The obituary for this Central Valley golf center was already written: the land was purchased by Children’s Hospital of Central California for expansion. But before the bulldozer, there was a reprieve.
River Park Golf Course in southern Madera County was a neat executive course where a golfer could play nine holes in about an hour.
The course and large driving range have lights so golfers could play until eight o’clock at night during the winter, and later during the rest of the year.
I played a few rounds there in the years since arriving in California back in 2004. My first trip there was with visitors looking for something to do.
We played the attached mini-golf course and had a good time. That mini golf course closed shortly after our visit.
A few years later, I played the golf course for the first time. Every hole was a par three, compelling me to put away my driver and rely only on my irons.
The course was perfect for my irons. I think I improved that part of my game thanks to the short distance holes there.
At that course, I perfected what I call “no-huddle golf”. I would play nine holes in as short a period of time as possible. No-huddle golf to me meant “don’t think about the shot, just hit it, and keep moving”.
That style of play served me well on days when time was at a premium.
I read about the pending closure in the fall of 2017.
I was not surprised. In my time in California, I’ve read of at least four courses closing. Some went out of business because the drought demanded too much of the precious water that kept the grass green.
Some ceased operations because owners grew weary of chasing greens fees from golfers who had many choices including on-line deals and newspaper coupons.
Some closed simply because the land was more valuable for development.
River Park was also the site of my greatest shot ever.
I’ll never forget the day my swing from a six iron on a 135 yard par three took the ball just six inches from the cup. There was hope that someday that evasive hole-in-one would happen.
With the announcement of the closing, I made peace with myself that a hole-in-one was not going to happen at River Park.
When I flew into Fresno Yosemite International Airport following a vacation, I gathered my luggage, loaded my car, and left the parking lot.
Checking the time, I knew I could spare one additional hour before coming home to Merced. So I headed to highway 41 North, got off at the Rio Mesa exit just over the Madera County line, and drove to River Park Golf Course.
While I could not be certain at the time, my instincts told me this would be my last round at this course. I played a relaxing round of golf. No-huddle golf would have to wait for some other time at some other course. I shot a 35 on the 27 par layout.
It was not my best round there, but not the worst either. I walked into the pro shop, thanked the man at the register for several years of enjoyment, and headed on my way.
It was my farewell.
But then in late December, there was a surprise Christmas present for the hundreds of golfers who have used the course.
Children’s Hospital modified their plans, at least temporarily. The course was saved.
The new name is Valley Golf Center. There’s new management, and a revision to the Hospital’s plan to use the land for medical offices.
A return to this newly named, old friend of a golf course in the first weeks of 2018 was a special time.
I shot a 32, just five shots over par. With a smile on my face, I went inside the pro shop to thank the new person behind the counter.
Saved from the bulldozer, this golf course has been revived.