Hot weather golf in Mark Twain's summer climate
Reviews: Las Positas, Wente Vineyards, and the Stevinson Ranch Golf Club.
You may have read about how Mark Twain once said, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." It summarizes our weather perfectly, with one caveat. Twain never uttered those words. His actual quote referred to, "...danger of freezing if one doesn't keep moving."
Either way, Twain's sentiments about Bay Area weather ring true. Ask any tourist wearing shorts. Or, ask a golfer. There is a cashmere sweater in my golf bag. It stays there.
Hence the June quest with a buddy to play local golf in triple-digit summer golf weather. We survived 63 holes in two days, lost several pounds of water weight, and explored some challenging, affordable golf courses, all within two hours of San Francisco.
The Course at Wente Vineyards
The thermometer read 90 degrees when we teed from a hilltop into the first fairway at Wente Vineyards. It's a dramatic opener, and all-the-better because I like that element in a golf course. Wente Vineyards has elevation changes, forced carries, and unconventional architectural variations that force a thinking golfer to make decisions.
Most of Wente Vineyards' holes play easier than they look, assuming the notorious wind stays down. For instance, where a tree appears to block much of the fairway on the par-4, 254-307 yard, 2nd, a smart player flies it with a hybrid, and then wedges into the green.
The par-4, 265-363 yard 6th is quirky -- not a great hole by any definition, but certainly memorable. If this hole solved a routing problem, give architect Greg Norman credit for at least making it interesting. The 6th plays from an elevated tee, across a deep dip in the fairway, and then uphill to a green that is mostly blind. Three landing areas provide a fair chance of finding a level lie. I hit 180 yards to the top landing area, and then used a 9-iron into the putting surface, which features a false front. This is typical of how, if a player can break a hole down into manageable shots and then execute them, he has a good chance of scoring well.
My favorite hole at Wente may be the easiest. The 256-304 yard, par-4, 10th, is a reachable dogleg right par-4. Imagine teeing from one hilltop to another, with a ridge nestled in between. That's the feeling. A very good player can reach from the tee, though he will need a long and perfect cutting drive, plus luck. I played #10 the easy way, hitting a simple shot 190 yards from the teeing ground into the middle area, and then wedged for par.
If some of these descriptions of holes seem redundant, that's fair, though in fact, The Course at Wente Vineyards offers good variety. The 150-228 yard, par-3, 7th is a beautiful downhill challenge. Four large bunkers surround an aircraft carrier green that perches on the slope of a mountain above the valley. Your pulse will quicken while waiting for the golf ball to descend.
The 368-472 yard, par-4, 18th, plays downhill and into a prevailing wind, with water along the right side as you make your approach. Some players say it's unfair. I just think it's a brute.
The Course at Wente Vinyards has only one downside. It is practically impossible to walk. In summer heat with a bag on your shoulder, the attempt might be suicidal, as well.
Stevinson Ranch Golf Club
The Savannah Course
After finishing our round at Wente Vineyards, we drove to Stevinson Ranch, a golfing destination in California's central valley, some 45 miles south of Modesto. The air was still, quiet, and stifling when we arrived... perfect for nine quick holes before dinner. Before we finished them, we knew we had found a sensational golf course.
Stevinson is traditional dairy country. The course lies naturally upon the landscape as if architects John Harbottle III and George Kelly rolled it out like a carpet. Every hole looks and plays as if it belongs there. Stevinson Ranch reminds me a bit of Talking Stick, in Arizona. Both prove that a golf course can exist on relatively flat land, and still be fun.
Golfers of any level will find Stevinson playable due to its four sets of tees, as long as they can keep their balls out of the penal rough. The sequencing of holes 7, 8, and 9 is pure bliss.
The par-3, 116-204 yard 7th is a classic Redan, with encampments guarding a sloping right to left green. In a world filled with bad Redan imitations, this is one done well.
Short par-4's often make memories and often define the quality of a golf course. By that standard, Stevinson's 256-229 yard, 8th is a treat. It doglegs right around grasslands and bunkers. It has a very high shot value for golfers players who hope to drive the green, and yet a fairly low resistance to par for those who use a more conservative approach. The 8th demands a sublime decision.
The par-4, 387-472 yard, par-4, 9th is so good that after finishing our first nine, we returned to the tee and played it two more times, just for grins. The hole winds right, hugging wetlands, and then plays up from a rolling fairway into an elevated green. Challenge those wetlands for your best angle in. I finally made par with a high, crushed, fading drive followed by a well-struck 5-iron. The 9th at Stevinson Ranch is my favorite hole on the course, and as much fun as any par-4 I have ever played. It's magnificent.
The back nine continues with more good holes, including another memorable short par-4, the 233-241 yard, 14th. You will know it because of its classic 'mini-Alp' design. Mounds surround the green. Miss your drive to the right or left in the fairway, your approach shot will be blind. Add a pot bunker in the middle of the fairway, just to make the test more interesting.
In addition to having a pretty darn good restaurant by man-food standards, Stevinson Ranch offers overnight lodging in cottages that sleep two. Flip a coin to decide who takes the foldout couch.
Las Positas Golf Course
We finished our hot weather tour back in Livermore, where the city recently poured millions of dollars into Las Positas, which now has a charming par-3 course in addition to the original 18 hole design by William Park Bell. Management made renovations to the latter, with five new holes. The two nines have distinctly different feelings.
The front looks and feels like new, with a multitude of white sand bunkers and decorative plants. The front nine looks all dressed up. Had they done any more, it would look overly manufactured.
Three holes stand out from the front nine.
The dogleg right, 328-363 yard, par-4, 3rd, asks players to lay up short of bunkers and a lake, or else to play to the left and around it. From the blue tees, they have 206 yards to the water, 254 to a left fairway bunker, and 286 yards to clear the water if going for the green. It's a pretty hole, and one you will want to play again.
The par-4, 308-329 yard, 7th is an interesting effort at a risk-reward, short par-4. A multitude of white sand bunkers pockmark the route to the green. They're unique, to say the least... a good effort at making an otherwise boring routing into a memorable hole. My advice is to play short of most of them and then make a simple par.
One of the classiest holes at Las Positas remains the 145-171 yard, par-3, 8th. It's your basic carry the water par-3, and a good challenge. Who would know that a hole this charming sits on a golf course sandwiched between an airport and Highway 580?
Despite all the improvements, I preferred the back nine partly because it's more minimalist, closer to the original design, and has some holes with 'big bones.' You'll still get the white sand bunkers and a nice look.
The par-5, 528-590 yard, 13th exemplifies that. No tricks. No hokum. Hit it long, hit it straight, and hit it again.
Las Positas offers an exceptional value for regional golfers seeking warm weather and a fun eighteen holes. You can walk the course for less than $50. And break a sweat. And watch the planes at Livermore airport.
golf, wayne freedman
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