NAPA, Calif. -- Driving to Napa for the first time last month, I couldn't help but notice all the vineyards.
Duh, they're everywhere. The rows of grapevines roam hillsides like soldiers marching. What was surprising was how many fairways I saw snaking through or near those vines.
Golf and wine go hand in hand in California's Napa Valley, just north of San Francisco. The 2016-17 wraparound PGA Tour schedule will start with the Safeway Open Oct. 13-16 at the Silverado Golf Resort and Spa, where part-owner Johnny Miller will serve as host. Miller, the two-time major champion and current NBC golf analyst, has done wonders at Silverado updating the North Course as the tournament site and upgrading rooms and the conference center at the resort. It is Napa's go-to place to play for golfers, but certainly not the only one.
Napa Valley tee times can be as pricey -- or inexpensive -- as golfers like. Peak rates run from March through mid-November, leaving winter as the best time to visit for some savings. Here's a look at the choices facing golfers on three different budgets:
High-end golf in the Napa Valley
The best golf experiences are found at two of Napa Valley's premier places to stay.
Silverado is the most obvious choice. Hosting the 2014 and 2015 Frys.com Open, the precursor to the Safeway Open, wasn't Silverado's first foray into professional golf. The resort hosted the PGA Tour from 1968-1980, producing a prestigious list of winners including Jack Nicklaus (1969), Ben Crenshaw (1980), Tom Watson (1978) and Miller (1974-75). It also held a PGA Tour Champions event on the South Course from 1989-2002. Silverado's green fees top out at $189 for the North Course and $139 for the South Course (except when the price increases to $179 in October around the Safeway Open).
The second choice is less obvious. Meadowood Napa Valley in St. Helena is more of a wine and couples destination, although there is also a nine-hole walking course on property, too. Recently renovated, the Meadowood golf course features mostly par 3s and a couple par 4s. Guests can rent hickory-shafted clubs and vintage balls and walk through time during a pleasant round. The cost of the golf at the luxurious 250-acre estate isn't pricey. It's the room rate ($600 and up) that will get you.
Mid-range golf in the Napa Valley
Like any good golf destination, Napa offers several daily-fee, public courses that don't require a single-digit handicap or a fat wallet to play. Just show up and go have some fun.
Chardonnay Golf Club, located in Jamieson Canyon near Napa, meanders through more than 150 acres of Chardonnay vineyards with numerous lakes and creek crossings. I'm a big fan of designs like Chardonnay's routing, where six par 5s, six par 4s and six par 3s create more scoring opportunities. Rates can rise as high as $90 on peak weekends, although there are weekdays where $64 will suffice.
Johnny Miller designed the other option, Eagle Vines Vineyards and Golf Club in Napa. Water terrorizes golfers on the first two holes, so come ready to play. Rates fluctuate from $39 to $89 depending upon the day and time.
Napa Valley golf on a budget
A trio of nine-holers and a local gem add value to what's considered a pricey destination.
The Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park in Napa never charges more than $40 for a 6,681-yard course that's challenging but can also cater to any skill level with four sets of tees. The par-5 eighth hole might be the most dramatic, with water lurking on either side of the fairway.
Vintners Golf Club ($35-$40 for 18 holes) opened in 1999 in Yountville. More recently, the club's Director of Instruction Bob Boldt, who played on the regular and senior PGA Tours, added a set of back tees to stretch it to nearly 3,000 yards.
In the Pope Valley north of Napa lies one of the oldest courses west of the Mississippi, Aetna Springs. Although the nine-holer dates to 1893, Tom Doak's update in 2007 restored several holes and perked up others, while maintaining the rustic beauty. Aetna Springs ($35-$35 to ride 18 holes) is only open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.
Even farther north is Mt. St. Helena Golf Course, a nine-holer in Calistoga. The par-34 course, costing $49-$53 to ride 18 holes, follows mostly flat land. Narrow, tree-lined fairways and smaller greens demand accuracy.
As long as we are talking about nine-holers off-the-beaten path, it's worth noting that Dr. Alister MacKenzie designed the nine-hole Northwoods Golf Club under towering redwood trees in Monte Rio in neighboring Sonoma County (home to even more courses). Golf history buffs might enjoy Northwood ($51-$59 riding for 18 holes) more than the next wine tasting anyway.