Weekend in California’s Central Valley

This weekend, we had what has become an annual tradition at Stevinson Ranch for Greenskeeper.org. Though we had a smaller turnout than last year, it was still a really fun outing with the great GK members who did make the trek out to the Central Valley.

As I did last year, I looked at this event as a convenient excuse to try and squeeze in some new courses along the way. Having played what I can play in Kern County, this trip allowed me to expand my reach into the next regions northward…

River Island Country Club • Porterville, CA • 5/16/14

I got a head start on the trip and took a half-day off from work on Friday. I hit the road and headed up to Porterville (about 45 minutes northeast of Bakersfield). It’s definitely a bit out of the way, but I knew I would only be playing once that afternoon and there aren’t any other courses that close to River Island. That made it a good option geographically for a one-round kind of day. It was the perfect opportunity to venture further off the 99 in search of good golf in the Central Valley.

From the information I could find, this looked like one of the better options in the area. After playing River Island, I would agree that’s probably the case. This is a pretty enjoyable course. Porterville is in the foothills before you get to Sequoia National Forest, so the terrain is naturally more interesting than the flat farmland and plain parkland found throughout the majority of the valley.

I got there around 2:30 and went right out as a single. The price was $35 with cart for twilight. The place wasn’t crowded at all and the guy in the pro shop told me I could head off right away, but he forgot to mention that there was a sixsome(!) right ahead of me. They let me through on the 3rd tee and I also passed another large group on the back nine. Otherwise, I followed behind a twosome and threesome most of the day for a solid 3-hour pace.

River Island is a semi-private club offering public play after 10:00 daily, and even in the warm afternoon, I would guess most of the people I encountered out there were members.

Overall, the layout was very enjoyable and the nice setting helps make it a memorable design. There’s plenty of trees lining every hole, though I noticed a number of stumps and logs that looked recently cut, so I’m guessing that they’ve actually been doing some clearing out. If that’s the case, this might have been an even tougher course before.

I’d say River Island is just challenging enough. It won’t beat you up, but you definitely have to work for a good score on most holes. There are a handful of holes where a little local knowledge would have been helpful. There are some semi-blind tee shots and on a couple of the par-5s, it’s hard to tell what kind of trouble awaits you at the lay-up landing areas.

The front nine is a little more hilly than the front, but it’s more rolling undulation than any significant changes in elevation. The trickiest holes on the front for a first-time player are the back-to-back par-4s, numbers 4 and 5. Both feature awkward tee shots to fairways that clearly slant from left to right and toward trouble. Then the second shots bring more trouble into play for your approach.

The signature par-3 is the 9th, which is a nice one hitting over a creek (or is it the river from the name?) to a two-tiered green with the clubhouse on top of the hill in the background.

The course was in decent overall condition. The greens were probably the highlight. They were really nice, except for a few that had some minor damaged spots I noticed. The tee boxes were mostly good other than the chewed-up par-3s, which is no surprise late in the day. The fairways and rough were a little patchy and inconsistent in places, but mostly playable enough. Lastly, the bunkers had good sand.

I’m glad I went a little out of the way for River Island. If I lived in Bakersfield or Fresno, I’m sure I’d gladly make the journey out here for a better caliber of golf than the more basic muni-level courses around there. In many ways, River Island reminded me of Horse Thief Country Club, which I played on the way to Stevinson last year. They are both further off the beaten path, but definitely stand apart from much of the local competition with better scenery and more dynamic designs.

Some pictures from River Island Country Club (5/16/14):

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The first round at Stevinson Ranch was set for Saturday afternoon, which meant I had somewhere to play in the morning as a proper “warm-up” round…

Pheasant Run Golf Club • Chowchilla, CA • 5/17/14

This seemed like a good option. Again, from what little information I could find, Pheasant Run looked to be one of the better courses this area had to offer. Also, it was geographically convenient right off the 99 and right in between Fresno (where I stayed the night) and Stevinson.

One of my GK buddies drove out to join me for this early morning round. I had booked a 6:15 tee time for us online as it was a little cheaper than booking directly over the phone. The price was $49 with cart, which is reasonable for a quality course like this on a weekend morning.

We got there a little early (5:40) to make sure we got off as quickly as possible and had ample time to get up to Stevinson. Even though it was plenty light out (LA courses would have already been slammed with groups on the course), the place was a ghost town. We waited by the pro shop and the guy finally showed up to open things up a little after 6:00. Clearly, this course does not get a lot of dawn patrol play, though one guy did show up and just walked out on the course by himself a little while before we teed off.

Otherwise, we had the place to ourselves the whole front nine…well kind of. I’m no stranger to battling with maintenance crews first thing in the morning, but it was a real adventure here. We had to run through some sprinklers to hit our balls and encountered maintenance guys on a number of holes, including one guy that drove around in a pick-up truck and seemed to have no regard for golfers on the course.

The first hole, though, was a really crazy experience—a first for the Golf Nomad! As we were just about to hit our approach shots on this par-5, the maintenance crew descended upon the green and the greenside bunkers out of nowhere like it was a Black Ops mission. They jumped in the bunkers and started raking, paying no mind to us. Another guy started cutting the new hole for the day in the back of the green while the previous day’s hole/pin was still in the front. Finally, he waved us up and we hit our approaches. AFTER we had hit, he continued his work and changed the hole location! Luckily, neither of us had stuck our approaches next to the old hole or it would have been a really rude switcheroo. Either way, we just found it very amusing.

Outside of these issues, the course really turned out to be a pleasant surprise (or should that be a “pheasant surprise?”). The layout was solid and the conditions were nice. The front nine was a bit soggy due to the heavy watering, but the grass quality and manicuring of the tee box, fairway, rough and green cuts were great.

Overall, the front nine overshines the back nine here in my opinion. Both in terms of conditions and design, I found the front more enjoyable. Both nines feature a ton of water hazards in play that really define what you need to do on most holes. The front nine has a lot more trees and is framed better visually while the back nine is a bit more open with less trees and the surrounding aesthetics aren’t quite as nice and green.

With a little more exposed terrain, I did notice more thin and patchy spots on the back nine, but it was still mostly in solid shape other than the bunkers, which were terrible. I wasn’t in one on the front, but they appeared to have much better sand.

The back nine does, however, end on a positive note and makes me understand why they keep the routing the way it is. The signature 18th hole at Pheasant Run is a short par-5 that’s a risk/reward special for longer hitters. It features a cool island green complex and will give you something to think about if you hit a really good drive.

Otherwise, there isn’t anything overly noteworthy about the Pheasant Run layout other than it’s really solid all the way through and provides a decent test of your skills on every hole. Stay out of the water and trees and you can post a good score, but find a little trouble and it can be a long day.

I’d definitely recommend Pheasant Run if in the area. I can’t say I expected this quality a course in Chowchilla, but then again the Central Valley is full of golf surprises. Though I know there are some muni-level junkers I have yet to experience, everything I have played in this region so far has been quite good.

Some pictures from Pheasant Run Golf Club (5/17/14):

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As for the main event of the weekend…

Stevinson Ranch Golf Club • Stevinson, CA • 5/17/14-5/18/14

Regarding the main event at Stevinson Ranch, I’ve reviewed it the past two years, so I won’t go into any details about the design or the conditioning that’s always good. Here’s last year’s review if you want to see more about it and you can link to the previous year’s within that story. (Note: you have to scroll down past Riverlakes Ranch to get to the part about Stevinson.)

The big event that happened between last year’s visit and this year’s visit was the terrible fire that claimed Stevinson Ranch’s pro shop and great old-west style saloon/restaurant. It was a real blow to the friendly, comfortable vibe around this place, but owner George Kelley took the steps to return some of that charm.

It’s definitely different now with a couple of mobile trailers together as the pro shop and bar/restaurant, but the great staff is still there and the environment is still as welcoming as always. They built a nice deck outside those trailers with plenty of places to sit and hang out alongside the barbecue area where they’re always cooking up some good grub. I will say it was sad seeing the shell of the old building still sitting there across the parking lot. I’m not sure if they plan to rebuild it at some point, but I hope that’s the case.

Otherwise, the course is still great and the staff is wonderful as always. We had a smaller crew this year, but we still had a ton of fun with a number of us staying the night in the cottages at the course and playing a second “just for fun” round on Sunday morning before heading home.

I always play well on the back nine here, but the front nine is generally a nightmare for some bizarre reason. That was again the case during Saturday’s tournament round, but I finally found redemption on Sunday with a solid round all the way through and was able to leave on a positive note this time.

Though it really is in the middle of nowhere, Stevinson Ranch is worth the visit and is definitely a must-stop if you are looking to golf in the Central Valley.

Some new pictures from Stevinson Ranch Golf Club (5/17/14 and 5/18/14):

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