Stevinson Ranch Golf Club: Tying together the wetlands

By Doug Saunders, Contributor

STEVINSON, Calif. - The Central Valley of California is the food basket of America. This broad landscape is over 60 miles wide and 250 miles long and its fertile black soil is the source for 80 percent of all the food in America. Acres of rangeland have supported a robust dairy and cattle industry for decades. It hardly seems like the location for a great golf course, but surprises abound in the Golden State, and the Savannah Course at Stevinson Ranch Golf Club is certainly one of them.

Stevinson Ranch Golf Club
Despite not having any ocean view, glimpse of the Sierra Nevada, or any proximity to the great metropolitan regions, Stevinson Ranch G.C. is one of the state's best courses.
Stevinson Ranch Golf ClubStevinson Ranch Golf Club - greens
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This John Harbottle III gem lies in the midst of this open farmland and despite not having any ocean view, glimpse of the Sierra Nevada, or any proximity to the great metropolitan regions, Stevinson Ranch remains as one of the best golf courses in California.

There is nothing to prepare you for the experience to be found at Stevinson Ranch Golf Club. George Kelley, whose family has raised dairy cows here in the tiny hamlet for over a century, laid the golf course into a segment of the Stevinson farm seven years ago. Kelley was raised here and developed a strong love for golf as well as a strong game. In fact he earned a PGA Tour card at one point in his career.

The central part of the 850-acre farm had always been very wet lowland that was never good for grazing or growing feed. George Kelley hoped to some day build a golf course on this 200-acre parcel. It became reality when he teamed up with former S.F. Giants owner Bob Lurie as the financial backer to build the course of his dreams.

Kelley hired up and coming course designer John Harbottle III and the two teamed up to cut a spectacular golf course over and around a sensitive and dwindling wetland. To preserve the integrity of this precious resource, he teamed up with Audubon International to make his course the first Audubon Signature Course on the West Coast, meaning that every facet of design, construction, and operation would be carried out to cause no harmful impact on the natural environment. It meant added costs in construction, but the planning has paid off in long term savings in the care and maintenance of the property.

What throws you here is that this great golf course is in the middle of nowhere. Even though it is only two hours from San Francisco and close to Sacramento, it is light years from any urban area. You have to slide through miles of orchards, farmland, and the wide-open spaces of the San Joaquin Valley to find this gem. But it is a search that is worth the effort. In this region, agriculture is King and the open spaces are havens of peace and tranquility, two characteristics that are in abundance at the Stevinson Ranch Golf Club.

"This course is a links style design that ties together the wetlands. There are many pitfalls to be found here, making this a great shotmakers course. Locals who play here a lot know that it’s tough, but it is a very fair layout," explained Head Professional Dee Roadman.

Harbottle and Kelley had the advantage of unrestricted space when creating the routing for the course. With no housing plans and no infrastructure to work around, they could do what was necessary to use the wet areas and ponds to create a challenging mix of golf holes. As you play the first two holes, you will notice how the subtle shaping technique used by the designers accentuate and frame the golf holes and blend them into the natural surroundings. This is a low lying, flowing course that is great for walking and offers wide landing areas, but the wetlands, cattails, lakes, and large gaping bunkers will keep you on your toes all day.

The huge tee boxes feature six tees which allow this track to stretch out for golfers of all levels. The white Resort Tees play to 6,093 yards but the course stretches out to 7,205 yards and a 140 slope rating from the Tournament tees. Pick your tees carefully to guarantee an enjoyable round here.

From the opening hole, the subtle shaping that defines Stevinson Ranch Golf Club is evident. The flowing feel is so inviting that when you miss a shot, you know that you only have your self to blame. Each hole has a name and even though the course is subtle in its look, each hole becomes memorable after you play this sterling layout.

Harbottle and Kelley obviously had fun in designing Stevinson Ranch. The course features two drivable par 4s, a delicate par 3 with all carry over a large pond, several green sites that are seemingly surrounded by water and sand, and great stretch of finishing holes that call for the utmost from your driver. Be ready to think out every shot here because well placed shots are rewarded.

Stevinson Ranch Golf Club: Memorable holes

Memorable holes include Plateau, a 431-yard long par 4 that doglegs right next to a large oak tree. The fairway swings around the tree to the left but the player is tempted to take the direct route to the right of the tree. If you get to the far right though, you will get trapped in two pockets of reeds and cattails where you can kiss your ball goodbye. Even after a good drive, the elevated green fronted by bunkers and another wetland full of reeds on the left will have you thinking about your long shot in. Harbottle always offers a bail out on his holes and seems to always put some trouble in the way of the direct play to the pin, and that is the case here.

The par 4 14th hole, named Alps, is another interesting design. This hole is only 306 yards long from the Blue tees and the green is surrounded by a series of mounds over twenty feet high. A big hitter can give it a run, and for the strategy player who wants to lay up, a deep sod faced pot bunker lurks in the middle of the landing area

Throughout the course the other accentuation point is the immaculate condition of the course. The land here is a sandy based soil so that drainage is excellent allowing Stevinson Ranch Golf Club to be very playable even through the winter months. In the spring and summer, the greens become fast and true surfaces. The large greens have a lot of slope in them so getting near the pins can eliminate some radical putts. The premium put on conditioning shines through at every hole.

As a part of the Audubon program, the maintenance crew have installed dozens of birdhouses and over 80 species of birds swarm though the property. Huge red tail hawks circle the course, offering a great distraction when things may go sour in your swing. The constant melodies from the birds provide the perfect background for this natural setting.

Stevinson Ranch also offers lodging through 20 cabins located near the course. It will become quite evident on your drive out here that this is not a hot bed for nightlife. A few days at the Ranch is like heading out to the hunting cabin, only here you are going to be hunting birdies and pars. The restaurant at the clubhouse offers dinner and the ribs are not to be missed. Just don't be surprised when they close up the doors around 9 p.m.

When you are staying here, great golf in a relaxed setting is what you will find. After a day out here, you will understand why Stevinson Ranch is know as "The Jewel of the Valley."

Doug Saunders, Contributor

Doug Saunders has covered more than 20 major championships and his unique perspectives on the game have appeared in numerous publications including Golf World, GolfWeek, Golf Course Management, Golf Course News, Golfdom, and the USGA Golf Journal. He is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, California Golf Writers, and the Sierra Nevada Golf Course Superintendents Association.

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