Two Sacramento golf courses: one forgiving, one with character

He was young and handsome, and cut a striking figure riding about on his prancing horse. He also happened to be a bandit, a horse thief, a murderer, back in California's gold rush days. But legends die hard, so, scoundrel that he was, the memory of Joaquin Murieta has been honored with a fine golf resort named after him.

In the boondocks of Sloughhouse, 24 miles east of Sacramento, Rancho Murieta is a heavenly hideout: bucolic, peaceful, and quiet.

It has two golf courses, the North and the South, both with a rocky and oak tree-studded landscape.

It it's trouble you're seeking, by all means choose the North, opened seven years ago. It's very hilly and leads you to fairways where you must (1) fight your way through the trees, (2) have near-perfect aim for getting around doglegs , and (3) be able to avoid sinister deep grass in the rough. You half expect Murieta to pop to out from behind them. The yardage is 6,499-6,997, par 72, men; 5,873, par 73, women.

For a more restful day, sign up for the not-yet-year-old South course. Even bad shots look good out there with its gently rolling, wide open terrain forgiving all sorts of errors. Even the traps are easy to shoot out of. Yardage is 6,307-6,886, par 72, men; 5,527, par 73, women.

No parallel fairways on either, and on both a delightful treat to the eye are blooming flower gardens at many holes. Not to worry if you shoot into them. They are played as penalty-free obstructions.

The River Consumnes flows throughout, rushing in winter, dead calm in summer. Tinkling bells on nearby grazing cows make music for small, tight greens that putt fast but true.

Besides golf, the club offers tennis, a swimming pool, and a jogging track. The food is great, too, and most reasonably priced.

Both a place to live and a place to stay, Rancho Murieta currently offers 76 guest rooms. Half are on the Spartan side, merely meant for sleeping. The other half are downright luxurious, with large bedrooms, full living rooms, and kitchens. The difference between them is just $30.

The resort also has its own private plane landing strip and round-the-clock security and roving patrol. Quite a change from its vulnerable tent city origins a scant 130 years ago. If bandit chief Murieta were alive today, he'd be incredibly frustrated.

The vitals: Rancho Murieta Country Club, 14813 Jackson Road, Rancho Murieta, Calif. 95683. Toll-free phone 800-852-7127 for accommmodations. Two courses, rated 72.9 championship, 71.7 regular, 73.1 women (North); and 72.6 championship , 70.2 regular, 71.0 women (South). Greens fee $18, carts (required) $16. Regular room rates $55-$85, but 3-day, 2-night golf packages priced $100-$130 per person include room, golf, carts, and even unlimited tennis.

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