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.”
Golf Magazine listed Northwood in their 50 best 9-hole courses in the world, commenting as follows: "This special 9-holer is a must-play. Neither long, nor wide, wayward shots likely strike ancient Redwoods, yet these giants of the forest provide enchantment and awe and absolutely make this course unique. It’s as if Alister MacKenzie decided to grace golfers with the mating of an intimate walk-in-the-woods and an escape from reality."
Northwood has to be one of the most interesting experiences I have ever had playing golf. Despite being just nine holes, it is a real treat to play.
Right from the first tee, I felt like the giant redwood trees that border the fairways lent a uniquely claustrophobic yet challenging factor to the course.
The first three holes were fairly straight forward. Then came tee shot on the short par 4 4th, which requires either a mid-iron lay-up or a 30 yard cut drive to go at the green. Anything that fails to cut here will get eaten up by the redwoods and fall harmlessly OB onto the rooftops of the adjacent homes. The 464 yard 5th gets even more challenging. This straightaway hole has the tightest tee-shot on the course with the giant redwoods hanging over the fairway on each side. There is not much room to work the ball here. The tee shot needs to start straight and stay straight all the way to the ground, otherwise it will not be traveling very far. Listed as a par 5 on the card, I felt like it played more like a demanding par 4 and never even realized it was a par 5 until after I completed the hole. However, I must say I have an aversion to ever changing my strategy on playing a hole just based on its par, as “par” to me is simply a scoring reference. I would play this hole to reach the green in two strokes each and every time. However, I would guess some who discover it is a short par 5 before teeing off would completely alter their strategy and based on the intimidating tee-shot and play two irons shots and then a wedge to the green.
The tee shots on 6 and 7 were a bit less demanding, followed by a short but very Alister MacKenzieish par 3 on 8, and then came the demanding par 5 9th. It wasn’t until after I hit my best tee shot of the day down the left side of the fairway that I recognized how ridiculously close, not the backyards, but the actual houses are to the fairway…..no rough here….just fairway and then houses. If my tee-shot had ventured 50 feet further left, my backswing may have been hindered by somebody’s back door. No worries however as the residences here have placed nets in strategic locations to keep themselves from being pelted while enjoying their precariously placed patios. So to further explain the difficulty of this tee-shot on #9, despite my position in the left center of the fairway, I next discovered this was not the ideal angle for my second shot, as I was now facing either a 7 iron lay-up on this 533 yard par 5 or needed to work something right to left about 30 yards around some more of those giant redwoods guarding the left side of the fairway. So one would think up the right side seems much simpler and safer for the tee shot on this hole and it is most definitely the safest route. But once again, huge redwoods loom very close on the right as well and leave what I would guess is maybe a 40-foot window for the perfect tee shot and thus there is no bail out here on #9 or really on any hole on this golf course.
Playing Northwood was truly a unique experience that I can say I have never had before in the hundreds of courses I have played in my lifetime. Granted the many residences that have sprung up over the years and are in close proximity to this MacKenzie classic, do seem to take a bit away from the experience, however it's not much, as they are so utterly dwarfed by the beautiful giant redwoods that loom over them that in most cases the houses are barely noticeable.
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