The Not-So-Magnificent Seven, Part 2

We’re going to keep rolling with the reviews from my latest trip to the Central Valley. If you recall from Part 1, the main point of this trip was to get seven new courses under my belt. No more, no less as I worked my way up to 749 in time to celebrate course number 750 in style on Monday.

On Saturday, I was at it early again. I had stayed the night in Modesto, so I headed 20 minutes north into Manteca for the first round of the day…

Manteca Park Golf Course • Manteca, CA • 5/14/16

First off, I must say that this course does not belong under the smart-ass title I gave these articles. Though this trip was focused on quantity over quality, I discovered nothing but quality at Manteca Park—and at an exceptional value! From what I knew of the course, I expected it to be the best thing I played on this trip, but I didn’t expect it to be as nice as it was.

I had called ahead and they slotted me in for the 6:00 tee time as a single. They let me know the Manteca City Championship was taking place later in the morning, but it was no problem to get out early ahead of it. I had bought a GroupGolfer voucher a couple weeks back for Manteca Park. It was only $19. It included a cart and range balls, and there were no day or time restrictions. That made it the perfect course to play first thing Saturday morning when regular prices are at their highest.

Another single joined me and we went off first a little before 6:00. He was a local and told me he paid $37 for the resident’s rate. His head nearly exploded when I told him what I paid. He was also a very quick player and we finished as a twosome in just two hours.

This is a solid course design that is, dare I say, a “traditional” Central Valley kind of layout. It’s flat overall and runs back and forth through plenty of tall old trees. There are a handful of nice water hazards in play. The signature hole is probably the 9th, which is a good par-5 with water in play in front of the green and the big clubhouse in the background.

Otherwise, there isn’t a ton to note about the layout of Manteca Park. It’s a good course that offers enough challenge and diversity. Yet, it’s nothing that unique or distinctive in terms of its design.

Where Manteca Park stands out is in its conditioning. The conditions here would rival even the highest-end course in Southern California, except for maybe some in the Coachella Valley. It was darn near immaculate from tee to green. The tee boxes and fairways were perfectly manicured. The rough was thick and very difficult, especially when so wet in the morning. The rough maybe had some minor inconsistencies in places, but it was still excellent overall. The greens were freshly rolled. They were soft and a rolling at medium speeds because of the moisture, but I would have expected them to firm up and speed up a lot as the day went on. The bunkers were also fantastic.

Needless to say, I was pretty blown away by the conditions. This is a city course that gets a ton of play, so it’s amazing what they are doing to keep it in such nice shape. With the City Championship happening that same day, I have a feeling I caught the course in the best shape it might be all year. Still, I was talking to my playing partner and he said it’s almost always in excellent condition, especially the greens. I would imagine there are times in late summer and mid-winter when the fairways and rough might be a notch or two down from what I experienced.

I would easily recommend Manteca Park to anyone looking for a quality golf experience in the Stockton/Modesto area at very reasonable prices. It is a clear favorite of locals, and I can certainly see why.

Some pictures from Manteca Park Golf Course (5/14/16):

Because I finished so quickly at Manteca Park, I had to switch around my plans a bit. I was originally planning to head south and play Rancho Del Rey in Atwater. I knew they had tee times available for later in the morning when I figured I’d be there. However, when I called to check on earlier availability, they let me know there was a tournament going on and nothing was available for awhile.

I could have headed further north or east to hit another course, but I decided to work my way further south and back into Fresno…

Riverside Golf Course • Fresno, CA • 5/14/16

I had also called ahead here to inquire about tee times. I saw a number of tee times available in the 10:00-11:00 range on their website, which is about when I’d arrive there after driving from Manteca, but the bookings were for 2-4 players only. So I called and the guy in the pro shop said that if I showed up after 10:00 it should be good. I’d have no problem getting out quickly and the course should start opening up by then.

I made the mistake of trusting him. I knew this was one of the busier courses around and I expected it to be pretty packed on a Saturday. When I arrived, it certainly was. I checked in a little before 10:00 and they told me it might not be until 10:45 before I could get out, but that would be the worst-case scenario. Reluctantly, I went ahead and paid my $44 in advance and then waited for the call to the first tee. Then I waited some more as I watched group after group head out with more groups lining up behind them like a pissed-off assembly line. They were all grumbling because the tee times were running way behind.

Eventually, I got the call. I was paired with a twosome and another single and we teed off a little after 11:00. In watching the groups ahead tee off, there was clearly a pretty big tournament group in that mix and it was obvious that fast play was not going to be happening. Before my call to the tee, I went into the pro shop and remarked about a 5-6 hour round and he said “no way.” He swore things were moving along well on the course and the marshal was out there keeping a good pace. Again, I made the mistake of trusting him rather than pulling the plug and moving onto another alternate course. Knowing I still had this and one more round to play somewhere afterward was really stressing me out. If I didn’t hit my seven new courses, the whole trip would kind of be a failure!

Luckily, I had a number of options to consider afterward, both big and small, so I just rolled with the punches and stuck with Riverside. I was there and determined to see it through. Well, 5.5 hours after we teed off, we were finally coming up the 18th fairway. We were exhausted, disappointed and sapped of all energy after such a long round. We saw numerous groups quit during the round, yet the pace never improved. In fact, the back took an hour longer than the front!

Yet in the end, I survived the marathon round at Riverside and was able to get my third course in just fine afterward, so everything worked out okay.

Anyway, as far as the course itself, I was actually pleasantly surprised by Riverside. For the most part, it’s another traditional kind of Central Valley course with flat terrain, tree-lined fairways and back-and-forth routing. It was designed by Billy Bell, so the greens are somewhat interesting with some funky shapes and tricky undulations.

Then, the fun part of the course comes during the signature stretch of holes 10-12. The 10th tee is up by the snack bar and it is well elevated above the fairway. To the left, you have the river running alongside the hole and behind it there’s a big train bridge (or is it a trestle?) that sees a lot of trains going across it during the day. It’s a fun tee shot with a pleasant view.

It is followed by the fun and short, but slightly uphill par-3 11th and then the interesting 12th. It is a dogleg left design with an elevated green. After this stretch, you go back up top and finish out the rest of the course with more standard holes.

This course was also in good shape. It’s nothing near Manteca Park, but still easily above average for a muni course around here. The tee boxes were solid, the fairways were mostly quite good, and the rough was very difficult. It’s a mix of different grasses (definitely poa and some kikuyu) and very deep in places. We had a hard time just finding a few balls, and then hitting out was just doing anything you could to advance the ball forward and not hurt yourself. I enjoyed the challenge and punishment of this rough, but it surely cannot be good for the slow pace of play here. The greens were pretty decent, holding shots well enough and rolling at medium speeds. I was in one bunker and it was fine.

Riverside does offer that fun stretch of three holes, but otherwise isn’t overly exciting or challenging. It’s another solid local track with decent pricing. Because of the time I played, I couldn’t take advantage of any deals. They are out there, though. Unfortunately, it is known for being overcrowded and apparently slow rounds are the norm. As long as you are more prepared for a REALLY slow round than I was, you can enjoy it for what it is.

Some pictures from Riverside Golf Course (5/14/16):

I had some short course options to consider further south, and that was the back-up plan if the Riverside round took too long. However, I still decided to take a chance at this next course across town because it was the preferable option to knock out on this trip…

Airways Golf Course • Fresno, CA • 5/14/16

Last time I was in the area, I stopped by here late on a Saturday afternoon and it wasn’t very crowded. I passed up on it that time, but it was a worthwhile scouting mission because it filled me with hope that I’d be able to get out and around here quickly in the evening after a brutally slow round at Riverside.

I called over and they said “come on out.” I could see only a handful of groups out on the course when I arrived, so it was perfect. I paid $17 (cart included) and was teeing off by myself a little around 5:15. I sprinted my way around this place. I played through a couple groups and made up my own creative routing at times to find open holes. Ultimately, I played all 18 of them and finished in about an hour and 45 minutes.

I did not waste my time because I was so wiped out and just wanted to get it over with. Perhaps that’s not fair to Airways, but there really isn’t that much to see or enjoy here. I’ve had numerous locals tell me “you don’t need to bother with that one.” Of course, they didn’t quite understand my goal to play any course, good, bad, big or small.

At least Airways is a full regulation course, and that automatically makes it more worthwhile than most short courses. Even though I have a soft spot for some short courses, I still prefer to play with the big boys and always prioritize them when making my lists.

As you might guess from the name, Airways is right next to the Fresno Yosemite International Airport. Watching planes and helicopters take off and land provides a little extra entertainment. A military fighter jet also took off when I was on a hole right next to the runway and my ears are still ringing.

The course itself is pretty basic and straightforward. It’s flat and fairly wide open. There are no water hazards on the course. It was “designed” by Bert Stamps.

The hole that stood out to me was the first hole, which is one of the more awkward openers I’ve played. From the tee, it doesn’t appear to be anything that unusual, but then you get out to the fairway and see that it’s kind of split with a row of trees running down the middle. I thought I had pushed my drive into the treeline to the right of the fairway, but I ended up on the other side and just fine. If I would have hit it up the left where I originally wanted to, I might have been blocked out on my second shot by another set of trees guarding the green on the left.

The conditions at Airways were as forgettable as the course itself. The tee boxes were pretty firm, but I was able to tee up the ball fine enough. The fairways were generally okay at best, getting better the closer you got to the greens. They were firm with lots of roll-out and tight lies to hit from. There really wasn’t much in the form of rough here. Once you are off the fairways, it’s primarily just dirt and weeds. I will say that around the greens, the grass is grown in pretty nicely and it is generally well-kept, so it’s obvious they focus more effort on the turf in these areas. I was in one bunker and it was a tad thin. The greens were actually very nice—soft and rolling smooth at medium speeds. I’d say the greens were actually nicer here than at Riverside, though everything else was worse.

Otherwise, there isn’t much to highlight about Airways. It’s a very simplistic course that is cheap and easy to get out on. In almost every way, the layout and setting reminded me of the Miramar base course down in San Diego. It is equally boring and mediocre.

Some pictures from Airways Golf Course (5/14/16):

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