot a low score. Not to imply that it's an easy score, because that's simply not the case. But there are many opportunities for birdie at River Walk, all you have to do is find them.

5. Last, and certainly not least, is Boundary Oaks Golf Course in Walnut Creek, California. It is located about an hour to the east of San Francisco, and will always hold a special place in my heart. It is the course where I learned to play; I worked through my growing pains to shoot a personal best 38 on the front nine.

It's the course where my little brother, when he was in 8th grade, got the cheapest hole-in-one in the history of golf, hitting his tee shot thin and running the ball 150 yards down the fairway, onto the green, and into the hole. I know the course like the back of my hand and will never get tired of playing it.

Honorable mention

The Meadows Del Mar Golf Club would probably have been the second course on my list if I could afford to play there. It is by far the nicest, most enjoyable course I have ever played, but I simply don't have, at this point in my life, $145 to burn on a round of golf. Here's hoping I hit the lottery, because if it were up to me, I'd buy a house on the course and play there every day.

This is an end of the year awards list. And because we will be inundated with hundreds of these year-end lists, I will throw my hat into the ring with a few more awards for you to chew on:

What I will remember most about 1999

1. Payne Stewart. News of the crash hit me hard. I totally immersed myself in the coverage and by the time the memorial services were complete, I felt like I knew the man. And I felt like I lost a friend.

2. The Ryder Cup. Rarely does a sporting event overtake me to the point of an emotional outburst. But when Justin Leonard dropped that putt, I let out a primal scream that my neighbors two or three houses down could hear. Forget the Euros' complaints about excessive celebration. The emotion that the U.S. team showed on that green is what we need MORE of in golf.

Payne Stewart's class in conceding his match to the biggest crybaby of them all, Colin Montgomerie, was indicative of everything good in golf, and Monty didn't deserve it.

3. Jean Van de Velde. You have to feel sorry for the guy. His name, already etched into the trophy as champion of the British Open, had to be replaced when he blew up on the 72nd hole. Sure, he ended up firing his caddie, and maybe he fell victim to poor grandstand placement, but there is NO excuse for the triple bogey that handed Paul Lawrie the Claret Jug.

What I would most like to forget about 1999

1. John Daly. I can't stand listening to him anymore. He's bringing down the game of golf, not because of his drinking, but because he's making such a big deal out of it. He's slowly becoming the Dennis Rodman of the PGA Tour, although I doubt he looks as good in drag as the Worm.

2. Duval vs. Woods. What was the point in the made for TV event? The media is grasping desperately at some sort of rivalry that was created on the pages of newspapers and magazines and in front of cameras that it isn't developing naturally.

They weren't hurting for cash, and they certainly didn't need to boost their egos. Here's a request to the members of the golf media across the country: BACK OFF. I'd much rather see them battle on a Sunday at Augusta than on a Monday night in Los Angeles.

4. The Dot.com Tour. Need I say more?

3. The anti-wrestling lobby. I know this has nothing to do with golf, but I had to get that off my chest.

Most overrated player

Colin Montgomerie. What's his record in the States? What's his record in the British Open? He can win all the Order of Merit awards he wants, until he comes to the U.S. and shows us something, the European fans need to stop their whining about him being the best in the world.

Most underrated player

Justin Leonard. People forget that he was the third member of the playoff in the British Open this year. And yes, maybe he stunk up the first few days of the Ryder Cup and had Johnny Miller telling him to go home and watch on TV, but his Sunday performance reassured golf fans that he is indeed one of the true superstars in the sport. Look for big things out of him in 2000.

What I'd like to see more of in 2000

Bill Murray. Gunga galunga. Gunga la gunga.

What I'd like to see less of in 2000

Dick Enberg. He's preventing golf from moving out of its status as an old man's recreational activity and into its rightful place as a full-blown spectator sport. His cheesy, over-the-top tournament wrap-ups make me want to swallow a tee sideways.

Ben Malone, Contributor

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