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Golf in the Sierra Mountains

Matthew Turley In Gold Country

Photo: Matthew Turley

Had his golf clubs been handy, Bob Anderson, owner and chef of V Restaurant in Murphys, California, would have pulled a middle iron—a five or maybe a six. But when a ravenous, five-hundred-pound brown bear comes calling, you don’t have time to contemplate the shot.

“He was sticking his drooling snout through the pet door we installed for our Jack Russell,” said Anderson. “I just grabbed two frying pans and started banging them together.”

Anderson, 47, spun this yarn one night last fall after he had served me an excellent rib eye and a few glasses of a superb local zinfandel. Trim, bald and avuncular, Chefbob, as he prefers to be called, is like most people you meet in California Gold Country. Laid-back and loquacious, they love to tell stories of the first gold rush settlers, wax on about the latest varietal to come off the vine, or describe a career round on the golf course.

Chefbob loves his golf—his house overlooks the fourth fairway at Forest Meadows Golf Course—but that night at V was dedicated to retelling adventures ursine. Prior to opening the restaurant in 2004, he had spent twenty years in Yosemite National Park, most recently as executive chef at the Ahwahnee Hotel. “The joke was that the bears knew where to go looking for food,” he concluded in his surfer-guy lilt. “Our house held the residential record for bear break-ins.”

So it goes in California Gold Country, a rustic region long overshadowed by the state’s many other attractions. The last decade has seen the area evolve as visitors have arrived for outdoor adventure, historic exploration, and food and wine indulgences. But they have brought their clubs, too, intent on discovering a golf landscape where stands of century-old oak, ancient rock outcroppings and the occasional mining relic connect the game to the region’s storied past.

Bounded by the Central Valley to the west and the Sierra Mountains to the east, Gold Country is California’s last great secret. The region is navigated via the aptly named Highway 49, which stretches 250 miles from north of Lake Tahoe down to the foothills of Yosemite.

It was first settled during the gold rush of 1849, when California’s population grew from fifteen thousand to a quarter million in just three years. By the late 1860s the gold rush was basically over, and although California continued to grow—more than 37 million live there today—Gold Country was largely abandoned. For years, the forgotten outposts of the Mother Lode, as it is known locally, remained frozen in time, with the remnant population operating tired souvenir shops, greasy spoons and filling stations for the Yosemite- and Sierra-bound.

It was somewhere along Highway 49 that I once spent good babysitting money on a satchel of gold-painted rocks en route to the mountain cabin my family has owned since 1979. We made the three-hour trip from Palo Alto several times a year, stopping only for gas in the deserted foothills of the Sierras. But to me the place was enchanted: After studying state history in the fourth grade, I would perch on the back seat during these rides, conjuring grizzled miners panning in the creeks or gathered at night in their camps.

Today, all along the highway, boomtowns with frontier storefronts and raised wooden sidewalks are thriving once again. Among the many factors are a surge in family-owned wineries and the arrival of superior golf. The best courses in the north primarily are private, but the semiprivate clubs of Calaveras and Tuolumne Counties, in the southern portion of the region, are open to nonmembers, so that’s the place to concentrate a visit.

A good start is the town of Angels Camp, home to three of the four traffic signals in Calaveras County. It was here in the 1860s that Mark Twain gathered material for “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” the short story that brought him to prominence. The Jumping Frog Jubilee is still held here every May, but golfers are more likely to honor Twain by spoiling good walks at nearby Greenhorn Creek, where a bronze statue of the writer sits outside the clubhouse. Opened in 1996 and tweaked by Robert Trent Jones Jr. in 2000, the course offers a stroll along sloping fairways adorned with exposed slate and burbling streams. The highlight is the plunging par-three thirteenth, with its view of the surrounding foothills and of New Melones Lake. Twain’s famous golf quip is frequently brought to mind by the course’s surprisingly slick greens and the ancient oaks at every dogleg.

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