There is something very special about playing a golf course for the first time. Couple that with the fact that the course lies within the boundaries of one of America's greatest national parks and you have a round fit for a king.
Recently, I traveled to California and found myself in the middle of Yosemite National Park for some sight-seeing and exploration. Yosemite, complete with its Sequoia forest, towering Ponderosa Pines, Glacier Point, bear, deer and so much more is a place that touches one's soul.
When I discovered a nine-hole golf course inside the park, I knew I had found heaven on earth.
The Wawona Hotel Golf Course is located 4 miles from the park's south entrance and 6 miles from the Mariposa Big Trees, redwoods that are the oldest living things on earth. The "Grizzly Giant" tree is nearly 3,000 years old, with a base measuring 30-feet across and limbs 7- feet around.
As mysterious as the Mariposa Big Trees are, Wawona has its own mystery. Alister Mackenzie, one of golf's most revered architects, is listed in several places as designer of the course. Yet there is no definitive evidence that he even laid eyes on the place.
Al Gonzalez, general manager of the Wawona Hotel, has extensively researched the course's history. His findings indicate that Walter G. Favarque of San Francisco was the primary designer of the scenic layout that blends seamlessly into the pines of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
"We don't know if Mackenzie ever walked the property," says Kevin Sleight, Wawona's head professional. "One story that I have heard from people who have been here a while is that Favarque sent his plans to MacKenzie to look at. It could be he oversaw the project from afar. There seems to be some connection, but we aren't sure just what it was."
One story golfers have been telling for years with regard to Mackenzie's connection to Wawona is clearly not true.
As the story goes, Mackenzie was working on Cypress Point, arguably the most beautiful course in the world, when torrential rains flooded the Monterey Peninsula and halted work on the project.
According to the tale, Mackenzie took a trip to Yosemite and was told by officials they had a golf course project in mind. Supposedly Mackenzie designed the nine holes, but had to leave to complete work at Cypress Point, promising to return to design the back nine, but never did.
We know it's a tale because Wawona opened in 1918, while Cypress Point wasn't complete until 1928.
One thing that is certain is the course you see today is probably what will be there forever. Long ago there may have been a chance to finish the course with another nine holes, but because of conservationists and government bureaucracy it would be impossible to get that done today.
The course lies alongside the Merced River in a tranquil setting among towering Ponderosa Pines and incense cedar trees across a two-lane road from the rustic Wawona Hotel, itself a National Historic Monument built in 1856.
Wawona was the first course built in the Sierra and the first within the boundary of a national park. While it's a mountain course, it features only small elevation changes.
The nine holes play to only 3,035 yards and a par of 35, but only the two par-fives, holes one and three, can be considered short.
There are three par threes, the 229-yard second hole, the picturesque 185-yard sixth and the deceptive 167-yard eighth, which has a small green framed by a bunker right and dense woods left.
The sixth hole is known as the nursery hole because all sorts of wildlife, including bear, come out of the woods here with their young seemingly to watch the golfers.
The seventh is a gorgeous 402-yard par four with a blind tee shot over a hill through the trees. The approach shot is downhill to a green beautifully framed by huge Ponderosa Pines. A plaque next to the green commemorates the spot where the first community in Yosemite was established by explorer John Muir, nearly 160 years ago.
It's not often one has the opportunity to play a round of golf in such an incredible setting. It's even less often one plays a round of golf that touches the soul.
Somehow I felt as if John Muir was walking along with me asking me what I thought of Yosemite, a place he fought long and hard to preserve. I'd love to tell him, but somehow words cannot express the true beauty of Yosemite.
James Stammer has been an avid golfer and golf enthusiast for nearly 40 years. He hosts the Thursday night golf show on WSTU 1450-AM. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.