Staying the course

Local links boast picturesque settings, challenging holes for area golfers
By: Jeffrey Weidel, Special to the Journal
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Fifteen years ago the Greater Sacramento region was severely lacking in available golf courses, but that is no longer the case. In fact, the area has so many places to play now that it’s not unusual when even an avid golfer has never booked a tee time on a particular course. There are diverse courses in the region, tracks that for a variety of reasons the average golfer will want to experience. Below are five courses to consider when scheduling your next round. DarkHorse Golf Club Location: Auburn Website: Phone: (530) 269-7900 Green fees (with cart): $45-79 These 212 acres of rolling hills on the outskirts of Auburn proved a spectacular canvas for course designer Keith Foster. DarkHorse’s natural beauty makes it arguably the most picturesque course in the Sacramento region. Beware, it’s also one of the area’s most difficult tracks. Residing at an elevation that varies between 1,500 and 1,700 feet, DarkHorse has seven elevated tees and invites its guests to pick out a signature hole. There are so many, the jury is still undecided. Course knowledge is crucial, especially on these challenging, multi-tiered greens that demand accurate shot-making and skill with the putter. There are also plenty of hazards to avoid, including the majestic oak and pine trees, small creeks, lakes, huge granite outcroppings, and enough bunkers to guarantee a few visits to the beach. Empire Ranch Golf Club Location: Folsom Website: Phone: (916) 817-8100 Green fees (with cart): $29-67 Located at the base of the foothills off East Natoma Street, Empire Ranch meanders through a hilly section of east Folsom that once was just a scenic spot for drivers to gaze upon as they passed through. Sacramento golf architect Brad Bell has designed a links-style track that the average player will enjoy and also be tested by marsh land, bunkers and undulating greens. Always keeping the average golfer in mind, Bell has done it again at Empire Ranch. The fairways are rather generous and the yardage (6,668 from the back tees) is modest by today’s standards. The backside offers some gorgeous views of the Sacramento Valley and features three par-3s. The one golfers will certainly remember comes at the 18th. That’s right, a golf course with a finishing par-3. Of the over 60 courses in a 45-mile radius of Sacramento, none offers a similar finishing hole. Apple Mountain Golf Resort Location: Camino (near Apple Hill) Website: Phone: (530) 647-7400 Green fees (with cart): $39-69 If hilly courses are your thing, this is a must-play, offering spectacular terrain that can leave more uneven lies than the most mountainous track in the Tahoe region. Carved through towering stands of pine, cedar, and madrone trees, and featuring snow-capped mountain views, Apple Mountain provides a beautiful setting. Apple Hill, which was designed by Algie M. Pulley, Jr. and also features’ some of Bell’s layout ideas, is a very challenging track that measures only a modest 6,450 yards from the tips. Water hazards, numerous trees and strategically placed sand traps combine to make this target-golf course penalizing. The greens are challenging as well. Big hitters might not appreciate the layout. There are many dog-leg holes that will demand the driver remain in the bag. Moderate hitters can still hit driver on a number of holes. A well-placed 3-wood of about 210-220 yards will keep most golfers safe and happy. River Oaks Golf Club (formerly Rio La Paz) Location: Nicolaus Website: Phone: (530) 656-2182 Green fees (with cart): $29-49 Although geographically not far from downtown Sacramento, the rather anonymous town of Nicolaus has its own public golf course, a mere 30 minutes away from the state capital. A course that won’t overwhelm the average handicapper, River Oaks resides in a quiet country setting and on most days a round can be played in brisk fashion. The yardage is not daunting, going 6,505 yards from the back tees and the fairways are generous. Although big hitters with plenty of game might find this track too easy, there are also a number of golfers who will consider it just right, a place where your game can prosper. River Oaks features only three par-4s measuring 400 yards or longer, plus several short ones, including a tricky 307-yarder that requires considerable accuracy. Especially pleasing about this course are the risk/reward decisions on many holes that will make golfers think. WildHawk Golf Club Location: South Sacramento Website: Phone: (916) 688-4653 Green fees (with cart): $27-54 The user-friendly track at Wildhawk has a distinctive, high-desert like appearance that is unique for Sacramento. It features four sets of tees, interesting water features and unique shaped bunkers – all of which add excitement to the golf experience, which is generally a peaceful setting. The fairways are wide, the yardage (6,695 yards from the tips) isn’t overwhelming and the greens don’t require extra study time to read. Wildhawk is a fun track where even the average golfer can experience a career-low round when keeping the ball in the fairway and sinking a few putts. However, the terrain is moderately hilly and there are several water holes, and traps reside all over the course – thank you very much J. Michael Poellot, Wildhawk’s architect.