By Bruce Meadows
One of the best links-style golf courses in the country is quite possibly one you’ve never had a chance to play.
Sea Ranch Golf Links, located on the rugged North Coast close to the town of Gualala, is a unique, scenic 18-hole challenge, designed by Robert Muir Graves, its front and back nine built 22 years apart.
It’s been called “a hidden jewel of golf” in one account, while another compared it to the natural courses of Scotland “where the game was born, a course that follows the natural sweep of sand dunes and beach grass beside the sea, with a bracing exposure to the wind.”
Those fortunate enough to have teed it up on the par-72. 6,649 yard layout with a 72.5 slope rating, talk about truly getting away from the everyday world when they make the trip of Highway 1 to spend time at Sea Ranch, to not only enjoy the golf but the surrounding area itself.
John Forenti, who moved to Sea Ranch from California’s Central Valley in 2006, calls Sea Ranch “the purest kind of golf, the closest I can think of to how the game was when it was invented,” adding “the course was built on the land as they found it.”
Rolly Coombs, who moved to Sea Ranch from Amador County in 2006, said “people don’t realize our weather is so spectacular here . . .it’s much better than people think.”
Indeed, there can be blustery days, especially in the afternoons, but the ocean breeze and occasional fog are all part of Sea Ranch.
General manager Kurt Nygaard said Sea Ranch “is a different design, a course that blends in with nature . . .unlike a lot of courses, the houses here do not really come into play.”
Sea Ranch has been called “a diamond in the rough,” and until 2012 when CourseCo Golf Course Management and Development took over the operation, “rough” was often an appropriate term.
“The course has gotten so much better since CourseCo came here,” said Nygaard, who moved to Sea Ranch from Kennewick, Wash.. “They’ve brought in equipment from their other courses (CourseCo manages 26 facilities throughout the West), equipment we never had and that has made the course much more playable” and made life easier for 25-year superintendent Greg Sherwood.
“Our goal is to make it totally playable, golfer friendly, and with the help of CourseCo, that’s happening,” said Nygaard. “We want to add more cart paths, work on leveling tees and improve our bunkers, among other things. Sea Ranch is a great course and we are working to make it even better.”
Sea Ranch only had nine holes until 1996 when the second nine was opened. Still, as a nine-hole course opened in 1974, it was initially considered one of the best nine-hole layouts anywhere.
“Everything here revolves around the golf course and the natural wildness of land and sea,” penned writer Larry Habeggar, who added “once you‘re off the first tee, you just melt into the landscape . . . the road falls away, thoughts of cars and buildings and obligations evaporate and you escape into a land of sighing breezes, grassy dunes and the sea.”
Longtime golf pro Greg Anderson has been coming to Sea Ranch for a long time and moved there last year.
“I’ve had family here since the 1950s,” said Anderson, who teaches at Sea Ranch and also operates GolfVino, a golf travel service. “I can remember a time when you came to Sea Ranch and simply put your money in a box and went out and played.”
Anderson, who was married at Sea Ranch, calls the course “a coastal experience, a getaway from the crowded daily fee courses . . . the prices are reasonable and the course is in good condition and getting better.”
Getting a tee time at Sea Ranch is rarely a problem, but while some locals would prefer it stays that way, golfers such as Forenti realize “we need to have more players . . . that’s good for the course, it brings in money to help with improvements and it’s also good for golf to have people see what we have here.”
Green fees are $70 with a cart, Monday through Thursday, and $80 with cart on weekends and holidays with a number of special packages available.
Sea Ranch has a modest 14,000 rounds per year, a figure low by most golf industry standards, although the number is slowly increasing.
Sea Ranch Lodge is eight miles away from the golf course and less-expensive accommodations can be found in Gualala although rental houses at Sea Ranch itself are available and suggested in you plan on staying for a few days. There are also campgrounds and RV facilities in the area.
And while Sea Ranch is a great place to enjoy a day or two — or more — of golf, the area itself offers plenty of reasons to visit, a place that provides a respite, a retreat from the world.
There is tennis, swimming and extensive hiking trails, with nature walks the first Saturday of every month between March and October. There are kayak and canoe rentals, architectural tours, wine-tasting and auctions, a summer art program for youth as well as a Summer Saturday Art Fest.
Gualala offers a Saturday Farmers’ Market from Memorial Day through October and there is also the Art in the Redwoods Festival the third weekend in August. For more events, go to www.gualalaarts.organd www.redwoodcoastchamber.com
Keeping your drive in the fairway is a challenge at Sea Ranch, but many golfers consider the drive to Sea Ranch a formidable task as well. Even though Sea Ranch is only 30 miles north of Jenner, Highway 1 is a winding, seaside road that some people find tough to handle, especially the first time.
One writer jokingly compared it to the Road to Hana on the Island of Maui, but that road is a lot longer with more curves and there is no golf course at the end.
“There are a few ways to get here,” said Nygaard, “but there are no easy ways.” He tells first-time visitors “to be patient and bring Dramamine.”
Those wishing to avoid Highway 1 can take Skaggs Springs Road, which ends up in Healdsburg, or cut off some of the oceanside driving by taking Meyers Grade a few miles past Jenner.
“It’s a matter of perspective,” said Forenti, a semi-retired educator who still teaches ethics seminars. “We look at Highway 1 as part of the experience . . . When you’ve driven it a few times, you realize what a great road it is.”
Sea Ranch is about 1½ hours from Santa Rosa, perhaps 2½ -3 hours from the Bay Area but as just about any golfer who has played Sea Ranch will tell you, it’s worth the drive.
Forenti, 68. suggests that while you can make playing a Sea Ranch a one-day adventure, coming for a weekend or longer is much more enjoyable.
“It’s just a wonderful place to visit, play golf and explore what’s available,” he said. “And I think the majority of people who live up here understand that our golf course needs more play.”
So if you’ve never played Sea Ranch, and even if you’ve heard about it yet, those who have made the trip come away impressed with everything the area has to offer, including a most unique links-style golf course.
When the late Graves, who designed more than 60 courses, drew up the plans for 18 holes at Sea Ranch in the early ‘70s he didn’t realize it would take more than 20 years to complete the project.
But the Scottish-links course, one of the first of its kind built in the U.S., is unique and one you should put on your golf bucket list. It’s a memorable course with memorable holes . . a true golfing experience.
You will no doubt have your favorite holes, like the drivable par-4 10th, or No. 9 that demands a lay-up drive then a shot to a tight green.
And if you play there once, there is good reason to think you will want to return to try it again. You may think you can do better the next time, but whether you do or not, Sea Ranch is there, waiting for you to find out.
For more information, go to www.searanchgolf.com