2005: Saddling up to top-notch golf

Copperopolis, Calif.

The next time you think bungalow getaway, think Saddle Creek. Located about two hours east of San Francisco in the middle of what seems to be nowhere, Saddle Creek is a golf gem now being discovered much as gold was discovered in these hills some 150 years ago.

The bungalow getaway enjoys a long history among serious golfers. Usually lasting for two or three days, such a getaway is designed for total immersion in golf yet also is a form of therapy in its escape from the responsibilities and rigors of everyday life.

Required ingredients for such a getaway: good golf, good bungalows, good food. Saddle Creek meets the criteria.

The bungalows may be called lodges or cottages, or even rooms, but they must offer a direct link to the golf course. The idea is for golfers to stay out of a car or vehicle for the duration of their trip.

Good company, another element of the getaway, is the easy part. Golfers, having identified the location for an ideal bungalow getaway, are quite skilled at enticing their close friends to join them.

The bungalow getaway is all about friendly competition, uninterrupted and far from the madding crowd. Here in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, in a remote and beautiful part of Calaveras County, Saddle Creek is a course that beckons to golfers who choose to make a two-hour drive (longer with heavy traffic) from either San Francisco or San Jose.

Saddle Creek Resort is a noteworthy addition to the landscape of the bungalow getaway. This facility offers 17 charming two-bedroom bungalows, wonderful food and a golf course that is challenging and scenic in the same breath.

The area remains the site of the Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee, inspired by a Mark Twain short story. Historically speaking, there was gold and there was copper. Lots of copper.

Hence the name Copperopolis.

Local historians say 19 million to 20 million pounds of copper were mined in the 1860s. Calaveras County peaked at 5,000 residents. Then the mines shut down and the people went away.

Now, as if golf has become the bellwether of a healthier economy, the area is growing again. This is the slow, pastoral life – there not only is time to smell the roses, but to plant them as well.

Above all, Saddle Creek is a wondrous golf course. Many golfers who play the layout for the first time will think or say, “This land is perfect for a golf course.”

The trees, the panoramas, the dramatic elevation changes, the vistas – they are exquisite.

There are no parallel holes. Each hole is its own universe, and all 18 are memorable. Some mundane courses almost defy golfers to remember the holes, but here it is easy to retrace and replay the entire layout.

Who designed Saddle Creek, which opened in 1996? The answer can be complicated, but Carter Moorish, son of golf course architect Jay Moorish, gets most of the credit.

Designer Roy Bechtol was there with Moorish, but still the course seems to radiate a deeper sentiment, as if someone who loved the land for a long time had a hand in the route planning. That person was Tad Buchanan, a former Stanford University golfer and the first person to propose a golf course on the site.

The par-3 holes are amazing and may be the best collection of par 3s in the western United States. The par 4s are a diverse collection of short and long holes. The short par 4s are noteworthy because every wedge or short-iron shot into a green demands a measure of precision. There are no giveaway birdies.

Those who have played the course from the back tees know the overall length (6,826 yards) will not intimidate most players. It is the ever-changing variety that becomes the test. A golfer who is able to maneuver the ball both left-to-right and right-to-left will have a big advantage here.

Saddle Creek demands that a golfer be an accurate driver of the golf ball. It could be called Hooker’s Hell, because anyone who relies strictly on a draw off the tee can find a world of trouble.

Head professional Chris Bitticks is a perfect choice for this facility. He is a pro’s pro who understands serious golfers. At the same time, Bitticks marvels at the compatible personalities of the different tee markers.

“The golf course has a good player’s flavor,” Bitticks says, “yet it is so playable from the forward tees. That’s one of the best features of this course. At so many courses, the forward tees are either impossible to play or totally out of synch. Here it was done right.”

For golfers who appreciate and practice the art of bungalow getaways, Saddle Creek is a fitting addition to any escape list. In a whimsical moment, call it Bingo, Bango, Bungalow.

Or, more simply, call it great golf.

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