Mare Island Golf Club: Your Ship Has Come In

By John Kensington, Contributor

MARE ISLAND, CA- The wholesale closure of hundreds of U.S. military bases has been news on the national scene for the better part of two decades. Plans for the clean-up of toxic residue (the unfortunate legacy of military usage), as well as the hoped-for privatization of some prime pieces of American real estate, have been progressing with varying degrees of success since then.

One of the under-reported aftermaths of the movement of these bases from federal to private hands has been the initial civilian access to golf courses formerly reserved for members of the armed forces.

In California, golf facilities such as Bayonet and Blackhorse at Fort Ord (near Monterey) are prime examples of this trend. Golfers may now add to this list a course that has been open to the public for some time, but which has only recently undergone a face lift and expansion which makes it worthy of attention: Mare Island Golf Club.

Located on the western edge of Vallejo, CA, the Mare Island Navy Yard was once the largest single industrial plant west of the Mississippi. In 101 years of shipbuilding, 512 vessels, both great and obscure, launched from here, including the destroyer USS Ward, which was built in a still-unbroken record time of 17 1/2 days. For years, Mare Island was responsible for the maintenance of the entire Pacific fleet.

Mare Island ceased operations in 1993, but some vestiges of security remain: civilians must still pass through a gated checkpoint to enter the property. Upon driving through the slumbering shipyard, past cavernous, dormant industrial sites, one can still hear the dead-leaf echoes of activity. It's easy to imagine what Mare Island must have been like in its heyday, when 46,000 people populated the tiny islet.

These days, about that number of rounds are played yearly at Mare Island Golf Club. Some area golfers may recall playing Mare Island in years past, when it was only a nine-hole facility, and course conditioning could charitably be described as substandard. Those players owe themselves a second trip.

The Course

The changes made at Mare Island will not be instantly apparent to the uninitiated. The simple charms of the clubhouse (originally constructed in 1936 as a time signal station, then remodeled for the golf course's use in '61), remain the same. The green fees are also blissfully behind the times. The max rate for a weekend round is $55, and as little as twenty-five bucks is charged for an weekday afternoon circuit.

The first hole is also as much of a challenge as it ever was. The fairway tumbles vertically about sixty feet from the tee to a landing area that preceeds a sharp dogleg right. Many a round has gotten off to a sour note with a banana ball into the driving range, or with an approach that is stymied by a stand of eucalyptus and cypress trees short and right of the green.

Rather quickly, however, golfers will notice the first major improvement at Mare Island Golf Club. The conditioning of the course, long a sore spot amongst area golfers, has improved tremendously. The fairways, once riddled with hardpan, are now lush. The poa annua greens, once as bumpy as a high-speed chase through a trailer park, now roll smooth and true.

First timers at Mare Island G.C. will no doubt be amazed by the miniscule size of the greens found on several of the opening holes. Get used to it. There are more "pie plates" on this course than at the average county fair. Most players will likely hit only a few greens in regulation here, but the good news is that if your iron play is sharp, you should be close enough to the pin for a few reasonable runs at birdie.

The new holes start at nine, and are artfully interspersed amongst the original layout. The design firm of Nelson & Haworth, authors of such great courses as Mauna Lani in Hawaii, handled the addition.

The new nine at Mare Island Golf Club was made possible with the recent clean-up of land previously used as an ammo dump, located on the eastern border of the original nine. Several concrete bunkers, remnants of the land's former use, still dot the course, including one that is now whimsically used as a halfway house, located beyond the ninth green. Not quite "swords into plowshares", but it'll do.

Players will be impressed by the hardy elevation changes, supreme views, and complete change of character the course offers here. These newly christened holes are reminiscent of other fine courses in the area, such as Poppy Ridge and Roddy Ranch.

However, those who glanced at the scorecard and dismissed the difficulty of Mare Island Golf Club because of it's length (a mere 6,150 from the tips), have by now experienced a rude shock. You must be in full command of your shotmaking and course management skills to play well out here, or you may find your score drifting out to sea.

Key Hole No. 3 Par 3 193/164/144 yds. HCP: 5/3

It seems appropriate, on a formerly military golf course, to find a hole that gives you the sense of looking down a gunsight. Playing it, though (especially from the tips), feels more like looking down the barrel. Players must take aim through a narrow gap formed by a small rock formation lining the edge of a precipice, which offers only a tiny peek at the narrow, deep green situated some forty feet below the tee box. When the wind is against, good luck. Right is dead, left is worse.

Card Wrecker No. 10 Par 4 320/293/253 yds. HCP: 12/8

During a recent handicap mini-tour event held at Mare Island, some of the highest scores were made on this short hole. Why? Well, let's begin with the fairway, which inclines vertically some hundred feet tee to green. There's OB left, and deep native grasses right. The green is well protected by a gaping bunker short and left, and no matter how close you come to the green with your drive, there's often no holding the dance floor. This wide and shallow green falls away from the pin in all directions. Bogeys (and much worse) are plentiful at Ten.

Photo Op No. 11 Par 4 377/360/281yds. HCP: 14/4

Hopefully, the golfer will find solace from a painfully high score at Ten as they stand on the tee at Eleven. From the highest point on the golf course, drink in the glorious panorama, a vista that includes not only the western horizon, Mt. Tamalpais and the San Pablo Bay, but the heretofore obscured eastern side. Here you have a view of the entire silent shipyard, the channel where huge naval vessels once sailed, and the home-dotted hillsides beyond. Restraint is required to score well on this hole, which cascades from the tee nearly a hundred and fifty feet to the largest green on the course. A club less off the tee and two clubs less on your approach should give you a fair shot at birdie.

Course's Best No. 14 Par 4 392/368/252 yds. HCP: 2/2

When asked to name his favorite hole on the golf course, Head Professional Dennis Walker did not hesitate. "Fourteen," he said simply. "You get great views from the tee box, it's an excellent driving hole, and a difficult green complex." Indeed. You'll enjoy seeing your tee shot soar against the bright blue sky, as gravity tugs it downward some hundred feet to a generous landing area. The green represents a challenge worthy of Donald Ross, featuring a deep turtlebacked green that runs away to a lower tier. It is literally impossible to get the ball close to a front pin position on fourteen. Par is a great score here.

After your round, enjoy a cool beverage outside on the clubhouse veranda, and see if any of the golfers playing behind you can get up and down on the 18th green, a surface so small it could easily be mistaken for a placemat.

Though the past has also been "up and down" for the Mare Island Golf Club, the future looks to be smooth sailing ahead.

Reviewer's Rating

6.72 of 10 (recommended)

Course Location / Rates / Travel Information

Location: Mare Island Golf Club is located within the Mare Island shipyard. From Vallejo, take I-80 to CA-37, heading west. Exit at the Mare Island offramp. Follow Walnut Street to the north gate. Turn left onto Cedar St., then follow the signs to the course.

Rates: Mare Island Golf Club offers discounted twilight rates in addition to their normal fees. These rates commence five hours prior to sunset. Special junior and senior rates are also available. Riding carts are extra.

Mon/Thu: $35/45 (w/cart) TWI: $25/35 SEN: $25/35 JR: $20/30
Fri/Sun: $45/55 (w/cart) TWI: $35/45 SEN: $45/55 JR: $25/35

Travel Information:

Closest Airport: Oakland Int'l (OAK) 43.4 mi.

Hotel Recommendation

Best Western Marine World Inn (707) 554-9655 1596 Fairgrounds Dr, Vallejo, CA
This spacious and comfortable hotel is a short drive from the course, and is also a short walk from the Six Flags Marine World theme park. Free shuttles are provided to the park, and packages that include admission are available. Golfers with young families will find a round at Mare Island and a night at Marine World to be a pleasant combination. Complimentary continental breakfast provided.
Rates: $69-129.00/nt WEB:

Stay/Play Packages: Currently none available.


Mare Island Golf Club
1800 Club Drive
Mare Island, CA 94592
(707) 562-4653

John Kensington, Contributor

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