Central Valley Visit, Part 2: The Stockton Swing

After Thursday in Modesto, I headed a little further north into Stockton for my golf on Friday. As usual, I was at it as early as possible with another dawn patrol round…

Swenson Park Golf Course • Stockton, CA • 3/18/16

There are a couple of sister muni courses in Stockton, with Van Buskirk Park being the other one. However, by all accounts Swenson Park is the better of the two. I was set up to be first off by myself ahead of a big group of morning regulars. I teed off right at 7:00 in the awesome early morning mist and was finished a couple hours later. I did run into a couple of back nine groups after making my turn, but they were all nice and let me play through.

After finishing the main (Championship) course, I went ahead and played the Par 3 course that is also at this facility. It is just a 9-holer, but it is pretty solid. The holes range from 122 yards up to 192, so it is way more than a basic “pitch and putt.”

Swenson Park is a very traditional old municipal course with a parkland setting and layout. It was designed by Jack Fleming and opened in 1952. It runs back and forth with tree-lined fairways, slight doglegs and a couple of small water hazards. It’s certainly not fancy and the layout isn’t overly memorable, but it’s a nice locals’ course.

Most of the holes are pretty forgiving from tee to green with generous fairways and the trees not interfering too much. The best hole in my opinion is the tricky par-4 16th. It isn’t that long, but it is tight with some big old trees cutting into the fairway and creating a narrow landing area. It is followed by what has to be considered the signature hole. The 17th is a nice par-3 over water.

Beyond that, there isn’t much to highlight about Swenson Park. It’s a classic style with a simple approach, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything earth-shattering. I did have a chance to meet with the GM after my round and their goal is to provide a quality golf experience at a low price point. They certainly achieve that here.

I was quite impressed with the conditions considering it’s an inexpensive muni course that obviously gets a ton of play. Everything was lush and green throughout. The tee boxes were nice. The fairways were very good for the most part. There were some muddy/soggy spots because of so much rain recently and then some thin spots here and there, but mostly I had ideal lies. The rough was brutal. It went from really thick to super duper thick and deep, so I was lucky just to find your ball sometimes. There were sections of weeds and different grasses growing in the rough, too, so you just want to avoid it if you can or you’ll have a difficult recovery. The bunkers had nice soft sand. The greens were the highlight, though. They were just fantastic. They were super soft that early in the morning, and rolling very smooth at medium speeds.

Swenson Park is by no means a “destination course,” but it’s a decent option at a good price if you happen to be in Stockton.

Some pictures from Swenson Park Golf Course (3/18/16):

CHAMPIONSHIP COURSE

PAR 3 COURSE

My 27-hole morning was just the start of a marathon day. I grabbed a really tasty breakfast burrito in the Swenson Park snack bar and then worked my way over to the next course…

The Reserve at Spanos Park • Stockton, CA • 3/18/16

Outside of the private clubs in Stockton, The Reserve at Spanos Park is pretty much considered the “high-end” course in town. It’s a newer course with a bit more flair and more modern facilities than the municipal options, but it is still very reasonably priced. I paid $37 for an 11:00 tee time.

When I arrived, the starter asked if I wanted to head right out to the first tee to join a twosome. I took advantage of that offer and we teed off as a threesome around 10:40. They were a really fun couple over from Antioch (Mike & Laura, you better be reading this), so we had a good time. It was very busy out there on a really nice day, but the pace still moved along nicely and we were finished in about four hours.

The Reserve at Spanos Park was designed by Andy Raugust and opened in 1999. It is a modern links (or maybe “Savannah” style) course that makes the most of the relatively flat landscape it is built on. Though it is just off the freeway, it feels miles away from civilization out amongst the farmland on the northwest side of Stockton. There is a big manure pile in a field next to the 3rd tee, so that produced some unpleasant smells throughout that part of the course. Otherwise, it is a really peaceful and serene setting with lots of birds all around.

There is a lot of water in play on this course. In fact, there are hazards on 11 of the 18 holes. Along the water’s edge, the reeds are grown out. It creates a nice marshland look throughout the course. There are also a number of desert-style waste areas, typically on the holes without water hazards.

You definitely need to avoid the water to post a decent score here. Most of the fairways are still pretty forgiving. Some of the approaches feel a bit tight, though, with a handful of greens perched up right next to the hazards.

The other trouble you need to avoid is the patches of deep, deep native rough. The fescue is all grown out (knee high) and super thick. If you hit a ball in there, you can pretty much kiss it goodbye. For the most part, this rough lines the outer edges of the course, but there are a few patches that cut into the fairways and you need to be careful.

I had reasonably high expectations coming into this round. The first hole is really basic and kind of blah, but then the second is a great par-5 with water up the entire left side. There are a few holes on the front nine that aren’t that memorable, but the back nine is awesome. I felt the course got more and more interesting and challenging as we played, and I really ended up liking it a lot.

The highlight holes are easily the mirror-image 9th and 18th. They are not really similar holes other than the fact they are both par-4s, but they are set up beautifully on either side of a huge water hazard. The 9th plays along the right side with a slight dogleg left design. The 18th is a fantastic finishing hole, playing along the left side of the water with a slight dogleg right design.

To top it all off, the course was in very good shape. From tee to green, it was definitely the best of all the courses I played this week. The tee boxes and fairways were excellent and I always had perfectly fluffy lies. The main cut of rough was also lush and fairly consistent. It was not deep, but enough to make me work. The greens were firm-ish and rolling smooth at medium speeds. There were lots of old pock marks and hole cuts were showing, but nothing that affected putts. I was in one greenside bunker and it was fine. The fairway bunkers and waste areas didn’t look too great. Some were flooded because of recent rains and others just looked muddy. The 17th fairway also had a huge puddle in it, so the amount of rain they’ve gotten here shows in both good and bad ways.

The modern links style may not wow everyone and the amount of water hazards may be intimidating to novice golfers. Some people may just prefer a more traditional Central Valley style course like Swenson Park. For my money, though, The Reserve at Spanos Park deserves to stand out as something a lot more distinctive and special when it comes to golf in Stockton. At times, it reminded me of the late Stevinson Ranch. At others, I was reminded of Langdon Farms up in Oregon. Though I wouldn’t quite put it in the same class as either of those courses, I still wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

Some pictures from The Reserve at Spanos Park (3/18/16):

The round went so smoothly at The Reserve at Spanos Park, I still had quite a bit of daylight left. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to squeeze in another full 18 or if I should check out a short course or two instead. However, this next course was right down the street, so it was worth at least a quick drive-by…

Elkhorn Golf Club • Stockton, CA • 3/18/16

I got to the course a little after 3:00 and it didn’t look super busy out. With four more hours of daylight left, it seemed like a good bet that I’d be able to finish even if there were a lot of people out on the course. I checked in and paid the $27 fee (with cart), then went right over to the first tee.

I cruised along until the 5th hole, when I caught up to a threesome of high schoolers playing a practice round. They moved along fine and it seemed like there were groups ahead anyway, so I didn’t push too much. As expected, they left after nine holes. It seemed like things were opening up until I realized there was a freaking sixsome ahead of me on the 10th green!

Fortunately, they let me play through on the 11th tee and it was smooth sailing after that. It felt like the round took longer than it did, but it was really only about 2.5 hours.

I will admit I was very tired by this point in the day and I was also playing terribly. I actually played quite well during the other rounds on this trip, but the wheels completely fell off at Elkhorn for some reason and it was really frustrating. There was something about this course that didn’t quite fit my eye and I rarely felt comfortable on any shots. Though I can’t pinpoint anything I didn’t like about the course, I still had a hard time enjoying it because of how I was playing.

Elkhorn used to be a private community club, but then apparently it actually closed down at one point. Some people got together to buy the course and reopen it to the public.

The course winds through a nice community. There are plenty of houses (and OB) in play and a lot of trees lining the fairways. Though not overly tight, it does feel narrow at times and I’m sure that contributed to my own feelings of discomfort when standing over certain shots.

There isn’t anything overly distinctive about Elkhorn, but it’s a decent course with a good mix of holes and challenges without ever beating you up too much.

This course was also in good shape. Things were pretty lush and green throughout. The tee boxes were good and the fairways were mostly nice, with just a few thin spots here and there. The rough was not too deep and not always consistent, but generally pretty good. I was in a couple bunkers. One was great and the other was a bit firm. The greens were good, but not great. They redid all the greens with a Tyee 007 bent grass that they seem to be quite proud of. I wasn’t overly impressed with the surfaces. Then again, I’ve never putted well on bent grass because you don’t see it that much in California, so maybe I am biased. They are getting ready to aerate on Monday and I think that will do them some good once healed up.

Elkhorn is another solid local option that is very reasonably priced. Like most everything I played on this trip, it’s not worth going too far out of your way for. However, you should enjoy it well enough if you happen to be in town and want to find a decent place to tee it up.

Some pictures from Elkhorn Golf Club (3/18/16):

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