SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Contrast is the key ingredient for the municipal courses of California's capital city.
The city's three 18-hole layouts -- Bing Maloney Golf Complex, Bartley Cavanaugh Golf Course and the Alister MacKenzie Golf Course at Haggin Oaks -- were all designed by different architects in different eras, leading to three entirely unique experiences for golfers. They're versatile, too. Bing Maloney and Haggin Oaks have extra nines for more golf or footgolf and driving ranges lighted at night.
Talking to local golfers and reading the reviews at Golf Advisor, I've found there's no consensus favorite among the three, all run by Morton Golf. If you're in the city for business or pleasure, they're all solid ways to spend a day outside.
Haggin Oaks Golf Complex
Haggin Oaks might be the one closest to a "destination" course, a place worth driving from out of town to see. Dr. Alister MacKenzie, the famous architect, designed Haggin Oaks in 1932. Sam Snead, Jimmy Demaret, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and others competed in the PGA Tour's Sacramento Open here in the 1930s.
The 7,030-yard course -- at one time ranked by Golfweek among the top 25 municipal courses in the country -- has that classic feel. It's an easy walk, and there aren't many penal holes. The most interesting approach shots come over a pond on no. 4 and over Arcade Creek to the fifth and 14th greens.
Two additional nine-hole loops on the Arcade Creek Golf Course are more for beginners or people looking for a quick round. One of the nines offers footgolf, the new game that's a cross between soccer and golf.
Haggin Oaks separates itself even further with other impressive facilities. The 15,000-square-foot golf super store pairs perfectly with a lighted driving range equipped with the "Power Tee" -- i.e. machines that tee the ball up automatically. It stays open 24 hours in summer. Customers can test new equipment for free on the range before buying. A Player Performance Studio can fit players on a TrackMan. A three-hole learning academy can be used for practice or lessons. The MacKenzie putting course, featuring nine holes of mini-golf, was added in 2014.
For a break, the MacKenzie Bar & Grille -- stocked with memorabilia and historic photos -- provides a hangout that serves good food and drinks.
Bing Maloney Golf Complex
The "Bing" -- named after a former superintendent of the city's recreation department who was instrumental in its creation in 1952 -- roams through a tree line that feels tighter and more defined than Haggin Oaks. Michael J. McDonaugh, a longtime city employee who worked with MacKenzie, designed the 6,569-yard course. It's mostly flat without water (the pond on the third hole is being removed) and limited bunkering. That makes it fun and playable for all.
The 430-yard 12th hole ranks among the toughest par 4s in Sacramento. A gigantic heritage oak tree sits in the center of the fairway, forcing players to either sneak one through a narrow window on the left side to cut the corner of the dogleg left or hook the drive around the right side of the tree.
The lighted range, the "Express Nine" loop (added in 1988) and an extra practice hole are perfect for The First Tee, footgolf or taking lessons with one of the course's eight PGA Professionals.
Bartley Cavanaugh Golf Course
Bartley Cavanaugh is where Sacramento's munis take a wild turn in style. Perry Dye, the son of Pete Dye, creatively transformed 98 acres between the Sacramento River and I-5 into a 6,158-yard test of target golf. Mounds, ponds and landscaped bushes and trees separate narrow fairways, trying to keep adjacent fairways from becoming shooting galleries.
It's very much a modern design with more dramatic holes than Haggin Oaks and Bing Maloney combined. Water is the differentiator. Ponds pinch fairways of the 330-yard sixth hole and 289-yard 13th holes, so it's wise to leave driver in the bag. The 107-yard 17th hole plays to an island green. The ninth and 18th holes run parallel to one another on opposite sides of a pond.
With such limited land, Bartley Cavanaugh doesn't have the extras like the other two facilities -- no additional nine, no range, no footgolf and no super store. But if I were a local, it's the place where I would hang my hat.