Gulf Coast Trip, Day 1: Getting a Headstart in Arkansas

I didn’t expect to be writing a review tonight, but here I am. After months of planning—getting all the dates, courses and reservations just right—I looked at the weather forecasts heading into the weekend and things became questionable.

I flew into Little Rock, Arkansas today (oddly enough connecting through George Bush Airport in Houston to Clinton Airport in Little Rock). No golf was on the schedule, but I made a slight change in tomorrow’s plans. A big, nasty storm is supposed to hit here in Arkansas tomorrow afternoon. Thunder, hail and maybe even tornadoes are all possibilities. Even the locals seem a bit worried about it. As a California boy, I don’t mind a little earthquake now and again, but these unpredictable midwest storms are not something I really want to mess with.

I was set to play my first course tomorrow morning at 7:30. I would have been first out, so I likely would have gotten through before any weather hit. Still, I got in early enough today and the weather was gorgeous this afternoon, so I decided to test my luck with a late twilight round on the course I had planned for the morning…

Mountain Ranch Golf CourseFairfield Bay, AR4/26/14

The idea worked out perfectly, so now I have a lot of flexibility tomorrow and will get out of town before the big stuff hits!

Originally, I was considering playing Hot Springs Country Club, which is southwest of Little Rock. They have two courses and are always highly ranked on Arkansas “best of” lists, so I figured I’d play 36. When I called them, they let me know they had a big tournament and one of the courses was pretty much closed all day.

As I researched alternatives, I realized that the course that is generally listed as #1 on most state lists I’ve seen was about the same distance away, but just in a different direction (north). So it ended up working out well with Mountain Ranch as the choice. They have a sister course, Tannenbaum, and great unlimited play deals, so I was also hoping to play 36 up here, but I will obviously ditch that plan.

I’m staying the night in Clinton, which is about 20 minutes from the course and the closest thing to a “big” town in this area (2,000 people or so). As soon as I checked in, I headed straight over to the course.

I got there a little after 4:30. I saw some folks out on the course, but it didn’t look too busy. When I asked the pro shop guy what time it got dark here this time of year, he told me after 8:00, so I knew I’d have no problem getting the full round in. I ran into some groups out on the course, but still finished in about three hours. The price was a nice $31 with cart for a late afternoon.

I didn’t research this course too much since it was a pretty last-minute change from Hot Springs, but I saw a few pictures on their site and it looked nice. It’s up in the foothills of the Ozarks, so the design has a nice hilly presentation. There aren’t many flat lies on the course.

The front nine is fairly benign, but trickier than it looks. It feels open, but it’s tighter than it looks. There are some well-placed bunkers to avoid off the tees and dogleg angles that can be deceiving to the eye. A couple of fairways slant severely to one side or another, so you generally want to aim to the high side. The only water hazard on the course is on the par-5 2nd hole, which also features a cool little cave you have to hit over on the tee shot. Otherwise, trees and slopes are your biggest enemies here.

The back nine amps up the challenge with a much, much tighter feel from tee to green. There are some narrow landing areas, the trees feel much more on top of you and the slopes are even more pronounced.

Probably the most notable hole is the boomerang-like par-5 14th. I think it features the most narrow fairway I’ve ever seen on a par-5. It’s a huge dogleg to the right, presenting some risk/reward shortcut options if you know where you can hit and do it just perfectly. Otherwise, the narrow fairway slopes severely from right to left (away from the corner), making your tee shot and lay-up very uncomfortable. I made a mess of it, but I think it’s one you have to play many times to figure out your own strategy. As a first-time player, it’s just too funky to tame without a lot of luck involved.

Overall, I enjoyed the layout and the setting is pretty nice in a secluded area with just a few homes and resort condos scattered along the edges of some holes.

The conditions were far from pristine, but mostly playable. I think they had a “late” winter here and it’s a bit early in the season up in the hills, so the course is clearly still coming out of dormancy. The fairways were a mix of green grass coming through with dry patches underneath. There were a lot of bare areas I found, as well. The bunkers I was in had good sand. The greens were slow and not super great looking, but rolled true enough on putts and were mostly good outside of the sluggish speeds.

Mountain Ranch is definitely out of the way and not worth a whole trip to Arkansas. If you are in this area, though, it’s worth a visit and I presume the conditions get much nicer later in spring and summer. This state isn’t really known much for its golf, but I am pretty satisfied with my choice as I was able to check one more state of my list.

Some pictures from Mountain Ranch Golf Club (4/26/14):

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The official Bogeys Across America ball got teed up on the par-3 4th. It’s now been played on a hole in 29 states and 2 provinces…

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A nice uncomfortable tee shot from the blues on the 14th:

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After my round, I drove back into Clinton in search of some good food. I hardly ate anything during the day, so I was looking forward to something tasty. As much as I can, I like to try different places when I’m on my trips. Either chains we don’t have in California or local restaurants. The only thing I could find in town that wasn’t a standard fast food chain was called Western Sizzlin. Looked like a steakhouse, but they had a pretty varied menu. More importantly, I learned they had a buffet.

This is the first buffet I’ve ever been to where all the food was actually really good. Not just a bunch of “okay” stuff to fill you up. It was all southern style comfort food and a good excuse to try a little bit of everything. I got hooked on the baked beans and the hush puppies. These hush puppies had a nice kick of onion and oh boy, were they delicious!

I’m still not sure what I am going to do tomorrow because of the weather. I’ll definitely push further east and if I’m far enough ahead of the storm, I may stop and play somewhere. We’ll see.

Day 3 (No Golf Day 2): Ross Bridge and Capitol Hill (Judge) [Alabama]

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