Ron Agostini

Agostini: Feeling the loss of Stevinson Ranch

The nationwide downturn in golf participation has not missed the Central Valley.

The latest golf course to close was Rocklin, owned the past few years by longtime pro Charlie Gibson, which shut down last week after a 53-year run. He said revenue upticked but not enough to turn a profit.

Variations on this theme have happened, over and over, closer to home. It’s been a devil’s cocktail – drought, dropoff in rounds played, etc. The industry overextended years ago as course construction overwhelmed the demand, and we now see the painful correction.

I returned from vacation to greet a new reality – the loss of Stevinson Ranch on July 18. Everyone knew the day was coming. Owner and co-designer George Kelley announced the sad news in May, and “farewell” activities were booked until the very end. Still, the demise of the area’s best daily-fee course – indeed, one of the nation’s best – hit all golfers with full force.

A caveat before we go further: Stevinson Ranch’s practice facilities remain open, and so does The Grove Bar and Grill for lunch and dinner.

But the challenging 18-hole layout, with its linksy routing and carhood-fast greens, joins Diablo Grande’s Legends West, Lake Don Pedro, Merced Hills, Meadowmont (Arnold) and Mountain House on golf’s cutting-room floor.

“The sad reality is that people are not playing as much golf as they once did,” Kelley wrote in a farewell note run on the club’s website. “And coupled with the impact of this current drought, we were not able to continue to operate profitably.”

The loss of Stevinson Ranch, along with the closure last year of the Jack Nicklaus-Gene Sarazen-designed Legends, hurts the most.

Not long after it opened 20 years ago, Stevinson Ranch was recognized by Golf Digest magazine and others as one of America’s greatest public courses. The praise was deserved. The Ranch was at once tough, thoughtful and, always, fun.

I always loved the strapping par-5 first hole with its sweeping turn to the right, a wonderful way to kick off the day. The shot-values from the first through the 18th always were high. Each swing presented a new test, demanding everything from the power of a fairway metal club to the crisp strike of a gap wedge.

The short and tempting par-4s on each side – the “I dare you” woven into the eighth and the 14th – heightened the courses’ playability. Finally, there was the “Gauntlet” beginning at the 16th, where many a good round went to die.

Building a high-quality course far away from any major population base always figured to be problematic. So it was at Stevinson Ranch. I will remember, however, that everything there was done right, from course maintenance to attention to the environment to the encouragement of customers to have fun.

“I jokingly describe myself as “the guy with a hair-brained idea to build a golf course near the epicenter of nowhere,’” Kelley joked in his goodbye note. “We understood that we were a bit off the beaten track and that it was not easy to get here, however, we always wanted you feeling like it was worth the effort.”

Rest assured, it was. Like people who die before their time, Stevinson Ranch will be forever young. And the memories last forever.

The Shag Bag – Dave Harman, Stevinson Ranch’s head teaching pro for many years, is headed to Turlock Country Club. His expertise also is open to non-members. ... If you’re in L.A.: Alhambra Muni, a 5,500-yard, par-71, is worth your time, from its funky three-level practice range to its huge and sloping greens. Those greens and the old-growth trees make it a test despite its short length. And you can play it for less than $30. ... An easy and good read: “The Secret of Golf,” by former Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski. It breaks down the careers of Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus. Both were from the Midwest, yet their contrasts – Watson’s lack of consistency early in his career compared to Nicklaus’ relentless precision – hatched one of golf’s most famous rivalries. Through it all, their friendship stands as a life lesson for today’s athletes. ... Coming up: The first Calaveras Junior Open on Monday at Greenhorn Creek and Tuesday at Saddle Creek.

Holes-in-one – Rick Bussell, Modesto, 99-yard sixth at Oakdale CC, gap wedge ... John D. Morgan, Oakdale, 141-yard 16th at Oakdale, 6-iron ... Bev Poff, Oakdale, 127-yard ninth at Oakdale, 5-hybrid ... John Whitley, Oakdale, 16th at Oakdale, 7-iron.