Trip Dispatch: Sacramento and California's Gold Country offers solid golf and unique hotels

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Some golf trips I take are memorable for the courses, some for the way I play. Others are memorable for the people I meet or the sheer beauty of the landscape.

My first visit to California's state capital had good people, golf and scenery, for sure. (Let's not talk about my game.) It's the places I rested my head that I'll remember most, though.

After a while, most golf resorts tend to look alike. That's what made this three-day adventure in March so refreshing. It's not every day I stay in a supposedly haunted hotel or sleep in a cozy stateroom of a riverboat docked in the heart of downtown.

Most people drive right through Sacramento heading to Lake Tahoe to the east or San Francisco to the west. If you stop to explore Sacramento -- host of the 2015 U.S. Senior Open -- and its surrounding towns, they just might surprise you.

Day 1: Golf and ghosts

It's hard to believe Apple Mountain Golf Resort in Camino lies just a half-hour east of a major metropolis. The foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains -- the edge of California's Gold Rush country -- look rugged and remote. The heavily forested hills supply endless moments of dramatic target golf.

It's just a given that anybody who plays the 6,308-yard, par-70 Apple Mountain course will lose at least a sleeve of balls. The corridors of the course aren't too narrow. It's the constant side-hill and downhill lies that tend to send shots astray into natural wetland areas or into the thick tree line. For most people, the picturesque encounters with nature -- coupled with an affordable price -- are well worth the punishment.

Ten miles away sits Placerville, an authentic gold rush town founded in the 1840s. Its historic main street, where the Cary House Historic Hotel is located, has a nice vibe. I dined at Heyday Cafe, one of several independent restaurants and boutiques along Main Street.

Famous people from Elvis Presley to Mark Twain have stayed at the Cary House, originally built in 1857. It's got all the charms of a crusty old building -- the tiny elevator and crooked floors. The hotel doesn't promote its ghosts for fear of scaring away potential customers, although the stories are easily found online. I didn't hear or see anything out of the ordinary during my stay, maybe because I kept the TV on all night just in case.

Day 2: Discovering Dr. Alister MacKenzie in Sacramento

Like many golfers do, I spent almost the entire day at the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex. I played 27 holes of the finest municipal golf in Sacramento, ate lunch at the MacKenzie Sports Bar & Grille in the clubhouse and toured the impressive facilities owned and operated by Morton Golf Management.

I came excited to play a rare public course designed by MacKenzie and left even more impressed by everything else -- the two Arcade Creek nines geared toward beginners and footgolf enthusiasts, a lighted driving range with automatic tees that do the work for you after every swing, a new nine-hole putt-putt course, a 15,000-square-foot superstore and a performance studio where they dialed in the settings on my new TaylorMade R15 driver in just 10 minutes with a TrackMan. If more courses had this sort of one-stop shopping, serve-one/serve amenities, golf might not have as many problems.

My golf partner on the MacKenzie Course at Haggin Oaks told me he's never bought a club anywhere besides the superstore. The store allows customers to test new equipment free of charge on the range, which stays open 24 hours a day in the summer. That's a huge selling point.

As for the MacKenzie Course, it's nothing special visually. It's sort of a living museum to the game. Time has robbed much of its MacKenzie feel, unfortunately. Haggin Oaks Head Professional Mike Woods pointed out some drawings hanging in the bar and grill of MacKenzie's original greens and bunkering. They were deemed too wild, he said, so they were toned down almost immediately after the course opened in 1932. What a shame.

Sam Snead, Jimmy Demaret, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and others competed in the PGA Tour's Sacramento Open on the course throughout the 1930s. Today, the MacKenzie Course is known more for its slick greens than its shot-making elements. It's playable for all levels with only a pond and Arcade Creek to fear on a handful of holes.

To be honest, I had no idea my lodging that night (set up for me by a local tourism official) was on a riverboat, the Delta King. I just assumed it was another Delta hotel like the ones I've stayed at in Canada. The boat, refurbished in the 1980s into a hotel and banquet venue with multiple restaurants, sits docked on the Sacramento River in Old Sacramento, a hot spot where people can walk or ride horse-drawn carriages around eight blocks of brick-paved streets exploring dozens of eateries, bars and shops.

Ten 22, a higher-end dining experience with a casual ambiance, brought Sacramento's commitment of Farm-To-Fork meals right to my table with a crispy salad, hearty steak and delicious dessert, all washed down by a local craft brew. Many of the ingredients came from farms ringing the city.

I slept well in my cozy stateroom that night without any worries of supernatural roommates. The only bummer was my early tee time forced me to skip the complimentary breakfast the next morning.

Day 3: 36 holes of municipal golf

Individually, neither the Bing Maloney Golf Complex nor the Bartley Cavanaugh Golf Course will blow anybody away. When you combine the two other 18-hole Sacramento municipal courses into a single 36-hole day like I did, however, they're a great contrast just four miles apart.

It's old-school at Bing (designed in 1952) vs. the new school at Bartley (1995). I preferred the shot-making over and around ponds and mounds at the tighter, shorter, 6,158-yard Bartley. Others might choose the classic tree-lined fairways of the 6,569-yard Bing.

Morton Golf keeps all three courses in good shape, especially for the affordable prices they charge.

I covered a lot of ground in my first visit to Sacramento. With so many more courses surrounding the city -- to quote a famous former Governor of California -- I'll be back.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Trip Dispatch: Sacramento and California's Gold Country offers solid golf and unique hotels