As I began making my way home from Northern California, I had a number of options to consider. I decided to branch out to an area I’ve never really been. Around there, they call it “Gold Country"—right in between Sacramento and Reno in the foothills of the Sierras.
I played two rounds on Saturday in Auburn, which has a number of great looking courses to choose from.
Darkhorse Golf Club • Auburn, CA • 12/28/13
This is a course that has always been high up on my wish list. It’s a little obscure, but I’ve seen it mentioned on some "best of” lists and articles as a true “Darkhorse” favorite.
Well, consider me amongst the course’s biggest fans. I absolutely loved it!
I never figured my first visit to the course would be in late December, but this unique winter weather offered a perfect opportunity. The day was not without it challenges, though. I had booked a 7:40 tee time, but knew a frost delay was imminent. While I was snug and cozy in my hotel room in Roseville, I called the course, but they weren’t sure what the frost situation was yet. Terry in the pro shop did call me while I was on the road to let me know there would for sure be a delay, which I thought was great service, but I was already on the way and figured I’d just wait it out at the course.
When I got to the course, I saw this thermometer on the side of the building, which was a bit unnerving:
Ironically, this was the shortest frost delay I encountered on the trip. They had us teeing off at 8:30 in a mini-shotgun format. They put me off first by myself on the 2nd hole. I zipped around quickly and then came back around to play the 1st hole alongside a foursome that was already on the tee.
The price was $55 and it was worth every penny of that. This is a really great course and it was in good overall condition considering the climate.
There are some good elevation changes at Darkhorse (most notably on the back nine), but nothing too dramatic. It’s more of a naturally rolling terrain in a small valley and it’s clear designer Keith Foster used the natural landscape as inspiration for the design. None of the course feels “forced” into the property.
Easily the most distinctive feature of the Darkhorse design is the bunkering. It looks great with a very rough and rugged style. There are many sand traps on the course and they come into play on almost every shot. The greens are very well protected and so are the fairways. The fairways are forgiving enough if you aim properly for your driving distances, but you really have to pay attention on the tee. No matter how far you drive the ball, there’s likely a bunker that you’ll need to avoid.
There are some other natural hazard areas and trees (a mix of oaks and pines primarily), but they don’t come into play as much as the bunkers.
Each hole feels different and distinctive, so I wouldn’t say there’s a true “signature” hole. They each offer something to keep you interested and challenged. They are all beautiful.
The greens are pretty big and feature plenty of undulation, but nothing overly tricky. Many are elevated and approach shots can be tough to judge as a first-time player. However, what I think I really like most about the course is how all the trouble is right out in front of you. There aren’t many hidden dangers or crazy dogleg angles. You can see the trouble ahead and that’s the point. It provides some visual intimidation for sure, but you can clearly see where you need to aim and what you definitely need to avoid.
The folks inside the pro shop made it sound like the course was just in “OK” winter condition, as in playable for winter but not as great as normal. I was pleasantly surprised because the course was in very good shape. It was mostly green throughout and I generally encountered great lies throughout the tee boxes, fairways and rough. I did notice more thin/brown spots on the back nine than the front, but things were still pretty good considering the temperature swings they’ve been dealing with this year.
The greens changed a lot during my round. Early on they were completely frozen, which meant it was hard to stop approaches or chips but the putting surface were quite slow with frost on top. By the time they dried off, they softened up a lot more and also sped up, so it was a constant adjustment for me. The bunkers had great sand. In fact, my only condition complaint is that many holes have been overtaken by Canadian geese and there’s a lot of poop everywhere.
My only other minor issue was that my GPS didn’t work very well. Something was off with the calibration because it was often as much as 200 yards off the distance. They had 150-yard barber poles in every fairway, though, so it was never hard for me to make my own judgments.
Overall, Darkhorse lived up to all my expectations and I was impressed with the course and its conditions for this time of year in the Sierra foothills. I confirmed my belief that I would love golf in this area and I can’t wait to explore more courses in this region along with nearby Tahoe and Truckee.
Some pictures from Darkhorse Golf Club (12/28/13):
(Yes, that’s a little patch of snow behind the 18th green.)
Saturday was my only day on this particular trip with 36 holes, but it was enjoyable on every level.
The Ridge Golf Club • Auburn, CA • 12/28/13
There were a couple nearby courses to consider for an afternoon round, but this one looked most appealing to me after limited research. I booked a 1:00 tee time for $35, but got to the course around noon in the hopes I might be able to get out a little earlier and improve my chances of finishing before dark.
Unfortunately, the place was quite busy on a picture perfect day. Most people around here would be skiing this time of year, so the great golf weather brings them out in droves. I was paired with a threesome and we teed off a few minutes before 1:00. They left after 15 holes because it was getting dark, but I pushed on and joined the threesome ahead. We putted out on the 18th hole in the dark and were the last ones out there, but we made it! It’s always more fulfilling to finish the full round.
The Ridge was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and you can tell it was conceived by an architect with plenty of imagination and appreciation for the natural landscape. The course looks sharp and offers plenty of fun and challenging features.
There are some good elevation changes on the course. Again, nothing insane, but a good variety of uphill and downhill shots mixed with a number of flatter holes, as well.
Like Darkhorse, most of the The Ridge course can be seen right out in front of you from the tee, so it’s easy to see where you need to drive the ball. However, where The Ridge gets much more interesting is on and around the greens. These things are insane.
The greens here are very well protected by big bunkers and false edges. Usually coming up short is a bad thing, but with most greens being elevated it’s easy to be hesitant on your approaches. You don’t want to go long, left or right either without knowing what is up there.
The greens at The Ridge feature a lot of undulation with some shelves and bowls. Sometimes the breaks can be friendly and feed your ball around to the hole and other times they can be frustrating depending on the pin placement. The greens were very, very quick Saturday, so any downhill or side-hill putt was just plain treacherous—often laughable. In many cases you’d be happy to just keep your ball on the green!
The greens were a little hard to enjoy fully, but the rest of the layout was very fun and interesting. I do think some local knowledge would help here so you can know where to aim on the approach shots.
On another positive note, the course was in really good shape overall. Again, considering it’s winter with wild temperature swings in this area, they’ve done a fantastic job here. It was mostly green and lush throughout. The tee boxes good and the fairways were probably the best I played on the whole trip with nice fluffy lies. The rough was good overall and cut pretty short, so it was not penal. Lastly, the bunkers had great sand. A few were closed off as GUR as they are obviously doing some work, but it was not a big deal. Other than being fast and crazy, the greens were in pretty nice shape and receptive enough on approaches, though they did get a little bumpy toward the end of the day.
The Ridge turned out to be a nice surprise. I didn’t know much about it and chose it at the last minute, so it worked out very well. Parts of the course reminded me in some weird way of the back nine at Bayonet Golf Course near Monterey. Obviously, the terrain and scenery are vastly different, but I had the feeling many times and found it worth noting.
Some pictures from The Ridge Golf Club (12/28/13):