Central Valley Adventure, Part 1: A Tour of Obscure Kern County Courses

When I made my personal “to do” list of regulation 18-hole courses in Southern California, I included Kern County even though I’ve never played golf there before and really have never had much desire to. However, it made sense with the geographic line I drew to include it along with San Luis Obispo County. Plus, there were only eight courses that applied (now seven with the closure of Valley Rose in Wasco).

This weekend was finally my chance to make a significant dent in my Kern County list. I was headed up to Stevinson Ranch (further north in the Central Valley) for a Greenskeeper.org event on Saturday and Sunday, so it was a perfect excuse to rattle off a few courses along the way. I took a very circuitous driving route on Friday in order to play the most geographically inconvenient and obscure courses in Kern, starting with the most remote…

Tierra del Sol Golf Club • California City, CA • 6/7/13

California City is out there in the Mojave Desert, near Edwards Air Force Base. It’s well off the beaten path, but I found the course just fine. I had called the day before and the guy in the pro shop told me he usually opens up around 6:30 and he’d have no problem getting me out early.

I was there along with a few other regulars/members before he even showed up, but there was no big rush here. He was a super nice guy who welcomed me as if I were one of the good old boys here. It’s a pretty laid back rural course that’s mostly only played by locals. It was only $29 with a cart on Friday morning. I got out quickly behind a twosome of regulars, but they were fast and I never had to wait too long. I finished in a little over two hours.

Overall, I enjoyed the layout of the course a lot. It’s mostly a links style course set in the high desert area. The terrain is flat, but the designers did a good job with mounding and bunkering to create some much-needed contour on the course and force some deceptive angles throughout the layout.

It won’t blow you away, but Tierra del Sol is a solid course on all levels. There are a handful of large water hazards that come into play, but enough bail-out room so you can play those holes safely if you choose not to be overly aggressive. Most of the greens are slightly elevated and all are very well protected by bunkers. Unlike most links courses, this one doesn’t allow for many low run-up opportunities as there’s almost always a big bunker right in front of the hole to force a higher/softer approach shot.

The course was in okay condition. Not great, but reasonable given the remote location and low rates. The fairways and rough were mostly green, but inconsistent with numerous types of grasses growing in and lies that would vary (everything from hard pan dirt to lush, thick patches of rough). There isn’t much distinction right now between fairways and rough, which does make it hard to find your aiming points off the tee (at least as a first-time player). There are some tricky angles and holes where positioning is key, so I learned my lessons the hard way a few times.

Also, the course yardages are not well marked. There are blue, white and red plates in the fairways, but they are often hard to see unless you are right on top of them, especially when things are still soggy and shimmery early in the morning.

The greens and bunkers were not in good shape. The greens were about 80% nice with consistent green turf, but the other 20% were awful. There were a number of dead spots on most greens. They do try to keep the pins away from the really bad areas, but they will still come into play on chips and putts if you on the wrong side of the hole. The bunkers were dreadful with pretty hard-packed dirt/sand in the ones I found (and I found a lot that morning). The cart paths are also in bad shape. It was a very bumpy and wet ride as they were really torn up and many areas were flooded.

Tierra del Sol is by no means a “destination” course and not really worth going too far out of your way for unless you are on a similar quest as myself. But if you are in the area, it’s a solid option for a relaxed round on a fun, cheap course with a friendly atmosphere around the small clubhouse.

Some pictures from Tierra del Sol Golf Club (6/7/13):

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My day was far from over as I headed west on the 58 toward another very out-of-the-way Kern County course…

Horse Thief Country Club • Tehachapi, CA • 6/7/13

Note: This course is now closed.

I knew very little about this course. The reviews on GK are sparse, their website doesn’t have much info or photos and it’s not one I’ve ever heard anyone mention. But it’s there and I was committed to playing it Friday in order to form my own opinions. Sometimes coming in purely “fresh” helps because I have no expectations to measure against.

Before I left Tierra del Sol, I looked up Horse Thief times on GolfNow. I knew they were on that system and it often helps me secure better rates as a single player. I had already looked earlier in the week and they had plenty of openings, so I figured it would be smooth sailing. When I went to book a time Friday, there were still plenty of openings and the rates had actually dropped a few bucks on most of the times. I booked a time at 11:00 for only $20. With the heat the whole area was expecting that day and the relative obscurity of this course, I figured I’d have a nice quick and easy round ahead of me.

It takes awhile to get to Horse Thief. The town of Tehachapi is remote enough, but the course is still another 20 minutes southwest into the hills, in a small community called Stallion Springs. I really didn’t know what to expect after the drive in, but was pleasantly surprised as I neared the entrance of the course and saw a few holes that looked to be very interesting and in decent shape.

The clubhouse building and facilities are clearly old, but retain a rustic western quality with plenty of cowboy decor and an old “ranch” look about the place. There were a lot more people there than I expected and I could see it wasn’t going to be as quick a round as I hoped for. Luckily, I learned the climate in this part of town is much more temperate than other parts of the valley (they said it’s usually about 10 degrees cooler here most days) and it was a gorgeous afternoon for golf.

I checked in and the pro shop guy wasn’t too helpful. He said he slotted me at 11:20 and I would be by myself behind the full tee sheet of groups ahead. That is not a position I really like to be in, so I asked if there was any other earlier groups he could pair me with to make my round more bearable. He made it sound impossible, so I just gave up and dicked around on the practice green while I waited. There isn’t much organization here so people were just kind of heading out to the first tee when they were ready. I eventually headed over a little after 11:00 and it was wide open, so I teed off.

After a couple holes, I ran into a foursome ahead of me. They were extra slow, so I could see I’d be in for a long day. However, they let me play through and I ultimately joined a threesome of members ahead of me. They were really fun and nice guys who showed me the ropes of the course—including the actual rope on the hangman tree on the 8th hole there to sarcastically warn slow players to pick up the pace. It didn’t work that day, though.

The guys I played with told me it’s usually never more than a 3.5 hour round out here, but apparently this turned out to be one of the busiest days all year. Though things seemed to go quite slow, my round ended up reasonable at about 4.5 hours. Theirs was a bit longer since they teed off much earlier, so they were understandably grumbling about it all afternoon.

The layout at Horse Thief is really fun and much more interesting than I would have ever expected. There are some changes in elevation, a lot of trees and rock formations in play and a handful of water hazards. The layout is pretty tight with a number of doglegs and holes where positioning is crucial off the tee. There are a few funky holes like numbers 12 and 18 which have big trees and boulders right in the middle of the fairways, so this is a course where local knowledge is definitely helpful on a good number of holes.

It’s also pretty scenic in this relatively secluded setting. The course does have plenty of houses around it, but with all the rolling hills, trees and boulders it’s a great setting for a course.

The course was in good shape overall. The tees, rough and fairways were all in nice condition. Some dry/brown patches throughout, but the cuts were consistent and the fairway lies were always fantastic. The rough nearest the fairways was always nicely cut and manicured, but the further you get away from the fairways it tends to get more inconsistent and patchy, but that’s not surprising given the rugged terrain here. It just forces you to keep it safe.

The greens were nice. Very spongy and soft, but smooth surfaces. Apparently, the previous owner really ran this place into the ground, but the new owners and superintendent have been working hard to bring it around to its former glory. The members said it’s really come back to life this year and the greens are a massive improvement over what they had just months ago. Whatever they are doing, it’s working well.

The one big remaining project there is the bunkers. Right now, they are horrible. Some of the worst I’ve ever seen. Once they can get some new sand in those and continue keeping the rest of the turf nice, this will be a fantastic course that I’d love to play again.

Again, I wouldn’t go way out of my way to play Horse Thief, but if I lived within an hour, it would definitely make the regular rotation. It’s a hidden gem and a diamond in the rough if they can continue to improve the conditions and facilities.

Some pictures from Horse Thief Country Club (6/7/13):

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Below is the tee shot view from the crazy par-5 12th hole. You tee off over the group of trees and then the hole doglegs left. It’s a good risk/reward hole if you know exactly where you are hitting, but it definitely is an uncomfortable tee shot!

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The longer-than-expected round at Horse Thief kind of threw a wrench in my hopes of playing three rounds that day. I figured things would go quickly at the first two courses and I’d have plenty of time and energy to play a third round at another course as I made my way toward Bakersfield, where I was planning to spend the night.

Time wasn’t as much of a factor as I knew I’d be able to get another round in in the late afternoon/evening, but my energy was pretty drained. Still, my curiosity led me to at least do a “drive by” of the next course to scope it out.

Sycamore Canyon Golf Course • Arvin, CA • 6/7/13

Note: This course is also now closed.

Arvin is about a half-hour southeast of Bakersfield, so I had to go a little out of my to stop by the course. I’m still torn whether this was a good or bad decision. When I got there, it was 104 degrees out and truly stifling. As expected, I could see the course was empty and I wasn’t even sure if they were open. I could see parts of the course and it looked pretty dried out and brown, so it wasn’t too appealing to the eye.

I realized I probably wasn’t going to really want to go out of the way to come out there again some other time in the future, plus I knew it would be a super quick/cheap round with nobody out there. So I sucked it up, not quite for the love of the game in this case, but for the quest of the Golf Nomad.

The only people in the pro shop were a small Asian family. The guy checked me in and it was only $22 with a cart for a super twilight rate. He didn’t seem to speak English too well, so when I asked if there was drinking water on the course he nodded “yes” and smiled. Still, I was very thirsty then and I bought a Gatorade and bottled water from the bar. I’m glad I did because there wasn’t a speck of drinking water on the course, which should almost be illegal given how hot it was there.

I did zip around the course at lightning speeds, only running into one other group (a twosome) who let me play through on the front nine. I teed off a little before 5:00 and was done by 6:30, so it was probably the quickest round of golf I ever played. I was in no mood to dilly dally in the brutal heat and there wasn’t much about the course to enjoy.

In fact, as it sits right now, I’d have to say Sycamore Canyon is the worst full-length course I’ve ever played. Victoria might enter that conversation, except I liked the layout there and the greens were nice. There is nothing redeeming about Sycamore Canyon based on my experience.

I found the layout to be pretty boring. It is very flat and pretty wide open. There are a few decent water holes and the last par-3 is nice, but nothing too noteworthy. I’m not sure where the “Canyon” in the name comes from because there is nothing resembling a canyon on or around the course. Arvin is pretty flat farmland and the hills are still quite a few miles in the distance.

The conditions were absolutely terrible. Everything was thin, brown and dried out, and the course was as much dirt as grass. A few decent areas here and there, but mostly quite awful. The bunkers were bad, the greens were ugly and bumpy and it just wasn’t good by any standards. The pictures below are more flattering than they should be.

I was happy to see they were watering the course plenty while I was there, but unfortunately they were doing it as I was playing. I had to duck and dodge sprinklers all day to avoid getting sprayed. I had to run in and hit several chips and putts super quickly so I wouldn’t get soaked. Some of the greens had big puddles of water forming that I had to putt/chip through, as well. It’s nice they are watering, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much good and it was really inconvenient for those of us willing to pay the money to play this crappy course on such a deathly hot afternoon.

Even if I hear this course is in pristine shape, I won’t be back. The layout is serviceable for local play, but everything about it sucked during my experience. Well, there was one positive I took away and that was the scorecard. I was so distracted and disgusted by the conditions that I ended up posting a great score—a 79 from the blues, which is great for me!

Some pictures from Sycamore Canyon Golf Course (6/7/13):

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