Stonetree Golf Club in Novato: A North Bay course who's time has finally come
NOVATO, Calif. -- Any golf enthusiast who has driven around Marin County, an affluent province just to the north of San Francisco, would no doubt consider it to be an ideal locale for a series of great golf courses.
Unlike its growth-choked neighbors, Marin has remained largely bucolic, reveling in its varied landscape of rolling, oak-studded hills, wetlands, and lengthy shorelines along both San Pablo Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The relatively pristine nature of the area is due to years of tight growth control, and the vertiginous spiraling of land values in the past two decades.
As a consequence, the golf offerings in Marin have remained meager, as exciting new courses have sprung up in neighboring counties. By far Marin's Best course, the Meadow Club, is a very private, exclusive enclave, while the county's public tracks have lagged behind in quality and conditioning.
Little wonder then, when the planning stages of a new upscale course within the small, eastern Marin neighborhood of Black Point was announced, golfers were quick to rejoice. Their enthusiasm, however, was quickly curbed as the developers dug in for an eight-year battle over permits and environmental impact reports, fighting what seemed an insurmountable battle against the skepticism of the powers-that-be.
As these considerable legal hurdles were being cleared, fresh doubt may have been cast into the minds of eager area golfers when the design team was named. None other than Johnny Miller, who may be the most controversial golf course designer since Pete Dye, was selected to team with Fred Bliss to bring this new course to life. Miller, a World Golf Hall of Famer, has gained a reputation for designing courses as unyielding and unforgiving as his television commentary.
What few realized was that Sandy Tatum, former president of the USGA and an erstwhile course designer in his own right, was the real mastermind behind Stone Tree Golf Club. Along with longtime associate Jim Summers, Tatum's was the firm hand that guided the project to fruition. Says Head Professional Brian Soczka, "Johnny may have argued with Jim, and Jim may have argued with Fred. Nobody argued with Sandy."
The final result? Stone Tree Golf Club is the best new course to grace the North Bay in years, a track that is fair but firm, stunningly beautiful, and above all, worth the wait.
Stone Tree Golf Club: The course
Stone Tree is in reality, two golf courses in one. Ten holes, including the starting and finishing holes, are routed through a wetland area. You will find little elevation change but plenty of opportunity to lose ammo in the reedy margins of somewhat less than generous fairways. Holes seven through nine wind upwards into the oak-studded hills.
After a brief reprise to the flatlands, holes 13 through 17 take you on a circuitous journey along a ridge enveloped by the dense Black Point forest. These holes are among Stone Tree's most spectacular. Those who enjoy walking are well advised to take a cart when they play here. Long transitions and elevation changes of as much as 100 feet are to be found at Stone Tree.
Key Hole No. 2 Par 4 310/308/293 yds. HCP: 11
Disrespect this short hole at your peril. Head Professional Brian Soczka says, "It's easy to lose concentration here. Pay attention on your approach or you might be staring a double bogey in the face."
A small creek cuts across the fairway just in front of a kidney-shaped green with a middle ridge and a back shelf. Overclub here and chips are almost impossible to get close. Underclub and you're likely wet. Two also offers Stone Tree's Best view of Mt. Tamalpais.
Photo op No. 8 Par 3 175/152/138 yds. HCP: 15
A commanding view of much of the course, as well as the beautiful valley and Coastal Range beyond, is offered from both the tee and green on this gorgeous (and tough) par three. Your iron shot must carry a chasm to reach a gourd-shaped green that falls away hard to the rear and is also protected by a large bunker left. Many who successfully negotiate the abyss off the tee may still fail to make par, but all will enjoy the view.
Card Wrecker No. 9 Par 4
430/408/324 yds. HCP: 1
There is little doubt the ninth at Stone Tree deserves its ranking as the toughest hole on the course. As you stand on the elevated tee box, a large pond and wetland area dominate the landing area. A narrow chute created by a lengthy ridge on your left hides most of the fairway from view.
If you cannot hit the type of drive required here (a long draw), you're in trouble: the right side is dead from tee to green. The green is massive but still requires a pin-point approach over a huge bunker and another pond left. Make par here and you've definitely earned your snack at the turn.
Course's Best No. 15 Par 4 460/430/406 yds. HCP: 8
The late afternoon sun filtering through the Stone Trees (hardwood oaks) of this classic long downhill hole conjures a poetic alchemy. The course marshall will cheerfully tell you "it's all downhill from here", although you may well wonder if he's talking about the quality of your game after you've hit your tee shot.
Long and straight is what you need here. Stray too far left or right on this densely tree-lined hole and you're in jail. Well-struck tee shots will get plenty of extra roll, yet may not come to rest in a level lie, which makes a long-iron approach to this wide but shallow green (with hazard stakes behind) a real challenge. Fifteen takes full advantage of the natural beauty that surrounds it, and provides a pure test of your game to boot.
Stone Tree's management refers to this course as "Marin's Handcrafted Classic", reflecting not only the design's deft use of the land's natural beauty, but also the untoward care taken during construction, which was clearly necessary to deflect sneering criticism from those omnipresent environmental hawks. If those doubters required another example of how a quality golf course does not detract, yet adds to an area's natural balance, Stone Tree provides it.
"If anything," says Soczka, "this land is in sounder shape environmentally now than when we got a hold of it. Not only was tremendous care necessary to get the project completed, but we wanted to do it right. And we did."