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Sonoma County golf: The antidote to Pebble Beach and Napa's stuffy superiority

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

Ditch the pretentiousness of Pebble Beach and Napa Valley. Sonoma County offers great golf without the stuffiness. Walk through the redwoods at Northwood Golf Club, enjoy the ocean view at Sea Ranch Golf Links or aim for the silo at Windsor Golf Club. Sonoma is full of whimsy.

Northwood Golf Club
Sonoma County is a golf land full of stories - like Northwood Golf Club's giant redwoods.
Northwood Golf ClubSnoopy & Charlie Brown statue - Santa RosaWindsor Golf Club - Hole 3

SANTA ROSA, Calif. - The waitress comes over with more deserts per capita than Charles Barkley consumes in an average year. "There are more than enough to share," she says, a devilish smile playing across her lips. "But I don't think some of you are going to want to share."

With that, she's gone, leaving a table full of golf writers used to the good life to stare in wonder at the kitchen's last offerings of the night.

This is the Sonoma County life. Bring your jeans and make sure there's room to expand your belt a notch or three.

Surrounded by some of the most pretentious golf destinations in the country - from Pebble Beach Golf Links, its $1,000 (stay required) round costs and attitude from guys with fake English accents in the clubhouse, to Napa Valley and its litany of stiff-upper-lipped wine experts who will literally sniff down their nose at you - Sonoma County is like a beacon of hope in a NoCal region where the electronic beep of cash registers stands out as the only real golf holy grail.

Want a break from being treated like a walking, breathing dollar sign? Go Sonoma, young man, go Sonoma.

"It's a heck of a lot more relaxed," Southern California golfer Dennis Doorman said, in-between shots on Rooster Run Golf Club, one of nearly two dozen affordable, fun golf courses you can find in this county.

It's not a heck of a lot worse, either. At least not when you're talking wine and incredible food. Sonoma County boasts more than 200 wineries, many of which more than hold their own against Napa's ... even if some of Sonoma's are so laid back that they hold tastings outside, almost literally right over a barrel.

Now no one could reasonably suggest that Sonoma County's golf courses in any way stack up with Monterey's legends. Or even Santa Cruz's for that matter.

This doesn't replace that once-a-lifetime-so-you-can-say-you-did Pebble Beach play. Instead, it offers a completely different alternative. You'll really relax in Sonoma County - because everyone who lives there appears to be as chilled as Flavor Flav on date night.

Including the staff at Syrah Bistro, a restaurant in downtown Santa Rosa's Railroad Square district that delivers the type of dining that ensures no one around here pines for San Francisco's culinary scene. It's all about fresh, monster heirloom tomatoes, fresh fish, fresh everything at Syrah - not to mention deserts that a cute waitress named Laura might pick for you herself.

Our night at Syrah wasn't as much a meal as it was a Broadway show of food.

Then, you can stroll outside and kiss the Snoopy statue.

Snoopy's home no golf joke

This was the longtime home of Charlie Brown's creator, the late Charles M. Schulz, and downtown Santa Rosa is dotted with giant Peanuts character statues. It's not getting a birdie at Spyglass Hill Golf Club, but a young woman in our group this visit was just as pleased with her picture of a PG Snoop smooch as you or I would be with that golf feat.

You don't mess with Charlie Brown in these parts, either.

When one restaurant that yearned to bring "sophisticated" jackets-required dining to Sonoma County refused to seat Schulz when he showed up in a nice Bill Cosby-style sweater, the place found itself going out of business shortly thereafter.

"They obviously didn't know who he was," said Jack Wolf, who owns Wolf Communications, a public relations firm based in Sonoma County. "But word got around. Quick.

"Things like that don't go over well in Sonoma County."

And you thought Charlie Brown didn't know what he was dealing with when it came to Lucy and that football?

They'll fight for your right to wear jeans while eating one of the best meals of your life next to a guy in a suit jacket here.

In Sonoma County, even the guys who should be more pretentious than the French waiter from a Mr. Bean movie crack off-the-wall jokes. Laurence Sterling - the operations manager and part family owner of Iron Horse Vineyards and its White House-served sparkling wine - comes from a rich enough background that he went to boarding school in England. Yet he couldn't stop making corny wine jokes. Great truth: Wine humor doesn't translate into print.

But Laurence is pure Sonoma County.

So is some of the most unique golf in California. This is home to California's version of a course on The Road to Hana - Sea Ranch Golf Links. That's a Robert Muir Graves design on top of the world, not to be confused with Northwood Golf Club, the Alister MacKenzie course so deep in the redwood trees that you can walk for $20.

Whatever it lacks in Top 100 rankings, Sonoma County golf makes up for with great stories. Forget "Behind The Music." This is a land made for Behind The Fairways.

Where else can you shoot at silos (No. 3 at Windsor Golf Club) and play a hole that's been the site of plane crash landings (No. 18 at Rooster Run) on the same trip? Where else can you get lost in a region larger than Rhode Island and still not stop finding friendly faces willing to help?

The lady at the little mom-and-pop store we stopped at after our third or fourth Northwood Golf wrong turn didn't just go through every line of the misguided Google map directions. She practically offered to lead us on a secret back way herself.

If only Earl had been in to mind the store.

That's Sonoma County. Pebble Beach and its superior attitude never felt so close, yet so far.

Thank the Golf Gods. And Snoopy.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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