American writer Mark Twain once described golf as a “good walk spoiled.” Considering that most courses require strolling 3 to 6 miles (depending on course length or how much you wander searching for lost balls) however, the game contributes rewarding benefits to one’s physical and mental wellbeing — regardless of the final number on the scorecard.
In recent years, golf has seen a resurgence that can be largely attributed to the pandemic, which has brought an influx of newcomers — juniors to seniors — to the game. After all, the fairways and greens provided a socially distanced haven for outdoor activity that spurred a high demand for tee times. Whether the trend lasts as the pandemic subsides remains to be seen, but for now, demand remains strong. Fortunately for rookie and veteran players alike, the Bay Area is home to a bumper-crop of public golf courses offering a broad range of topography, difficulty and value. Here’s where to play.
Peacock Gap Golf Club (1960) was designed by William F. Bell and later renovated (in the early 2000s) by Forrest Richardson, who blended the classic Bell bunker style with innovative green contours and new holes, including risk-reward par 4s, reachable par 5s and a par 3 that plays over a pond to a two-level putting surface. This Marin County favorite is a walkable 6,261-yard layout offering golfers a solid variety of shot-making. Also on-site are state-of-the-art practice facilities and cutting-edge instruction.
As a one-time host to several PGA Ben Hogan Tour and Nike Tour (now Korn Ferry Tour) tournaments, Windsor Golf Course (1989) in Sonoma wine country is a challenging 6,599-yard layout, uncluttered by the neighboring homes, that meanders through a gently rolling landscape with a multitude of visual treats, including the club’s signature Silo, native oaks and strategically-placed ponds. Treat yourself to a pre- or post-round meal at Charlie’s Restaurant.
Adjacent to the Russian River in Sonoma County, Northwood Golf Course (1928) was designed by famed architect Alister MacKenzie (Meadow Club, Cypress Point, Augusta National) in collaboration with Robert Hunter as a creation for the exclusive Bohemian Club. Long open to the public, the friendly staff is super welcoming at this picturesque and challenging 2,893-yard nine-hole intimate layout with narrow fairways weaving throughout strands of towering redwoods.
Hugging Sonoma County’s coastline with spectacular Pacific Ocean views, The Links at Bodega Harbour (back nine opened 1978/front nine opened 1987) guarantees a happier birdie experience than Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds filmed nearby. With rolling hills and undulating greens dominating this Scottish-style links designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., the front nine is demanding with strategically-placed pot bunkers, while the back nine presents wider fairways and a dramatic three-hole finish.
Searching for an authentic wine country golf experience? Chardonnay Golf Club (1986) serves up the quintessential tasting, void of any homes. Golfers will only need to avoid hitting their golf ball into the countless rows of chardonnay, merlot and pinot noir grapevines bordering the fairways. Sadly, there are no wine sampling stations available on the 18-hole, 6,773-yard course, but the layout does feature a unique blend of six par 5s, six par 4s and six par 3s.
The combination of Napa Valley’s renowned wine country and 36 golf holes at the iconic Silverado Resort & Spa exemplify the consummate pairing. World Golf Hall of Fame member Johnny Miller redesigned two championship courses, each offering an abundance of water and large greens. The 7,166-yard North Course, which hosts the annual PGA TOUR Fortinet Championship, is longer and more straightforward than the hillier 6,612-yard South Course with less margin for error. Whichever is played, don’t miss the acclaimed “burger dog” available at the snack shack.
Surrounded by Monterey Cypress trees and Lake Merced, TPC Harding Park (1925) is where San Francisco-born golf legends Johnny Miller, Ken Venturi and George Archer honed their skills. Following a $16 million restoration project in 2002–03, the 6,845-yard treasure has hosted multiple professional tournaments, including the Presidents Cup (2005) and the 2020 PGA Championship. The Fleming 9 course (par 30, 2,165 yards) was added in 1961 in the interior of the 18-hole layout and serves as home base for the First Tee of San Francisco.
Overlooking the gateway to San Francisco Bay, Presidio Golf Course (1895) is the second oldest golf course west of the Mississippi River. Before transitioning to a public course in 1995, play was restricted to military officers and the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth and Dwight Eisenhower. The deceptively long 6,481-yard hilly layout within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area works its way around eucalyptus and Monterey pine trees and is a mission worth a shot.
Half Moon Bay
Along the Pacific Coast 30 minutes from San Francisco or Silicon Valley, two 18-hole courses create bookends to The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay. The Arnold Palmer/Francis Duane-designed 7,001-yard Old Course (1973) has a parkland feel with a premium on strategy over distance and a postcard 18th-hole finish along the coastal bluff. The 6,854-yard links-style Ocean Course (1997) is an Arthur Hills’-crafted layout with wide-open fairways and “Big Blue” views from nearly every hole. A sunset finish on either course is highlighted by the sounds of traditional Scottish bagpipes.
Golf “down under” on the island city of Alameda at the Bay Area’s only Australian sandbelt-style course. After a dramatic restoration (2018) to the South Course by famed architect Rees Jones, the minimalist 6,874-yard layout plays fast and firm with the option to strike the ball to the hole by air or ground. The property, five minutes from Oakland International Airport, is also home to the North Course (front nine opened October 2021; back nine under renovation), plus the award-winning Mif Albright par-3 course.
Greg “The Shark” Norman carved an 18-hole masterpiece through acres of century-old grapevines and rolling hills in the scenic Livermore Valley wine country. The course at Wente Vineyards (1998), 50 minutes east of San Francisco, provides eye-candy panoramas to compliment a 7,181-yard layout that once challenged (2006–08) the PGA Tour’s Nationwide Tour (now Korn Ferry Tour). The uphill cart ride from the ninth to the 10th hole treats golfers to a taste of San Francisco’s world-famous crooked Lombard St.
Less than an hour’s drive north from Monterey Peninsula’s golf mecca, Pasatiempo Golf Course (1929) was designed by renowned Scottish architect Alister MacKenzie, who considered this layout his favorite 18-hole creation and where his American home still borders the sixth fairway. Consistently ranked among America’s top public golf courses, this historic 6,495-yard championship venue is a must-play on the Bay Area’s golf bucket list.
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Robert Kaufman is an international golf and travel writer/photographer based in Marin County. His work has appeared in magazines such as PGA, NCGA, Western Art & Architecture, GOLF (China), Great Golf (UK), and The Cut (New Zealand). PictureParfect.com