I was an impressionable young lad when first introduced via the big screen to the commercial fishing port of Bodega Bay, California. With full blame to Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds,” an apocalyptic story of this peaceful coastal town a victim of random attacks by seemingly ordinary winged creatures, it took extensive ornithological therapy before I could even so much as have a parakeet for a pet.
As most Hollywood endings go, as soon as Hitch and his cinematic prey left the shaken town, serenity was restored and, eventually, I managed to reestablish my fondness for our feathered friends. But who would have imagined one day I’d rekindle my bond with Bodega Bay thanks to those rare – at least from my perspective – birds only apparent when playing golf at The Links at Bodega Harbour.
A significant factor to my enjoyment of golf is embodied in the variety of environments the game is played and, fortunately, my home state of California provides a healthy menu of scenic challenges. Receiving the most attention are courses along the Golden State’s rugged coastline, spanning roughly 1,200 miles north to south. However, most don’t offer prime ocean views from as many holes as The Links at Bodega Harbour, 1.5 hours north of San Francisco. After departing the Highway 101 speed zone, the remaining 30-45 minute drive past rolling farmland hills and quaint towns of Sonoma County transforms you into a peaceful state of mind in preparation to challenge the first fairway with supreme confidence.
With no disrespect to Ireland or Wales, the Links at Bodega Harbour touts itself as “A Touch of Scotland.”
I’ve ventured to all three countries and given the travel costs, this is about as close to links golf residents in Northern California might experience. Upon mentioning to Bob Caldwell, the congenial and hospitable head golf professional, I had recently returned from an Irish golf adventure, he jokingly asked me, “Why would you go there when Sonoma County is so good?” Good point!
Reminiscent of the British Isles’ seaside links, The Links at Bodega Harbour has many of the same challenges: occasional blustery winds; blind shots; undulated fairways aiming to steer any well-hit drive into a pot bunker; environmentally sensitive marshland; native coastal rough nourished by stray golf balls and treeless (but not homeless…can you spell w-i-n-d-o-w?) fairways.
This links-style creation is the result of the artistry by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. but the front and back nines are about as different as two election year politicians. One of my golf colleagues even once described the course as “bipolar.” Or maybe he meant his game.
The second half of the course, the original nine (1976), offers more subtle elevation change than the front nine but no less of a test. As you make your way down the to the edge of the Pacific sand dunes, you are forced to park the cart (be sure to batten down the food from the notorious Bodega birds), grab your bag and walk over a wooden bridge through the marshland to play, arguably, the course’s two jewel holes.
No. 16 is a short par 4 (286 yards from the blue tees), requiring either a strategic tee shot to a narrow landing area just in front of the ocean or, depending on the breeze, a gutsy drive to the green. The par-3, 17this a full carry of 151 yards, back over the marsh. Don’t even think about ball hunting.
These two holes, along with No. 18, which require a daunting downhill second shot into the Pacific backdrop, rank as one of the most memorable one-two-three finishing punches on any golf course I’ve played.
The very nature of this demanding trio of holes is a testament to Jones’ design philosophy. “We listen to the land and work with it to create the best golf design possible on every unique site,” he says.
The original course design was mapped out for 18 holes but the second nine (now the front side) was not put into play until 1986. What a difference a decade makes.
Jones, Jr. didn’t waste any time mixing up the tone of the pre-1986 experience with a demanding opening drive up a 388-yard, dogleg-right, severely undulated fairway. In fact, the significant mounding and sloping features on the first hole are carried throughout the newer nine and typify the contrasting design elements of the back nine. When the winds are blowing, which they usually are, these holes provide a prime ticket to links-style golf.
The ride continues uphill until reaching the highest point on the course at the 5th tee box. Before taking aim at the 488-yard, par 5 (be sure to read the sign indicating the yardage for your tee shot), seize the moment to suck up some of the fresh ocean air and, if it’s a fogless day, roll your eyes on the panoramic vistas of Bodega Bay and beyond to the Pacific horizon. Afterwards, it’s a downhill game to the snack stand at the turn.
One of the key challenges to scoring well on the par 70, 6,290-yard course, is avoiding as many of the bunkers as possible. Following a 22-year span since the course’s completion, The Links at Bodega Harbour reinvigorated itself in 2008 with some major renovations.
“We went from 90 bunkers to more than 100 but we’ve eliminated a third of the square footage,” Caldwell said. “Basically, more bunkers but they’re smaller. We also stripped every green of all the poa annua and re-sodded with bentgrass, allowing the ball to roll more truer.”
The golf birdies will forever haunt me no matter where I play but I will always have lasting memories of The Links at Bodega Harbour. Located 6,000 miles from Scotland, it is one of the most outstanding values for golf where land and sea merge.