La Rinconada Country Club
Northern California is blessed with many golf courses which have become sleepers, glistening diamonds long removed from the public eye. These courses have either become lost in the numbers game, buried from attention by all the new courses which have opened in the past decade or two, or simply forgotten through the distractions of time.
Every once in awhile, one of those courses will jump up and say, “Surprise!” And you wonder where it has been all of your life.
La Rinconada Country Club in Los Gatos is such a course. This is the kind of course that grabs a golfer’s senses, shakes his or her perception free of modern fluff, and brings him back to the realization that this is the way the game was meant to be played.
At first sight the rolling hills and narrow, tree-lined fairways of La Rinconada bring a golfer home. Every hole has character, distinction … understated elegance. You relish the chance to come back, over and over again.
This is no accident. A dig into the history of La Rinconada reveals a surprise – there is a connection to Old Tom Morris himself, and to Medinah Country Club in Illinois. Pedigree stands through the decades.
The PGA Tour would do well to come here and take notes: A course does not have to be 8,000 yards long to be tough. Hazards need not be blatant, video-game brutal in appearance. Understatement gives far more distinction to a course than the big and obvious of today’s courses. Wholesale intimidation is not the factor at La Rinconada. Rather it is the subtle nuances that give this course its difficulty. The golfer must think his or her way around La Rinconada to be successful, like Tiger Woods at Hoylake in the British Open last summer.
La Rinconada is among the oldest courses in Northern California. The grand opening was held on June 2, 1929. Senator Sanbord Young gave the opening dedication speech on behalf of W.C. Sprague, backed by Wendell Thomas, W. B. Maxwell and A.P. Giannini (founder of the Bank of America). These men were the founders of the club. Phil Jefferson was introduced, in an understated way, as the head professional.
Turns out Mr. Jefferson was the key to this course’s lasting legacy.
Jefferson came from Everett Country Club in Washington, where he learned from Head Pro Tom Morris – nephew of the Tom Morris of British Open fame. While at Everett CC, Jefferson is credited with grooming the five Fry brothers – Earl, Mark, Fred, Dick and Tom – who became so prominent in the San Francisco Bay Area. The North Course in Alameda is named for Earl Fry, still beloved in that city.
Historical records at the club are incomplete, and the original designer of La Rinconada appeared to be lost to history. But a good search into the past of the first head pro reveals that his brother, William Jefferson, did the original design and layout. Both brothers built the course.
William was also a protégé of Tom Morris, who influenced his design of La Rinconada with Scottish sensibility. Morris gave him more: He also introduced Jefferson to the famous Scottish golf course architect Thomas Bendelow, who was in town to build Jefferson Park GC in Seattle. Bendelow also designed Dubsdread CC and Medinah CC, where Tiger won the PGA Championship last year.
It would be accurate to say that the soul of Old Tom Morris, through his nephew, is at La Rinconada. And many of the design features at Medinah resemble those at La Rinconada.
Everett CC celebrates Anne Quast Sander, U.S. Amateur champion. Kay Cockerill, who won consecutive U.S. Amateurs, worked in the pro shop at La Rinconada while she attended San Jose State. Now a TV commentator, Cockerill still speaks fondly of her old course in Los Gatos.
Robert Muir Graves and Robert Dean Putman refurbished the course, but recognized and kept its natural character and appeal. The greens were renovated in 1991-93 by San Jose architect Brad Benz, but with care to the original nature of the course.
The first four holes do a fine job of introducing this course to the player. They give a clear idea of what is to come.
The first tee is off the patio behind the recently-finished new clubhouse, with a marvelous view of Santa Clara Valley (Silicon Valley) to the east, Mt. Hamilton and Mission Peak prominent in the distance. The fairway falls away downhill into its own natural ravine. Two trees interrupt the fairway, obstructing the shot to the green. Bunkers frame the green, much in the character of the first green at Pebble Beach. This hole is only 371 yards, but placement off the tee is critical to success, or those trees will eat your ball. The message is clear – use your head, or it may be a long day.
A wonderful all-grass driving range and short-game area, where Director of Instruction Kelly Jackson and teaching professional George Bruno apply their trade, is to the right of that first green.
The 2nd hole, 312 yards, is a gorgeous sight from the tee, slightly uphill and inviting. The fairway appears wide, but funnels up to a plateau, which is the designed landing area. A bunker which appears to be on the green from the tee is actually a fairway bunker near the landing area, an optical illusion common in the old days. The two-level green is framed by bunkers, but the real hazard is a sharp fall-off behind and right.
The 3rd hole is one of the best short par-4s in the state. At 277 yards, it can be driven. But the narrow fairway between those ever-present trees dwindles to a landing area. Beyond that landing area there is not much – a path at best. The slim green, smallest on the course, is tucked to the right, on the precipice of a huge gorge. Bunkers are everywhere. Lay up to the landing area and a short wedge gives an excellent opportunity for birdie. Go for the green off the tee and good luck!
This par-70 course is only 6,134 yards from the tips, but has held up well in competition. Former NCGA Player of the Year Darryl Donovan shot only 3-under-par to take medalist honors here in U.S. Mid-Am qualifying in 2000, when even par qualified. Donovan was on his game that year – he played in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Patty Berg was once asked what her favorite course was out on the west coast. She said it was a course most people had never heard of which lingered in her mind, a place called La Rinconada.
Ron Salsig is a contributing writer for NCGA Golf and can be reached at email@example.com