Aetna Springs: A Neglected Tom Doak Gem in Wine Country

  • Aetna Springs Golf Course
  • Pope Valley, CA
  • Par 35, 3057 Yards
  • Opened in 1891, redesigned by Tom Doak with Jim Urbina in 2006

I first heard about Aetna Springs Golf Course, a nine-holer in the northern reaches of Napa County, in volume two of Tom Doak’s Confidential Guide to Golf Courses. He rated it a 6 on the Doak Scale (by comparison, he gave TPC Harding Park, future host of the PGA Championship, a 5) and wrote, “there are a lot of good holes for such a little piece of property; it’s a lovely place to go and play.” Doak’s firm also happens to have redesigned the course, so my first thought was, What shameless self-promotion. My second thought: Hey, that’s pretty close to where my in-laws live.

I don’t get to play Tom Doak courses very often, much less for $23 per nine.

The next time we visited my wife’s parents in Santa Rosa, I drove out to Aetna Springs early on a Sunday morning. It took an hour, and the route curlicued over two mountain ranges, but at least there was no traffic. In fact, for much of the trip, there were no other cars in sight.

The golf course sits in a quiet valley, surrounded by farms and what seem to be among the more sparsely attended wineries in the region. The trees along the one-lane access road have a primordial look, and the parking lot is next to a large, dilapidated barn that appears to serve as a maintenance shack.

Compared to the rustic surroundings, the clubhouse at Aetna Springs is oddly grand, perhaps a testament to the former hopes of the developers.

A bit of history: Aetna Springs Resort opened in the 1870s and added a golf course, one of the first built west of the Mississippi, in 1891. The resort and spa thrived for several decades but fell on hard times in the 1970s. In the mid-2000s, new owners hired Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design, one of the most renowned firms in the industry, to revive (i.e., utterly transform) the course. The new design opened to acclaim in 2008, but then, well, 2009 happened. The owners made another push in 2012, as reported by the Napa Valley Register, but the promised resort has not materialized. Yet a Tom Doak nine-holer remains.

It is not in excellent condition. It is playable, of course, but the grass is patchy. The course is clearly struggling to meet the standards of its pedigree. When I asked the pro shop attendant how business was, he took a breath, said, “Well…,” paused, and assured me that they were trying to improve their marketing strategy.

I don’t know what the finances of the Aetna Springs Resort look like or whether the hotel and spa may still reopen, but I can’t imagine that the golf course will survive much longer. And that’s a shame, because it is one of the best, most beautiful nine-hole tracks I have ever played.

The setting — the aged trees, the vineyards, the varied grasses, the mountains — is peaceful, distinctive, and beautiful. As Doak designs often do, Aetna Springs blends into its environment. Between shots, you feel as though you are not so much on a golf course as on a walk through a particularly lovely valley.

Although this is a minimalist design, it is by no means simple. Creeks bisect and trisect fairways; tree branches loom over desirable sections of greens; slopes hide or reveal targets depending on position; bunkers force decisions from the tee; greens vary from multitiered expanses to dinner plates. To score well, you have to make smart decisions and execute precise shots. But you can also hack your way around and not feel unduly insulted.

Aetna Springs Golf Course deserves a longer life. If you’re in the region, pay a visit.

Photo Tour

Aetna Springs YB Layout

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 10.47.40 AM

Hole 1: Par 4, 369 Yards

Aetna Springs YB 1

Welcome to Doakville: standing on the first tee, you already have several options. A creek runs down the middle of the hole, splitting the fairway into two reachable sections. The safe play is a mid iron to the fat part of the left fairway, but that leaves another mid iron to a two-tiered green closely defended by the creek. You could aim for the bail-out room left of the green, but from there you would be playing for bogey. The second main option off the tee is to sneak a longer drive down the narrowing left fairway, leaving a shorter approach but risking the creek on the right and native grasses on the left. The final option is to aim right, where you will find the best angle into the green. From the back tees, the carry is only 200 yards, but how many players are comfortable attempting, as their first shot of the day, a 200-yard forced carry to a slanting, water-guarded fairway?

Hole 2: Par 3, 228 Yards

Aetna Springs YB 2.png

A big green that is easy to hit but tough to putt.

Hole 3: Par 4, 372 Yards

Aetna Springs YB 3.png

This ingenious little par four uses the lay of the land to create strategic interest. A hillside impinges on the hole from the right, concealing the elevated green from the right side of the fairway. In order to place your tee ball on the left side, however, you have to challenge a bunker about 250 yards out. If you execute this shot, you are rewarded with not only a view of the pin but also a favorable angle down the length of the green.

Hole 4: Par 3, 134 Yards

Aetna Springs YB 4.png

The most aesthetically memorable hole on the course: a miniature par three with a green tucked into a pocket canyon. The green is more generous back to front than it looks from the tee, but you’d better not miss right or left.

Hole 5: Par 4, 338 Yards

Aetna Springs YB 5.png

Another par four, another decision from the tee: lay up with a mid iron or try to carry the creek 230 yards out. Laying up may actually provide a better view for the approach but adds about 50 yards to the hole. Either way, you should favor the left side, which offers an angle around a massive oak tree next to the hilltop green.

Hole 6: Par 4, 395 Yards

Aetna Springs YB 6.png

Reaching the top of the humpback fairway reveals not only the green but also a new, delightful section of the property.

Hole 7: Par 4, 425 Yards

Aetna Springs YB 7.png

The hole moves left to right, the land slopes right to left, and a pair of bunkers defend the tiered, right-to-left tilted green. The ideal drive, therefore, is one that cuts the dogleg and manages to cling to the higher right side of the fairway. A spacious playing corridor, but not an easy one to negotiate well.

Hole 8: Par 5, 503 Yards

Aetna Springs YB 8.png

With a forking creek at its heart, this hole is something of a companion piece to the opener. Tour pros and long-drive champs may attempt the 280-yard carry to the second of the fairway’s three segments, but the rest of us should probably settle for placing our tee shots as close as possible to the creek. The trickiest shot is the second: do you attempt to squeeze a hybrid or fairway wood over the fairway bunkers and into the chute that leads to the green, or do you lay up short and left of the bunkers and face a tree-bedeviled approach? After all of this intricacy, the green is so small and simple that it registers as a punchline. Good one, Tom.

Hole 9: Par 4, 293 Yards

Aetna Springs YB 9.png

A sub-300-yard par four with a cluster of bunkers that threaten any tee shot exceeding 245 yards. The more you risk, the better the angle of your approach.

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