The green on the par-4 eighth is tempting. Only 266 yards from two of the five sets of tees, it’s an eagle opportunity for big hitters. And yet, 200 yards out is the maw of a bunker as wide as the heart-shaped target, with another trap guarding the front edge. Two other bunkers lie in wait on the green’s left and right, both flanked by tall waste area grass, all the stuff of a classic risk-reward hole that could hand you the deuce or slap you with a snowman.
WELCOME TO YOCHA DEHE, widely recognized as one of Northern California’s top public-access golf courses, a Brad Bell design that’s an architectural masterwork, with design variety, memorable holes, and multiple tees with yardages for players of all abilities.
Nestled in the secluded Capay Valley near the unincorporated town of Brooks, about 90 minutes northeast of San Francisco, the course sits on land owned by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. Pronounced yo-cha dee-hee, the name means “home by the spring water” in the tribe’s Patwin language.
Opened in 2008, the course has hosted several U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur qualifiers. Golf publications consistently rank it among the state’s top resort courses. Every day, golfers drive an hour or two to play this remote but remarkable layout, and then drive home. And with all that said, sublime Yocha Dehe is “just” an amenity of the Cache Creek Casino Resort.
Arguably the most popular casino in the region, Cache Creek features thousands of exclusive slot machines that produce a symphony of light and sound, and hundreds of table games. Surrounding the gaming are nearly a dozen dining options, including a sweet shop, deli, and restaurants that offer a feast of dishes touching on cultures from Thailand to Korea and most everything in between.
Cache Creek also includes an entertainment venue, an outdoor swimming pool, and a luxurious spa, the latter of which recently underwent a multi-million dollar renovation. Together, the attractions bring a steady stream of guests on day trips from Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose. The resort also includes its original hotel, with 200 well-appointed rooms.
“The rooms mostly sell out, year round,” said Director of Golf Will Foust. “In the past, rooms have been awfully hard to come by, especially for guests coming just for golf.” That hitch is now gone.
Recently, the resort opened a new and long-awaited tower with 459 additional rooms. “The 659 rooms make us one of the largest hotel properties in the region,” Foust said. “It opens many more opportunities for people who want to come golf, stay, and enjoy all the resort amenities.”
Indeed, the new tower complex includes several new restaurants and watering holes, including Enso Sushi, the 16 West Bar & Lounge, and a newly designed and relocated C-2, which features steak and seafood. Along with another new swimming pool, the tower also features an event center and several conference rooms.
The addition is the most recent in the ongoing development of the destination, which got its start in 1985, when the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation opened a modest bingo hall near the ebbing waters of nearby Cache Creek. After California enacted its State Gaming Compact in 1999, the Wintun Nation started work on the casino resort, a $200-million project that opened in 2004.
The Tribe is a sovereign Native American nation, with a governing body, services, and business enterprises that augment the casino and course. Its ranching operation includes a forest of olive trees and a vineyard with several wine-grape varietals. The casino proper employs about 2,000 people, and includes a Tribe-operated mini-mart, gasoline station, and a fully equipped fire department.
Twenty years ago, the site of the future golf course wasn’t much to look at. The Tribe turned to Sacramento-based architect and former PGA Tour pro Brad Bell, gave him a generous budget, and essentially turned him loose, a practice that has made Native American courses among the best that have opened in recent decades.
When he first walked the valley with tribal members, Bell found terrain that was mostly “a flat, treeless field with plenty of weeds,” he said. “But I loved the location and how it offered so much visual excitement and privacy.”
No homes encroach on the layout, and Bell moved considerable earth to separate fairways and create contours. He planted young oak trees that have since matured, and are in harmony with large native oaks along the creek. The Tribe ensured the routing avoided sacred grounds, and named each hole in the Patwin language, often after wildlife that reflect the nature of the challenge. Hole 18, for example, is called Selai, or Bear, apt for the beastly finisher. Hole eight is Sedeo, or Coyote, fitting given its tricky nature.
AN EXCELLENT BET
The course can play from a stout 7,337 yards at the tips, to 5,426 from the forward tees, all of which send a golfer on a wondrous journey. “When you’re in this valley, you wouldn’t know you were in California,” Foust said. “It’s so peaceful compared to urban areas. And the Tribe gives us the resources to do things right.”
Fellow turf-care pros are envious of Directory of Agronomy Kyle Jones — a onetime Troon superintendent of the year— who uses mostly organic fertilizers to keep the course in meticulous condition. “I think Kyle has serial numbers on every blade of grass because the fairways and greens are so perfect,” joked one of the super’s colleagues.
Foust in particular says he appreciates the infrastructure provided by the Tribe, as it’s a reminder of his childhood. “I grew up on a Montana reservation,” he explained. “My father worked in the Tribe’s natural resources department, mainly on water rights, so the environmental care that goes into Cache Creek is very familiar. It’s also comforting to have security, the fire department, and paramedics on site. You may never need them, but they’re right here if you do.”
On a hill above the course sits the spacious Yocha Dehe clubhouse. The driving range is also up there, with tees overlooking a tree-filled depression, which mimics the first shot of the day on a hole appropriately called Sul Sah, or Eagle Eye. Starting about 160 feet above the fairway on the par 4, even a mediocre drive travels out and down with a satisfying trajectory.
The front nine has a mix of tough and beneficient holes, while the back gets interesting. No. 14 starts at the lowest point on the course, with a semi-blind tee shot to a landing area where the green can be seen; the approach is uphill, through a chute between mature oaks. No.15 demands a tee shot over water to a fairway bifurcated by a creek. Said Foust: “This is the start of the challenging finishing holes, which Brad designed with good risk and reward qualities.”
Tee times at Yocha Dehe are every 10 minutes, and the pace of play on weekdays is fairly brisk. “With the new part of the hotel opening, it’s going to be so much better for golfers who want to stay and golf for a few days,” said Foust.
And wandering into the casino for a game or two after a round of golf is always another interesting bet.