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Great Golf Courses in the Bay Area

A roundup of four famous Northern California courses, and which are worth their greens fee.

Not much ever changes at Northern California's iconic courses.

The 17th hole at Cypress Point in Monterey remains one of the world's most daunting tee shots. The monstrous 16th hole at the Olympic Club in San Francisco is still, for average mortals, pretty much impossible to reach in two. A few years back, the tree guarding the 18th green at Pebble Beach blew over in a windstorm. But not to worry; management replaced it with a prickly twin.

But while consistency is the theme at these timeworn courses, the same can't be said for the rest of the region.

Like the earthquake faults that underlie the land here, the golf scene has been in a state of flux. As a committed golfer and longtime Bay Area resident, I've been following these changes with the interest of a duffer tracking his tee shot. And, like an erratic player, sometimes I've been elated, and other times I've been dismayed.

Now, with the arrival of fall, a prime season for golf around these parts, I offer a snapshot of some of these golf course's shifts, along with thoughts on what there is to like (and what we should lament).

Harding Park Golf Course

Unless you've been following shuffleboard instead, you've probably heard about the remake of this grand old San Francisco

course. Left to rot for decades by the city, it was finally salvaged by renovations, a return to glory that culminated in 2005 when the PGA Tour held the American Express Championships here.

Not everyone was thrilled with what went down at Harding. Spiffing up the course took more money than expected, and greens fees rose. Weekend fees for San Francisco residents went up from $33 to $46, while out-of-towners now pay as much as $155. Some longtime regulars were miffed -- they didn't mind playing on the rundown fairways, but they did mind coughing up more cash.

"Boo hoo," I say to them. Around San Francisco, you can still play for a pittance at municipal courses like

Sharp Park and

Lincoln Park. Both boast pretty layouts, although do you get what you pay for -- poorly conditioned fairways and greens that run as swiftly as shag rugs.

Harding Park is a different story. This lovely, classic layout, now sweetly conditioned thanks to new drainage systems and revamped greens, offers golf as it was meant to be. Tee shots are demanding, and subtly shaped doglegs bend through cathedrals of ancient trees. The course is walker-friendly, which adds to the throwback feel at Harding -- this is how the game was played before becoming overrun by beer bellies and carts.

Sure, you'll shell out more. But it's hard to find a better course for the price.

Hiddenbrooke Golf Club

How it happened is hard to say, but what used to one of the Bay Area's best bargains has suffered a fall from grace.

The Arnold Palmer layout of

Hiddenbrooke is as interesting as ever, carved through the foothills just east of Vallejo in a landscape lined by creeks and dotted with scrub oaks.

What's changed here are the course conditions. Fairways that once played firm and fast have turned furry. Lilting greens, which used to run at a lightning pace, now lie beneath a permanent five o'clock shadow.

What's the explanation? A pro shop attendant told me the greens had been stricken with a fungus. But that still doesn't account for the scruffy condition of the rest of the course. Is it because Hiddenbrooke no longer hosts an LPGA event, or should we blame

Kemper Sports

, which recently took over operation of the course?

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I don't have the answer. Hiddenbrooke, at heart, is still a top-notch track, but I wouldn't rush back until the conditions come around.


This superb Jack Nicklaus signature

course (rated in the top 100 in the country by both

Golf Digest


Golf Magazine

) wasn't built with Joe Public in mind. It sprawls across the foothills in a removed patch of Sonoma County, a postcard-pretty expanse of land that was once owned by Peanuts creator and golf enthusiast Charles M. Schulz. The secluded location befitted a club that was and is intensely private, and pricey: $250,000 to join for local residents. Bill Getty, of the Getty oil fortune, is a member here.

Recently, though, the gates at Mayacama have creaked open, providing the right buyers with an opportunity to squeeze through. The club has just christened three private villas, with 16 additional villas to come. These lavish homes are up for fractional sale -- 1/5 ownership starts at $600,000. Private estates, which are also in the works, will also soon be available, at a price to be determined. All are elegantly understated wine country homes.

Fractional ownership at Mayacama doesn't come with playing privileges; golf memberships are a separate deal. But these homes will get you inside the gates of Mayacama. And, let's face it, once you've shelled out $600,000 for a place to stay, what's another $250,000 for all the great golf you can play?

Bayonet Golf Course

Set on the former Fort Ord military base, this tough, terrific

course ($90 weekdays; $128 weekends) has long lived in the shadow of more famous facilities in nearby Monterey.

In recent months, however, Bayonet has basked in the attention it deserves. The tight, tree-lined layout, as demanding a test as any golf course in California, is midway through a vast improvement project.

The renovated front nine recently reopened with reworked bunkers that flank the fairways. The goofiest of its greens, on a short par four, has been made more receptive. All around the course, grabby kikuyu is being replaced by smooth-rolling bent grass. A new drainage system will help keep the turf springy and dry.

Bayonet has always been a place for purists, a course whose quality was recognized by connoisseurs. But its low-key atmosphere (you don't come here for the lavish clubhouse) and scruffy look made it something of a sleeper destination. That won't last.

Now that the front nine at Bayonet is finished, work on the back nine will soon be underway. What's more, Bayonet's stand-out sister course, Black Horse, will also be getting an extreme facelift, courtesy of architect Gene Bates.

It's all part of a grand plan to fold both courses into a high-end Fairmont Resort and Spa. Lovers of lavishness will, at last, get what they wanted: a 36-hole golf destination with amenities worthy of two first-rate courses.

You can't stop progress, and I welcome it. Yet those of us who've been playing Bayonet for decades can't help feeling a bit wistful. One of our favorite courses, which flew for years under the radar, has been discovered. The crowds are coming. So play it while you can. Come 2010, when the resort is slated for completion, we can only guess how much you'll have to cough up to get on.

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Josh Sens is a freelance writer living in Oakland, Calif., and a contributing writer to Golf Magazine. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Men's Journal, Golf Digest and other national publications.