ON-SITE: Riverpark Golf Center

Some golf courses aim for grandeur, others a sense of tradition, some for a natural experience. However, many such courses are expensive and intimidating for those just learning the game. A more modest golfing experience may be, for many players, just the thing. With stagnant growth, some feel that's what the game of golf needs, too; to lure — and keep — new golfers in the game.

And that's what Riverpark Golf Center, tucked alongside the San Joaquin River just outside of Fresno, Calif., provides for its customers: a more … well … practical facility that caters to beginners as well as players of all abilities who just need a quick brush-up round.

Riverpark is a nine-hole, par-three course with a practice range, designed for convenience as much as anything. The course is a mere 1,000 yards, with holes ranging from 83 to 165 yards. So it won't be high on many “must-play-before-I-die” lists. But it's the kind of place where you might spend a lot of time before you set out for that dream golf destination. And that could be one reason why it's so popular.

Night games

Riverpark's practice range is lit for nighttime use. Nothing strange there. What's unusual is that the entire course is lit as well. For most facilities, that would be a lot of lighting. But for Riverpark, the smaller scale makes it practical. This creates an average of about three hours of additional golfing time each day and is as popular with management as it is with golfers. If you're going to encounter a wait at Riverpark, it's likely to be during these night hours.

The practice range can go through as many as 9,000 balls an hour, and the course bears up under perhaps 100 rounds a day on weekdays, 140 on weekends. That's a fair amount of wear and tear for a relatively limited area, but Superintendent Keith Justesen gets the most out of the turf and Riverpark handles the traffic well. Aside from the greens, which are Dominant creeping bentgrass blend, the entire facility consists of bermudagrass — common bermudagrass on the fairways, and hybrid bermudagrass on the practice tees. The vigor of bermudagrass in this warm and sunny region makes it an excellent solution to the problem of heavy wear.

Though bermudagrass thrives in the hot Central California climate, the bentgrass greens require a bit more coaxing. Preventive fungicides are necessary three months of the year. Justesen spikes the greens every week and verticuts every few weeks, except during the hottest spells. He mows the greens at 5/32 inch.

Water: nowhere to run

Despite its proximity to the San Joaquin River (or because of it), Riverpark must keep all runoff on site. The topography of the course was shaped accordingly, resulting in an interesting dilemma in the event of heavy rain. The driving range is the low spot on the property, so that's where excess water ultimately ends up if the ponds become overwhelmed. Central California isn't known for heavy rain, so this design isn't as awkward as it first sounds. But downpours do happen occasionally, and one storm dumped so much water that it flooded most of the range.

Gerald Chow, a partner in the Riverpark operation, explains that instead of shutting down the business, it actually increased demand. Golfers were anxious to test their target-golfing skills, aiming for the raised greens that formed islands in the sea of rainwater.

How do you retrieve practice balls in 8 feet of water? According to Justesen, “We just drug the ball picker through the water.” Simple. A local ex-Navy seal who was looking for a little scuba practice briefly assisted, according to Chow. Eventually, Justesen's crew was able to pump the water into the irrigation ponds, drying out the range.

By design, Riverpark provides accessibility to the game lacking on many other courses. In keeping with this “mission,” Riverpark participates in the First Tee program. This organization, administered by the World Golf Foundation and supported by the USGA, PGA and LPGA, among other groups, focuses on promoting affordable access to golf for youngsters not traditionally exposed to the game.

Many see this and similar initiatives as vital to the long-term growth of golf. Riverpark fits right in.


Location: Fresno, Calif.
Layout: Nine-hole, par-three course with practice range.
Length: 1,000 yards.
Turf: Bermudagrass — hybrid on the practice range, common on fairways; greens are Dominant creeping bentgrass blend.
Notable: Lights allow night golfing.

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