Stevinson Ranch Golf Club to close in July

A red-tailed hawk is perched on a sign marking the fifth hole at Stevinson Ranch Golf Club. On Tuesday, George Kelley, owner of Stevinson Ranch Golf Club, announced he’s closing the course in July.
A red-tailed hawk is perched on a sign marking the fifth hole at Stevinson Ranch Golf Club. On Tuesday, George Kelley, owner of Stevinson Ranch Golf Club, announced he’s closing the course in July. Modesto Bee

Stevinson Ranch Golf Club, golf’s award-winning “Jewel of the Valley” since its opening in 1995, will close in July.

Owner George Kelley, who co-designed the acclaimed Merced County course with John Harbottle III on family-owned wetlands property, said the downturn in rounds played in recent years, coupled with serious water concerns, forced Stevinson Ranch’s closure effective July 18.

He informed his staff late Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Kelley said. “We were just getting hammered to the point where our water situation was awful. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We had to make a business decision – our family almond business had to come first over the golf business.”

The closure marks the valley golf community’s second major hit within the last year.

Diablo Grande’s Legends course, the only golf design in the world bearing the design signatures of Jack Nicklaus and the late Gene Sarazen, closed due to water shortages last spring. It was opened in 1998. The slightly older Ranch course at Diablo Grande, surrounded by more than 400 homes tucked into the hills near Patterson, remains open.

Stevinson Ranch was praised world-wide since the day it opened. The throwback design, echoing the character and traditions of the great Scottish links courses, delighted both local golfers and destination customers eager to see what they’ve heard.

The readers of Golf World, via its Readers Choice Awards, voted Stevinson Ranch the fifth highest-ranked public course in the country. The course almost always appeared near the top of various publications’ “places you can play” list. A recent issue of Links Magazine rated it among the world’s top 10 courses worth discovering. Golf Digest gave it a coveted 4 1/2 stars.

The smooth and fast greens, dramatic bunkering, ideal condition and overall playability made Stevinson Ranch an immediate favorite. It tested players of all calibers, and its final three holes – labeled “The Gauntlet” by Kelley earlier this year – arguably were the valley’s best home stretch.

Its first-class practice facilities and pace-setter reputation – it’s been 100 percent solar powered for several years – also were praised, along with its trademark sensitivity to the environment. The course and wetlands provided habitat for more than 120 species of birds, including the great blue heron. Nesting boxes for owls, bats, wood ducks and birds were a common sight near the fairways.

In 1996, Stevinson Ranch became the fourth course in the world to receive the Audubon International Signature designation.

“I can’t believe it. I’m in shock,” said Cal State Stanislaus golf coach John Cook, whose team has practiced at Stevinson Ranch for many years. “The finishing holes were just unbelievable. It’s like a Palm Springs course in the valley. It’s awesome.”

But problems plagued Stevinson Ranch in recent years. The course, reflecting a nationwide dropoff in golf participation, has seen a decrease from about 44,000 played per year down to about 30,000.

A fire destroyed the kitchen, pro shop and restaurant in 2013. Also during that year, nematodes – microscopic worms that feed on plants – nearly wrecked Stevinson Ranch’s putting surfaces.

Though it recovered from those setbacks, the course couldn’t bounce back from the drought.

The Stevinson Corporation, which features its dairy business along with about 1,000 acres of almonds, owns the golf course. Kelley said the decrease in golf revenue along with the company’s need to redeploy their limited water supplies forced the closure.

“I feel just terrible about it,” Kelley said. “I regret that California is going to lose a course that has become so well-known and highly regarded.”