From the limited supply of women’s merchandise in the pro shop to the location of the women’s club bulletin board behind the door in the ladies’ bathroom (as opposed to the men’s club events prominently displayed in the foyer), we got the hint that this golf course might not have been created with women players in mind. The course layout and tee selections only confirmed our suspicions.
Empire Ranch Golf Club, designed by Brad Bell, became the first golf course in the city of Folsom in 2002. Billed as a links-style course, it met few of the requisite requirements for its professed “links” style. First, it is not located on an ocean or sea or large body of water; we couldn’t even see Folsom Lake from the course. It has no sand dunes, no wind, no thick rough, no uneven fairways, and absolutely no pot bunkers. Many links courses have an “outward” nine along the coast traveling away from the clubhouse and a parallel “inward” nine returning to the clubhouse. Instead, Empire Ranch’s front nine is circular in shape returning to the clubhouse, and its back nine, although more traditional in its setup, has only 5 holes traveling “outward” and 4 holes returning “inward” – an abbreviated links style. We also spotted way too many trees on the property for a links course. But links courses are all the rage these days. (Note the USGA choosing Erin Hills, a links-style course in the middle of Wisconsin farmland, for this year’s men’s US Open.)
I suppose the debate about whether or not Empire Ranch is a links course has little to do with what women want or don’t want in a golf course, but the length of the course is an important issue. Longer-hitting men enjoy three choices of tees: Blue at 6668 yards, Tournament at 6308 yards, and White at 6058 yards. Each tee has approximately a 300- yard difference in length from the next, creating an excellent variety in lengths. Women, however, must choose between the White tees at 6058 yards (so long that course raters will only do a paper rating because so few women will play those tees) and the Reds at 5036 yards, 68.0/113 rating and slope, a length so short that it may not present enough of a challenge to be interesting. We found a Combo tee on the card at 5427 yards. We chose to play that set of tees, much to our chagrin. The Combo is simply not set up for women players. It features a 413-yard par 4 and 151 and 153-yard par threes, unreachable for most women players. The final straw occurred when we discovered we could not post our scores because Empire Ranch did not establish a women’s rating from the Combo tees.
We found two holes that were memorable, unfortunately for the wrong reason. The first tee is located across the parking lot around the corner and down the entrance driveway from the pro shop. After asking directions, we finally found the first hole snuggled up against the towering, protective netting of the driving range which runs along the left side of the fairway. The opposite side of the fairway features a large electrical tower which looms menacingly for anyone who fades the ball. To complete the picture of this unusually unattractive starting hole, power lines form an arbor across the hole. The landing area is not visible so a player must aim her drive at one of those visually stunning, striped directional barber poles. I don’t know about other players, but I am much happier when I can see my target. I hate aiming at a pole, of which there are many here. We women players are justly proud of our feminine sense of aesthetics. It is a big reason why we play golf. Needless to say, Empire Ranch’s first hole was the most unwelcoming hole we’ve played this summer.
The 18th hole is probably the course’s signature hole – for men and long hitters. For women it is a huge disappointment. After seemingly playing uphill on the entire back nine, longer hitters end with a par 3 that involves a shot off a cliff to a green far below. Shorter hitters (read “women”), however, drive their carts on steep paths down to the bottom where their Red tee is located. The tee allows them to reach the green, but they lose the character (and the fun) of the hole.
Although the course itself did not provide a positive experience, the game of golf as always, certainly did. We were paired with a gentleman from the Folsom community, Brian Richie, who represented the positive aspects of the game in every way. We had a lovely day comparing shots and sharing golf stories. His daughter, Marissa, has taken up the game in a big way and is currently competing for the Vista del Lago High School girls golf team. Hooray for girls golf and hooray for its supporters like Brian!
Will Empire Ranch ever be more accommodating for women players? In spite of a very congenial pro shop and staff, the original set up of the facility will be difficult to change; thus, it is unlikely to ever be appealing to women.