Why Northwood Golf Club is the best course you’ve never heard of

A green at Northwood Golf Club in California.

A view of Northwood Golf Club in California.

Patrick Koenig

Our knowledgeable crew of course raters has stuck pegs in the ground just about everywhere. Many of those courses you’ve probably know, but some are less renowned — at least for most golfers. In Best Course You’ve Never Heard Of, we celebrate those sneaky-good designs.

Every July, the Sonoma County hamlet of Monte Rio, Calif. (pop. 1,152), becomes the backdrop for a two-week conclave of a secret all-male congregation known as the Bohemian Club. Just north of the forest grove where this society meets, on an elbow of the Russian River, lies Northwood Golf Club.

Designed in 1928 by Dr. Alister MacKenzie for members of the Bohemian fraternity, this 2,893-yard, 9-hole course is set in an ethereal glade, guarded by stands of redwoods. The routing tacks through the conifers, requiring deft hybrids and long irons off the tees and surgical approaches to tiny greens. The bones of MacKenzie’s design are still present in some of the greens while remnants of fairway bunkering endure as grass depressions strewn throughout the course.

A view of Northwood Golf Club in California.
Northwood Golf Club is open to the public. Courtesy Photo

Challenges begin straight away on the 1st hole, where the Good Doctor built a fronting bunker into a greenside mound that shunts balls left to a green that falls away into a small dell. The 2nd hole is a standout, with contours in the fairway and a semi-blind approach to a cape-shaped green pinched by tall trees on both sides.

The green is built into a ridge, which a savvy player can use to bank a ball onto the putting surface. Other examples of MacKenzie’s cunning genius include the sharp back-to-front cant of the 4th green; the remainders of his clouds-in-the-sky bunkering style on the par-5 5th; and the wonderful 110-yard, par-3 8th. A distant cousin to the 15th at Cypress Point, this diminutive beauty calls for a soft-dropping shot to a tiny green camouflaged by four MacKenzie-style bunkers.

Northwood is a period piece and a wonderful walk amid arboreal splendor. A public facility (weekend green fees top out at $32 for 9 holes and $45 for 18), it could use some restorative touches to polish what MacKenzie built a near-century ago. Regardless, the course remains shrouded and secluded in time, like the Bohemian movers and shakers who visit every summer.

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