Bakersfield Beckons Once Again

I just can’t seem to stay off the road. Just wait until you see what I’m up to next weekend! As my choices for new courses keep getting more and more limited, I tend to jump at any chance to play somewhere I haven’t played before, especially when it’s a regulation course..

I was drawn back to Bakersfield Saturday. I can’t say it’s an area I ever look that much forward to visiting because it’s far away for me and, well, it’s Bakersfield. But I noticed recently that the once private Rio Bravo Country Club was offering some public tee times on GolfNow. It was enough to get me back on the road again, at least for one really long and productive day in the Central Valley.

A friend joined me for this adventure. We had our afternoon tee time set at Rio Bravo, but we wanted to make the most of the day. So we headed up nice and early for our first round…

Tulare Golf Course • Tulare, CA • 8/2/14

In relation to Bakersfield, Tulare offered the next closest regulation 18-hole course that neither of us had played. Even though it was an hour extra drive for us and I knew it wasn’t anything too special, it made the most sense for our shared goal to play as many different courses as we can.

I had booked a 7:00 directly with the course. We got there a little earlier and there were a few people around, but it was pretty quiet early in the morning. We ended up teeing off around 6:45, but were behind a threesome most of the day. We waited on most shots, but the pace was still solid so we never felt a need to push too much. It was right around three hours total, so no complaints. The price was $42 with a cart, which is reasonable here on a weekend, though I probably wouldn’t want to pay much more than that here.

I would most compare this course to North Kern down in Bakersfield as it’s a pretty basic design without too many frills. The property is very flat and the only real contours of the course are provided by the trees. There are a number of big old eucalyptus trees that come into play and force some tight angles. This is especially true on the front nine, where things definitely seem much more narrow off the tees. Once you are out in the fairway safely, though, the greens are very accessible and a good score can be had.

The back nine opens up a lot more, but a few of the doglegs are a bit more pronounced and it felt like it played much longer. I say “felt” because the total yardage on the scorecard is pretty evenly split between the nines. The length of Tulare offers some element of challenge. The blue tees play at 6,762 yards while the forward white tees are still relatively robust at 6,542. At the same time, there is very little trouble to get into throughout the course. There are some OB spots along the outer edges of the property and a few small water hazards that really don’t come directly into play that much. Also, what bunkering there is seems pretty flat and benign, making it easy to recover safely.

The setting is kind of odd as the course is set between some farmland and a small local airport. It’s not far off the busy 99 freeway and there’s a train track fairly nearby, as well, so parts of the course can be a little noisy. In stark contrast, the back parts of the course that are set next to some expansive cornfields are rather peaceful and bucolic, especially when the weather was picture perfect in the early morning and the sun illuminated the rural landscape.

There really aren’t any notable holes here. I thought the two par-3s on the front had some character, but most of the layout kind of blends together and it’s not really a place where certain holes stick with you that much.

I had low expectations of Tulare with no prior reviews/photos to reference and the satellite images of the course being very ugly and browned out other than the greens. On Saturday, I was pleasantly surprised by pretty solid conditions. The tee boxes were pretty nice. The fairways were mostly in good shape, though there were many thin (muddy in the early morning dampness) patches throughout. The rough was even more hit and miss with a lot of dead areas, but some nice lush patches, too.

The bunkers very wet and heavy early on, but became pretty good once they dried out some. The greens were very soft and any approach would leave a crater to repair. They were very slow and bumpy while wet because the spike marks of the group ahead of us really showed a lot. However, they sped up and smoothed out considerably as the round went on and they started to dry out.

Though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Tulare for an out-of-town player because there are better options nearby, it was definitely better than I expected. It is a solid local’s course with a friendly vibe around the clubhouse. By the time we left, the place was pretty packed with a big tournament going off, so I’m glad we got out ahead of the crowd on a gorgeous morning.

Some pictures from Tulare Golf Course (8/2/14):

We finished nice and early at Tulare, so we had a little extra time to kill before heading to Rio Bravo. Luckily, I had a short course in mind just in case this happened…

Delano Golf Club • Delano, CA • 8/2/14

I’ll try and keep this review short and sweet as this is a pretty simple and run-down executive 9-hole course. It’s the municipal course for Delano, which sits halfway in between Bakersfield and Visalia along the 99.

Delano plays to a par of 32, with five healthy par-3s (ranging from 169 to 219 yards from the blue tees). It also features three short par-4s and one regular-length par-5 of 515 yards. Otherwise, it’s a rather basic old course that gets plenty of local play and is just fine for what it is.

We walked right out and the price was a reasonable $15 with a cart. It’s $10 to walk and would have been an easy walking course if it wasn’t so dang hot by the time we played in the late morning. We got stuck behind the men’s club groups playing a tournament, so the pace was slower than it probably normally is here. However, at 1.5 hours, it timed out just fine for us.

I didn’t expect much from the course condtion-wise. It was definitely quite ragged around the edges and mostly brown/dry, but decent enough for a cheap executive I guess. The tee boxes were very, very shaggy. Even a long tee barely had enough clearance over the grass. The fairways were pretty dried out with plenty of thin spots (sometimes just bare dirt) and inconsistencies, but again not too horrible for mid-summer. The rough was even more inconsistent and patchy. I wasn’t in a bunker, but they looked pretty bad. The greens were very soft, spongy and kind of “fluffy” on top, making them very, very, very slow.

Not much else to say about Delano. It’s there, it serves its purpose as the one little game in town and it’s priced accordingly for what you get. For us, it was a perfect way to kill some time and, ultimately, check another off our lists while in the area.

Some pictures from Delano Golf Club (8/2/14):

Last but certainly not least was our main event for the day and our excuse for making the trek up to freaking Bakersfield…

Rio Bravo Country Club • Bakersfield, CA • 8/2/14

I had heard some nice things about this course before, so I was excited to see it offering some public times. We booked a 1:35 tee time and by then, the place was pretty dead. The afternoon heat kept the people away. We saw some member groups finishing up as we arrived, but it seemed like we were pretty much going to have the course to ourselves by the time we teed off.

That was the case for a few holes, but we soon caught another twosome. They were moving at a nice pace, though, so we never had to push them at all and we finished in three hours.

The $65 rate was a bit steep, especially on a slow, hot summer afternoon, but this course is definitely a cut above most other options in the region, so I can understand why they can justify charging a little more. Plus, to keep the experience at a high quality for their members during this time of economic transition, the higher public guest fees help keep some of the “riff raff” away I suppose.

Rio Bravo is in a nice developed neighborhood a bit east of town (actually not too far from Kern River Golf Course). It’s set in the foothills as you make your way toward Lake Isabella, so the terrain and setting is naturally much more inspiring than you get in the flat, open spaces throughout most of the Central Valley.

Rio Bravo was designed by popular course architect, Robert Muir Graves. I’ve played plenty of his courses, but I don’t think there are too many features or stylistic elements that really jump out at you. I will say I think he does a pretty good job of laying out the courses to fit the landscape they’re in, using the natural terrain as the canvas without adding a ton of bells and whistles.

Overall, Rio Bravo has a very nice mix of holes with a lot of diversity and plenty of challenge throughout. The doglegs are all pretty significant and it tests just about every shot and strategy in your bag.

To me, the best evidence of this is the awesome stretch of holes 10-12. The 10th is a great-looking hole, playing 406 yards from the blues and 365 from the whites. It’s a sweeping dogleg right with a downhill approach over a small pond to force an accurate approach.

The 11th is an unforgettable par-5. In some ways, it’s about as straightforward as you get from tee too green. However, it is long! From the blues, it’s 616 yards. From the whites, it’s still a massive 596. It plays uphill all the way and the fairway is sloped left to right, so you won’t get much forward roll out. Everything lands and goes sideways. On Saturday, it’s worth noting that this hole was playing into the wind and the pin was tucked in the very back right corner of a pretty deep green. Basically, this is a three-shot hole for even the big boys. For many of us, it’s a four-shotter.

The 11th is followed with a drastically different 12th, which plays downhill and is a target hole all the way. It is 392 from the blue tees, but just 336 from the whites where we were playing. There is a big water hazard left of the green and the fairway runs out if you hit it too far down the hill. It’s a hole that requires some strategy and accuracy for a good score.

Though far from pristine, Rio Bravo was in pretty good summer condition. The tee boxes were good. The fairways had some spotty areas and lies were inconsistent at times, but I’d say it had much more good turf than bad. The same was true with the rough. The further you get off the fairway, the more likely you’ll just be in bare dirt, though. I was in a couple bunkers and they were crunchy on top, but had decent sand under the surface.

The greens were soft and receptive, but much, much faster than what we experienced earlier in the day. It took some adjusting for sure. They were pretty slick, but I’d say rolling at perfect speeds. They were a bit bumpy at times as there were a lot of old pock marks that were not well healed. Approach shots would make some pretty deep ball marks, so even well-repaired marks probably just don’t heal as quickly.

I really enjoyed this layout a lot and the setting. Would I drive two-plus hours just to play it again? Probably not. But if I lived closer, it would be one I’d likely return to on a regular basis, especially at other times of year when it’s probably in more peak condition. Either way, it’s easy to proclaim Rio Bravo as one of the best courses Kern County has to offer along with Riverlakes Ranch.

Some pictures from Rio Bravo Country Club (8/2/14):

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