Ron Agostini

Agostini on Golf: Stevinson Ranch golfers shocked by course’s closure

The sun beamed warm rays down on Stevinson Ranch about noon Tuesday, and the pace was slow and easy.

A few golfers hung around the grill while others headed there for a post-round lunch. Everyone, from customers to employees, are reeling from last week’s announcement that the “Jewel of the Valley” will close July 18.

Turlock’s Cindy Gibbs, captain of the Stevinson Ranch Ladies Club, putted out at the par-4 ninth with playing partner Lisa Bos of Atwater. Gibbs still remembers the hybrid she knocked into the hole for an ace on No. 4 in 2008.

“It (the closure) means twice as far to go to a course that’s comparable,” Gibbs said.

Bos, the club’s representative to the Pacific Women’s Golf Association, learned how to play at Stevinson.

“The course is different every time you come out here,” she said.

Owner George Kelley, the visionary for the course routed on Merced County ag-dairy land owned by the family since 1852, has difficulty even speaking about the upcoming closure. Golf is a huge part of his life. He was raised on a home adjacent to the first green at Pebble Beach, and he competed on the European, Asian and Australian tours alongside such promising talent as Greg Norman.

Kelley, with architect John Harbottle III in tow, built a course that was critically acclaimed for its design, maintenance and sensitivity for the environment. Bob Lurie, the former owner of the San Francisco Giants, was an investor and major supporter of Stevinson Ranch.

And on this pleasant Tuesday, Lurie, Kelley and friends teed it up and no doubt swapped old stories.

“Disappointing news, and surprising,” Lurie said in reference to the news.

Kelley said there are no plans for now to sell the course, which features a first-class practice facility and bungalows. He affirmed that the drought, combined with the gradual decline in rounds played in recent years, forced the family to make a tough business decision. In this water-challenged era, the Kelley’s 1,000 acres of almond orchards came first.

“It’s more than just a business decision. It’s personal. I’m hurting over it,” Kelley said.

The rural location always was an obstacle at Stevinson Ranch. Kelley targeted a regional audience, and he hoped the course’s impressive reputation would make his venue a must-play. Unfortunately for Stevinson since its opening day, several upscale golf properties were built on the roads leading there from the Bay Area. The timing wasn’t the best.

Stevinson Ranch is a purist’s golf destination. No one goes there to enjoy a swanky clubhouse or relax around a pool or spa. People drive there for one thing – a top-of-the-line golf experience. And they got it.

“There’s no course around here like it,” said Frank Cusenza, the retired and longtime athletic director at Turlock High School. “I’ve played a lot of them in my day. None can compete with it. It’s very special and unique.”

Meanwhile, Kelley’s Greenway Golf turf maintenance company – which attends to many prestigious golf addresses – surges forward. A current project is a total remodeling of the South course at the Chuck Corica Golf Complex in Alameda. Kelley, Rees Jones and Greenway’s Marc Logan are working on the design.

“Kind of an irony for us,” Kelley said. “We have one course on the death bed and one in the incubator.”

Holes in one – Marsha Davis, Modesto, 110-yard second, PGA West (Nicklaus Private), La Quinta, 8-iron ... Donald Baade, Modesto, 165-yard ninth at Escalon, driver ... Bob Wolfe, Livermore, 12-yard third at Jack Tone Golf, Ripon, 6-iron.