The final stop on my most recent Northern California trip was a visit out to Calaveras County. I actually thought I was taking care of the last two stragglers in this region, so that I could say I was fully done with the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento/Stockton/Fresno.
Unfortunately, I learned just days after getting back from my trip that La Contenta (also in Calaveras County) had actually reopened after it was closed last year. I took it off my list and didn’t bother to look it up on this trip. I don’t know when I would have fit it into the schedule anyway, but I probably would have made it a priority had I known it was officially brought back to life. I’m glad to hear that is is reopen because I understand it’s a pretty good course, and I look forward to playing it someday. However, I was just bummed to learn about it after my trip, and now I have one big straggler left out there!
Oh well, I always like any excuse to head up toward the mountains, especially when playing a new golf course is involved.
Calling the two courses I played on the last day of my trip “stragglers” is not fair. They are only that in the sense that I hadn’t played them yet and they are both a bit out of the way geographically. The truth is, Greenhorn Creek Resort and Saddle Creek Golf Resort are widely regarded as the two best courses in this region, with the latter often considered among the best public courses in the state. For various reasons, they’ve never fit into previous trips, so I was very excited to finally check them both out this time around.
My buddy and I stayed in Jamestown on Tuesday night and then were on our way to Angels Camp the next morning…
Greenhorn Creek Resort • Angels Camp, CA • 10/3/18
I know quite a few people who will actually rank this course ahead of Saddle Creek, but I had to experience it for myself. We booked a 7:30 tee time ($75 weekday rack rate) and were the first ones off. However, the pro shop guy warned us there was a ladies member shotgun group going off the back nine around 8:00. He asked us to not push them so much. We did warn him we’d be fast and we’d do our best not to be pests.
We may have made an enemy with the maintenance guy mowing the greens ahead of us on the front nine. He was refusing to let us play through and we were pretty much racing to get ahead of him from one hole to the next. We eventually got past him on the 9th green and then maintenance was no longer an issue after that.
As we made the turn, we saw the last group of the ladies out on the 10th fairway. We drove ahead to find some open holes. We played a somewhat “creative” routing to avoid everyone, but we never actually bothered the ladies and they always waved at us as we drove past back and forth. It ended up working out well for us.
The weather was a big story on this day. It had poured the entire night before and more rain (and possibly thunderstorms) were expected to roll through the mountains as the day went on. Therefore, we wanted to get all 36 in as quickly as we could.
The golf course at Greenhorn Creek Resort was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and it offers a very fun and interesting layout. It is fairly hilly with lots of natural boulder outcroppings, pine and oak trees and just a pretty overall setting. I plays through the resort and some residential areas, so houses will come into play from time to time. However, the course still retains a relatively organic feel because of the beautiful terrain.
There are a number of memorable holes here, including several of the par-3s (there are five in total to go along with five par-5s). My favorite of the bunch was the short 13th, which has a very elevated tee hitting down to a green protected by a water hazard in front and some tricky bunkering behind. It is also lined with trees and boulders the whole way down.
I liked the back-to-back 4th and 5th holes, as well. The 4th is a short-ish downhill par-5 with a rock wall bisecting the fairway at the corner that is almost perfectly place to mess up any ultra-aggressive shots off the tee. Even with a conservative tee shot to the end of the first fairway, the green is reachable in two for most because it plays downhill the whole way.
The 5th is a nice dogleg right par-4 with a hazard up the entire right side. A little pond/creek cuts across right in front of the green where there’s a pretty tight gap and not a ton of room for error around the green, so it’s an approach shot that will provide a little pucker factor.
The 18th is also a great risk/reward finishing par-5. It’s pretty open off the tee, so you can be as aggressive as you want. After that you have some choices. There is a group of trees about 100 yards short of the green, along with a big water hazard between those trees and the green. The fairway splits at those trees, so you can lay-up left to leave an open shot in or take the longer right way around. The green itself is long, diagonal and skinny, so the pin placement will also factor into any decision making for this hole. It’s a fun finisher that will offer up some birdie/eagle opportunities, yet can add up to a bogey or worse quickly with poor strategy or execution.
The conditions at Greenhorn Creek were pretty good for this time of year, especially after a lot of rain the night before. It looked a bit rough around the edges, but played pretty well. The tee boxes good. The fairways were mostly very good with just some bare/dead patches here and there and some mushy spots because of all the wetness. The rough was mostly lush. The bunkers were damp in the early morning, but had good sand and were freshly raked. The greens were super firm and very fast, so they were the highlight condition-wise. These are really big greens with plenty of undulation, so there were definitely some adventurous chips and putts around here!
I’d easily recommend Greenhorn Creek Resort to anyone. It’s a must-play in this neck of the woods and a perfect one to pair with Saddle Creek.
Some pictures from Greenhorn Creek Resort (10/3/18):
(Click on any picture below to pull up a gallery slideshow.)
After finishing at Greenhorn Creek, we headed right over to our next destination…
Saddle Creek Golf Resort • Copperopolis, CA • 10/3/18
Copperopolis is a little more down in the valley compared to Angels Camp, as you make your way back toward Stockton. However, it’s only about a 15-20 minute drive between these two great golf courses. They are a natural pairing if you are out this way.
We originally set up an afternoon tee time at Saddle Creek to save on the green fees. However, with the weather and various other factors, it made more sense to start as early and play as quickly as we could. Despite the weather looking a bit ugly already, the course was quite busy. We checked in and they slotted us into the 11:00 tee time as a twosome. The rack rate was $80. This course (like Greenhorn Creek) can get a bit expensive, but this is kind of the offseason and that helped save a little.
We ate breakfast in the clubhouse while we waited and then teed off around 10:45. We quickly caught the groups ahead. It turns out it was a small mens club tournament of four foursomes. The marshal came by at one point and made it pretty clear there was no getting around them. We just relaxed and played the front nine at their speed, and it wasn’t too bad because there was nobody pushing from behind.
By the time we reached the 9th hole, it started raining. By the time we reached the 10th green, it was absolutely pouring. We got to the tee box of the par-3 11th and the group ahead of us was huddled up in their carts taking shelter. They said we were welcome to play through if we were stupid enough, so we did. The funny thing is it pretty much stopped raining just after this hole, even though we were still soaked to the bone already.
There was a little gap ahead of these guys, but it didn’t take us long to catch the other member groups and then we just played behind them the rest of the way in. The total pace for the round was about four hours. Not ideal with the weather, but not terrible on a busy day out here.
As for the golf course itself, Saddle Creek was designed by Carter Morrish and Tad Buchanan. These are not names I know much at all, though Carter Morrish is the son of Jay Morrish, who is a course architect I have more familiarity with. Whoever designed Saddle Creek deserves credit for creating an excellent layout in a beautiful setting.
There aren’t any huge changes in elevation here, but the course flows naturally through some rolling hills, oak trees and boulder outcroppings. Each nine loops out and back with no parallel holes. What I liked a lot here was the use of longer “native” fescue lining the outer edges of the course and also coming into play quite a bit. Many of the bunkers have a rough-hewn look and the lips are lined with this deep, tangly rough. It’s one of those situations where you want your ball to end up in the sand rather than in that deep stuff on top.
The bunkering and use of the fescue throughout the course is very nice and frames the holes well. For the most part, the course lays out right in front of you and there aren’t too many hidden surprises. You can see the hazards you want to avoid.
Parts of Saddle Creek reminded me a lot of The Preserve Golf Club in Carmel, which I had the great fortune to play earlier this year. Some of the terrain is similar, especially with the gnarly old oak trees and fescue rough lining the holes. Other parts of the course made me think of Cinnabar Hills and various other Norcal courses that I love.
There are a number of memorable holes throughout Saddle Creek, and this includes another excellent collection of par-3s.
The signature hole here is undoubtedly the par-3 14th. This is a long one that tops out at 241 yards from the black tees (blue 218, white 182). It features a fairly elevated tee (the further you are back, the more elevated you are). A water hazard guards the green short and left and then there are some big bunkers to avoid, as well. The tee box offers the best view on the course with the valley in the distance.
As much as I loved the layout and setting of Saddle Creek, the playing conditions from tee to green were a bit difficult. Everything was looking super lush and green, so it will present well in photos (other than the gloomy skies). It’s one of those cases where it looked much better than it actually played. Unfortunately, this course just does not drain well. After all the recent rain and then the quick blast we got while there, this place was very soggy and squishy throughout. It was a pretty sloppy round.
The bunkers were in pretty good shape, though I did notice the linings exposed in a few I looked at. The greens, however, were the highlight. They were nice and rolling smooth at medium speeds. Plus, they were extra receptive with the wet surfaces. That was nice after such firm greens in our morning round.
Saddle Creek is indeed a must-play and worth a little drive from Stockton or Sacramento, or it’s a great stop on your way out to the mountain towns. I can easily understand why it is ranked on many “best of California” lists because it’s a wonderful layout. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I can recommend it as a wintertime course. This is true of many Northern California tracks. You can get cheaper rates than you would pay in season, but you may be trading off with less-than-ideal playing conditions (especially when it’s been raining a lot).
Some pictures from Saddle Creek Golf Resort (10/3/18):