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Golf in the Sierra Mountains

Matthew Turley In Gold Country

Photo: Matthew Turley

As a bonus for the scholar-golfer, Greenhorn Creek’s fairways are lined with local history. A rock wall built by Chinese miners splits the landing area of the downhill fourth, and a mining-camp oven borders the fairway of the par-four fifth. The short, sharp dogleg twelfth plays to a green positioned atop the Tuff Nut Mine, one of several shafts that honeycomb the earth below Angels Camp. If there’s a quintessential round to be played in Gold Country, this would be it.

Two hundred feet inside Gold Cliff Mine, the air was stagnant and stale. In coveralls and a hard hat, I sat on a steep incline, loose rubble skittering into the flooded shaft below. The only light came from a candle held up by my guide, Eli Fairchild, who was demonstrating the conditions the miners worked in. Despite his ponytail and boyish looks, he seemed to channel the ghost of an old prospector: His sense of humor was stilted, his phrasing old-fashioned. Without warning, Fairchild blew his candle out. I felt my eyes dart futilely as blackness enveloped us.

“So what would the miners do when this happened?” I asked, breaking an oppressive silence.

“They would wait,” Fairchild answered.

I tried to imagine them sitting around me. The so-called powder monkey with his box of dynamite. The teenagers with their glued-on mustaches. The veterans with dust-filled lungs courtesy of Widow Maker drills. Falling down a mine stope wasn’t the only way for a miner to meet his end in those days, but it was the one that most worried me now. We turned our headlamps back on and ventured farther into the man-made cavern.

Fairchild pointed to veins of quartz and specks of iron pyrite and mica embedded in the rock face. If he knew golf like he knows geology, Fairchild would be able to cite the scoring average of every Vardon Trophy winner since “Lighthorse” Harry Cooper. But even with Greenhorn Creek abutting the mine, he has little time for golf. Fairchild plans to turn the Gold Cliff into a premier educational site on the history of the California gold rush and hard-rock mining. For now, the Angels Camp Museum—where Fairchild volunteers—is the best place to see ore carts, drills and a model stamp mill.

Hazards of a different nature await at Saddle Creek Resort in the town of Copperopolis, a twelve-mile roller-coaster ride west of Angels Camp on Highway 4. Zigzag down this empty stretch of smooth asphalt and you’ll wish you’d upgraded your rental to a Porsche Boxster.

Settled in the 1860s after its namesake ore was discovered, the Copper Valley became the second largest producer of the metal in the United States. But after World War II, the mines closed and the town lay dormant until 1999, when the Castle & Cooke real estate company carved out a thousand acres to develop Saddle Creek Resort. With the population of the valley forecast to grow from four thousand to forty thousand in the near term, Castle & Cooke recently escalated its investment by building the Copperopolis Town Square. More than twenty reproductions of frontier-town fixtures—schoolhouse, fire station, city hall—surround a central square, with dining and retail at street level and residential lofts above. This ambitious mixed-use project, scheduled to open this spring, sits just off Highway 4.

Five miles in from the highway, the centerpiece of Saddle Creek Resort is a 1996 Carter Morrish golf course that’s consistently ranked among the state’s best—even ahead of Torrey Pines and Spanish Bay—but is virtually unknown outside the region. The layout stretches to 6,826 yards, and though the fairways are generous, more than a hundred white sand bunkers lidded with shaggy fescue frame them tightly. Flat lies are in short supply among the close-cropped humps and hillocks.

According to Morrish, designing Saddle Creek “was like going back in time to the 1920s, when you didn’t have to force anything.” The site he was given had lakes and trees and elevation changes that would allow for a variety of holes. It’s tough to find land like that anymore, “especially within a housing development,” he says.

The surrounding homes rarely interfere with views, and the seclusion is enhanced by a layout where no two holes run parallel. Stands of oak and meadow grass cloak the hillsides near and far, and egrets poise along the banks of silvery ponds fringed with reeds. Dusk unfurls shadows across the rolling terrain and fills the air with golden light.

So captivating is Saddle Creek that I simply wasn’t satisfied playing it once. The next day I woke at dawn and was soon at the wheel of a golf cart. Pulling up to the first green, I took stock of its subtle undulations and back-to-front slope.

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