The Not-So-Magnificent Seven, Part 1

Yesterday, I celebrated by 750th golf course played. It was a special experience on an amazing course, but you will have to wait a few days for that review because I am a bit behind. I was able to finalize the booking for that round just last week, and then it occurred to me. If I could play seven more new courses before then and Monday, it would mean that I would be achieving that 750 milestone in style.

I looked at a few geographic options that had good groupings of new courses for me to play. Ultimately, I decided to go back to the area that has been my primary target of late: California’s Central Valley.

I pushed a little further north this time and into Stockton before working my way back down through Fresno again, but ultimately the trip worked out perfectly. I was able to get my seven new courses. This trip was truly about quantity over quality. I kept it cheap and tried to keep it easy.

I got started early on Friday (the 13th) morning in Stockton and played four rounds that day. Reviewed in this post are Van Buskirk Golf Course (Stockton), Old River Golf Course (Tracy), Escalon Golf Course (Escalon) and River Oaks Golf Course & Event Center (Ceres)…

Van Buskirk Golf Course • Stockton, CA • 5/13/16

I had booked a 6:00 tee time online and knew from talking to the pro shop that I’d be off first. I arrived a little earlier and the gate out front was still locked up. It wasn’t until a few minutes before 6:00 that a worker came up and opened the gate. The pro shop guy was running a few minutes late, so I waited to check in. Fortunately, I was the only one itching to go that early, so I still teed off first by myself around 6:10. The price was a very reasonable $22 with cart.

I did have to wait on maintenance a lot. The guy who was cutting that day’s new holes was out in front of me on every hole doing his thing. None of the flags were out on the holes ahead, so he didn’t want to let me through and I had to wait until his job was done. I felt bad for pushing him so much, but he worked quickly and I still finished in a little over two hours.

Of the two municipal courses in Stockton, Van Buskirk is generally considered the lesser of the two. I played Swenson Park last time I was in this area and really enjoyed the nice conditions. Van Buskirk is definitely a couple notches down in terms of conditioning. As for layout, neither are that exciting, but both are pretty decent tracks.

I liked the front nine more at Van Buskirk. It seemed to have more character with a somewhat open feel as it worked around some nice water hazards in the middle. The back nine has a few interesting holes, but mostly just goes back and forth without too much diversity to offer. Both sides are fairly straightforward and not overly difficult. What you see is what you get.

The conditions were pretty decent. The front nine was in better shape overall than the back. The course had fairly good, lush coverage throughout the tee boxes, fairways and rough. Maybe a tad on the shaggy side for fairways and tee boxes. Though the grass was mostly good, the ground underneath was bumpy and inconsistent, so not every lie was good and it was a bumpy cart ride. On the back nine, it looks like they are working on a turf reduction as a majority of the rough areas were all dormant and scalped. It has a very different, more narrow feel than the front because of this. The greens were soft and rolling at medium/slow speeds. The surfaces were mostly okay, though one green on the front (#3 I think) was completely overwatered and had huge puddles of water that made putting on it impossible. There aren’t many bunkers here, but they all looked horrendous. None of them have any lip at all, though, so if you were to find one, the putter may have to be the call.

There really isn’t that much to highlight here. I didn’t love the course. I didn’t hate it. It’s a fine local option.

Some pictures from Van Buskirk Golf Course (5/13/16):

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Next, I headed back to the southwest a little bit and into Tracy for round two of Friday’s marathon…

Old River Golf Course • Tracy, CA • 5/13/16

There are times when I am pleasantly surprised by a low-end course. Then there are times where it’s even worse than hoped. But more often than not, some courses are just exactly what I expected them to be. I think that’s the case at Old River.

I knew of this course after making my master list for Central and Northern California. I could see it was kind of located out in the middle of a whole lot of nothingness (primarily just farmland) and even the pictures on their website weren’t that flattering. 

The thought I had before I arrived here was “pasture golf,” which is generally not a good term. Indeed, Old River is pasture golf in every sense of the word. Well, at least the front nine is. The back is perhaps a bit more interesting in terms of its setting, but the pasture golf term still applies in the very loose interpretation of conditioning that is applied throughout this course.

To back up some, I just walked on around 9:00 and was able to go off by myself for $26 (with cart). I had actually found and printed some good coupons from their site that were good in the afternoon, but it made more sense geographically to play this one immediately after Van Buskirk. A $26 Friday morning rack rate isn’t worth too much negotiating. 

There were actually quite a few people out here. I played through a couple groups on the front, but then caught some slower groups ahead and had nowhere to go. The total pace was still nice at 3 hours, 45 minutes.

The front nine at Old River just plays through basically a field with farmland all around. There is a drainage ditch that runs through the course and the holes just kind of run back and forth across it. It’s flat, wide open and very basic. 

The back nine does get slightly more interesting as it plays next to the river and provided a more scenic setting, even though you can’t see the actual river from the course without walking up a hillside behind some of the tee boxes. This side has another water hazard running through it and all the holes also run back and forth across it. The terrain has more natural undulation compared to the flat front, but the layout is similarly repetitive and overall not that exciting in any way. The 17th is by far the best hole as a short-ish, but narrow par-5 with a small hazard guarding the green.

The conditions here were very rough and quite inconsistent. There didn’t always seem to be a rhyme or reason to the maintenance. Some areas were taken care of, while others were neglected and some holes look like someone just rolled a push mower across and cut the grass at random. Some tee boxes, fairways and rough were decent with good grass. Others were terrible with gopher mounds, hardpan, weeds, random tufts of long rough, etc. Every shot I had seemed like it had a different lie. 

The front nine greens were okay and reasonably consistent in their mediocrity, but the back nine greens were bad. Some aeration had been done recently on the back, so I could still see sandy remnants of the holes. Then, there were also a lot of completely dead patches that were just filled in entirely with sand. Speaking of sand, I had back and look at my pictures to see if there are actually any bunkers on this course. I don’t believe there were any at all.

I would not recommend Old River to anyone but the hardest of hardcore course collectors like myself. Unless you are also hellbent on playing every course in California, there is no need to bother with this one.

Maybe the only positive thing about my experience at Old River was that the guy in the pro shop looked remarkably like Pat Morita, so I enjoyed kind of a Mr. Miyagi fanboy moment when he walked in the room. 

Some pictures from Old River Golf Course (5/13/16):

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After a quick lunch, I headed due east and into the quaint little town of Escalon on the way toward Yosemite…

Escalon Golf Course • Escalon, CA • 5/13/16

Escalon Golf Course is just a 9-hole executive that I knew would be a quick and easy round on a warm Friday afternoon. There were a handful of people out there, but I was able to zip around without much trouble. The price was $11 to walk the nine holes.

This is a friendly little local course. I saw the elderly owner tooling around the property on a golf cart and checking everything out. Apparently, he bought the property some time ago and decided to build a little golf course rather than use the land for nut trees like almost every other plot around it. I crossed paths with some locals during my round and they told me about when all the trees were planted on the course and how much everything has matured over the years. 

I guess they also just went through a major renovation of the greens and bunkers in the past year, so it is a place that they try to take care of and that’s nice to see. The course itself is still pretty simple, flat and basic, but it’s a nice little setting amongst the tall trees and some views of the mountains in the distance.

Escalon is a par-31 layout with five par-3s and four short par-4s. It’s kind of an unusual routing and I’m not sure how they determined the pars. The 1st hole is a 181-yard par-4 that is very wide open and easy. The 4th is 185 yards and also a par-4, but it’s much more narrow and difficult with a slight dogleg left, so it’s slightly more justifiable as a par-4. Then, it is followed by the par-3 5th, which measures 196 yards and is very narrow through tall rows of pine trees along either side. So, one of the par-3s is longer and more difficult than two of the par-4s?

The yardages I am using above are the white tees as listed on the scorecard. There are actually blue tees out, which I played. They average 5-10 yards longer on each hole, but the same unusual pars apply.

The conditions at Escalon were the nicest of anything I played that day. Everything was quite lush and green throughout the course. The newer greens were still probably too firm and not holding any shots, but they rolled nicely. The only issue on this course was all the dead leaves and pine needles that littered several of the fairways and greens.

Escalon isn’t one to go out of your way for, but if you happen to be in town and want to kill an hour or so of time, it’s a decent little local course. It’s an ideal layout for seniors, kids and beginners to enjoy and they also have a big driving range for practice sessions.

Some pictures from Escalon Golf Course (5/13/16):

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From Escalon, I headed due south and toward Modesto. More specifically, just southeast of Modesto in the town of Ceres…

River Oaks Golf Course & Event Center • Ceres, CA • 5/13/16

Though I knew it wasn’t anything too special, I was eager to get back to River Oaks and check it off my list. I had tried to play here on my last visit to Modesto, but unfortunately they were punching the greens that day and half the course was closed. I made it a point to come back this time.

I arrived just before 4:00 and got the $12 super twilight rate that is good for unlimited play. If I lived here, that’s a deal I might take advantage of from time to time, just for something fun to do on those long summer evenings.

I only saw a couple other singles out on the course, so I enjoyed a nice walking pace of my own at River Oaks. Speaking of that name, it’s an interesting fact that this is one of three courses in California that is named River Oaks. There’s the little six-hole practice course in Paso Robles that I have played. Then, there is another regulation course in Nicolaus, just north of Sacramento that I haven’t gotten to yet.

This River Oaks is an 18-hole executive layout playing to a par of 58. It really is two different courses between the front and back nines. It’s clear they were built at different times (with the back nine being the older of the two, I presume) and I wondered if they were ever just considered two separate 9-hole courses linked to this practice facility. 

The front nine is up top by the large driving range and out by the main street entrance. It is flat and basic with only par-3 holes in the mix, ranging from 94 yards up to 171.

The back nine then plays behind the clubhouse and down into a little valley alongside a river. It’s a nicer, more secluded setting with a whole lot more charm than the very plain front nine. This side has four par-4 holes in the mix. Three of them are relatively short in the 250-yard range and then there’s one legit par-4 of 356 yards.

The back nine was a slightly pleasant surprise for me because I had only noticed the front nine when I came by here previously. I thought all 18 holes were compacted in that upper part of the property. 

The conditions were just so-so. Some tee boxes were pretty chewed up, but I was always able to get a tee in the ground. The greens were generally below average. Some were better than others, but a few were pretty ugly. There was one temporary green on the back nine (#17), that was just plain silly because of the side slope it was built on. Otherwise, the fairways and rough areas were hit and miss. Some nice areas and some weak spots, too.

River Oaks is another good place for beginners, kids and seniors to enjoy. You know I’ll always have a soft spot for little courses like this that serve a specific purpose, charge reasonable rates and offer a decent enough golf experience. It is what it is and that’s fine with me.

Some pictures from River Oaks Golf Course & Event Center (5/13/16):

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