Let’s take a golf trip down the California coast, with a view to playing the beautiful courses by the sea. Observe, as we travel, the characteristics that these places share.
Of those that are not private, most are luxury resorts or packed munis. To get a tee time, we’ll either have to get lucky with the reservation system or set aside a good chunk of our paycheck. If you have Clint Eastwood in your contacts, you can ask him if you can stay at Cypress Point.
With rare exceptions, this is what we’re dealing with from San Diego to San Francisco. Crowds, costs, exclusivity, or some combination of all three.
Better to keep rolling beyond the Golden Gate.
The coastal route here is Highway 1, scenic and slow. For both security and cosmetic reasons, this is not a unit we want to rush. It will take us more than three hours to cover 100 miles, on a winding road, skirting bleeding cliffs, before we reach our sleepy destination, a faraway course you’ve probably never heard of. Still, many avid golfers haven’t.
Located on the rugged edge of Sonoma County, the course has 18 holes and million-dollar views. However, greens fees top out at $80 and drop to less than half by sunset. There’s a low-key clubhouse and a scruffy shooting range, neither of which is anywhere near congested. There is also no backing on the first tee. We could show up on a weekend without booking in advance and have no problem getting on.
How come a place like this has gone unnoticed? Just with some context it makes a shred of sense.
Sea Ranch Golf Links shares its name with a residential community of the same name, a pioneering project born in the 1960s as an outgrowth of the environmental movement. In a postwar era when vast swaths of the country were sucked into sprawl, Sea Ranch bucked real estate conventions. It was infused with the environmentalist notion that people could and should live lightly on the land. Instead of subdivisions, his plan called for loose clusters of unpainted wood-frame homes, many designed by leading modern architects, all intended to blend in with their surroundings. Imagine if Tom Doak dreamed of a bunch of houses.
Low-impact services were also included: tennis courts, swimming pools, canoeing. And a golf course that heralded today’s minimalist trends.
The intent was summed up nicely by Lawrence Halprin, the acclaimed landscape architect who drew up the master plan for Sea Ranch. In “Diary of an Idea,” his 1995 book detailing the philosophy behind the project, Halprin wrote that every nook and cranny had been conceived “in direct response to the character and quality of the waterfront.” Golf was no exception. The course was envisioned as a conduit that would connect people to an untouched landscape, allowing them to go ‘wild-walking’, quiver of sticks in hand.
For the course itself, Sea Ranch turned to architect Robert Muir Graves, who designed all 18 but built them in phases: remote golf before remote golf was all the rage. The first nine opened in 1974. The last nine were completed in 1995.
In the decades since, Sea Ranch has earned its share of golf-focused headlines and a spot on a set of “best” course lists. But it has never been a magnet for the masses. A long drive from the nearest main market, not a place for a day trip. And with only one course on site, and no others nearby, it doesn’t quite fit the profile of a classic buddy ride.
But here we are. We have achieved it. Let’s take a look.
Although they call Sea Ranch links, it really isn’t. Not by dictionary definition. The terrain is not sandy. The grass is not fescue. Out front, Muir Graves and his team planted hundreds of trees, and now several holes are played through corridors of pine trees. We say that not to object, but to clarify. And, anyway, if people are looking for old-school character, there’s plenty of that to go around.
Borrowing a term used on Instagram, what stands out at Sea Ranch is the vibe, which is laid-back, unpretentious – the semblance of a small-town countryside we might stumble across in Scotland. The conditions are rustic. The greens are more of a shag rug than a linoleum floor. The trees protect against the wind, but you still feel the ocean breeze and the kiss of the coastal mist. The 18 holes give glimpses of the water. Several, such as 8, a par 3 played over a ravine to a clifftop green, offer views of the Pacific. Beautiful eyes, everywhere.
The Sea Ranch community stretches for 10 miles along the coast. There’s a stylish hostel to the south, with recently renovated rooms and a recently launched portfolio of iconic modernist houses, available to rent. The field is to the north. Their clubhouse, like the lodge, was recently updated. The owners have deep pockets and have taken modest steps to fine-tune the course, mostly in the form of more careful grooming. What else they could do is another matter. The protections are strict and for good reason; it’s hard to prune a branch at Sea Ranch without getting it checked out. Exactly what needs to be done is also a separate issue. A fan might suggest that the fairways could be firmer and the entire property could use more bounce and sway. Culling trees seems like a smart suggestion. There is no doubt that the bunkers have seen better days.
Talk to the locals, though, the people who play the course most often, and you’ll get the feeling they’re dubious about prospects for improvements that might draw more attention to their little secret. You can understand that thought. On one hand, you are surprised that the place is too captivating to remain undiscovered. On the other hand, a part of you can’t help but hope it stays that way.