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Northwood Golf Club in Sonoma County: An Alister MacKenzie golf fairy tale in the redwoods

Chris BaldwinBy Chris Baldwin,
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Northwood Golf Club - Tight Opening
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At Northwood Golf Club, the openings in the trees are tight and the wows loud. (Chris Baldwin/WorldGolf.com)

Northwood Golf Club is a hidden gem, set among the redwoods in Sonoma County, California. The modest nine-hole Alister MacKenzie design is as challenging as it is beautiful.

MONTE RIO, Calif. - In the shadow of long, hulking redwood trees that could overshadow almost any average-size office building - not that any office building could be built in this setting - a golfer stops for a moment on the seventh tee. He's looking to his right and staring at the little wood cabins a ways off the fairway, hugging close to those redwoods.

"I'm waiting for Hansel and Gretel," Phil Weidinger says, taking another glance at those cabins before setting up on the tee.

Weidinger owns a public relations firm in Lake Tahoe and is the president of the men's club at the famed high-end Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course. Weidinger plays golf all around the world, and it's obvious his wonder at Northwood Golf Club, a modest nine-hole course in the back roads of Sonoma County, goes far beyond any PR schtick.

It's hard not to come here and be wowed by the golf course that shares a parking lot with a barber shop and a post office.

Whether Hansel and Gretel live here or not, it's definitely a golf fairy tale. Consider that Northwood is an Alister MacKenzie design in one of the most uniquely striking settings in golf, and you can walk it for $20 in prime time on weekdays.

Coming here to this course across from the Russian River on windy, woody roads that leave Sonoma County's main traffic corridor - Highway 101 - far behind feels like a golf pilgrimage. Northwood Head Professional Vern Ayres looks like he came from central casting of the grizzled old golf pro who's seen it all and isn't overly dramatic about anything.

Sitting behind the desk on a stool in a tiny golf shop, the white-haired Ayres will tell you that Ken Venturi holds Northwood's course record, a 63 (like many visitors, Venturi played Northwood's nine holes twice to get in 18) set back in Venturi's last year in college and seldom challenged since. But Ayres isn't going to make a big deal out of it.

That's how they are at Northwood. Part of it might come from the course's proximity to Bohemian Grove, the secret luxury campground site of the Bohemian Club, one of most exclusive and powerful all-male clubs in history with many presidents, top Federal Reserve officials and major military contractors having been members. Many of these extremely powerful figures have come over to play golf at Northwood over the years.

Not that you'll ever know if the single you get paired with could one day alter the course of human history.

At Northwood, that guy - whoever that guy is - will be paying 20 bucks just like you are to golf amongst the redwoods.

A family could come out to Northwood to get in two hours of golf on a 2,893-yard, par-36, nine-hole course that isn't going to mercilessly beat up any hackers and not know any of this - that the man who designed Cypress Point Club and Augusta National Golf Club also plotted this 80-year-old course, and that the powerful, secretive Bohemian Grove is so close. They could not know this and still enjoy the day. Many do.

The real stars at Northwood are those redwoods that stretch 110, 115 feet into the sky. Some possess trunks that are larger around than a Hummer H2. Forget about wrapping your arms around these trees. Even King Kong could have trouble with that.

You will rap some golf balls into the redwoods, though. Standing on the tee at Northwood means standing in a cathedral of towering trees. Giant monster trees that seem awfully close before you swing - and even closer when your hear the thud as a ball crumples on impact.

No. 2 - a 382-yard par 4 from the back tees (and there are only two sets of tees at Northwood) - is a particularly mouth-dropping and limb-congested driving lane. In fact, the openings at Northwood can be so tight that NBC on-course commentator Roger Maltbie - who won five times on the PGA Tour during his playing career - made a rule when he played the course with his friends back in his golfing prime that everyone had to hit driver on every hole but the two par 3s.

Our foursome mostly played this way, and it adds another dimension to a Northwood round. It gives the fairytale some dark bite.

The verdict on Northwood Golf Club

Forget Augusta National, which you'll never get on. Playing MacKenzie's Northwood will cost you $180 less than playing his Pasatiempo Golf Club in NoCal's Santa Cruz. Now nobody in any frame of mind could ever compare Northwood to Pasatiempo, one of the best golf courses in America. But the price contrast does show just what an unbelievably affordable gem Northwood is.

This is one of those golf experiences that you'll be telling your buddies - not to mention strangers you get paired up with at other courses - about for years. Want to hear about the time I played an Alister MacKenzie course for 20 bucks and battled trees bigger than dinosaurs?

You get a story with a Northwood round. One that should include talk of the self-serve hot dogs you purchase post round at the grill with a nice amount of beers on tap.

The golf course itself is anything but forgettable, too. MacKenzie put together some dramatic holes that still stand up 80 years later. These include No. 8, a 120-yard par 3 that has you shooting up to a not-so-easy-to-stick-shots-on green, and No. 9, the longest hole on the course at 532 yards and the toughest, too, with an approach shot up to a green guarded by some of the largest of the large redwoods.

"It's always interesting to see how people react when they get out here," Ayres said, as understated as ever.

Hey, a golf fairy tale is never dull. Move over Hansel and step away Gretel. There's a new story in these woods.

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Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

 
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