DarkHorse runs away with the prize in the Gold Country

By Jeffrey Weidel, Contributor

AUBURN, Calif. -- Much of the quiet charm in the rustic foothills of the California Gold Country is slowly eroding. Houses are everywhere, strip malls are becoming more common.

The rolling hills that gave this area near Sacramento such a strong quality of life for many decades are under siege. The sleepy little valley lifestyle many people loved is now a mere memory, disappearing in the name of progress.

Looking for the proof? The main corridor that lies between the gold rush towns of Auburn and Grass Valley, scenic Highway 49, is a mass of traffic every morning and evening, swarming with impatient foothill commuters, some of them making the 50-mile trip to work in Sacramento each day. But progress does have its rewards. And one of them is DarkHorse.

Golf Club on the outskirts of Auburn

Before the course even saw a golf ball officially flying over one of its well-manicured fairways on opening day (Oct. 19, 2002), the rumor was that Keith Foster had created something unique. No surprise, this is a man with many acclaimed notches on his design belt. He also was included among a small group that renovated Augusta National and The Colonial.

Foster's instructions for DarkHorse are words any golf designer longs to hear, but rarely does.

"He was told by the owners to put in 18 beautiful golf holes and they would fit in the houses around them," DarkHorse general manager Russell Sylte said.

And Foster did just that.

Golf Magazine gave the course a major thumbs up, putting it on a list of Top 10 You Can Play in America. Before opening, DarkHorse was among Golf Digest's five courses to watch in 2002. A consensus of Sacramento-area publications rates DarkHorse the No. 1. course.

And speaking of the course opening, the date kept getting pushed back to the frustration of developers Ed and Chad Fralick, a father-son team.

The Fralicks wanted the DarkHorse setting to look natural, and they certainly succeeded, after eight years and bundles of red tape. The wait was well worth it. They now possess a classy golf course, which makes trying to sell upscale homes much more appealing.

Located on the edge of Auburn, a growing city with a proud history, DarkHorse rests next to Lake of the Pines, a gated community featuring a 230-acre lake and an 18-hole golf course of moderate proportions.

During the 1980s, the area became somewhat of a land grab for many retirement-age people departing more urban locations for the beauty and peaceful life of the foothills.

It was the type of place where cattle lazily grazed on land that now goes for a premium price. In fact, DarkHorse's 1,100 acres were previously a cattle ranch.

In their place is a course that belies its young age, a perfect fit amid the rolling hills and their considerable natural beauty. Resting at an elevation of from 1,500 to 1,700 feet, DarkHorse has seven elevated tees and invites guests to pick out a signature hole. There are so many, the jury is still undecided.

"I think DarkHorse ranks right there near the top among courses in the Sacramento area," Northern California golf writer Gary Traynham said. "It sits in a beautiful area with natural terrain. There are so many great golf holes. It's just a beautiful place."

However, this is not just another pretty face. It's also a pretty cool course to try and master. Don't expect to do it on that first try. Course knowledge is crucial, especially on greens that are among the most challenging in the area. Considering the demand on shot-making, frankly the greens could have been made a little easier, giving more people a chance for a decent score.

For the daring, DarkHorse can provide the ultimate challenge from the tips, which measure a whopping 7,218 yards with a slope rating of 140. Even at the next level (6,826 yards, 134 rating), this is one serious test.

The fairways have diversity, generous on some holes and tight and treacherous on other ones. There are certainly some nerve-testing shots throughout the round. Elevation changes are frequent, which means expect your share of uneven lies.

Careful shot-making is a must. There are plenty of hazards to avoid, including majestic oaks and pines, small creeks, lakes, huge granite outcroppings, plus enough bunkers that most golfers are guaranteed at least a sand shot or two.

It's the type of course that can challenge even the top golfer -- one reason why the ultimate goal at DarkHorse is hosting a PGA event some day.

"This can be a demanding course for golfers really looking for a test," head pro Jim West said. "Nobody else has what we have. Guys come off the course, even if they haven't played well and say it was 'awesome.'"

But there is still much to be done. A stately clubhouse remains in blueprint stage, arriving somewhere in 2004-5 season. It will be three stories and spread out for 23,000 square feet, including banquet facilities, small conference rooms, plus an outdoor deck for sun worshipers.

A golf academy is also in the planning stages. Among its unusual features will be a three-hole course for learning. A small pond with a pier will be centrally located, adding to the overall ambiance.

The amenities are a nice touch, yet it is the course alone that should lure golfers to DarkHorse. Played at the second tee box (6,826 yards), there are three par-5s that measure 554, 520 and 571 yards. The final one is a neat risk-reward hole at the 18th, which dares long hitters to go over a creek on the second shot.

However, there is no risk playing this course. Just on pure scenery alone, this is a welcome addition to the Sacramento golfing scene.

Even the price is right, a mere $49 on Monday through Thursday with a cart. The price does climb considerably, going $69 on Friday to Sunday. A $39 twilight deal (after 2 p.m.) is the way to go on weekdays.

Where to Stay

Nearby Auburn is a unique foothill town with a lot of history that might be worth a visit. The city has a Best Western, Holiday Inn and Travelodge are among the choices. Grass Valley is also a short drive away and provides affordable lodging in a quaint foothill setting as well.

For reservations, call (866) 609-9330.

Where to Eat

For a traditional meal, try Lou La Bontes, located just off the I-80 freeway in Auburn. For some variety, there is the Mija Sushi and Bilig French Café. Other selections include the Headquarter House and Chevy's off Highway 49.

Driving directions

Take Highway 80 East toward Reno. Exit at Bell Road, located a few miles past Auburn. Make a left at the end of the exit. Continue until you reach Highway 49 -- a Chevron gas station and Target store are located on the corner. Make a right (north) onto Highway 49 toward Grass Valley. Drive for approximately 10 miles until you reach a stop light intersection named Combie Road. Turn right and drive one mile to the next stop light intersection. Turn right again and travel up Combie Road three miles onto DarkHorse boulevard and into the clubhouse parking lot.

Fast fact:

The Sacramento Beeselected DarkHorse as its No. 1 course to play in the Sacramento area within six months of its opening.

Jeffrey WeidelJeffrey Weidel, Contributor

Jeffrey Weidel has been working in the Sacramento area as a sportswriter since 1981. An avid golfer with a 10.6 index, he is currently the Assistant Sports Editor of The Press-Tribune, a three-day a week paper in Roseville.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Dark Horse

    Van Delay wrote on: Sep 13, 2004

    Not very often am I compelled to comment on such topics as "top x" but with Dark Horse it's unavoidable.
    The ranking from both Golf Digest and Golf Mag needs to be re-evaluated. Three of my golf pals & I played Dark Horse and went away disappointed and we agreed it would be unfair to recommend the course to others.
    Dark Horse is squeezing all they can out out of the ranking comments resulting in shameless self-promotion; spending more time on embroidering the ranking on their hats when they should be paying attention to course management and upkeep. The course did impress with the tee boxes & greens but all else was rough around the edges and muni-like. Play was extremely slow with no marshall in sight despite stern cart message/warnings about keeping play moving.
    Having nice kids wash our clubs afterwards is no substitute for course management when playing a full whack $80.
    Better relook this one-