Northern California’s Top Golf Holes


Veteran Writer Bob Burns scoured Sacramento and Northern California and presents a pair of dream 18s.

In golf, what exactly constitutes a great hole?

Beauty? Degree of difficulty? Novelty? Subtlety?

All of the above?

Or is it the last hole you birdied?

In a game as frustrating and personal as golf, it’s a difficult question to answer.

But there’s no penalty for trying.

In that spirit, we’ve pieced together two ultimate courses&emdash;the top 18 holes in the Sacramento region, and the top 18 in the rest of Northern California.

The local rules on the back of our scorecard stipulate the course boundaries. The Sacramento area extends south to Lodi, west to Placerville, north to Marysville and east to Dixon. Northern California arbitrarily consists of the Bay Area, the Monterey Peninsula, the Sierra foothills, the San Joaquin Valley, the Tahoe/Truckee area and a few points in between.

Lord knows, there’s a lot to choose from. It’s not a stretch to say we live in golf heaven.

Frank Sandy Tatum certainly thinks so. For those not familiar with the name, Tatum was an NCAA golf champion and Rhodes Scholar at Stanford in the early 1940s. He served as president of the United States Golf Association and has codesigned several courses.

A retired partner in a Palo Alto law firm, Tatum authored a book titled A Love Affair with the Game.

We’ve got it all here, from the Sierra to the Pacific, Tatum says. I’ve seen a lot of the world, and I think we have more great courses here than anywhere else on the planet. It’s really remarkable.

San Francisco has the Olympic Club, San Francisco Golf Club, Lake Merced Country Club, the Presidio and Harding Park. The Monterey Peninsula has Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and Spyglass Hill. Sonoma County has Mayacama and Silverado. The Tahoe/Truckee region has Old Greenwood, Coyote Moon and Lahontan.

What does Sacramento have?

For starters, a wealth of good courses, public and private. Sacramento golfers benefit from an overbuilt market that provides plenty of affordable options.

If you’re a player, Sacramento is the greatest place to live in California, with the exception of Palm Springs, says the highly regarded Sacramento-area golf course architect Kyle Phillips. You can’t overstate the quality of golf in this area.

Yet Sacramento-area courses don’t get a lot of respect, from outsiders at least. In the most recent ranking by Golf Digest, the Sacramento area placed just one course among California’s top 30&emdash;Winchester Country Club outside of Auburn.

Phillips lives in Granite Bay. He recently completed an extensive redesign of Del Paso Country Club, the area’s oldest private club. He’s perplexed by Sacramento’s low profile on the golf scene.

I’ve always said Sacramento is the Rodney Dangerfield of golf, Phillips says. Our courses don’t get the respect they deserve. We have course after course that are really good, but no one knows they exist.
Perhaps, but let’s go back to the first question: What makes a great hole? Sacramento’s most successful homegrown professional had an interesting answer.

Kevin Sutherland came up through the junior ranks at a time when Sacramento lacked adequate golf facilities. It didn’t prevent him from having a lucrative career on the PGA Tour. Sutherland, 42, has earned nearly $10 million since joining the tour in 1996. He won the 2002 Accenture Match Play Championship and finished second in this year’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Unlike most California natives who cashed in on the PGA Tour, Sutherland didn’t relocate to Florida or Arizona to take advantage of lower taxes and year-round golfing weather. He and his family live in Sacramento, and he recently joined Del Paso Country Club.

Sutherland cited the par-3 15th hole at Winchester. He talked about its beauty and design characteristics, but he mentioned another yardstick to measuring a great hole. For the middle to high handicapper, a par on that particular hole makes the round a success.

I don’t think a hole has to be hard to be a great hole, Sutherland says. Ideally, a great hole makes you think and gives you some options.

You want options, we have options. Too many options, according to Tatum.

You really ought to be picking the top 100 holes, Tatum says.

Maybe some other time. On both the Sacramento and Northern California 18s, we established a few local rules. One hole per course, even though a Pebble Beach or a Winchester have several holes worthy of inclusion. We’ve tried to balance the par 3s and par 4s, picking some long ones and some short ones. On both courses, we’ve tried to provide some geographical balance.

With so much ground to cover, we hope any oversights are seen as sins of omission, not commission.
But that’s enough first-tee banter. We’ve got to hustle if we want to play 36 before dark.

(Note: Yardages are for what most would refer to as blue, white and red tees. Some courses have up to five sets of tees. Par on both fantasy courses is 72 for men, 73 for women.)

Sacramento’s Top 18

1. Granite Bay Golf Club, Granite Bay.
No. 1, par 4, 354, 341, 297

The yardage sign on the tee is comforting. It’s nice not to face a brutal tee shot right out of the box. This is the best opening hole in the area&emdash;not too tough, not too easy. The fairway wraps around a lake, and the green is guarded by the old-style bunkers that distinguish Granite Bay. Golf as it should be is how the private club markets itself, and it’s hard to argue.

2. Alister MacKenzie Course at Haggin Oaks
, Sacramento.
No. 11, par 5, 596, 540, 502

When the aging Haggin Oaks south course was redesigned and renamed in the 1990s in honor of its original architect, the creation of this hole was one of the biggest improvements. It’s not the most picturesque par 5 on the course, but its length and routing require strategy on the second shot. A small grove of oaks near the green forces the golfer to decide whether to play the left side of the fairway or the right. Right is the best play, but the green falls off on all sides, so even the perfect lay-up is no slam dunk.

3. Turkey Creek Golf Club
, Lincoln.
No. 14, par 3, 143, 114, 91
This is the signature hole at Turkey Creek, one of the Sacramento area’s most interesting new courses. The 14th plays almost like an island hole, with water in the front and right of the green. If the green is set back right, water becomes even more of a factor. Every course could use one hole like this&emdash;short but not so simple.

4. Rancho Murieta Country Club
(North Course), Rancho Murieta.
No. 4, par 4, 440, 420, 405
It wasn’t long ago that Rancho Murieta’s North Course was considered the premier layout in the area. The course played host to the Senior Gold Rush for 10 years in the 1980s and 1990s. The North Course has more competition now, but it’s still a great test, and no hole is more challenging than No. 4. The best drive is a slight fade away from the trees on the left, but too much right and you’re out of bounds. Don’t miss the green left.

5. Teal Bend Golf Club, Sacramento.
No. 6, par 4, 376, 351, 314
This is a rock-solid par 4 on one of Sacramento’s finest public tracks. Those who hit a slight fade off the tee shouldn’t have much trouble here, although there is trouble right if the drive slices too far off path. A big drive down the middle might wind up in the poisonous (to your score) elderberries. But the real challenge here is the shallow green.

6. Serrano Country Club, El Dorado Hills.
No. 11, par 3, 171, 149, 137
There’s something exhilarating about the sensation of hitting a solid iron shot and holding your breath as it makes its long descent. That’s the 11th hole at Serrano. Club selection and accuracy are equally important as the shot drops precipitously to a green fronted by a creek and buttressed by four bunkers. The sound of the ball landing on the slick green is sweet music.

7. Castle Oaks Golf Club, Ione.
No. 7, par 4, 402, 385, 324
It’s a bit of a drive for city dwellers, but Castle Oaks doesn’t disappoint. Preston Castle, an imposing Romanesque structure built in the late 19th century to house juvenile offenders, is visible from much of the golf course. The seventh hole is rated the toughest on the course, requiring a tee shot over Mill Creek. Any attempt to skirt the dogleg right is risky, and a large oak guards the left side of the green.

8. Wildhorse Golf Course, Davis.
No. 17, par 5, 508, 459, 420
This is the sort of hole you look forward to playing&emdash;a serpentine par 5 meandering gracefully near a lake. The fairway bunker on the right side is a good visual target for the drive, but it’s perfectly positioned to snag a well-struck tee shot. This is the prettiest hole on an attractive public course. Enjoy, because the 18th hole is an acquired taste at Wildhorse, to put it charitably.

9. Catta Verdera Country Club, Lincoln.
No. 18, par 4, 433, 412, 347
The 18th at Catta Verdera (formerly Twelve Bridges) is both beauty and beast. The course description says, Any shot down the middle will suffice. Thanks for the tip. There’s trouble to the left; out-of-bounds stakes to the right. But that’s just the beginning. The downhill approach shot must carry a lake, and the large green produces plenty of three-putts. At least they give you 17 holes to get loose.

10. North Ridge Country Club
, Fair Oaks.
No. 17, par 3, 208, 176, 172
This is a relatively basic par 3, but there’s nothing wrong with basic. North Ridge is a classic parkland course, and this is probably its best hole. The wind is usually blowing toward the tee, making it play longer than the listed yardage. The large green is severely sloped, making par a real achievement.

11. Dry Creek Ranch Golf Course, Galt.
No. 10, par 5, 559, 551, 539
Few par 5s are as demanding. If the drive finds the fairway, the second shot must be straight as an arrow, as the fairway narrows into a tree-lined chute near the green. The trees to the right are jail. Most golfers would pick the par-4 18th as Dry Creek’s best hole, but No. 10 is a more complete test.

12. DarkHorse Golf Club, Auburn.
No. 5, par 4, 438, 407, 374
This is perhaps the most scenic hole on a visually stunning course. The fairway rolls gently to the right, making a tee shot to the left the safe play. But that leaves a long iron or wood into a two-tiered green. Wetlands guard the entire right side of the hole.

13. Mather Golf Course, Rancho Cordova.
No. 17, par 4 for men, par 5 for women, 467, 427, 417
This former military course has been open to the public for some time now, and while the facility is showing its age, it’s still a great layout. The 17th hole is as straightforward as a crisp salute. The safe play from the elevated tee is a drive down the right side, but that makes for a long second shot.

14. Ancil Hoffman Golf Course, Carmichael.
No. 15, par 4, 347, 318, 305
Distance takes a back seat to accuracy here. Two hundred yards off the tee is enough on this dogleg left, but the drive must thread oak trees on both sides. The green is protected on the front right by another massive oak, and the green is well bunkered. Big hitters often try to take their drives over the trees to the green, but it’s a big gamble. Sacramentans are fortunate to have a public course the quality of Ancil Hoffman.

15. El Macero Country Club, El Macero.
No. 6, par 4, 435, 428, 331
Selected to hold several U.S. Open qualifying rounds, El Macero is proof that a course designed to sell real estate doesn’t necessarily mean patios 15 yards from the greens and tee boxes. The sixth hole is a terrific driving hole, rewarding those with the length and guts to fly the trees on the left with a short approach shot. The green is surrounded by sand and grass bunkers and flanked by a lake.

16. Winchester Country Club
, Meadow Vista.
No. 15, par 3, 223, 162, 101
They don’t make many holes like one. They don’t make many courses like this one, either. The par-3 15th requires a long carry over water, and the green is framed by pine trees. A mis-hit or mis-clubbed tee shot can be disastrous. Winchester was codesigned by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and his late father, Robert Trent Jones Sr. They were quite a team.

17. Sierra View Country Club, Roseville.
No. 18, par 5, 554, 465, 409
Sierra View is a pleasure to play, start to finish. This is a great finishing par 5. The landing area off the tee is generous, but the second shot is semi-blind over a rise in the fairway. The green is protected by a large overhanging oak to the right and a bunker in front. Even the biggest hitters have a hard time reaching the green in two shots.

18. Del Paso Country Club, Sacramento.
No. 18, par 4, 430, 393, 375
When golf architect Kyle Phillips remade Sacramento’s oldest private club, one of his goals was to design a memorable finishing hole that plays directly toward the clubhouse. He succeeded fabulously. Three bunkers line the left side of the 18th fairway and, while there’s room to play out to the right, the safe drive results in a long second shot over a creek to the green. From the absolute back tees, the hole measures a daunting 462 yards. Enjoy the scenery either way, because this is one of the prettiest holes in the valley.

Northern California’s Top 18

1. Spyglass Hill Golf Course, Pebble Beach.
No. 1, par 5, 600, 565, 487
The first four holes at Spyglass Hill are so good that any of them could be featured here. No. 1 is a good place to start. Nicknamed Treasure Island, the monster par 5 starts off in a forest before opening up to an expansive downhill view of the Pacific. The green was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. to resemble gentle ocean swells. While Pebble Beach and Cypress Point are more famous, Spyglass belongs in the same class.

2. The Course at Wente Vineyards, Livermore.
No. 2, par 4, 301, 286, 254 (red)
The Greg Norman-designed course opened to rave reviews in 1998, and the second hole quickly became known as one of the most interesting short par 4s in Northern California. It tempts big hitters into attempting to drive the green. The safe play is an iron off the tee. The hole offers a splendid view of the Livermore Valley vineyards and the jagged rock formations of Cresta Blanca.

3. Mayacama Golf Club, Santa Rosa.
No. 3, par 3, 178, 157, 129
This Jack Nicklaus-designed beauty opened in 2001 and was ranked 67th in the country by Golf Digest just five years later. Members are provided with their own personal wine cellars and don’t have to bother making tee times. The course measures just 6,787 yards from the back tees but has a slope rating of 153. The third hole shows why. The mid-length par 3 features a tee shot out of a narrow chute to a green set in a grove of oaks.

4. San Juan Oaks Golf Club, Hollister.
No. 17, par 4, 446, 425, 326
With an $80 weekend rate, this public course designed by Fred Couples qualifies as a bargain. The 17th tee is 150 feet above the green, offering a spectacular view of the San Juan Valley. The hole doesn’t play as long as the scorecard indicates, but it’s still a handful. The greens at San Juan Oaks are precipitous, this one included.

5. Stanford University Golf Course, Stanford.
No. 12, par 4 for men, par 5 for women, 475, 445, 405
Some holes are a pleasure to play, even when they leave you bloodied. That’s No. 12 at Stanford. Distance off the tee is a must, but it’s equally important to steer right or left of the two oak trees positioned right in the middle of the fairway. A bunker on the right looks as though it’s right next to the green, when it’s actually 65 yards out. There’s a crown in the middle of the green that makes a back pin placement nigh impossible.

6. Lake Merced Golf & Country Club, Daly City.
No. 15, par 3, 220, 178, 160
San Francisco’s embarrassment of golf riches includes Lake Merced. No. 15 is the gold standard. The long par 3 requires a well-hit long iron or fairway wood over deep bunkers. The green is very quick. A series of masterful architects have left their fingerprints on Lake Merced’s design&emdash;Alister MacKenzie, Robert Muir Graves and Rees Jones. Tiger Woods made his USGA debut here at the 1990 U.S. Juniors.

7. Old Greenwood Golf Course, Truckee.
No. 6, par 5, 568, 500, 436
Jack Nicklaus designed a mountain masterpiece in Old Greenwood. The dogleg par-5 sixth is a classic risk-reward hole. The altitude makes it reachable in two shots, but a large lake protects the left and front sides of the green. To Nicklaus’ credit, he sloped the fairway so that safe shots to the right actually curve down toward the green.

8. Pebble Beach Golf Links
, Pebble Beach.
No. 8, par 4, 418, 416, 389
The question here is which hole from Pebble Beach to select. The par-5 18th is probably the most famous finishing hole in golf. The seventh hole is unique among short par 3s. But the eighth hole&emdash;possibly the best par 4 on the planet&emdash;has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Golfers hit a blind tee shot up a slope. Assuming the surroundings don’t get the best of them, they then have a medium iron over an oceanic chasm. The green is small and slopes back to front. There’s not a golfer alive who doesn’t remember the first time he or she played this hole.

9. Olympic Club (Lakeside), Daly City.
No. 18, par 4, 347, 332, 309
One of the shortest finishing holes on any world-class course, the 18th at Olympic is as quirky and charming as the city by the bay. The fairway isn’t particularly narrow, but the green is tiny and severely sloped. Contestants at the 1998 U.S. Open staged a near-revolt over green conditions that were closer to ridiculous than sublime. United States Golf Association officials demanded changes in the slope of the 18th green before they agreed to award Olympic its fourth U.S. Open in 2012.

10. San Francisco Golf Club, San Francisco.
No. 10, par 5, 576, 536
The ultra-private San Francisco Golf Club, designed by A.W. Tillinghast, is a timeless treasure. Several of the holes would fit right in on this list, including this classic par 5. One of the measures of a great par 5 is the choice it presents on the second shot, and Tillinghast delivered in spades on this hole. The generous landing area encourages golfers to go for broke off the tee, but a slight dip in the fairway near the green, along with a bunker on the right side, puts a premium on a well-considered second shot.

11. Stevinson Ranch Golf Course, Stevinson.
No. 17, par 4, 398, 383, 342
One of the main links on Stevinson Ranch’s website is Directions. That’s because the course is situated in the middle of nowhere, or halfway between Gustine and Hilmar in the San Joaquin Valley. It’s well worth the drive, but hope it’s not a breezy day, because Stevinson Ranch is an absolute monster in windy conditions. The par-4 17th stretches across a stream running diagonal to the line of flight on the left. Golfers carrying the water have the best shot into a green guarded by more water.

12. Saddle Creek Golf Club, Copperopolis.
No. 6, par 4, 390, 379, 278
Named The Beast, the scorecard doesn’t begin to convey the work this hole requires. It might be one of the best uphill par 4s in the country. Even a well-hit drive to the narrow landing area requires a long approach to an elevated, undulating green. The sixth hole is one of many outstanding courses on this tremendous off-the-beaten track.

13. Pasatiempo Golf Club
, Santa Cruz.
No. 16, par 4, 396, 371, 355
Pasatiempo was designed by famed Scottish architect Alister MacKenzie and served as his U.S. home. MacKenzie called this hole his favorite par 4 in the world. Golfers face a blind drive over a hill, guided only by an indicator flag. The downhill approach into a three-tiered green requires confidence and accuracy. MacKenzie’s bunkers are things of beauty, as long you’re not standing in one of them.

14. Cypress Point Club, Pebble Beach.
No. 15, par 3, 143, 127, 119
Why not list the 16th at Cypress, perhaps the most photographed hole? Because the one before is as close to perfect as a short hole gets. A finger of ocean separates the elevated tee and green, which is circled by straggly grass, bunkers and cypress trees. Few golfers get to play it, but Cypress Point is one of the top half-dozen courses in the world.

15. The Links at Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach.
No. 14, par 5, 576, 535, 475
The longest par 5 at Spanish Bay offers a straightaway view of the Pacific. The landing area is generous but the hole’s challenges multiply on each successive shot. The second shot must steer clear of five bunkers, including one in the middle of the fairway. The best play on the third shot is to hit an approach to the front of the green and let it roll toward the flag.

16. CordeValle, San Martin.
No. 17, par 4, 449, 390, 358
Located 30 minutes south of San Jose, CordeValle opened in 1999 and immediately ranked among the top resort courses in the United States. The 17th hole is a downhill par 4 with a view of Clos LaChance vineyards. A wooded ravine runs down the entire ridge side of the fairway. The second shot must clear an expansive bunker. Downhill par 4s are always fun, but few are as demanding&emdash;or as spectacular&emdash;as this one.

17. Lincoln Park Golf Course, San Francisco.
No. 17, par 3, 240 (blue), 230 (white), 218 (red)
Despite being designed by the legendary Donald Ross, Lincoln Park is more renowned for its postcard views than its quality golf. But the par-3 17th combines both in spades. The tee sits on a cliff overlooking the San Francisco Bay, and the Golden Gate is plainly visible from the green. It’s a popular spot for wedding proposals. Golfers can thank their lucky stars that the San Francisco forefathers were among the first to implement a comprehensive municipal golf program, with such lasting jewels as Harding Park and Lincoln Park.

18. Half Moon Bay Golf Links (Old Course), Half Moon Bay.
No. 18, par 4, 384, 378, 365
The Pacific shoreline marks the entire right side of the hole. Luckily, the ocean breeze often keeps wayward shots from the rocks and surf. A ravine cuts across the fairway. Three bunkers guard the green on approach shots. The view rivals that of Pebble Beach and Cypress Point. The addition of a Ritz-Carlton hotel just a short walk from the 18th green makes the setting even more sublime.