Christmas in Norcal, Part 2: Lesser Conditions but More Dramatic Designs

I enjoyed my 36-hole Christmas Day at Lincoln Hills, where the conditions were very nice considering it’s wintertime in Northern California. I played one round each on Friday and Saturday. The conditions weren’t nearly as nice, but the layouts definitely offered added challenge and drama.

On both days, I opted to sleep in and not have to deal with any certain frost delays in the early morning. It was nice and relaxing, but also odd for me not to try and play twice like I normally would. Friday’s round did require a bit of a drive, though, so having the extra time in the morning was good…

Alta Sierra Country Club • Grass Valley, CA • 12/26/14

I waited until the night before to book, so my options were a little limited. Still, I saw on GolfNow that Alta Sierra clearly had a shotgun going off at 10:00 am. That seemed like a perfect time to start post-frost and the pre-planned shotgun format just made perfect sense for this time of year. Also, I found one “hot deal” time available for $34 when everyone else was paying closer to $50.

I’m surprised more courses in this area don’t do this since frost-delays are pretty commonplace. It causes all sorts of issues when morning tee times get backed up or a modified shotgun has to get organized on the fly. Of course, they don’t get as much play in Norcal in the winter compared to what I’m used to in SoCal, so maybe it’s not that big a deal.

Anyway, it was about a 40-minute drive up toward Grass Valley. I had taken a detour to this area last year and really loved my rounds at Darkhorse and The Ridge in Auburn, so Alta Sierra was appealing. It is located another 10-15 minutes north of Darkhorse and further up in the Sierra foothills—a.k.a “Gold Country.”

I really didn’t know much about the course, but I checked out their website in advance and it looked like my type of place. Anyone who follows this blog knows I really like mountain courses, and Alta Sierra definitely fits that description.

You do have to drive on some windy little roads to get to the course, but I ultimately made it just fine. I checked in and the pro shop guy acted as if he knew me. He even said he recognized me from “before.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him this was my first time here, so I just went along with it.

I was assigned to the 6th hole, which was a bit of a drive from the clubhouse. I was paired with a father and his two younger sons, who were both beginner-level golfers. They were super nice and made me feel like part of the family for the day, but it definitely took me out of my own game playing alongside them. It also didn’t help that it was cart-path-only, so that made things seem even slower. There weren’t too many groups out there, so things were spaced out nicely and we ultimately did catch up to the people in front of us anyway, so as long as we weren’t the “slow” group I didn’t mind.

Alta Sierra winds through a rural residential area. It is hilly and there are a ton of pine and fir trees (I love that smell on a mountain course), so most holes have a pretty significant dogleg and there are some narrow tee and approach angles. It’s not nearly as tight as some other mountain courses I’ve played, but it definitely requires accuracy to score well. Conditions were very soft and shaggy, as well, so that made it play much longer because the ball wouldn’t roll out at all. We were playing the gold tees at 6,326 yards. There is a black set available at 6,535 and forward sets if you really just want a pure, short “target” golf experience.

Being in an area with plenty of houses and roads in play, there are many OB areas that aren’t hard to reach. Needless to say after pointing out all these challenge factors, my score was not pretty this day!

I don’t know if any holes really qualify as “signature” in this older design, but I enjoyed most of the par-3s. Probably my favorite was the 12th, which features a downhill tee shot. Trees run up the left side and water sits to the right of the green, so it’s kind of an all-or-nothing shot. Short is really the only miss you can get away with.

The par-5 18th was also fun. The tee shot wraps around a lake to the right and then the hole continues to curl around with the elevated green tucked further around the corner. It’s not one most long hitters will go for unless they can hit a giant cut, but as a three-shot hole it requires some strategy.

The course was in okay shape for winter. But like I said earlier, things were extra shaggy here. Some areas were still frozen/frosty for a couple hours after we started and then unfortunately turned to mush once thawed. There was a lot of goose poop and muddy spots in the fairways, so the ball would always be caked with muck by the time I got on the green. The tee boxes were fine. The rough was sometimes deep, thick and brutal and then sometimes not much of a factor at all. The bunkers were pretty terrible with just hard-packed sand/mud that you couldn’t do anything with. The greens were pretty good overall. They were really rolling a lot slower than they looked, so we never really adjusted to the speeds.

Overall, Alta Sierra is a fun old course in the beautiful foothill setting, but it is further out of the way than much better options like Darkhorse or The Ridge. The guy I played with said he rarely plays it compared to a number of other courses in the region and, from what I could see around the clubhouse during the shotgun start, most players here are older residents/members. It does sound like this course is considered “semi-private,” so those members do have preferred tee times and options for outside players are more limited. I saw plenty of tee times on GolfNow while I was in town, though.

Some pictures from Alta Sierra Country Club (12/26/14):

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My brother decided to play with me again on Saturday, so I opted for a similar plan with a late morning time. This time, though, I kept things much closer to where we were staying…

Whitney Oaks Golf Club • Rocklin, CA • 12/27/14

I had booked a 12:10 “hot deal” time through GolfNow for $33. The rates throughout the morning were $59, so this was a much better price. It was definitely worth what we paid, but I wouldn’t have been as happy paying the full rate considering the mediocre conditions.

We arrived early and it timed out perfectly as there was a gap on the first tee and the starter let us head out as a twosome around 11:40. There were groups in front of us and ultimately behind us, so we just stayed in the middle of the pack and finished in around 4.5 hours.

Whitney Oaks was designed by Johnny Miller. I’ve only played one other Miller course, Maderas. I’m not a fan of him as an announcer, but I do like that course and was curious to check out Whitney Oaks. I think there are some comparisons to draw in that both are more target/strategic designs rather than grip-it-and-rip-it layouts. That said, there are some opportunities/requirements for that style of play on several holes, as well.

The front nine is more open and plays a couple hundred yards longer than the back. There are several long par-4s that do require a big tee shot to have a good approach in. Then there are a couple that are both long and strategic like the 2nd (a long-ish par 4 wrapping around a water hazard to the right) and the 5th, which is a real beast. A jagged ravine crosses through the fairway and presents some intimidation factor.

The front nine is solid, but didn’t feel like anything I hadn’t played before. The back nine, however, gets interesting right from the start. The stretch of holes 10-16 is very distinctive and memorable. I know some players that would absolutely hate this stretch of holes that some would call too “funky” or “quirky.” However, I found them enjoyable even if my scorecard did not. Either way, it’s hard to argue the fact this part of the course is pretty unique and dramatic.

The 10th is a short par-4 with an awkward tee angle to a pretty open landing area in the fairway. Then, it’s a dogleg right, uphill. The elevated green is protected by a big, nasty bunker in front. All the holes have names here and this one is rightfully called “Bunker Hill.”

The 11th is really something special and is one of the most interesting par-5s I’ve ever played. It is not for the faint of heart because it is very narrow from tee to green. A creek runs along the left side and houses up the right. Big trees come into play throughout the hole and so do some giant boulders and rock outcroppings. Though reachable, I doubt many players will go for this green in two because there is just no room for error on any shot. This hole is named “Stymie” for the unusual boulder pile that obscures the green on your approach if you are on the right side of the fairway.

My score on number 11 showed what this hole is all about. I pulled my first drive a bit left and into the trees/creek. I re-teed a provisional and hit that safely in the middle of the fairway. I never found my first ball, so I took the penalty stroke and was lying 3. I then proceed to hit a nice, safe second shot and then had a relatively easy shot in to the green, where I had a routine two-putt. My first shot was just offline and resulted in a double bogey. However, the way I played it the rest of the way would have been an easy par with a pretty good look at birdie.

None of the holes after this are quite as hardcore, but offer similar scenery and target-style strategy going around the hills, trees, boulders, ravines and the creek. Safe shots are rewarded and good scores can be had, but if you are just off on any shot, you will be punished.

Unfortunately, the carts did not have GPS and I did not have a yardage guide. These are definitely holes you have to play many times to figure out completely. As first-timers, we were definitely at a disadvantage. My score suffered, but I still enjoyed the roller coaster ride through this part of the course.

I mentioned the houses along the 11th hole. This is definitely the nice part of town because there are some big and beautiful homes throughout this course. They don’t come into play that much, but they provide a very high-end backdrop.

Whitney Oaks was in okay shape, playing somewhat better than it looked. They stick with bermuda fairways year-round here, so in winter they are brown and there were still a lot of soft/muddy sections after all the recent rain. In general, though, the playability of the fairways was pretty good. The tee boxes were nice and the rough was a little patchy and inconsistent—some really nice lush areas and others not so filled in.

I did notice that around the 18th green, the fairway, green and rough are pretty much immaculate. So for people overlooking that hole from the clubhouse, they are treated to a more “idealistic” representation of the course year-round. I found that kind of interesting and also kind of sneaky. The bunkers had good sand and were by far the best of this trip.

The greens were firm and relatively quick. They were very nice. Some of the locals I’ve played with warned me that I’d really “hate the crazy greens” at Whitney Oaks. They do have some significant undulations and shelves, but I didn’t find them to be overly tricked out. I liked them just fine.

Whitney Oaks is not for everyone, but it is a stern test for all parts of anyone’s game with a mix of long holes and short/target holes. The setting is nice with all the oaks, boulders and luxury homes in view. I would also guess conditions are nicer during other parts of the year when the bermuda is looking better. I would have enjoyed it even more if that were the case.

Some pictures from Whitney Oaks Golf Club (12/27/14):

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