April in the Central Valley, Day 1: Making the Most of a Long Drive

Oh boy. I have a lot to get caught up on. I played a lot of golf four days in a row and all of the courses I played need reviews, so bear with me and check back every day or two for stories throughout the week.

I headed up to the Central Valley again this week for business and was able to hit up a bunch of new courses on the way up and way back, as well as a couple on Friday morning before my meetings. Amidst Thursday’s long drive up to Modesto, I was able to play four new courses (Kings CC, Dragonfly, River Park and Bluff Pointe), which will be the ones featured in this post.

So let’s get started…

Kings Country Club • Hanford, CA • 4/21/16

A fortunate chain of events happened just the day before my trip. I had already booked a morning round at Dragonfly, but I had also already reached out to a friend I had made through Greenskeeper.org and Twitter (shout out to @cencalhack). I knew he lived in the area and wanted to see if he could join up for a round on one of the days I was rolling through. It just so happens one of his buddies is a member at Kings Country Club and was able to host us on Thursday morning for a round at this private club. Though I still have plenty of public courses to hit in this region, I will not turn down any invites to a private club!

We met up to start play at 7:00 and we had a blast out there. The guest rate for me was a reasonable $54. We started as a threesome, but another friend of theirs was planning to show up and join us. He ultimately made it at the turn and we played the rest out as a foursome. There was hardly anyone out there that early, so we enjoyed a nice relaxed 3.5-hour pace and then feasted on a nice lunch in the clubhouse afterward. Thanks again to the member for having us out that morning.

As for the course, Kings is a very enjoyable layout. You might get sick of hearing this word as I play more and more Central Valley courses, but it’s a “traditional” design that fits with this area. In that, it’s a layout that you won’t remember that distinctly over time, but it is solid and enjoyable while you are playing it. A variety of mature old trees line the fairways and come into play a lot (at least they did for me) as the course winds back and forth throughout the property. A few holes sit right next to the train tracks, which can be a bit distracting when one rolls by. Yet, something about the big freighters chugging past on a Central Valley course seems to add some fitting local charm.

The signature hole at Kings is the par-5 13th hole. It provides some great risk/reward options for long hitters to a peninsula green with water wrapping around both sides and the front of the green. Rocks line the edge of the water and a Hogan-esque bridge sits off to the side for a nice visual presentation on this hole.

We played the blue tees at 6,708 yards. With the wetness in the early morning, it definitely played a bit long for me. Still, it never felt too overpowering and I think I was able to play the course from where it was meant to be played. Certain tee angles are tricky with overhanging trees and you need both accuracy and length throughout this course.

The course was in solid shape all around. Our timing on Thursday was a bit bad as they had just punched their greens and fairways last week, but I can see the conditioning here is generally quite nice. The tee boxes were good. The fairways were maybe a tad shaggy as they recover from the aeration, but I always had nice fluffy lies. The rough was lush and thick throughout. It is quite brutal in some spots on this course, so watch your ball carefully if you hit into the trees. I thought the sand traps were perfect with just enough softness on top—but not overly fluffy—which is how I prefer them personally. The greens were obviously just a week-and-a-half out of aeration, so they were rolling slow and a bit bumpy in spots. Still they ran pretty true and I putted well, so I had no real complaints. They should be back to excellent in another couple weeks.

In an area where there isn’t a ton of golf courses to choose from and a good percentage of them are private, Kings CC definitely ranks as one of the better ones I’ve played so far. If you have a chance to get out there, you should enjoy yourself.

Some pictures from Kings Country Club (4/21/16):

After our lunch, I was back on my own and on the road as I headed further north toward Fresno. I made my way through to the northeast side of town and out further in the country (technically into Madera, I guess) for my next course…

Dragonfly Golf Club • Madera, CA • 4/21/16

As I mentioned, I had originally had a morning tee time, but it was easy to cancel and I still planned to make this my afternoon round. I was aware they had also aerated their greens recently (it was a common trend on this trip because it’s just that time of year throughout California). However, Dragonfly is a course that does it right and offers green fee specials during the early stages of recovery. It was just $29 any time during the week (cart included).

I walked on as a single and was teeing off by myself just a few minutes later. I could see a lot of groups on the course as I drove in, but it turns out they were all on the back nine. The front was pretty wide open for me. I did play through a couple groups and otherwise zipped around quickly. Then, I got to the turn to find two groups waiting to tee off ahead of me, with groups stacked ahead as far as I could see. By the time I was ready to go, a twosome that I had played through earlier caught up. They joined me along with another single who had just come out to play the back nine. Still, the overall pace of 3.5 hours was great and the back nine was much more bearable with good company playing alongside.

The friend I had played with earlier highly recommended this as his favorite Fresno course and I had always heard good things about it. It definitely seemed like one of the best public options around here. After playing it, I can understand.

I think what helps Dragonfly stand out is that it’s something a little different in an area where a lot of those “traditional” courses I referred to earlier tend to blend together. It did used to be called Riverbend. I don’t know how much renovation was done if any when they switched names, but the course did have a feel of something that had been “updated” at some point. And that’s a good thing.

Like other area courses, the overall landscape is flat here, but Dragonfly offers a more open look. Some might call it “links” and others may refer to it as a “savannah” style because of the marshy feel of this remote property. There’s plenty of undulation framing each hole and deep native rough areas lines the outer edges. 

To keep the course from looking too wide open and boring, though, the landscape is peppered with giant old oak trees. They pop up on just about every hole and come into play just enough to remind you they are there. Beyond that, they just add a very beautiful aesthetic throughout the course. Though there are no water hazards on the front nine, plenty come into play on the back nine to add an extra element of challenge after the turn.

Dragonfly also boasts itself as the longest course in the Central Valley. It tips out at a whopping 7,424 yards. I’ve seen similarly lengthy courses that had alternate back tees to stretch out the course, but they were not always in regular play or they would move back and forth from day to day. This course actually has two sets of black tees to choose from and markers for both were out on every hole, so the big boys can pick their poison. One set is the “Black” at a still-monstrous 7,207 yards. And then there are the “Way-Back Black” tees at the aforementioned 7,424.

The blues are still no joke at 6,729 and I was content just playing the whites at 6,230. 

As for conditions, the aerated greens were in pretty rough shape. They were very bumpy, sandy and slow. I know the greens are generally good here, though. Otherwise, the course was in very good condition overall. The tee boxes were good. The fairways were excellent, providing plenty of roll-out and perfect lies every time. The first cut rough was not much of a factor as it was shaved down. There were some little tufts of different grasses/weeds sporadically popping up throughout the rough areas, but they never came into play for me. Then, there’s the outer edges of knee-deep “native” rough that will basically be a lost ball if you hit into it. Basically, do everything you can to avoid it. I was in a couple of waste bunkers, which meant I got whatever lie was there and it was appropriately punitive. On the other hand, I was never in a regular sand trap, so no comments on those.

It was fun playing this course after Kings Country Club in the morning because they are such different styles. I can easily understand why Dragonfly is considered one of the best (if not the best) public option in this area. Barona Creek would be a good comparison for those in SoCal and it definitely also reminded me of the sadly-now-closed Stevinson Ranch. My feeling is that this is probably the closest local “replacement” option for those who miss Stevinson. Dragonfly certainly stands out on it’s own, however, as something well worth playing if in the Fresno area.

Some pictures from Dragonfly Golf Club (4/21/16):

There was still plenty of daylight, so I was able to squeeze in two short courses in the late afternoon…

River Park Golf Center • Fresno, CA • 4/21/16

Depending on which way you’re coming from, you’ll see River Park from the 41 Freeway as you make your way out to Dragonfly. It’s actually pretty close by, so it was just a hop, skip and a jump to head back there and tee it up for a very quick nine.

River Park is just a par-3 course attached to a pretty nice driving range and practice facility. It all has lights and that adds even more appeal. It was $12 for nine holes, so I paid my cash and basically had the course to myself as I played it as efficiently as I could. Hitting seven of the nine greens definitely helped!

The holes here range from 86 yards up to 161, but almost every tee was moved up from its normal spot, so it played much less than the card. That 161-yard hole (number 7) was only playing about 120 for me, so the course was barely more than a pitch-and-putt the way it was set up on Thursday.

This is actually a decent little course that’s ideal for beginners and those just looking for a quick short game practice round. It is slightly hilly and compacted into a small part of the property with a couple water hazards in play, too (actually, I think it’s just one big swampy pond that comes into play on a few different holes). The greens are small, but overall the course is just interesting enough for what it is.

Conditions were fine. I think all the tee boxes were moved up because the far back spots looked really beat up. So they at least had the markers in decent areas where there was some grass left. Really, the only thing that matters is the greens and they were actually pretty decent here. I think the fact that they weren’t aerated made them more appealing to me on this particular day. They held shots to make firing at the pins fun and they rolled reasonably well.

Like so many short courses, River Park has its place as a great facility for kids to learn the game and for novice players to have some fun. This is the kind of course I grew up on myself, so I will always have a soft spot for these local par-3 tracks that are reasonably well kept.

Some pictures from River Park Golf Center (4/21/16):

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play one more round before heading up to Modesto, but I at least had to drive by the next course as it wasn’t too far out of the way…

Bluff Pointe Golf Course • Fresno, CA • 4/21/16

If River Park is the cute little learning center in town, then Bluff Pointe is kind of the red-headed stepchild. Then there’s the wild child over at Hank’s Swank, but you’ll have to wait a few days for that review.

Bluff Point is out in an open area that feels like you are miles away from anything resembling civilization even though you are just a few blocks off one of the main roads in town. The setting is kind of a collection of lakes, fields and swamps with this little golf course and practice center in the middle of it. 

Though I could tell I wouldn’t enjoy the course that much, I figured it was better to rip the Band-aid off right then and there rather than having to come back to it later. I could at least see it wasn’t crowded and I’d get around quickly. The lady was nice as I checked in and paid my $11 green fee for nine holes. She did offer up a pull cart rental for free and they actually had a few nice carts in the line, so I took advantage of that at the end of a long day.

She gave me the scorecard but noted that none of the yardages on it were no longer right. The NCGA had apparently just come out to rate the course and the owners shuffled some things around. She showed me the actual yardages on a different sheet, but I wasn’t able to take that with me for reference. I didn’t really care that much, so I just made my best guesses out on the course. 

I know at least one of the par-3s (#8) was stretched out to be a par-4. Otherwise, I think the pars were accurate on my card. The yardages just weren’t. Someday I do need to invest in a dang range finder for situations like this!

So, I think the course plays as a par-31 with four very short par-4s in the mix. The layout has some quirks and it is just hard to take a round too seriously here. It’s not a horrible layout, but I didn’t really enjoy myself.

The main reason for that is the conditioning. Things are not pretty here. The greens are nasty. The “fairways” and “rough” are just a hodge podge of torn-up (or as my college friend used to say “toe-up”) turf, dirt, weeds, etc. It looks ugly and plays poorly, so I slogged my way around as quickly as possible and I can write it off forever now!

Bluff Pointe offers a more challenging/longer layout than River Park, but there is no comparison in terms of quality if you are comparing short Fresno courses built around practice facilities. This place just feels old, dirty and run-down. There was a friendly vibe here, though, and yes, there is a driving range here that’s basically a big open field. There were a number of people out hitting balls when I was on the course, so I’m sure the range keeps this place open because the course does not offer much appeal.

Some pictures from Bluff Point Golf Course (4/21/16):

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