AGOSTINI: Stevinson Ranch will live on after fire destroys kitchen, pro shop

August 6, 2013 

The kitchen at the Stevinson Ranch Golf Club is completely burnt in Stevinson Thursday. (7-25-13) An early morning fire did more than $1 million in damage at the Golf Club, according to Battalion Chief Gabriel Santos.

BEA AHBECK CASSON — Merced Sun-Star

STEVINSON — $400 putters, charred and rotted by smoke, still were displayed on the walls of the Stevinson Ranch pro shop.

Stray golf balls lay on the burned-out floor. Packages of golf gloves and other equipment now were useless. Above, portions of the ceiling had collapsed.

"Pretty stressful," admitted Stevinson Ranch Controller Michael Shapiro.

Stevinson Ranch, billed as the "Jewel of the Valley" for its first-class golf facilities, absorbed a hit to its mid-section two weeks ago. A fire shortly after midnight July 25 destroyed the clubhouse's kitchen and pro shop with damages estimated at more than $1 million.

Fast work by Shapiro, along with quick responses from firefighters at Stevinson and other cities, prevented the burning of much of the club's records and timeless photos. In fact, the cozy office of owner George Kelley — a virtual golf museum of photographs and souvenirs — nearly went untouched.

"George must know the golf god up there," Shapiro said.

Stevinson Ranch, opened in 1995, has enjoyed better years. First, nematodes — microscopic worms that feed on plants — almost wrecked the Ranch's famously fast greens last spring. More on that later.

Then came the fire which has rendered the property's enhanced modular-building clubhouse unsalvageable. Kelley believes the genesis was the kitchen's water heater or wiring, eaten away by rodents, that sparked the insulation.

What further stung Kelley were charges from some golfers that the fire intentionally was set to collect insurance money. The owner's family was among the pioneers of Merced County in the mid-1800s.

"That is so hurtful. Anyone who knows our family knows our integrity and what we stand for," he said. "It's like an insult. My brother said he'd rather cut off his arm than do something like that. It would be the farthest thing from our minds."

A more practical reaction was mandated in the hours after the fire. Shapiro did not sleep that night. Indeed, golfers teed off early the next morning.

An awning next to the first tee, usually a meeting place for on-course marshals, now serves as the interim headquarters for the starter. Dan Tosta, who works there three or four days a week, collects green fees and dispenses range balls for club members.

A refrigeration unit has been installed near the cart shed. Yes, you can still purchase cold drinks and barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs.

Golf-wise, the greens have recovered and are stimping at about 10. They're not quite the 11-plus preferred by Kelley, but the nematodes weren't nice. A United States Golf Association advisor was called in to solve the problem last spring. Mass quantities of nitrogen brought the putting surfaces back up to speed.

Still, Kelley plans to resod the front nine late this year and the back nine late in 2014.

"The greens are fine but I don't want to deal with the nematodes anymore," he said.

Help is on the way.

Three trailers soon will arrive to address the day-to-day operation. With that squared away, Stevinson Ranch can chart a future course.

Kelley said a permanent building on the same location will be considered. Regulars enjoyed the intimate and comfortable ambience of the former building. Don't expect major changes.

"It will be a while before we can create that vision for the clubhouse," he said. "Right now we have to get back to a somewhat normal operation."

Predictably, rounds played have slipped since the fire. Another thing that doesn't surprise us is this — The Ranch is not going anywhere.

A sign: Amazingly, the scorecard of Matt Hansen's course-record 59, mounted on the wall near the gutted kitchen, stayed intact.

"I'm blessed with a wonderful family, great friends and a career in the golf business. We'll be better than ever," Kelley said. "We're California pioneers. We can handle it."

• THE SHAG BAG —Turlock Country Club head pro Doug Hanson and some loyal members did their part for junior golf. Hanson played 105 holes in barely six hours to fund the Turlock CC Junior that finished Tuesday. Money raised from the marathon day purchased golf bags for the top three finishers in each flight, plus $500 gift certificates for the overall boys and girls winners. For the record, Hanson logged 15 birdies and 63 pars. ... Oakdale's Mabel Wong has enjoyed another strong summer. She has scored seven overall wins, the latest at the JGANC/NCGA NorCal Players Championship at Rancho Canada, thanks to rounds of 76-77 — 153. Manteca's Brooke Riley placed fourth. Last week, Wong led her NorCal team to a fourth-place finish at the Girls Junior America's Cup in Albuquerque, N.M.

• HOLE-IN-ONE —Al Nelson, Sonora, 169-yard 17th at Mountain Springs, Sonora, 3-wood.

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or (209) 578-2302. Follow Ron via Twitter, @modbeesports.

Ron AgostiniGolf

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