by David Shefter
Santa Rosa, Calif. – You won’t find Snoopy or Charley Brown hitting balls on the practice tee nor will Lucy and Linus be seen perusing the club’s delectable wine list.
None of the fictional “Peanuts” characters can be located anywhere among the 675 picturesque acres that make up Mayacama Golf Club. But they did play an indirect role in the club’s founding.
The land that features the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, clubhouse and home sites once was the property of the late Charles M. Schulz who is best known as the “Peanuts” comic strip creator. Schulz, an avid golfer who lived in nearby Sebastopol and is now immortalized at a museum in Santa Rosa, preserved the serene and rustic property, hoping that someday a golf course might emerge from the natural surroundings.
That moment came in 1999 when David Wilhelm purchased the land and got the approval for his master plan. Half of the 1,350-acre parcel went to create the 69-home Shiloh Estates, while the lower portion was zoned for the golf course, 31 home sites and casitas that would make up Mayacama Golf Club, site of the 2010 USGA Men’s State Team Championship.
Wilhelm’s vision was to combine the region’s world-renown wineries with a high-end private golf experience. He had achieved a similar success with Roaring Fork Club in Aspen, Colo., which combined a Jack Nicklaus layout with fly fishing.
With some of Sonoma County’s finest wineries sitting just minutes from the property, the location could not have been more ideal. David, along with his son, managing partner Jonathan Wilhelm, even created the Vintner Member program, allowing area winery owners to join at a reduced initiation fee.
But the discount came with a disclaimer: Vintners needed to produce wines north of 92 points from Robert Parker or Wine Spectator, along with hosting annual winemaker dinners and/or tastings either at their wineries, a local eatery or the club. Regular Mayacama members also can purchase some of the hardest-to-get wines from these wineries at special pricing.
To honor this unique partnership, the club conducts the annual Vintner Cup, where each of the 31 Vintner Members is drawn blindly to play with three regular members in a four-ball competition. Each player receives a magnum of wine from the vintner and the tournament concludes with an all-vintner pour, where the latest libations are available for tasting.
“It’s an event that is unique to this club,” said Mayacama head professional Ted Antonopoulos, an Augusta, Ga., native who has been at the club since its opening on Aug. 11, 2001. “We hold it in early May. It’s a good time for [the vintners] because as you get later in the year, all of a sudden it’s harvest. That’s a very busy time for them.”
Another unique aspect of the club is what Antonopoulus calls the “wine cave.” Each member gets his/her own wine locker in the 3,000 square-foot wine cellar.
While members share lockers for golf, they get their own locker in the “wine cave.” And many of the wines on Mayacama’s list can’t be purchased by the public. It’s not uncommon to hear members providing tips on the latest Pinot Noir or Cabernet over how to play a flop shot or execute a bump and run.
“Wine was a big part of it from day one,” said Antonopoulos, whose older brother, Buddy, is the head pro at The Medalist in Hobe Sound, Fla. “Wine country is such a destination for many people. That’s why it is attractive as a national membership, although the majority of the members are from San Francisco (68 miles to the south).
“They have special member pricing, which is better than they can find anywhere else. [In many cases], they would have to go on a waiting list in order to get the wine from some of these vintners.”
Of course, the main reason for Mayacama’s existence is golf. Through David Wilhelm’s connections with Nicklaus – the Golden Bear designed Roaring Fork Club – he was able to get the six-time USGA champion to naturally rout the course without moving much dirt.
“First of all, you start with a great piece of property, one that allowed us the opportunity to set a golf course in there, naturally, to create a wonderful golf experience,” says Nicklaus on his Web site. “The whole experience is secluded and private. The club’s location and its surrounds combine to make it very private and unique. If you weren’t from there, you’d never know there was a golf course there.”
Everything at Mayacama was done to honor traditions. Members don’t have to make a starting time and must employ one of the 50 to 60 available caddies, outside of a few designated times. Many of those caddies will be utilized for the Men’s State Team Championship Sept. 14-16.
Carts can be taken by members 65 and over or anyone with a medical condition. During the summer months, carts are also available after 3 p.m.
But ever since Antonopoulos arrived at Mayacama, he thought the place was deserving of a USGA championship.
A few years back, he contacted Ron Read, the USGA’s director of regional affairs for the West Region, about the possibility of getting Mayacama on the USGA’s radar.
“He was impressed with the place,” said Antonopoulos, who has known the Monterey-based Read since 1983 when he worked at Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley. “The ball got rolling. Mark Passey (Director of Regional Affairs, Central Region and past director of the Men’s State Team Championship) came out and played. We started talking about it and the Men’s State Team Championship came up.
“I presented it to ownership and they were absolutely all for it. Our members have absolutely embraced this concept.”
While Mayacama has twice been a U.S. Open local qualifying site (2008 and 2009), this is the first time the club will be on a national stage. What the field will discover is a visually pleasing layout that is demanding from the opening tee shot.
From an environmental aspect, the course has been certified as an Audubon Sanctuary Program, and plenty of wildlife can be found on the property, including mountain lions, wild turkeys and deer.
“There’s a lot of emphasis on second shots,” said Antonopoulos of the course. “Misses can make getting it up and down [for par] a challenge.
“We like to have our course playing firm and fast. We really don’t do very much [to prepare the course] between day-to-day play and our own championships. Green speeds and firmness are pretty constant. What’s neat is virtually every hole is by itself. There are not a lot of parallel fairways. You look at what you have ahead of you. All the challenges are out there in front of you. It’s certainly scenic as well as being a great test It’s a good walk.”
Unfortunately, Schulz never got to see the final product. He died in February of 2000, some 18 months before the grand opening. Yet the club continues to honor him by hosting the annual Charles Schulz Celebrity Golf Classic, which has raised more than $1.6 million for Children’s Charities of Sonoma County. Recent participants have included Kurt Russell, Mayacama member John O’Hurley, Jerry Rice, Dwight Clark and Branford Marsalis.
“Wine country is a destination for them, too,” said Antonopoulos. “They also love the golf course.”