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Golf in the Sierra Mountains

Matthew Turley In Gold Country

Photo: Matthew Turley

I remembered the cape-hole second from the day before, where I had hit a 210-yard fade that settled in a bunker beside the pond. In the gauzy mist up ahead, I saw a heavily clothed figure stroking long putts across the green, but by the time I pulled up he was gone.

Arriving at the third, a 477-yard par five creeping uphill to the right, I found something beguiling in the hole’s isolation. I saw the mysterious figure again and caught up to him on the green. “Good morning,” I called.

He ambled over and introduced himself—Scott Dickson, superintendent. The accent was thick; I couldn’t place it. But Dickson, 40, was no local. I told him what I was up to.

“Do you have a favorite hole?” he asked.

“I like this one.” We looked back toward the tee—the view was even better from this vantage point. “What about you?”

“It’s hard to say.” Still no read on the accent. “I like two, though—the carry over Mitchell Lake.”

“How long have you worked here?” I asked.

“Coming up on four years,” he said. “From Maine, originally.” There it was. “My dad was super at Old Orchard Beach Country Club. Guess it’s in my blood.” He said this as if greenkeeping were a curse, so I pointed out that this morning didn’t seem too bad.

“Best part of my day. So peaceful—except when we get cows on the fairways.” Apparently, when cattle wander onto the course through holes in the fence, it’s Dickson’s job to help them find their way out again. “We play cowboy and yell, ‘Yee-haw!’ and ‘Get along, you bah-stahds!’” he added.

Dickson’s task that morning was to Stimp the greens. He held out his nicked-up Wilson 8802. “Want to roll a few?”

I struck the first ball and left it six feet out. At Saddle Creek, it’s easy to overread the break. I knocked the second ball closer, and Dickson hit the third one short of it.

“You win,” he said, with the glint of a smile.

The village of Murphys, half an hour northeast of Copperopolis, is the Sierra foothills’ answer to Carmel. Along both sides of tree-lined Main Street, galleries, inns and upscale shops occupy Victorian and frontier-style buildings. Formerly one of Calaveras County’s principal mining communities, it was named for brothers Dan and John Murphy, who opened a trading post here, and it is allegedly where the highwayman Joaquin Murieta began his murderous career.

Today Murphys is the culinary capital of Gold Country, with an array of casual eateries serving sophisticated fare. For oenophiles weary of Napa and Sonoma crowds, nineteen local wineries—with names like Twisted Oak and Frog’s Tooth—have tasting rooms downtown. The area’s steep hillsides and warm daytime climate, followed by cool evenings, are ideal for Rhône and Italian varietals. Although the region is just now gaining wider recognition, winemaking has existed in Gold Country since the 1850s, when European prospectors arrived. I wonder what those early vintners would think about wine as California’s modern-day gold.

For a stiffer drink in a more historic setting, there’s the bar at the Murphys Hotel, California’s oldest continuously operating hostelry, and the Iron Door Saloon in Groveland, the state’s oldest continuously running saloon. Constructed in 1852 from blocks of granite and English iron, the saloon first served whiskey from a plank laid over two flour barrels. Today the decor includes rusty mining implements on the walls.

The town of Groveland is the last outpost for travelers destined for Yosemite via the Big Oak Flat entrance. It’s also home to Pine Mountain Lake, where on any given afternoon the extremely friendly members and staff gather on the deck by the eighteenth green to watch everyone putt out. Visitors depart echoing sentiments displayed on one member’s license plate, lovnpml, not least of all due to the sporty Billy Bell design.

At 6,300 yards and with only forty-four bunkers, the challenge here is the tight fairways framed by oak, pine, cypress and cedar, as well as the subtly undulating greens with false fronts. The overall elevation change—two hundred and fifty feet—feels maximized throughout. The result is that club selection can be tricky and sidehill lies are inevitable.

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