Bodega Harbour Golf Links: Pretty but Lacking Substance

By Will McCulloch, Contributor

The slogan for the Bodega Harbour Golf Links attracts golfers like a crafty namedropper. As I surfed through the course's comprehensive web site at, I wondered whether the 90-minute drive north from San Francisco would bring me to what they advertise as "the finest golfing experience, west of Scotland and north of Pebble Beach."

One thing became clear, though, as I drove through Petaluma and read the signs pointing towards Bodega Bay. This golf course isn't easy to get to from anywhere.

Located approximately 35 minutes off the highway, Bodega Harbour is an immediate reminder of golf's beloved Monterey Peninsula. Lonely beaches and rolling seaside hills surround the Robert Trent Jones, Jr. design, a fascinating landscape that seems to treasure its seclusion.

I turned on my windshield wipers for the first time all day when I pulled into the entrance of the course. Through the spaces between some of the homes that blanket the seaside links, I spied a few of the brave souls who were playing through the damp conditions and chilling winds. If you can't hack a little weather and you avoid golf in your rain gear, Bodega Harbour may not be your bag.

After checking in at the pro shop, hitting a few balls into warm-up nets, and rejecting the possibility of taking a motorized cart, I teed it up on the first hole. I was alone, without an umbrella or any sense of direction. Without the help of the usual prevailing at my back, I faced the 407-yard par-4 first hole as the drizzling rain continued. A mediocre drive into the wind left me a 3-iron into a steep, undulating green from back to front.

As I walked, or should I say hiked off the first green after an up-and-down- par, I began to understand why every other golfer in the parking lot was playing with a cart. I deliberated the difference between my golfing experience on the first four holes at Bodega Harbour and the two-mile hike I had done the week before.

The first four holes leave an immediate impression. If you stay out of the bunkers on the short par-4 second hole, hit enough club to the huge green on the 203 yard par-3 third, and have enough energy to conquer the fourth, the number one handicap hole, you've survived RJT Jr.'s ascent to the local summit. What ensues is a series of holes that provide stunning views of Bodega Head, that is if the fog and rain haven't enveloped the whole seaside.

Jones, Jr.'s bunkers at Bodega Harbour, which I managed to find numerous times, remind me of Tilinghast, with their unique shapes and penalizing faces. Unique is a word that could describe the design of this course.

While the links style, coastal element reminds me of some of golf's true gems, my experience playing the fourth and fifth holes left me yearning for traditional style golf holes. The 407-yard fourth has moguls in the fairway, and the par-5 fifth - a 496-yard downhiller with directional signs on the tee to coach you through the hole - takes you through two doglegs and over more mounds. The next two holes are par 3's.

The 155-yard sixth and the 216-yard seventh offer refreshing views and challenging putting surfaces. The greens roll wonderfully on this course. Just remember that everything breaks toward the ocean.

I caught up to a threesome on the seventh tee. Dennis, a pro shop worker at Bodega Harbour, and his two friends were enjoying their second 18 of the afternoon. Since there was another foursome ahead of them, I decided to join them for the rest of the round. I wanted to slowly soak in the place, and the rain wasn't stopping.

The eighth hole is a solid golf hole. After ripping a drive, I was left with a 6-iron into the small, perched green. Dennis reminded me that on a normal day the hole would play into the prevailing wind, making it difficult to get home in two. I managed to three-putt for my par.

Bunkering in front of the ninth green makes the 327-yard par-4 more challenging than it appears on the card. To play this golf course well, you either have to avoid the bunkers or excel in that part of your game. I made a bunch of bogeys from bunkers on the front nine and walked towards the 10th tee with a 6-over-par 41 on the front.

My playing companions assured me that the back nine was no less challenging the front. What I did know was that the back nine measured 3,233 yards from the back, a little longer than the 3,032-yard front nine. The interesting thing about Bodega Harbour is that the back nine was the original nine built in 1976, while the front nine was completed in 1987.

Almost immediately, I recognized that the back nine was strikingly different than the front. The mounding and moguls give way to flat terrain, more traditional bunkering, and discernable landing areas. There are no signs telling you how to play the holes. I was lucky to have Dennis and his buddies giving me the local knowledge.

The first two holes measure 332 and 339 yards, respectively. The 10th is one of the flatter greens on the course while the 11th and 12th greens force you to keep the ball below the hole. The 13th and 14th holes are monsters into the wind. I was lucky enough have the wind behind me and needed no more than a 7-iron on the 443-yard 14th. If the wind is in your face, two drivers might not be enough.

The par-5 15th, a 510- yard downhill hole to an elevated green, forces you to make a decision on the second shot and bunkers in the front make rolling it up impossible. But you pay your greens fee at Bodega Harbour to play the last three holes.

These seaside holes are creative, but not obnoxious. The 291-yard 16th demands that you hit a drive over 200 yards of environmentally sensitive marsh. I faced the dogleg into the wind, but most days big hitters can air out a 3-wood to the green. I hit a 7-iron way over the green at the 192-yard par-3 17th. Driver might not be enough on a windy day. Two drivers weren't enough for me on the 467-yard closing hole.

The dogleg right starts high above the water, overlooking 16 and 17, and sends you through a narrow alley way to a beachside, elevated green. I finished the day with a double-bogey 6 and thanked my playing partners for their company and guidance.

Bodega Harbour left me damp and weary. This is a more difficult golf course that the 71.9 rating and the 130 slope on the card. When it wasn't foggy, I marveled at the sights that this golf course boasts. If you're interested in playing a quality golf course for a reasonable price, Bodega is worth the trip. With a coupon from their web site, you can play the course with a cart for $35.

Normally, greens with a cart will run you $55 from Monday through Thursday with the price raised to $65 on Fridays and $85 on Saturdays. You might want to bring a little more cash, considering that players are responsible for all damage to countless neighboring houses. The houses make it a little claustrophobic at times.

I drove away from Bodega feeling like I had hit a lot of different golf shots and wondering what I really thought of Robert Trent Jones, Jr.'s design. I understood why Tom Doak, in his golf book The Confidential Guide, awarded Bodega Harbour "The Dumb Blonde" Award, describing it as "pretty but lacking substance."

Bodega Harbour is a beautiful spot, and the hundreds of residents who share the golf course with the public have a fun golf course that plays differently every day. I just think Donald Ross or Alister MacKenzie would have taken the potential of this land a little more seriously. Maybe I'm just bitter because the golf course tested me and I failed.

Bodega Harbour Golf Links
21301 Heron Drive
On the Sonoma Coast in California

Will McCulloch, Contributor

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