The Links at RiverLakes Ranch

Bakersfield, Calif., tucked into the southern end of California's San Joaquin Valley, is typical Central California-hot, dry, agricultural. Despite the nearby Tehachapi Mountains that separate it from the Los Angeles basin, it's also quite flat. Thus, when the Ronald Fream GolfPlan Design Group (Santa Rosa, Calif.) was asked to design a course here, they found a site lacking in prominent natural features.

How do you design a course when the site has little to use as a theme or starting point? Actually, every site has something to offer. Some just force you to think in unusual ways. This was the challenge and opportunity for the Fream designers as they conceived the Links at RiverLakes Ranch, a partnership of Calabassas (Calif.)-based Environmental Golf and Fruitvale Development Co.

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Almond Joy Certain requirements helped shape the plan from the start. First, the course had to function as a sump that could handle 100-year-storm runoff from surrounding residential areas. That meant creating some low spots in out-of-bounds and rough areas. So far, so good. A little topographical relief never hurts a flat site.

In addition, much of the site consisted of almond orchards-a major crop in California. The California government classified these almonds as wildlife habitat (we don't get it either). Thus, an expensive per-acre fee was required to clear the almonds. There was no getting around the need to eliminate many of the trees. However, the GolfPlan designers decided to incorporate some of them into a few of the holes, which not only reduced the clearance fees but also added a unique aesthetic component.

I had a hard time picturing how the regimented plantings of almond trees-which, frankly, are not the most inherently ornamental trees around-would mesh with a golf course. However, the results reveal the creative vision of the designers.

A tree spade was used to relocate more than 100 of the mature trees while the almonds were dormant. These were used in various places to "de-form" the otherwise regimented rows. Elsewhere, new groves were planted to expand the presence of the almonds on the otherwise bare land that previously supported vegetable and cotton crops.

Almonds that have been trained for production are fairly open, which allows much more light to penetrate than a typical forest canopy. However, the tightly planted stand keeps you acutely aware of being surrounded by trees. As you wind your way through the trees on the cart path, the contrast of closed and open creates a striking, pleasant mood (see bottom photo, page 72). In spring, the trees bear masses of soft-pink blossoms.

Unfortunately, if almonds are a habitat for any type of "wildlife," it's squirrels. Squirrels love almonds. Thus, RiverLakes will have to cope with them for as long as it has almond trees. In addition, the almonds themselves can be a nuisance in late summer when they drop to the ground. RiverLakes is still exploring how to deal with the squirrels-and almonds-without violating regulations or offending animal lovers.

Eclecticism in turf Other parts of the course have a different flavor, though most of it says "California" in one way or another. Some 1,500 coastal redwoods and California pepper trees are prominent components of the layout and complement the ample water features-12 lakes, in all-for a lush appearance. The term "eclectic" came up a time or two in discussions about the course's design, and there's no doubt that the course imparts a variety of atmospheres.

Ron Fream's diverse experiences as a golf architect have reinforced his belief in naturalistic design. "The Links" was Fream's suggested name for the project and was conceived relying on traditional links contouring and flowing shapes. The tee tops are just about the only flat spots on the course.

Fairway contouring was drawn at 1 inch = 100 feet with 2-foot contours. Individual greensite drawings were done at 1 inch = 20 feet with 1 foot contours. This detail made it easy for the contractor to implement the design concept accurately and efficiently.

RiverLakes is using an SR70/1019 creeping-bentgrass mix for its sand-based greens. Fairways and tee tops consist of perennial ryegrass, and maintained roughs are a mix of ryegrass and bluegrasses. To enhance the links concept, semi-maintained areas of chewings and red fescue, and unmowed sheep fescue, were used for visual effect and contrast.

Glynne Taylor, RiverLakes' superintendent, and Harry Dawson, the assistant superintendent, understand that ryegrass will demand some finesse during the hot summer months. On the other hand, nothing thrives better than perennial rye in the mild California winters. Dennis Holtz, the project manager, says management is keeping an open mind and may switch to bermudagrass if the ryegrass struggles.

Water everywhere A couple of water features already were present at RiverLakes. A major aqueduct that distributes irrigation water through much of California-the Friant-Kern canal-runs through RiverLakes. In fact, golfers drive their carts across it during their round. Though the Friant-Kern doesn't provide the relaxing serenity of a natural river, it provides unique interest and reinforces the agricultural theme that the almonds create.

Despite the huge volumes of water flowing through the canals, RiverLakes relies on well water for its irrigation needs. After all, these canals aren't rivers, and you can't pump water that someone else owns. A water table between 200 and 300 feet down ensures that a trustworthy pumping station will always be a critical part of course operations.

The Fream designers planned the numerous lakes into the concept as part of the overall residential development. The lakes provide beauty to enhance the adjacent real estate while contributing strategically and visually to golf play. Additionally, the earth removed during construction of the lakes served as a vital source of material for course sculpting.

The lakes at RiverLakes incorporate progressive features for managing water quality. Biofiltration ponds use aquatic plants to help remove contaminants from runoff that comes from surrounding streets and residential areas. Ozone aeration furthers the process, after which the water is suitable for irrigation. Plastic liners prevent the ponds from losing water through leaching.

On some sections of shoreline, sand hazards-beaches, actually-add an unusual flavor to an already diverse palette of design ideas. To enhance stability, these sections of shoreline initially were poured with concrete and formed with a rough, undulating surface to minimize movement of the overlaid sand, which was spread thickly enough to allow golfers to hit out.

The water features that golfers are most likely to appreciate are the misters that operate at the clubhouse during warm weather. Between nines, golfers can enjoy a respite from the summer sun, when low humidity and triple-digit temperatures prevail.

More important, at RiverLakes golfers are finding some of the best play in the area. The design incorporates unique features, and the ryegrass fairways will treat golfers to a playing surface not found frequently in this region. Environmental Golf is operating RiverLakes as a higher-end daily-fee course. The fees may be somewhat higher than other local daily-fee course, but the quality should definitely match the cost. The volume of golfers using RiverLakes is already high, substantiating golfers' acceptance of this unique golfing experience.

Besides, if you go at the right time of year, you can get free almonds.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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