Golf features many “fields of dreams” and the homely little 9-hole course at Aetna Springs in Pope Valley, California becomes one of my favorites. Staffed by friendly folks who love the property, you encounter superbly manicured playing surfaces and fun challenges adorned by 360-degree views of pastoral oak-studded hillsides.
A really good nine-hole golf course often gets described as a “diamond in the rough.” That’s many times because it is only half a golf course in many people’s minds. Aetna Springs in an isolated rural valley about an hour northeast of Napa, California is more aptly described as “a hidden gem!”
Aetna Springs is located in the little visited portion of the Northern California wine country adjacent to the Napa Valley that is seldom visited or included in the typical tourist visits. Locals are probably pleased, but anyone else is cheated if they don’t at least spend a few hours in this gorgeous valley area populated by ancient oaks that together with the surrounding hillsides really make for an idylic backdrop.
Yes, Aetna Springs is isolated and you would never typically drive by the property, but it is nonetheless easy to get to. One hundred and twenty-five years ago, it was not so easy to visit yet affluent San Franciscans were more hardy and did venture there to enjoy the adjacent Aetna Springs Resort. For nearly a century, the resort was vibrant and important enough to be the location where Ronald Reagan announced his run for Governor. Even Hollywood personalities and the Northern California wealthy would visit for the hot springs, dining, fishing, hiking, and that new sport called golf. Today, the Resort is closed and in disrepair, but the good news is that the County approved its restoration early in 2012 and the ownership plans upon following through. In the meantime, golf is the sole attraction.
You may have heard of Aetna Springs Water, and the area between the second tee and third fairway is the location of the springs where a large building and many people busily once bottled the spring water. Today, the area just seems like a spot to get some shade on what is a most tranquil and quiet property.
A view from behind the 3rd green. The shelter over the natural spring to the right was once the site of a busy multi-story building where the Aetna Springs Water was processed. Now the scene is so tranquil.
The present golf course is the third one that populated this site, but as a golf site it may be the oldest west of the Mississippi having opened in 1890 – a design attributed to E.F. Mutton. This was a rudimentary course for the pleasure of the Resort’s visitors and a more modern rendition was fashioned in the 1920s and served golfers until 2007 when esteemed golf course architect Tom Doak essentialy created a new layout.
(A proposed 18-hole course located about a mile to the east was also to be designed by Tom Doak. It was hoped to be added by now, but the County turned the proposal down. Considering the recent economy and the declining appetite for golf that may have been a blessing in disguise. One thing is for sure, it allows this 9-hole course to shine in the spotlight center stage.)
In Doak’s work, he uncovered portions of the original course and restored them, but the work really reflects his strategic minimalist style and is his routing. As such, it fits magnificently with the property and its surrounds. A more fashioned, and molded layout would appear totally out of keeping with the small property and the existing backdrops. Tom Doak hit the mark!
While carts are available, Aetna Springs is a delightful walk that should not be missed. The golf challenge is neither severe nor a pushover. There is just enough movement and contouring in most of the greens to be interesting and keep your attention. Together with some sentinel oaks, a meandering creek, and some undulating fairways, the layout is unforced. Where there are flat areas, no artificial mounding or moguls were introduced. There are some blind tee shots, some hugely wide fairways and conversely some areas to focus your attention. Typically, you must drive the ball accurately if you hope to have birdie putts as you approach. The putting surfaces range from small to barely medium in size and while most have some subtle interesting movement, the par-five eighth appears to be a simple flat extension of the fairway – and it is elegant in its simplicity.
There are some pleasant elevation changes that afford refreshing vistas of the surrounding countryside.
The challenge contained within Aetna Springs translates to 6,114 yards from the tips with a par of 70 (one par-five and two par-threes). While there may not be enough length to challenge the modern power hitter, the design works magnificently for the remaining 98 per cent of us. It is hard to single out any particular holes as favorites for the variety of looks make them all endearing. I will venture to say the 228-yard second and 134-yard fourth holes make for a very attractive duo of one-shotters. As I reflect on the rest of the course, there are spots to power tee shots, but many instances require the careful positioning of the ball with no need to be greedy. For the green sites, they fit both the terrain in their appearance and don’t require much in the way of forced carries – all a delightful combination.
While the layout appears natural in almost a simplistic sense, the conditioning is excellent. The course is usually open from Wednesday through Saturday though special outings can be arranged in advance. This allows the layout to be kept in truly pristine shape despite a shoestring budget and small staff – far better than I would have imagined! The great thing is that it all works.
I could not imagine a better spot for a golf and meal combination getaway outing as the ultra-modern functioning clubhouse has been fashioned in a most comfortable and modern way, yet one that keeps with the rustic rural flavor with the area. (It’s organizing partners were responsible for the highly acclaimed Calistoga Ranch just over the hill to the west in St. Helena.) The prospect that the old Aetna Springs Resort may be rebuilt to its past glory is exciting in that it will no doubt also bring deserved attention to this little jewel of a golf course.
Just how good is Aetna Springs? I would rank it among the top half dozen nine-hole courses in America! The shaping, flow, strategy, conditioning, ambiance, and playability are all high and the pastoral scenery is a rare delight. The routing provides a wide range of variety in just a nine-hole package – enough to satisfy the most discriminating golf appetite. Whether for a quiet round by myself or a social competition with friends, I look forward to my next day at Aetna Springs. You will too!
As you approach the seventh green as shown below, you will be convinced of what a gem of a little golf course you have discovered – as did I!