Classic Course: Meadow Club

Most course-design devotees can name the last course Dr. Alister MacKenzie designed in the U.S.—Augusta National. But how many can name the first? It’s Meadow Club, in northern California.

It’s not clear why the private club just north of San Francisco, which opened in 1927, flies so far under the radar. Perhaps it has something to do with its subtler features, which don’t scream MacKenzie the way Cypress Point, Crystal Downs, and Royal Melbourne do. Or its location, in a remote hanging valley in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais. Getting to the course requires a twisty drive up a hillside to a spot with little cell phone service.

Meadow Club
16th and 6th holes (Photo by Mike Gibbons)

But, oh, what a spot. The Bon Tempe Meadow in crowded Marin County is a true refuge, a campus of Arts & Crafts-style buildings the only structures in sight. The sprawling clubhouse is like a MacKenzie museum, with a chronological list of all 16 courses the Good Doctor designed in the U.S. ringing the upper reaches of the bar. And after a deliberately slow renovation by architect Mike DeVries and former course superintendent David Sexton in the early 2000s—and continued refinements by Sexton’s successor, Sean Tully—Meadow Club deserves its place in the pantheon.

With the removal of more than 300 trees, the course once again reveals MacKenzie’s trademark layering, the way distant features tie into closer ones, and its strategic nuances. Just as the Old Course at St. Andrews, which served as MacKenzie’s model, requires width for the best line of approach to a given day’s pin placement, so does this 6,726-yard layout.

Removing trees is always a sensitive topic, since members get attached to them and don’t necessarily grasp the problems they create for strategy, turf, and views. But the issues became crystal clear after a freak storm in 2002 brought down a massive Monterey pine behind the 7th green, opening up the box canyon behind it and making for an utterly captivating greensite.

15th hole (Photo by Mike Gibbons)

Also fortuitous was the “benevolent neglect,” as DeVries calls it, given the greens since The Depression, which allowed him to recover their original footprints and contours: Most had shrunk to about half their average 9,500-square-foot size. Bunker renovation took more forensic work, they had deteriorated so much, but with the help of old photos DeVries recovered their locations and natural-edge style. It also meant removing some to restore playability, as on the long, par-four 9th, where someone 50 years ago replaced a knob with a bunker at the front-left of the green, taking away the ability to feed in a long iron or fairway wood.

While the front is the longer and more challenging of the two sides, an intimacy defines the back, where greens roll right into tees and holes cluster together. The recent removal of some interior cart paths has made the aesthetics better than ever, and the ground game is back, too, since the club started topdressing fairways and green aprons in 2006.

“We’re not greenkeepers here. We’re meadow keepers,” says Tully. “We know they designed this after St. Andrews, so we’re trying to honor what they intended.”