I will drive anywhere and make any tee time when asked. The stranger the better. Raise your hand if you’re like me…Right? Growing up I would frequently get up at 4:30 in the morning, drive 90 minutes to the east end of Long Island, meet my friend who basically did the same thing, and we would catch a 6am ferry to Shelter Island.
From there we would wind through the tight streets of the still sleeping Island and roll up to Shelter Island Country Club. All this effort was just to be the first group out in the morning. Goals! If we wanted to get on some popular golf courses on Sunday mornings we would often not even go home Saturday nights. We would sleep in my car that was parked in the first parking slot at the golf course to secure the first tee time out. There’s nothing like bonding over golf stories while eating 7-11 burritos waiting for the sun to rise in a cold damp car. Goals! So when I was invited to play a golf course out in the middle of nowhere California I said “when and where”?!?
The Course was La Contenta, and the tee time was at a rather average start time of 8:30am.
My friend Jay has been talking about this course for quite some time. Anytime he mentions the course, folks who have played it always react the same, “you need to play La Contenta”! Well, after hearing this for months he could n’t resist any longer and it was time to give it a go, and he asked me to join him. The ride out to Valley Springs, the home of La Contenta, was not the farthest I have driven to get to a course, that was the 2 hour trek I took to play The Links at Rolling Hills. This ride to La Contenta was a more scenic ride for sure.
At 6am Friday morning I was headed into the California Delta and her miles of levee roads. Basically I drove on top of a delta levee for 50 miles with marshland, rivers, and sloughs as far as the eye can see. I turned right at an Almond tree grove, drove another 30 miles though increasingly smaller towns until there were only 4 -way stops signs and tiny fruit stands on the corners. A short one hour and forty minutes later I was pulling into the parking lot La Contenta.
We were in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, bucolic views, check. No line at the first tee, pace of play, check. Both drives were playable in the fairway, we were off safe, double check. When we walked off the first tee box we noticed a single golfer in a cart waiting sort of behind the back tees. We felt like we should ask him to play with us, but we never made eye contact. Thinking he was good waiting for us to play up, we moved on.
We were told this was a pretty hard course, and we got through the rather benign first hole just fine with solid bogey starts, we moved to number two. While walking out to a perch where the tee box was, we got our first glimpse of the course's teeth. A 167 yard Par 3 that you have to play completely over a large pond. I hit my 5 iron fat and plunked into the water, Jay hit a solid 5 iron just right of the green. When we made it back to our cart the same guy was waiting in the cart path just behind our cart, minding his own business he had his head down looking at his phone. This time we asked him to play with us, and without really looking at us he politely declined. He explained that he had already played 18 and as a member of the club he was just “sneaking” in some extra holes.
As we made it to the fourth hole our single golfer was there waiting for us. We became more aggressive in our request to play with us and he continued to politely decline. This time he offered us some course management advice. He looked up from his phone, which was the first time I saw his face and he kind of looked like Ed Harris. He had that steely eyed look and demanding presence Ed Harris has on screen, and with barely any effort he said, in his best Ed Harris voice,"play this as left of the green as you can, the ball will always move to the right and wants to roll into the right side bunker".
Both Jay and I hit our ball not left enough and we watched our golf balls roll slowly into the right side bunker. As we drove away we rode in silence both feeling like we some how let down our new golf guide. We finally spoke at the bottom of the hill while putting. Is he some sort of gold legend here? How is it that he’s sitting and waiting at the next tee box? Have we seen him even hit a golf ball?
Moving through the rest of the front nine we would have brief encounters with our wise and mysterious links guide. Passing him on our way to the 6th hole he yelled out “you need to hit your drive to the top of the hill", we were wrapping up 6 and we heard him again “less than driver will set up a short approach into the green. At eight we were on our own, but after nine we saw him on our way to ten. We thanked him for his course management insights and again asked him to play the back nine with us. Still he declined, but left us with a very focused tip for the twelfth hole. “The twelfth is a blind shot to the left. It has a sharp dog leg left. It’s a blind shot off the tee and everything looks like it goes right. Go left and you will have a chance to par the hole".
This course was very hard. There are a lot of blind shots and elevation changes. Even with the steller course management tips Jay and I had been talking through each shot throughout the front nine, and we planned to do the same for the back nine. The signature hole was on the back nine as well. Number 13 was an elevated 176 yard par three, which played more like 100 yards to do the elevation. Ten and eleven went well, we saw our guide on our way to 12 and he yelled out, “remember, dog leg left”.
We acknowledged the message was received, and...twelve was a beast! A blind tee shot into a valley, that if you didn’t have a wise and mysterious links guide you would swear was a dog leg right! It was very hard to convince you brain to go left. Jay and I played it ok, naturally we didn’t play it left enough leaving us a steep uphill blind second shot to the green. We finally made to the green and we were tidying up our putts, a bit wiped out from the journey from deep into the valley and then back up a small mountain to the green…we should have hit the ball more left! We were both looking forward seeing what all the fuss was about the signature 13th. Right at about at that moment we heard a cart straining up the hill trying to reach us at the top of the hill near the 13th tee . It was the bar cart, and the driver was flagging us down. wait the driver was flagging us down, which is unusual, it's usually the other way around.
I was thinking maybe one of us left a club behind, that is very normal for me to do, but in all my
years of leaving clubs behind a bar cart driver never delivered my errant 8 iron to me. Up from the valley the cart came and the driver got out and proceeded to pull two beers from the cart's refrigerator. I was thinking that's cool, I can usually go for a beer at about the 13th hole? The driver proceeded to hand us those beers and then told us that the gentleman back on 12 wanted to buy you guys a beer. Our wise mysterious links guide was buying us a beer and naturally it came with course management advice. The bar cart driver relayed his message to us, and it was... “sit and enjoy the view”. We did.
The rest of the round was advice free until the 16th. We had made decent work of the course and just wrapped up the 15th when we saw our guide waiting at 16. We rolled up, thanked him for the beer, asked him to join us for the final three holes, and waited for our next bit of course wisdom. Naturally He declined to play the final 3 holes, explaining he was leaving for the day. He was kind enough to let us know we played the course well, that is for first timers - yes, he was watching us-, and that "the last three holes are very straight forward, you both will be fine".
We sat a little while replaying the last 15 holes, and reliving the 12th brought a smile to our guide's face, he said he thought you would want a beer after that challenge. Then as if all this advice, guidance, and beer wasn’t enough, our wise and mysterious links guide suggested we should go back around after 18. Jay and I looked at each other thinking…maybe, but do we have enough energy? At that moment our guide pulled out his membership card. "Take a picture of this and if Paul from the pro shop questions you at number one just show him that card, you will be good to go". You guessed it, decided to play 36 holes! He wrapped up his mentorship of us by offering us to come out and play as his guest with him and his buddy. What a generous offer, after today’s adventure we were so curious what it would be like to actually play a round -or two- with our wise and mysterious links guide.
People ask me why I drive several hours, or travel to remote parts of the US to play golf, my answer is simple, and always the same, the story. This day was incredible and somewhat unbelievable, but it happened and I know there are plenty more stories out there, and now that the country is opening up again the journey is back underway. By the way, we did head back out to join our wise and mysterious links guide, and we played 36 holes…again. Being on the course going swing for swing with our guide was well worth the trip, and it’s another great story, but perhaps that will have to wait for another time I need to get ready for Foxburg Country Club at the end of the month!
See you all on the course!!