Holding on for a wild, beautiful ride at DarkHorse Golf Club in Auburn

By Ted Johnson, Contributor

AUBURN, Calif. -- From the first tee shot, DarkHorse Golf Club requires attention. This is not a course suited for casual approach while you wake-up on the opening holes. No, this course starts with challenges and continues throughout, some varying in degrees of difficulty but all resplendent in natural beauty.

DarkHorse Golf Club - 17th hole
DarkHorse Golf Club's 17th hole can mesmerize golfers with its beauty.
DarkHorse Golf Club - 17th holeDarkHorse Golf Club - 7th holeDarkHorse Golf Club - 5th holeDarkHorse Golf Club - 14th greenDarkHorse Golf Club - 3rd hole
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DarkHorse Golf Club

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Nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, DarkHorse Golf Club tumbles across a magnificent landscape that once served as a cattle ranch. The course incorporates a variety of elevation changes that range from subtle to dramatic.

18 Holes | Public golf course | Par: 72 | 7005 yards | Book online | ... details »

This Keith Foster-designed course, located ostensibly within the city limits of Auburn, sits amidst oak- and fir-laden hillsides about 40 miles northeast of Sacramento. It is a golf course where a cart is mandatory to traverse some large transitions from hole to hole as well as the dramatic forced carries on holes such as the par-4 10th.

Visually, it can be intimidating. Aside from the roiling, rolling nature of the land, Foster has added large, craggy bunkers filled with paprika-and-cinnamon-colored sand whose edges are topped by natural grasses. It gives the course a wild, almost untamed look. Add to that some bunker placement and, if you're still trying to achieve full consciousness, you find yourself feeling under pressure on the tee box.

DarkHorse Golf Club: The verdict

On paper, DarkHorse Golf Club seems to be rather benign. The white tees measure less than 5,900 yards, the blues around 6,300, the copper at 6,600 and the blacks at just more than 7,000.

The slope rating for the blues is 130, 138 for the blacks. After the round, you will be able to find spots where the scary nature of the course is rather toothless, and thus the ratings are accurate.

Once you're on the course, however, you might find your hands shaking as you put the tee in the ground. This is a cart-oriented course that takes advantage of thrilling features such as large trees, wetlands and elevation changes.

The first tee shot should indicate that this course offers very little let-up. The downhill par 4 of just more than 400 yards (from the blues) must stay on a wide but steeply slanted fairway, with creekside woods guarding the right side.

The 319-yard, par-4 second climbs like an elevator shaft (add two clubs on the approach), and the 220-yard (or so) downhill par 3 must avoid a gaping maw of a bunker that sits well short of the green. And in that example, Foster's design can be extra punitive for the lesser-skilled golfer. A poor tee shot here leaves a 30-yard shot over a flared bunker wall to a green rippled with subtle ridges. It's an easy double-bogey or worse.

Then, the tee shot on the par-5 fourth must avoid the wetlands on the right side. The eye ventures left where another large bunker stands. In fact, there is more room for a straight tee shot, but that's seems to be Foster's intent: Make you overcome your fears. Early in the round, it can drain confidence before you hit.

DarkHorse Golf Club's seventh, 517 yards from the blues, stands as a classic woodlands par 5 that brings great risk-reward benefits. The dogleg left offers a wide landing area, but the aggressive second shot to green must avoid water on the left. Foster, as devilish as ever, puts an angled bunker in the perfect layup area about 100 yards short of the green.

"The front can be tougher, but it gets a little easier on the back," said Mark Mallory, of Auburn, who is a member at DarkHorse. "The holes get a little wider, though No. 11 is a very hard par 5."

The front nine closes with two uphill par 4s, and the cart then climbs up to the 10th tee, which sits about 100 feet or more above the fairway. The forced carry isn't long, but it is scary.

The 11th rises 559 yards in a double-dogleg (first left, then right) whose perched green is guarded by a deep front-left bunker. A killer drive followed by a killer 3-wood might, just might, leave you with a short iron into the green.

From there, the course calms down some, with the 287-yard 14th enticing long hitters to get some revenge by going for the green. The par-4 17th also offers more physical beauty as the large oaks and deep bunkers mesmerize golfers with its beauty.

DarkHorse is another real estate development that offers compelling golf. It can be tricky to find off Highway 49 and then Combie Road in Auburn. Pay attention to directions.

Stay and play in Auburn

Located about 35 miles east of Sacramento, Auburn is a growing town that retains its rustic charm. Plenty of hotel and motel options are available, and Latitudes restaurant will give you a taste of the foothills lifestyle.

Ted JohnsonTed Johnson, Contributor

Ted Johnson has been writing about golf for more than 25 years. Having traveled the world with his clubs, he counts himself lucky to have played Cypress Point, but Turnberry’s Ailsa, Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath in Australia and Ireland’s Royal County Down tend to rotate as favorites. And then there was the trip to Vietnam, where he found himself in Vung Tao and his luggage in Ho Chi Minh City. That’s why to this day he carries a toothbrush in his golf bag.

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