Positioned inside a bend of the Russian River, just to the north of the Bohemian Club Grove, the 9-hole course at Northwood Golf Club was conceived by Jack Neville, the five-time California state amateur champion and member of the 1923 US Walker Cup team who co-designed Pebble Beach with Douglas Grant.
Neville first approached Claude Milleresch, the owner of the woodland property, with a view to constructing a course specifically for members of the Bohemian Club. Once the development was agreed in principle, Neville then enlisted Alister MacKenzie and Robert Hunter to design a 9-hole layout on the 70-acre site.
Built in 1928, the course then changed hands a number of times before stability finally arrived in 1970 when the present owners took control. Nowadays, the course measurers 2,893 yards from the back markers and it plays to a par of 36, with many of the holes lined by enormous redwood trees which make the fairways really tight.
Adding to its challenge are the small, undulating MacKenzie greens and intimidating MacKenzie bunkers. Notable holes include the 382-yard 2nd with its punchbowl green, the 280-yard 6th and its profusion of fairway bunkers and the 381-yard 7th, where bunkers have been placed deceptively short of the putting surface.
In the book The Finest Nines by Anthony Pioppi, the author has this to say about Northwood:
“There is no doubt that Alister MacKenzie is one of the finest golf course architects ever to lay out a course. The point could be made that he is the finest. Although most of his creations are private and exclusive, there is a smattering of MacKenzie creations that the average golfer can experience. One of those is MacKenzie’s only nine-hole design in America, Northwood Golf Club in Monte Rio, California.
“Adding to the joy and uniqueness of the layout is the fact it is carved out of a redwood forest. What will most likely stun first-time visitors is not just the size of the behmoths, but the fact that they are not old-growth trees but have risen to the immense proportions since 1928 when the course opened. For the golfer looking to escape the world, Northwood is an ideal location, a self-contained respite from the racing rats.
“The layout retains much of the original design. Unfortunately, hole corridors have narrowed over the years as the Redwoods expanded. Their protected status and the cost of logging make removal difficult. Northwood remains, however, a delight to play at 2,888 yards and a par of 36. Although narrow at times, Northwood is never without strategy or challenges. The assortment of holes, including three par-4s under 295 yards, test all aspects of a player’s game.”
The most enduring aspect of Northwood is the setting. The 9-hole layout works its way through stately redwoods that provide magnificent corridors with holes slotted through. The close proximity to the Russian River adds to the scenic mixture.
How good is the golf?
At times there are some noteworthy moments where the golf is quite entertaining but there are also a few holes that are merely bystanders. My primary interest in going to the course was to see the handiwork of MacKenzie and Hunter. Interestingly, MacKenzie was an advocate of fairway widths but at Northwood you face narrow slots which tee shots must successfully navigate.
A number of the greens are done well -- they are angled and there are fall-offs so one's iron play must be ready to execute. The key at Northwood is being able to understand that placement -- not wanton power -- is the central ingredient for success.
There are a few holes of note -- the tight corridor at the 2nd, the 7th with its elevated green and the short par-3 8th with its beautiful bunkering. The closing par-5 9th weaves through the towering hardwoods and concludes with a smallish elevated green.
The most enduring element of Northwood is the setting. Nearby to the Bohemian Grove the location is clearly a winner in linking Mother Nature to the game of golf. Just keep your expectations in check.
M. James Ward