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Golf in the Sacramento foothills: Amazing beauty and unbeatable value

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- As you move northeast along Interstate 80 past Sacramento, the transition from farmland to foothills seems to happen in an instant during the 75-mph transition from the state capitol to the northeast suburbs of Roseville and Rocklin.

Gone is the flat farmland of alfalfa fields and groves of almond (pronounced ehh-monds in the local vernacular) and pear. The land undulates in a slight but steady rise-and-fall pattern. Sky-blocking oaks and maples stand with pride and the occasional rock outcropping -- granite mostly -- pops up like an unannounced party guest.

From a golf architect's point of view it is land redolent with possibilities. Elevation changes and large natural features provide instant character, though it has to be said that the up-and-down terrain means carts are all but mandatory on some courses.

Many were built to serve as centerpieces of real estate developments, but the economic downturn of the past three years has forced some private clubs to undergo ownership changes and even open their tee times to the public in order to increase cash flow.

To benefit of the golfer, this region brings together unique topography in which famous architects like Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Kyle Phillips have laid some of their best work.

'Golf in northern California right now,' said Frank LaRosa, a golf journalist and radio broadcaster in Sacramento, 'is very good but pretty cheap.'

Morgan Creek Golf Club

Morgan Creek Golf Club
Location and topography: Rolling terrain west of Roseville.
Plays like: A heathland course (Sunningdale).
Design features: Phillips' top creation (Kingsbarns in Scotland, among the world's top 30, depending on whose list you consider) is a links course. But Phillips loves heathland courses, which like links feature firm ground but has natural grasses, large trees and creeks and ponds as hazards. To this setting Phillips added challenging links-style bunker complexes and tricky greens. The course is now 10 years old and has had some holes 'softened' (meaning, large natural grass areas have been cut back) to make it easier for the higher handicapper. Nonetheless, the easy-to-walk routing coupled with the blend of short and long holes, particularly on the back, makes this an amazing walk for the rate.

Turkey Creek Golf Club

Turkey Creek Golf Club
Location and topography: Off Highway 65 east of Lincoln through heavily wooded groves (oaks mostly) and rock outcroppings.
Plays like: Classic Midwest course only with more trees.
Design features: Head Professional Ramon Gonzales said Turkey Creek stands alone. 'There's no setting like this anywhere near here,' he said. Large rock outcroppings are confined to the course; 100 yards off Turkey Creek property they disappear. Architect Brad Bell utilized the gentle undulations, rocks and trees as guides, and by the time you get to the back nine you feel you're in a wooded wonderland. The par-4 18th features two forced carries over small lakes, which are the dregs of the former quarry that occupied the land years ago. Many might find it tight but the short transitions make this modern course easy to walk.

DarkHorse Golf Club

DarkHorse Golf Club
Location and topography: Near the small town of Loomis but with an Auburn address amid heavily tree-covered hillsides.
Plays like: A ride on an untamed horse.
Design features: Architect Keith Foster laid a course that can be visually intimidating thanks to plenty of large bunkers filled with reddish-brown sand and topped with natural grasses. It can be a frightening look. In fact there's plenty of landing space but also definitely areas to avoid. Some holes have hard edges (wetlands and fall-offs). The back nine has more elevation changes yet also plays easier, though the uphill, snaking par-5 11th is the toughest hole on the course. Some of the views of the course are breathtaking, particularly the par-4 17th.

The Ridge Golf Course

The Ridge Golf Course
Location and topography: Up and down tree-lined hillsides in Auburn.
Plays like: A classic Robert Trent Jones Jr. course but with more elevation changes.
Design features: Mostly deep bunkers next to large undulating greens to go along with uphill, side hill and downhill lies. Jones makes you think off the tee, particularly on the shorter par 4s. There are times he wants you to fly bunkers, other times to lay back. Throw in elevation changes that add more factors to shots, particularly on approaches to the greens, and you have a course that requires some tactical forethought. But the more you play it the more you learn to appreciate its challenges.

Winchester Country Club

Winchester Country Club
Location and topography: Mountain-like terrain amid the higher foothills town of Meadow Vista east of Auburn.
Plays like: A magical cart ride through Shangri-La with this Robert Trent Jones Jr. design; devilish tricks to overcome.
Design features: This course opened in 2000 and stands as the last in which son, RTJ II, worked with his famous designer father, Robert Trent Jones Sr. It's a course not meant for the faint-hearted as Jones' sprawling bunkers and expansive greens and their large humps and slopes make for a course where every shot can cost you on the scorecard. It's also a course where he was unfettered pretty much in terms of land use. He laid out 18 holes in which the front nine climb through evergreen and oak-covered hillsides, with the back nine dropping through wetlands and expansive meadows. All of which have punitive bunkering and greens designed -- if one is not in the right portion -- to induce three-jacks.