Stevinson Ranch Golf Club: A unique stay-and-play in California's San Joaquin Valley
STEVINSON, Calif. -- Where's the flag? Where's the green? Where do I hit it?
All valid questions for golfers standing on the 14th tee at Stevinson Ranch Golf Club.
A massive mound obscures the view of both the green and the pin. The hole, a drivable par 4 of 338 yards called "Alps," is the perfect example of the collaboration between owner George Kelley and architect John Harbottle III, who teamed up to design the 7,180-yard course in 1995.
Kelley, who toured the world for several years as a professional golfer, said the hole's inspiration came from Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland, home of the original Alps hole -- a daunting par 4 with a blind approach over mountainous dunes.
Playing the Alps hole at Stevinson Ranch is indicative of the interesting challenges at this unique golf outpost in California's lush San Joaquin Valley 90 miles east of San Jose. Stevinson Ranch was ranked no. 19 on Golf Advisor users' top 25 California courses in 2014.
One Golf Advisor user, mseldridge, gave the course five stars in February 2015 and wrote: "This place is great! I can't figure out how a course this good could be built so far from any metropolis. ... If this course were near a major city, they could easily charge $100-$120, maybe more, per round."
A fire burned down the clubhouse in 2013. Golfers will have to deal with the pro shop and the Grove Bar & Grill housed in temporary trailers until the golf economy improves, according to Kelley. He credits his staff for making golfers feel at home.
"We work hard on customer service. People have fun when they're here," said Kelley, a recent president of the California Golf Course Owner's Association. "Our philosophy has always been, 'You've made the effort to get out here. Everybody (on staff) is so appreciative (of that effort), we try to accommodate every wish."
Play at Stevinson Ranch
When Kelley decided to create a golf course on his family's 10,000-acre ranch -- which still produces dairy and beef cattle, almonds, corn, alfalfa and other crops -- he had a clear vision for the project.
"I wanted to find an emerging architect, somebody nobody had heard of," he said.
Tom Doak, a relative unknown with only a couple courses to his credit at the time, declined to share a co-design with Kelley, so Harbottle III won the job. Kelley said he contributed heavily to the routing after walking the site hundreds of times.
"This is a really good natural site for golf," he added. "For a flat site, it has a lot of character."
The duo maximized the wetlands and ponds surrounding Lake Honda. Kelley is particularly proud of the drivable par 4s -- holes eight and 14. "It's not hard to build a good, long par 4," Kelley said. "It's really hard to build a good short one."
The collection of par 3s is solid, although the par-5 holes on the back nine seek the most attention. No. 11 and 18 can feel a bit awkward the first time players see them. Once golfers figure out how to maneuver over and around the wetlands, both holes transform into fun, risk-reward moments in the round. Kelley has nicknamed the final three holes "The Gauntlet." Water on the par-3 16th, the par-4 17th or the par-5 18th holes can change the fortunes of the day.
"We are known for our last three to four holes," he said. "It has vanquished a lot of good rounds."
Stay at Stevinson Ranch
To call Stevinson Ranch a resort is a stretch. The 22 cabins on site do make for an affordable weekend getaway.
The one-bedroom/one-bath cabin I stayed in would have been ideal for two golfers, snug for three and a bit crowded -- albeit doable -- for a foursome. It featured a queen bed and desk in a bedroom and a pullout couch in the living room with a mini-fridge, sink, coffee maker and microwave in the kitchen.
There's an outdoor pool and hot tub nearby for summer use. A golf performance center offers three indoor/outdoor hitting bays, video swing analysis and launch monitor technology.
And, lastly, all those tree-hugging Californians will love the club's commitment to the environment. The course is run primarily on solar power, an investment that has earned "Signature" status from Audubon International. No wonder Stevinson Ranch is one of California's most interesting, innovative and highly rated clubs.