Mayacama Golf Club is located in a secluded 600-acre sanctuary in the heart of California's Winelands. It’s a cross between a wine estate and a golf club and if you like a tipple you’ll love it here alongside the premier winemakers of Sonoma and Napa.
Naturally you’ll have to become a member or befriend a winemaker to get a game at Mayacama but persevere and you’re in for a treat. With a Tuscan styled clubhouse that stands on elevated ground and a Jack Nicklaus walking-only course, Mayacama is more reminiscent of a classy Italian country club than an American golf club.
With a trusty caddy by your side and a Master of Wine as your golfing partner to help you navigate your way round the course and then through the underground wine cave, perhaps Mayacama is not a golf club for the teetotaller?
Is it wrong to have more wine lockers (500) than actual lockers (300) for members? Not at all, especially if you’re located in the heart of Sonoma County. The course weaves its way through beautiful rolling terrain and Nicklaus took advantage of it, often putting his well bunkered green sites into the sides of hills, the par five 2nd being a classic example and my favorite. The greens are fast (on a typical day they roll eleven on the Stimp meter) and the caddie program is one of the best and adds to your enjoyment. Make sure you build in extra time to tour the large, rambling clubhouse which fits into its surroundings like a glove. Playing Mayacama is a special day and it is one of my favorite Nicklaus designs because it is not overly demanding like some of his courses.
When arriving at Mayacama it's nearly impossible not to be "wowed" by the overall property. I've always believed having an exceptional piece of property can provide the key foundation for what the golf course can be. In short, first-rate land can easily be 60% of the overall package.
In addition to the property Mayacama has all the top tier amenities. The bells and whistles are certainly present with members having their own wine lockers. How appropriate given the connection to the key industry of the area. The range of rooms in the clubhouse is utterly spellbinding and the club provides a practice dimension that is especially well done.
The golf course benefits from having the terrain. Although hilly in spots it is walkable and the club includes a first rate caddie program to assist matters on that front.
The course also gains from having wonderful turf conditions with a maintenance program that benefited from having the fairways completely sodded. In sum -- no expense was spared to get things exactly right.
The Jack Nicklaus design is a mixed bag though. In the overall routing the course features five par-3 and par-5 holes respectively. Often times when designers go beyond four of each the difficulty is getting enough hole differentiation into the final result. In addition, with the extra par-5 and par-3 holes -- the par-4 side of the aisle is lessened and at Mayacama that proves to be a hurdle that proves hard to overcome.
The course only features two par-4's of serious length -- the 1st at 434 yards and the 12 at 441 yards. The former is a decent opener -- while the latter is among the best holes at Mayacama. The issue is that Nicklaus has brought forward a bit of repetition. Two of the par-3's on the outward side are dropshot holes. Both are especially pleasing to the eye, but the strategic calculations are not really that different.
The most compelling hole on the front is the uphill dogleg right par-5 501-yard 4th. Here you commence from an elevated tee and while the terrain drops slightly it begins to rise noticeably in the drive zone. Nicklaus tapered the fairway for those seeking maximum yardage. A single tree is positioned in just the right spot on the left side. There's also a pesky hazard that runs all along the right side. Complicating matters is a putting green sitting high above the fairway with another solitary tree that stands like a sentinel in line with the approach. The green is angled with sufficient pitch from back-to-front and also features a frontal bunker protecting the far left side. Given the length of the hole it's not really a par-5 for strong low handicap players. It might have worked better if par were adjusted accordingly -- possibly a split par depending upon the handicap level.
The other sleeper hole on the front is the short par-4 7th. At 340 yards the hole invites the big play from the tee as those able to carry the ball just over 295 yards on a direct line can reach the green. The catch is quite simple. You best have an archer-like play to accomplish that objective. The slightest pull or worse push will result in you having to do one's best to avoid a quick bogey or worse on the card as the green is quite narrow and deep.
On the flip side the final two holes on the front are sufficient in what they provide but hardly noteworthy.
The back nine also starts slowly -- the 10th is decent mid-length par-4 and the following 11th provides a comparable par-3 that doesn't exactly raise one's pulse level.
That changes with the first rate 12th as previously mentioned. But things take a step back with the mediocre 13th and 14th holes which play as a mid-length par-4 and short par-3. The meter ramps up again with the scintillating downhill par-5 15th. Playing 537 yards from the tips -- the hole seduces players to attempt to cut the corner which is protected by a series of bunkers. If the gamble succeeds your wherewithal to reach the green goes up considerably. Failure will mean a chore to escape with par. The green is protected by a frontal hazard and a bunker.
Even better is the short par-4 16th. Hats off to the Nicklaus team with this 322-yard gem. The risk is certainly there for those with the execution to back it up. The championship tee is perched high up on a slight hill. The green has a tiny opening on the right but a pond completely blocks the path on the left. Players can opt to lay-up but missing too far left will mean a dicey approach over the pond to a green with little landing room. Go too bold and the approach can run off the rear portion of the green. Many may believe such a hole should yield easily but the 16th gives nothing away.
The concluding holes at Mayacama are unable to sustain the qualities seen with the preceding two. The par-3 17th is sufficient as a test but not noteworthy. The 18th provides a final risk/reward test but it's not especially meaningful to be in the league as what one experiences with the 15th. Neither of the final two are poor holes but they don't add to the final statement a course like Mayacama should have.
Credit Nicklaus in creating a fun course for members and their guests. There's difficulty at certain moments but not the heavy-handed dosages that the Golden Bear did with regularity in his earliest design efforts. Mayacama has a number of memorable moments where the word "fun" not slog is the headliner. Playing the course in golden sunshine -- the norm for this part of California -- and sampling all the creature comforts the club provides is indeed a golf experience to be savored.
by M. James Ward