Record rains can’t dampen spirit of Dry Creek Ranch Golf Course owners

Every man has his breaking point.

Chris Choe’s came in late February. After spending the better part of two months pumping water off Dry Creek Ranch Golf Course day and night without collecting a single greens fee, an unexpectedly wet storm threatened to produce more flooding.

He remembers the short drive home from the Galt course he owns and operates with his family, raindrops hitting his windshield so violently he had to slow down. He thought the worst was over, but that night water again crested the banks of the ironically named creek that runs through and alongside the course. It was the seventh such breach this winter.

“When the water went over for the seventh time, I got teary-eyed,” Choe said. “After all those nights ... that was not what I signed up for.”

But he persevered. The warm and drying sun returned, as did his optimism. A group of Dry Creek diehards have been a regular presence, volunteering to remove downed trees and do whatever it takes to get their home course and its owners back on their feet.

On Wednesday, all 18 holes will be open for the first time since Jan. 3. The back nine is far from perfect with several fairways mostly bare after being under as much as 12 feet of water a month ago, but the birds are singing, the range is open, the greens are pristine and the vibe is positive.

“The front nine looks beautiful,” Choe said. “The grass is cut. You can see the fairway lines.”

All in the family

The Choes bought Dry Creek in 2004. A stern test and an area staple since opening in 1963, it is the only family owned and operated course in the Sacramento area.

The purchase came three decades after the family immigrated to the United States from South Korea. It was the culmination of years of hard work for Hyong “Steve” Choe and his wife, Yong, who started their American dream by taking minimum-wage jobs, saved to buy a grocery/liquor store in San Jose, then purchased a now-defunct nine-hole executive golf course/driving range in Modesto.

For a family of golfers, Choe said owning such a highly regarded course was a source of pride, particularly to his father.

“It was a status thing,” Choe said. “Going from one small business to a bigger small business. A lot of his friends were envious that he was able to do something like that for his family.”

One son, John, kept to his professional path and is a CPA.

Chris, who worked as a software engineer, agreed to help run the golf course.

From a business standpoint – the family paid $6.5 million for Dry Creek – Choe said it was a questionable decision. It was lucrative in the beginning but not so much in recent years.

“We probably could have done better with $6 million,” he said. “We thought the golf industry was just going to grow from there. And it didn’t.”

From a lifestyle standpoint, it’s another mixed bag, and certainly not as glamorous as people might think. Choe said his father grew tired of the grind and is mostly retired. His mother runs the snack area and bar. His wife, Jin, helps a couple days a week.

Choe, 42, is the point man. And even though he exchanged one 100-hour workweek for another, he’s happy to be away from the corporate world and the second-guessing that went with it.

He was intimidated at first in his new environs but soon embraced learning to drive a tractor, a loader, five types of mowers and how to repair carts.

“I like not having to answer to anybody other than myself and the golfers,” he said.

Choe, a 6.3 handicapper with abundant power, also enjoys spirited nine-hole evening rounds with friends he’s made at the course.

“In the evening, it’s more my course than where I work,” he said. “That’s when it feels like it’s my place.”

Regulars lend a hand

Choe has a reputation for telling customers who don’t follow the rules what he thinks.

Park a cart too close to a green? Let your 5-year-old drive? Bring ice chests of booze and beer onto the course when signs say it’s prohibited? You will probably hear from the owner. He’s tangled with a few players whose online reviews are less than flattering.

He’s fostered some fierce loyalty and a sense of community, too.

Elk Grove’s Joe Vierra has been a Dry Creek regular for 35 years, long before the Choes were part of the picture. But for the past two months he’s spent an average of four days a week at the course doing whatever was needed, asking nothing in return.

Last week, he was by himself along the left of the 12th fairway cutting up a tree that had fallen during one flood and carried across the hole during another.

“Chris has become a good friend of mine,” Vierra said. “He and his family are good people. I feel so bad for them because this place has been under water for so long.”

Galt’s Scott Reuthinger is another of the 10 or so regulars who have given considerable time and energy to get the course back into playable shape. Without them, the reopening would still be weeks away.

“Over the last 10 years or so, I’ve gotten to know Chris’ whole family,” Reuthinger said. “I can’t imagine how difficult it is to not have any business for two months. Like any friend, you offer your time and service to make things better for him.

“Dry Creek is like a second home to me. There is definitely a family feel.”

Yong made breakfast and lunch for the volunteers, often throwing in a Korean twist.

“She cooks up some good food,” Vierra said.

Indian influence

Dry Creek also flooded in 2007 and 2011 but nothing like this year, Choe said. The family was made aware of the possibility when buying the course, “but we never expected it to this extent,” he said.

He spent many sleepless nights the past two months refueling pumps every two hours.

Choe shared two videos, one from Feb. 21 that shows rushing creek water touching the underside of the bridge that connects the first tee with the first fairway and whitewater gushing onto the first fairway. The second, from Feb. 22, is of course mechanic Randall Brailey and Choe narrating while navigating the flooded course by boat.

With no municipal or corporate backup, the past two months – the rainiest January-February in Sacramento history – have been an out-of-pocket financial disaster.

Choe said he had plans to upgrade the restaurant – known as the Golden Acorn until a few years ago – to return it to its former and glory and again make it a banquet destination. Like the pro shop, it remains an ode to the 1970s.

“That was my goal for 2018,” he said. “Really rebuild this place. That’s probably not going to happen now.”

It’s impossible to know how much longer Dry Creek will remain family owned and operated. Choe’s twin 4-year-olds, a boy and a girl, might be the distant future.

There have been rumblings about the Wilton Rancheria Indian tribe being interested in buying Dry Creek if it gets its proposed $400 million casino-hotel built up Highway 99 on the southern end of Elk Grove.

Choe’s thoughts? “If the price is right.”

If not? “No more rain.”

Steve Pajak: 916-326-5526, @Steve_Pajak