Castle Oaks Golf Club in Ione: A resplendent experience in the Gold Country
IONE, Calif. -- Castle Oaks Golf Club, a sprawling Brad Benz design about 35 miles southeast of Sacramento in the Gold Country, has two distinct sides that bring about different experiences, one resplendent without houses, one that's still very good but doesn't give off that "get away" feeling you find on the front nine.
The natural beauty, especially on the front nine and the closing three holes, will leave a lasting impression. That is, if the course doesn't induce some frustration for the first-time player.
Like many courses in the region, Castle Oaks was supposed to be an anchor in a large housing community. The course opened in 1994, and since then it appears only about half of the houses have been built, though no doubt there are plans to add more, mostly on the front nine.
The experience, all in all, is a restful, peaceful journey mixed in with a good combination of long and short holes. It's rather easily walked but for some large transitions from green to tee.
Most of the front nine plays over untouched land, large oaks dominating the landscape. At No. 9 you return to the housing development that was meant to intersect the overall project. Holes 12-17 work through more homes, though it's fair to say the development doesn't infringe on the golf experience. But on the back nine you miss being "out there."
As for the golf, Benz had no constrictions. From the back tees the course measures just more than 6,700 yards but is "under-sloped" at 128, meaning it's more difficult than its rating.
The single-digit handicapper might think the course can produce a batch of birdies, but precise approaches are required due to deft bunkering and elevated greens. Elevation rises and drops make for tricky club selection, essential in getting the ball close.
Also, it's not exactly an easy start. The 577-yard, par-5 first, the 215-yard, par-3 second (over water) and a slight dogleg right 420-yard, par-4 third can be a rude early morning wakeup.
I loved holes 3-8, a meandering combination of power and control marked by the beautiful par-4 fourth, a dogleg that turns at the trees. The 529-yard fifth includes a 90-degree left turn with a long run-up to a well-protected green. Long hitters like to cut the corner by sending their tee shots soaring over the willows and oaks. For most, though, three good shots are required to for a decent birdie chance. The sanguine par-3 eighth makes you think of picnics in the English countryside.
The par-4 10th and par-3 11th keep that "in-the-woods" feeling, and then come the houses. But it has to be said that the 155-yard 16th, a par 3 requiring a carry over a small brush-filled canyon, is a very pretty site. And if there is one nit-pick of the course it's that the back-nine par 3s are 173 and 155 yards, meaning not too much contrast in terms of tee shots.
Tough 400-yards-plus par 4s close it out. The tree-dominated 17th includes a Sahara-sized sand trap, and the water-dominated 18th -- with a fairway split by a lake -- requires some distance and precision. You walk off the first time realizing the numbers 6,700 and 128 really don't mean much.
"It has a good mix of holes to score on and holes to challenge you to maintain par," said Brandon Fuller of Sutter Creek. "The ending, 16 through 18, are all pretty challenging, and 18 is one of the best finishing holes. Off the tee it's about whether to play it safe or go for the island fairway."
Castle Oaks Golf Club: The verdict
There are few courses that offer this quality of golf for the relatively low price of $42 on weekdays, $52 on weekends. In the Bay Area, the fees would be closer to $75, or higher.
It should be noted that it can get pretty warm in Ione in the summer. Also, the day I played there was a rather persistent but intermittent "thump-thump" off in the distance. I was told that's dynamite. Yes, gold mining is still active in the region.
Stay and play in Ione
This small town has a pleasant Main Street, and bed-and-breakfasts dot the landscape. Less than 10 minutes away is the historic Gold Country town of Jackson, which includes a historic district, a casino and plenty of restaurant and accommodations.
February 12, 2013