Golf may not be a game of perfect, but when it comes to course architecture, we all have a vision of perfect golf. I lean toward rustic and understat- ed and classic, and I recently had such an experi-
ence at the magnificent Meadow Club in northern California.
Known by the golf cognoscenti as the first course designed
by Dr. Alister MacKenzie in North America, Meadow Club is
reached from San Francisco by crossing the Golden Gate
Bridge and driving a few more miles to Fairfax, an old hippie
town and proud of it. From there a hair-raisingly narrow road
climbs up to the course, which sits at the base of a natural bowl
surrounded by scrub oaks and conifers—the long ago-named Bon
Tempe Meadow, on the northern saddle of Mount Tamalpais.
With not a single house in view from anywhere on the
compact layout, Meadow Club is almost exclusively a
walking course where even the spare parking lot helps define
the ambiance. No valets greet golfers, just a simple wooden
rack for a bag drop. You park your car and, if playing as a
guest, carry your clubs up a short hill to an elegant Arts and
Crafts-style clubhouse, where head golf professional Jim
O’Neal extends a welcoming hand.
I first played the course last fall, and then on a return visit
this winter walked it late one afternoon with just my 7-iron
and a sleeve of balls. Both times there was not a golf cart in
sight, though in the fall I saw many deer. The only sounds
were of golf balls being struck, wind in the conifers that line
many of the fairways, birds airborne in the enormous
expanse of sky, and quiet conversation among the blessed.
The feeling of this magical place harkens back to another
era of a simpler game, free of pretension or hauteur.
MacKenzie’s work—completed in 1927—was hailed and
became the start of his series of late-career masterpieces
that would include Cypress Point, Pasatiempo, the Valley
Club of Montecito, Crystal Downs, and finally, Augusta
National GC, which he did not live to see completed.
Over the years some of the features of the original
Meadow Club fell prey to overzealous golf committees, much
to the dismay of the Good Doctor’s devotees. In 1987 the club
was the site of the formation of the Alister MacKenzie
Society, and a few years later longtime club member Dr.
Gary R. Nelson spearheaded a carefully planned, step-by-step sequence of projects under the supervision of architect
Mike DeVries to, in Nelson’s words, “restore what had been
lost.” Based on firm evidence from early photographs,
original plans, or MacKenzie’s own hand sketches, trees
were removed while greens and bunkers were brought back
precisely to what the British-born architect intended.
The result is an idyllic example of the Golden Age design
that stirs the golf spirit. Playing at 6,734 yards from the tips,
with multiple tees on every hole, Meadow Club never feels
too long. There is only one water hazard, a pond fronting the
green on the downhill, par- 3 14th. The bunkering is distinguished by rough edges that contrast wonderfully with the
fairway and subtly defines multiple lines of play. Except
during rainy periods, of which there have been few of late in
California, the ball will run freely along the gently rolling,
firm turf. The greens are some of the largest MacKenzie ever
built, containing fascinating contours.
Playing with my adult son, I kept straining to grasp our
good fortune, never more so than on the dogleg, par- 4
seventh. After a decent 3-wood left me with just a mid-iron
to the pear-shaped green, I stood still in wonder, staring
beyond the green at the wild grasses on the surrounding
hillsides that seemed to cast a spell on all I saw and heard
and felt, the whispers of a fabled past mingling with the
pleasures of a perfect present. N L . C .
BY CARL VIGELAND VOICES
Golf at its magical best
ARCHI TECTURE’S ‘GOLDEN AGE’ STILL SHINES AT MACKENZIE’S MEADOW CLUB