Golden tee: Find hidden golf gems in California's Gold Country

By Ted Johnson, Contributor

California excels in providing visitors and residents plenty of options for golf excursions. For some, the Monterey coast ranks first, but the course-saturated communities near Palm Springs have their devotees, too. Others prefer the vistas and high-mountain air found in the outstanding offerings of the Truckee-North Lake Tahoe region.

Castle Oaks Golf Course - 16th
It's all carry at Castle Oaks Golf Course's par-3 16th.
Castle Oaks Golf Course - 16thGold nuggetSequoia Woods Country ClubGreenhorn Creek Resort golf course - 13thSaddle Creek Resort golf course - 14th
If you go

When it comes to deciding where to play, one area gets overlooked, yet it's the region in which it has given the state its nickname and now has gained worldwide recognition for a completely different industry. That's what you get when you golf in the Golden State's Gold Country.

Located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada about two hours by car southeast of Sacramento or due east of Oakland, this region has small towns like Murphy's that drip charm and historic treasures. Three of the courses are in Calaveras County, origin of the famous Mark Twain story, but it also has gained world-wide recognition for its wineries.

Yes, Gold Country is now part of Wine Country, and it's been celebrated.

Perhaps the best way to experience this scenario is to take Highway 4 east from Stockton toward the Gold Country. In Angels Camp, Highway 4 bisects the north-south Highway 49, named after the miners who gained the nickname for the year (1849) gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, near Sacramento. Here's a rundown of the area's offerings:

Saddle Creek Resort

Location & Topography: Saddle Creek Resort is located 60 miles east of Stockton in the small town of Copperopolis on rolling terrain featuring bull oaks.

Historical Significance: The valley around Copperopolis provided the metal of the same name that became bullet casings during the Civil War.

Ambiance: Understated luxury. Saddle Creek is part of a real estate development that includes a first-rate athletic club to go along with a very good golf course and restaurant. It also sits about four miles from Lake Tulloch, a major source of year-round recreation (water-skiing, fishing).

On-site Accommodations: Two-bedroom bungalows.

Course Appeal: Designed by Carter Morrish and Tad Buchanan, relative unknowns in golf architecture, the Saddle Creek golf course is a track you come to like immediately. Each hole has its own character, though the vistas on the back side, especially the par-3 14th, seem more striking. It's a course you can play several times in a few days and not feel fatigued.

Greenhorn Creek Resort

Location & Topography: Some 20 minutes east of Saddle Creek via Highway 4 in Angels Camp, a former gold mining community. Oaks dominate the hillsides as the Greenhorn Creek Resort golf course winds through a residential development.

Historical Significance: Remains of miners' camps are all over the site, and a stone wall built by American Indians that dates back hundreds of years divides the par-5 fourth.

Ambiance: Vibrant country club feel that's very welcome to visitors.

On-site Accommodations: Guest condos are available, but the ultimate is the Caddy Shack, a former office building that has been transformed into the ultimate Man Cave -- 55-inch TV, huge outdoor grill, horseshoe pit -- that sleeps as many as 12.

Course Appeal: Fun, sometimes tricky course redesigned by Robert Trent Jones II that works its way along and over hillsides dotted with large and smaller oaks. The back-nine has par 4s at No. 14, 16 and 17, and they provide plenty of challenges.

Sequoia Woods Country Club

Location & Topography: Twenty-five minutes from Angels Camp up Highway 4 in the mountain community of Arnold (elevation: 4,000 feet). Evergreens -- sequoia, fir and pine, mainly -- dominate the region.

Historical Significance: The former logging community is now known as the town nearest Calaveras Big Trees State Park, which preserves two groves of giant sequoia. According to Wikipedia, it has been a major tourist attraction since 1852, when the existence of the trees was first widely reported, and it is considered the longest continuously operated tourist facility in California

Ambiance: Laid-back mountain community that loves golf.

On-site Accommodations: None.

Course Appeal: The front-nine at Sequoia Woods Country Club plays through a meadow that features several water features, challenging rolling terrain and spots of small groves of trees, making accuracy a chief concern. The back nine gets very, very tight. Par 4s of 300 yards or less are common as designer Bob Baldock did well to fit in the par-70 course (38 on the front, 32 on the back).

Castle Oaks Golf Course

Location & Topography: About an hour north of Angels Camp along Highway 49 in the small tone of Ione (Eye-own). Open meadows marked by large oaks characterize the front at Castle Oaks Golf Course, while the middle six holes of the back nine play through housing tract.

Historical Significance: Ione served as a main transportation hub for the Mother Lode, the region that became one of the most productive gold-producing districts in the United States. Nearby Jackson is a major tourist spot, and it has a large historic downtown that affects plenty of Gold Country charm.

Ambiance: Mixed. The front nine is open and expansive but only because the homes have yet to be built.

On-site Accommodations: None.

Course Appeal: Of the four, this Brad Benz-designed course from the tips is about as long as Saddle Creek (just less than 6,800 yards) but has more aggressive bunkering and forced carries. The tee shot on the par-4 17th, for example, requires a carry over a 60-foot oak tree in the middle of the fairway. Playing around trees and wetlands to large, elevated greens guarded by menacing bunkering makes this a course single-digit handicappers will love from the back tees.

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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