“If you build it, they will come” has been a popular phrase in the golf industry for the past few decades. Starting with Dick Youngscap’s vision at Sand Hills in rural Nebraska, to Mike Keiser’s golf mecca at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, to Keiser’s most recent project, Sand Valley, in central Wisconsin, it’s been proven that golfers will travel anywhere to play courses that are worthy of their time and money. There are exceptions to every rule however, and many in the Northern California golfing community were reminded of that fact when news broke a few weeks ago that Aetna Springs Golf Course in Pope Valley, California is closing until further notice.
With the golf course set to turn 125 this year, Aetna Springs had been one of the oldest golf courses in the Western United States, with a rich and sometimes puzzling history. It had been both a wine country resort for the Bay Area’s rich and powerful, then decades later served as cult leader Sun Myung Moon’s headquarters for the Unification Church, known commonly as the “Moonies”. Throughout its fascinating history, all the guests and residents of Aetna Springs had one thing in common, golf. No matter what else was going on in Napa County, golf at Aetna Springs has been something Pope Valley residents have always had, until now.
When speaking with the Napa Valley Register, Aetna Springs’ operations manager David Cage, said that “Pope Valley’s isolation had made it too difficult to attract enough golfers to sustain [a profitable] business.” But those who have visited remote golf destinations like Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley know that when the golf is good enough, it doesn’t matter how far off the beaten path it may be. However, spots like Bandon Dunes have a few obvious differences with Aetna, mainly that the later is void of lodging and 18+ holes of golf.
So that begs the question, what exactly went wrong at Aetna Springs and why didn’t they build supplemental amenities that would have allowed their business to prosper?
Trouble began a decade ago, when developers Robert Radovan and William Criswell had their plans for an 18-hole, Tom Doak layout rejected by both the Napa County Planning Commission and the county’s Board of Supervisors. The project, named Lake Luciana, would have been a sister development to Aetna Springs and would have provided Pope Valley with 27 holes of world-class golf, in addition to high-end lodging and resort amenities. The process leading up to voting was messy, with the developers accusing Napa County’s elected officials of bias and subsequently suing the County, while opponents of the project argued that nothing is more important to the county than the protection of agriculture, which means golf is a no-go.
From this golfer’s perspective, the timeline of events basically transpired as follows; Radovan and Criswell had the vision to build a world-class golf destination, centered around a 9-hole resort course (Aetna Springs), and an 18-hole championship-length course, both built by one of the world’s most talented, living golf course architects, Tom Doak. Their first step was to restore Aetna Springs, and they did so while maintaining that course as an immaculately conditioned private club with access for resort guests of Aetna and Lake Luciana. Then, the next phase of their project, Lake Luciana, was shot down by Napa County’s Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors for what can only be explained as a perplexing series of events conducted by County officials, whom had a bias towards the project, one way or the other. As the Lake Luciana project was being shut down by the County, the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009 was taking place, making developments like Lake Luciana all the more difficult to fathom. After years of back and forth between developers and a municipality that seemed uninterested in helping them achieve their goal of building a worthwhile tourism attraction in the somewhat economically depressed area of Pope Valley, Radonovan and Criswell finally threw in the white towel, after losing money on their project that had been in limbo for nearly a decade.
So what happens from here? A source close to ownership told Golf Guide last week that they estimate the odds of the golf course reopening around 10-1. Supposedly, the group currently in escrow to buy the 1000+ acre property at Aetna Springs is interested in converting the property into a wellness resort and spa, but whether golf is part of that plan is unknown. So for now, fans of golf and quality golf design are left speculating about the resort’s future and keeping their fingers crossed that someone in the new ownership group realizes what a special place they’ve purchased and makes an effort to put the golf course back in to operation. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed.