By Gabe Meline
Sure, it's outdoors, it's scenic and players stroll at a leisurely, chosen pace. Within that pace, however, golf is a full-frontal attack on mental stability, a game of constantly fighting against oneself. It's clustered with psychological brutality; it rarely giveth, formulated instead to taketh away as much as it can wrangle. Golf, in the famous words of outdoorsman Mark Twain, is a good walk spoiled.
And yet in rare moments—a good chip-in from the deep rough, a perfect tee shot that backspins to within a foot of the hole—golf is more rewarding than anything. The perfect sound of a ball dropping finally into the cup owes as much to a million tiny little thoughts, movements, decisions and impulses as it does to divine intervention. To hear that sound 18 times in a row—assuming that all clubs remain in the bag and aren't thrown into a water hazard at the end of a round—is to know a form of Zen meditation.
Witnessing top-notch professionals achieve this feat in person, hole after hole, isn't a chance most golf fans have. Big names like Tom Kite, Tom Watson, Nick Price—those are the guys you see on television. They don't come to town and play for a $2.5 million purse at the golf course down the street. Do they?
They do. For the last five years, pros over the age of 50 like Ben Crenshaw, Hale Irwin and Fuzzy Zoeller have done just that at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship in Sonoma, where each year the top 30 golfers on the Senior Tour finish the season at the Sonoma Golf Club. This year's championship is held Oct. 30–Nov. 1, and may be one of Sonoma's last; the tournament moves to San Francisco's Harding Park in 2010.
For the fans, it couldn't get better. Crowds in recent years have been small enough for spectators to watch right at the ropes, hear players talking with caddies and even sometimes chat with the pros as they make their way from green to tee. It's not uncommon for players who've won major championships to stop and sign autographs or give pep talks to young golfers.
For the players, it's a great opportunity to bring the family along, to keep competing, to make a little prize money and to give back to the fans whose support has given them the opportunity to stay in the game. But this is no casual round of golf. As the year-end event for the Senior Tour, the playfield is aggressive; while the atmosphere is inviting, competition can get fierce.
"These guys might have a lot of snow on the roof, but still a lot of fire in the furnace," says last year's champion Jim Thorpe, who has won three out of the last five years in Sonoma. "These guys can still play. The level of competition is getting stronger and stronger."
Who to watch this year? Obviously, Kite, Watson and Price offer name recognition and solid playing, but keep an eye on Fred Funk, whose casual demeanor and goofy jokes are always entertaining. Craig Stadler, known as "the Walrus" because of his imposing frame and droopy moustache, has been famous for his blue-collar temper in the past. If you're after a potential explosion, he's the one to follow. Jay Haas and Bernhard Langer have both been prominent winning players in recent years, and underdog Bobby Wadkins, after never winning in 23 years on the PGA Tour, has finally stepped from older brother Lanny's shadow to win four hard-fought tournaments on the Senior Tour.
Returning champion Thorpe is a natural choice to watch, if for no other reason than to gawk at his bizarre swing (fellow pro Johnny Miller once quipped, "It has more moves than kung-fu"). An aggressive player on the old-school Sonoma course, he drives over tall trees and goes for greens when others play it safe and lay up in front of sand traps. Crediting his past wins in Sonoma to drinking "a lot of wine," he's always personable with the gallery.
With tickets at just $30 per day, the Schwab Cup is a great deal for golf fans, and with a wine and food festival on the Sonoma Golf Club's back lawn, even the casual spectator has something to do during downtime. But to truly appreciate what these players accomplish out on the golf course in Sonoma, it's worth either trying it out for the first time or brushing up your game beforehand. Here's a run-down of local public courses to visit before seeing in Sonoma how it's really done.
Greens fees change with the season and the day of the week; it's best to call to confirm rates. Checking course websites will yield seasonal specials and online deals. Many of these courses also have discount offers at www.golfnow.com, especially helpful for the more expensive courses—it's not uncommon to find rates up to 70 percent off.
Adobe Creek Golf Club Eighteen holes designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. A flat, somewhat links-style course with few trees; the biggest obstacle is the wind. Scenic rolling hills surround. Eighteen holes: $15–$61. The Killer Deal: Petaluma residents play for less. 1901 Frates Road, Petaluma. 707.765.3000.
Bennett Valley Golf Course A popular, municipal 18-hole where many youngsters get their start and where old-timers return again and again. Great downhill hole 6 and tricky tee shot off hole 7. Eighteen holes: $15–$39. The Killer Deal: Santa Rosa residents play for $12–$30. 3330 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.528.3673.
Fairgrounds Golf Course A simple nine-hole in the middle of a racetrack with two lakes. Great course for beginners, especially the wide hole 3. Nine holes: $6–$14. The Killer Deal: In October, unlimited play for nine-hole rate from 3pm to sundown. 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. 707.284.3520.
Foxtail Golf Club Two 18-hole courses, with the south course better for beginners; the north course is a little more challenging. Significantly lower rates for city residents. Eighteen holes: $22–$52. The Killer Deal: Juniors always $7; nine holes just $17. 100 Golf Course Drive, Rohnert Park. 707.584.7766.
Healdsburg Golf Club Built in 1921, this scenic municipal nine-hole features great views, sloped terrain and hole names like "Punch Bowl" and "Cloak and Dagger." Nine holes: $8–$18. The Killer Deal: After 11am, $17 for 18 holes; after 2pm, just $16. 927 S. Fitch Mountain Road, Healdsburg. 707.433.4275.
Links at Bodega Harbor Eighteen-hole designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. offers elevated, links-style ocean views. It's possible to make a hole-in-one on the par 4 hole 16 by driving the green, over the marsh. Eighteen holes: $45–$90. The Killer Deal: Juniors play for $15 on weekdays with paying adult. 21301 Heron Drive, Bodega Bay. 707.875.3538.
Los Arroyos Golf Club A surprising course that doesn't look like much from the road but offers challenging holes and homespun charm. Hole 5 doglegs over a creek with a tight fairway. Nine holes: $10–$14. The Killer Deal: Monday–Saturday after noon, unlimited play for the nine-hole rate. 5000 Stage Gulch Road, Sonoma. 707.938.8835.
Northwood Golf Club A historic course designed in 1928 by Alister MacKenzie, world-famous designer of Augusta National and Cypress Point. Redwood trees are plentiful; accuracy required. Nine holes: $20–$26. The Killer Deal: Unlimited play after 3:30pm for regular rate; after 5pm, $13–$16. 19400 Hwy. 116, Monte Rio. 707.865.1116.
Oakmont Golf Club An 18-hole designed with senior golfers in mind, with wide fairways and prominent cart paths. Eighteen holes: $15–$50. The Killer Deal: Go when it's hot and the greens are empty; it's easy to get on and play quickly. 7025 Oakmont Drive, Santa Rosa. 707.539.0415.
Rooster Run Golf Club A largely flat 18-hole course with challenging holes and a large lake on hole 18. Lots of wind makes it tough; good rates for Petaluma residents. Eighteen holes: $29–$58. The Killer Deal: After 4pm, 18 holes and dinner of burger and fries at the sports bar afterward for $22. 2301 E. Washington St., Petaluma. 707.778.1211.
Sea Ranch Golf Links Superb views of the sea and design by Robert Muir Graves make this 18-hole, links-style oceanside course a destination. It's a long drive to get there, so plan ahead. Eighteen holes: $30–$70. The Killer Deal: Nine holes are just $30–$40; under 17 pays half price. 49300 Hwy. 1, Sea Ranch. 707.785.2468.
Sebastopol Golf Course Built in 1960, this simple nine-hole features just one lake and few bunkers; it's the trees that'll get in the way of the ball. Good for kids and beginners. Nine holes: $15–$17. The Killer Deal: Stop off at Mom's Apple Pie afterwards. 2881 Scotts Right of Way, Sebastopol. 707.823.9852.
Sonoma County Golf Park A short nine-hole and a separate pitch 'n' putt course make this brand-new park perfect for beginners. Nearby sheep and eucalyptus trees offer nice views. Nine holes: $6–$20. The Killer Deal: Unlimited play all day for just $20. 1475 W. Sierra Ave., Cotati. 707.795.1760.
Wikiup Golf Course A varied nine-hole with the ultimate quandary on hole 2: drive over the lake or lay up short? Hole 8 is a good, open par 5 for beginners. Nine holes: $13–$16. The Killer Deal: On weekends, each round of nine after the first is just $8. 5001 Carriage Lane, Santa Rosa. 707.546.8787.
Windsor Golf Club Excellent, challenging 18-hole course, and host to many championships. Hole 8's downhill drive around the lake is a standout; the blind shot on hole 3 causes many golfers to hit an empty silo, resonating loudly throughout the course. Eighteen holes: $26–$56. The Killer Deal: Windsor residents play for less. 1340 19th Hole Drive, Windsor. 707.838.7888.
Indian Valley Golf Club A nice 18-hole course with some double greens and lots of elevation change. Don't miss the funky, old open-air elevator from hole 13 to hole 14. Geese, turkeys and deer abound. Eighteen holes: $26–$61. The Killer Deal: After 3pm, just $22. 3035 Novato Blvd., Novato. 415.897.1118.
McInnis Park Golf Center A nine-hole course with views of the bay and Mt. Tamalpais, part of a complex including mini-golf and batting cages. Approach shot on hole 4 wraps around an imposing lake. Nine holes: $17–$20. The Killer Deal: Replay for only $11–$13. 350 Smith Ranch Road, San Rafael. 415.492.1800.
Mill Valley Municipal Golf Course Built in 1919, this very inexpensive nine-hole course is a deceptively simple walk nestled within hundreds of redwood trees. Beautiful views from holes 2 and 4, but be in shape. Nine holes: $12–$19. The Killer Deal: the "back nine" is only $10; Mill Valley residents play for less. 280 Buena Vista, Mill Valley. 415.388.9982.
Peacock Gap Golf Club An 18-hole course designed by William F. Bell, who designed Torrey Pines. After a yearlong restoration, it's looking better than ever. Hanna, the "goose dog," keeps geese off the course. Eighteen holes: $50–$75. The Killer Deal: $30 after 4pm with $10 cart fee. 333 Biscayne Drive, San Rafael. 415.453.4940.
San Geronimo Golf Course A well-maintained 18-hole course with challenging holes and affordable rates. The back nine is beautiful with the elevated tee shot off hole 10, with a blind green, as a standout. Eighteen holes: $28–$64. The Killer Deal: Morning play on the back nine is only $20. 5800 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., San Geronimo. 415.488.4030.
Stone Tree Golf Club Upscale 18-hole course with extravagant clubhouse and challenging holes. A long, cart-dependent course that snakes back into the hills. Hole 12 is brutal for those with a hook or slice. Eighteen holes: $85–$120. The Killer Deal: After 2pm, $65–$85. 9 Stonetree Lane, Novato. 415.209.6090.
Chardonnay Golf Club Three nine-hole courses that wind through the vineyards. Hole 9 on the Meadows course boasts a tall rock wall in front of the small green with a fairway-wide sand trap. Eighteen holes: $34–$84. The Killer Deal: Good twilight rates. 2555 Jameson Canyon Road, American Canyon. 707.257.1900.
Eagle Vines Golf Club This 18-hole course adjacent to Chardonnay was designed by Johnny Miller. Rolling hills and oaks abound; don't miss the one-of-a-kind island green on hole 6. Eighteen holes: $50–$95. The Killer Deal: $30 after 3pm; golf cart always included with fee. 580 S. Kelly Road, Napa. 707.257.4470.
Mt. St. Helena Golf Course A nine-hole course located on the Napa County Fairgrounds. Great for beginners and juniors, but experienced players will be challenged by the narrow fairways and small greens. Nine holes: $18–$24. The Killer Deal: After 3pm, just $10–$12. 1435 N. Oak St., Calistoga. 707.942.9966.
Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park An 18-hole course designed by Jack Fleming that hugs the Napa River with 16 holes of water. Fun, inexpensive and challenging. Annika Sorenstam was seen playing here a few years back. Eighteen holes: $25–$43. The Killer Deal: Twilight rates get as low as $14; juniors play free with full paying adult after 10am. 2295 Streblow Drive, Napa. 707.255.4333.
Silverado Resort Two 18-hole courses designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. Home of Johnny Miller's championship hole-in-one right in front of his course-side home in the 1970s. Eighteen holes: $70–$160. The Killer Deal: Technically private, but sign up for email newsletter to play. 1600 Atlas Peak Road, Napa. 707.257.0200.
Vintners Golf Club Relatively new nine-hole course surrounding the California Veterans Home; playing here is just one-tenth the cost of eating at the nearby French Laundry. Great for all skill levels. Nine holes: $25–$35. The Killer Deal: Weekdays before 7am, just $12. 7901 Solano Ave., Yountville. 707.944.1992.