Central Valley Golf Adventure, Part 2: Taking Major Steps Upward

Friday was a long day with three rounds and warm weather on two pretty good courses (Tierra del Sol and Horse Thief) and one terrible course (Sycamore Canyon).

Saturday and Sunday would prove to be much more eventful and fulfilling as I played two much, much nicer Central Valley courses. It started in Bakersfield on a muggy morning…

The Links at Riverlakes Ranch • Bakersfield, CA

I was actually hoping to save this course for a later trip because I knew it was the best that Kern County had to offer. I would have tried to play Valley Rose in the morning because it was the northernmost option in the county, but recently found out it is closed for the foreseeable future. So I had to suck it up and finally check out Riverlakes Ranch.

Because I still had almost three hours to drive and get up to Stevinson Ranch in time for my tournament, I had to get out as early as possible. After calling around, Riverlakes Ranch said they start play right at first daylight and I should be able to walk on for a dawn patrol round. It was still dark when I showed up and I had to wait around a bit for the pro shop to open. The girl was actually running a bit late. There were others milling around in the parking lot, but I was the first one to check in and get out on the course.

It worked out perfectly as I was able to play quickly (without feeling rushed) and get on the road with more than enough time to spare. I did have to pay the full rack rate of $55 since walking on was my best bet for getting off first as a single. However, this course was worth every penny of that!

I had mixed expectations heading into the round. I’ve seen some fantastic reviews on Greenskeeper.org and some others that made it sound like an overpriced track no better than any average muni in terms of conditions. Perhaps it varies a different points throughout the year or maybe they had a rough patch at some point, but I was blown away by the conditions.

The course was in gorgeous shape all the way around. Lush, beautiful green fairways and rough—borderline “immaculate.” Great greens that were soft and receptive, but smooth on putts. There were a number of old ball marks, but with the soft pliable turf they were easy to smooth out if they were in the line of one of my putts. They were spraying the greens with some fertilizer that had some green dye in it, so my ball would pick up a little green juice on putts, but no big deal as it was easy to wipe off.

There was also excellent sand in the bunkers that was hugely refreshing after experiencing awful traps on all three of the previous day’s courses.

As for the layout of Riverlakes Ranch, I also didn’t fully know what to expect. I knew it was a modern links design through a residential community, but I didn’t anticipate it to be anything too memorable. I was wrong. This is a wonderful course with a lot of challenge, diversity and interesting elements.

It is definitely in a links style with a lot of big, nasty bunkers and natural undulation to shape what would be an otherwise flat landscape. There are trees around the course, but they don’t come into play much. They are more provide visual definition on the outer edges of holes and to provide a little barrier between the course and surrounding homes.

There are many holes here that I really liked, but two stood out to me. The first is the par-3 15th, which is a real beauty that makes you forget you’re in the middle of Bakersfield. It requires a tee shot with water all the way up the right. If you miss short or right here, you are dead. There is room to bail out left, but you’ll still be left with a difficult pitch/chip in because this is a very tricky green complex. The 15th and the bunkers that surround it are very neatly sculpted and it’s kind of a work of art for a golfer like me who enjoys aesthetic touches that also serve a purpose on the course.

I thought the 15th green complex would be the highlight of the day (and it might still be as an overall hole), but then the 18th wowed me just as much. 18 is a par-5 that’s pretty straightforward off the tee and really only gets interesting as you get to the green. Big hitters face a dangerous risk/reward option as the massive green complex surrounded with neat bunkers and trees is its own island oasis. There isn’t much room for error. For a more conservative player like me, it’s an easy three-shot hole. Get the right angle for your third shot and you can attack the pin aggressively.

I have nothing but good things to say about The Links at Riverlakes Ranch. It impressed me on every level and it took my opinion of Kern County golf up a major notch. I specifically say Kern County because I already knew other parts of the Central Valley had some gems, as you’ll see in just a little bit.

Some pictures from The Links at Riverlakes Ranch (6/8/13):

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Found this turtle out on the road. When I tried to help him back to the safe confines of the golf course, he wasn’t too appreciative and tried to pee on me! Very amusing moment.

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A nice view of the 15th:

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The beautiful 18th green complex:

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Now it’s time for the main event. The reason I took this trip was to join my Greenskeeper.org buddies for two days worth of golf at a great course just northwest of Fresno…

Stevinson Ranch Golf Club • Stevinson, CA

I first played here last year with a small group of GK guys and we had a blast with an overnight stay in the courses quaint set of cottages. I liked the course last year and was looking forward to playing it again, but I loved it even more this time around. There is such a good vibe around this place! Even though it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s impressive what they’ve created there as word continues to spread.

We had a large group event on Saturday afternoon. It was extremely hot, and though we all had fun, we were quite wiped out by day’s end. That didn’t stop a number of us from hanging out at the pool by the cottages and then playing some late night Texas Hold ‘em in the meeting room they had set up for us. A good number of us played golf again Sunday morning before heading home in the late afternoon. Nobody quite wanted to leave.

We got a pretty good stay and play rate for the group. I think it worked out to $134 a player for two rounds of golf and a night’s stay in the cottages. That also covered entry into the GK prize pool/raffle and a gourmet dinner provided by the staff at Stevinson. Beyond having such a nice course, the staff here is really what makes this place special. All the girls working in the saloon bar and grill (and the cart girls) are lovely and super nice. The food is awesome and the service is great. It’s a really friendly, fun and inviting atmosphere.

The course itself is really enjoyable and deceptively tough. They call it a “savannah” style course as it’s built in a wetlands area. It’s a links style design. Most holes feature pretty wide fairways, but the angles are designed to tempt you. There is always plenty of landing room, but your eye tends to draw you to a more aggressive line. But, when you take that line, more and more trouble will come into play.

Long native fescue grass surrounds the outer edges of every hole and you DO NOT want to be in it. If you can even find your ball, you are faced with a really tough shot out of it. There are also a number of grass bunkers throughout the course that aren’t quite as treacherous as the fescue, but are still to be avoided. Then there are the sand traps, which are plentiful and punishing. They have steep vertical faces and it’s not uncommon for your ball to roll right up to the front or along one of the sidewalls, leaving you with very difficult stances and escape options.

I learned last year that for my game, playing this course extra conservatively is the only way I’m going to post a decent score. Both days this year, I didn’t heed my own advice on the front nine and found myself in some very undesirable locations. Yet on the back nine, I did excellent both days once I settled into my rhythm and played smarter, not harder.

The greens here aren’t overly tricked out. Most breaks are easy to see, but you also have to factor in the grain of the grass and uphill/downhill slopes that have more affect than you can see with the naked eye. Last year I had trouble getting these greens right, but this year I was really seeing them well.

The greens were rolling a tad slow, but it’s understandable as the course heads into the super hot summer months. Keeping them cut a little longer prevents the grass from dying out in the harsher season.

Otherwise, Stevinson Ranch was in tip-top shape. The fairways and first cut of rough were beautiful and green. I don’t know my golf grasses as well as some, but whatever kind they use here is thick and sticky and I struggle on it with my low swing plane. But that’s my problem, not the course’s.

It seems some form of this trip is becoming an annual tradition for Greenskeeper.org and I am sure I will continue to come along many more times. We might be better off a little earlier in the year before the heat really gets bad, but then again Sunday morning was ideal weather and very enjoyable. The afternoons tend to get hotter and windier, which both wear you out as you fight your way around this challenging layout.

I also got to witness a hole-in-one by one of my Sunday playing partners. He aced the short, but tricky 12th hole with a pure sand wedge. I was the primary witness as I saw it take a couple bounces and then disappear. I was about 90% sure it went in, so he sprinted up to the green to sneak a peak. It was a very cool thing to witness. The only other ace I’ve been a part of is my own, but nobody in my group saw the ball go into the hole, so this one was much more exciting!

Some pictures from Stevinson Ranch (6/8/13):

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