SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California's capital city is a victim of geography.
It sits in the heart of the fertile central valley of northern California, sandwiched between two of the best vacation destinations in America -- San Francisco to the west and Lake Tahoe to the east. Too many tourists drive right by.
Sacramento has all the necessary ingredients of a major metropolis -- professional sports (the NBA's Kings), a vibrant tourist district (Old Sacramento along the Sacramento River) and plenty of good restaurants and bars. The 2015 U.S. Senior Open at Del Paso Country Club from June 22-28 will finally give Sacramento the golf spotlight it so craves.
The California competition is so fierce that Sacramento doesn't even rank among the top five golf destinations in California. There's no shame, however, lining up behind the Monterey Peninsula, Palm Springs, sunny southern California (San Diego or Los Angeles, take your pick), scenic Lake Tahoe, and San Francisco.
That doesn't mean Sacramento's golf scene isn't good. A local I met at the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex called the region "California's undiscovered golf destination."
"I can drive an hour in any direction and play dozens of courses," he said, with a hint of an inferiority complex.
It's got everything but a go-to golf resort to attract out-of-towners. It can get steamy during the summer, so spring and fall are ideal times to tee it up. Whether you're in town for politics or a sporting event such as the U.S. Senior Open, Sacramento just might surprise you.
Sacramento's best plays
Here's the rub of Sacramento: Its three most interesting courses are nowhere close to one another. Maybe that's the reason why they're all so different.
The first choice has to be Cache Creek Resort's Yocha Dehe Golf Club, a Brad Bell design on remote land owned by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. Troon Golf delivers a five-star experience with immaculate playing conditions and top service. The routing is so peaceful surrounded by rolling hills 48 miles west of Sacramento. There are so many strategic elements to like, starting with a 160-foot drop off the first tee. There's a drivable par 4 at no. 8, dramatic climbs to hilltop greens at no. 9 and no. 10, blind tee shots at no. 12 and no. 17 and a split fairway at no. 15. Several holes on the back nine wander through a vineyard. All four finishing holes feature water.
Back to civilization surrounded by highways is Haggin Oaks, one of golf's most unique facilities. The history behind Haggin Oaks' MacKenzie Course is the draw, and there are so many other reasons to stay longer than just one round: A 15,000-square-foot superstore, mini-golf, a driving range that tees the ball up for you, a friendly clubhouse restaurant loaded with memorabilia and one of the most progressive Footgolf operations in the country. Golfers who don't test drive a new club by hitting free golf balls on the range haven't done Haggin Oaks right.
A half-hour's drive east of downtown lies Apple Mountain Golf Resort in Camino. The ride up and down mountainous ridges can get a little too wild at times. Thankfully, the scenery is worth the bad shot or lost ball that inevitably happens playing on such severe terrain. For sheer beauty, Apple Mountain has to be one of the best values on the West Coast.
Affordable municipal golf is a big part of Sacramento. Morton Golf, a management company, runs Haggin Oaks as well as the city-owned Bing Maloney Golf Complex and Bartley Cavanaugh Golf Course on the southern edge of Sacramento. The 6,158-yard Bartley plays tight with lots of target golf over ponds and around mounding. The more traditional Bing feels like an easy walk with its flat parkland setting.
Empire Golf manages two fine courses celebrating major milestones in 2015. Ancil Hoffman Golf Course, a William Francis Bell classic in Carmichael owned by Sacramento County, turned 50 this year. Cherry Island Golf Course, a Robert Muir Graves course in Elverta, celebrates its 25th birthday.
ClubCorp's Teal Bend Golf Club, designed by Brad Bell, runs right along the Sacramento River 15 miles north of downtown.
Heading northeast toward Lake Tahoe, a foursome of strong courses stack up just off of I-80 less than an hour's drive from the city -- Timber Creek Golf Club in Roseville (24 miles), Whitney Oaks Golf Club in Rocklin (28 miles), Turkey Creek Golf Club in Lincoln (32 miles) and Darkhorse Golf Club in Auburn (48 miles). LPGA Tour starlet Natalie Gulbis, who grew up in Sacramento, singled out Whitney Oaks as her favorite place to play in a 2011 "My Town" feature in Golf Digest.
Where to stay in Sacramento
Sacramento's got the usual chain hotels great for business travelers. Golfers can certainly stay at any of them (Gulbis recommended the Hyatt Regency). For the best experience, it's wise to get creative.
During my two-day stay this spring, I shacked up one night at the supposedly haunted Cary House Historic Hotel, originally built in 1857 in Placerville, a Gold Rush town just minutes from Apple Mountain. The next night, to get a taste of downtown, I slept on the Delta King, a riverboat permanently docked in Old Sacramento. The boat, reborn into a hotel with multiple restaurants in the 1980s, sits adjacent to eight blocks of brick-paved streets lined with dozens of eateries, bars and shops.
Casino lovers can attempt a stay and play for Yocha Dehe at the luxurious Cache Creek Resort. Book early because it's a popular gambling hotspot for the big money of the Bay area.