Golf Plus: Sacramento region’s golf landscape began decades ago with a piece of land and a vision

It was 1950, and golf in Sacramento was in a strained holding pattern. World War II was five years in the rearview mirror, but Arnold Palmer was five years from winning his first pro tournament and really ramping things up. Sam Snead and Ben Hogan were slugging it out on the PGA Tour. Patty Berg, Babe Zaharias and Louise Suggs were dominating the newly formed LPGA. Golf Digest debuted, but the notion of golf on TV was in its infancy and Golf Channel was 45 years away.

Golfers in Sacramento who weren’t privileged enough to belong to impacted Del Paso Country Club had two options – Sacramento Municipal Golf Course (now Haggin Oaks) and Land Park’s nine holes. Demand, however, far outweighed supply, especially on weekends and holidays when the pro-shop waiting list of players without a tee time and wanting to play ran the length of a page.

Arbuckle, Plumas Lake and Yolo Fliers each offered nine holes in outlying areas, but 72 total holes – half of them private – wasn’t cutting it in a region surrounding a capital city in which the population was exploding.

So golfers took matters into their own hands. The result was a golf course building boom in Sacramento that remains the foundation for area players six decades later.

George Nicholau is a founding member at Peach Tree in Marysville, which opened in 1959. There aren’t many founding members left from his era. He is 95. He recently shot a 92. His memory is even sharper than his game.

He remembers he and his golf buddies growing tired of having to travel to play. They had a vision, as did others in their community, of a course they could call their own. They had a piece of property. What they needed was an architect to turn it into reality.

They turned to Fresno-based Bob Baldock. He was present at a town meeting at the Hotel Marysville, Nicholau recalls, where founding members were asked to commit $2,000 and the architect was asked if grass could be grown on the sandy river-bottom land next to the Yuba River the group proposed for the course’s location.

“He was very positive in assuring us that there would be no problem,” Nicholau said. “We were very much impressed. He was a unanimous choice of the committee.”

Fifty-five years later, Nicholau couldn’t be happier with the decision.

“It was one of our greatest moves,” he said. “It was a winner from Day One. I don’t know of anybody who was disappointed.”

For those who use the Northern California Golf Association course directory – a bible of sorts for golfers – Baldock’s name is among those that appear repeatedly after the heading: Course Designer. Of the 15 regulation-length courses built in the area between 1950 and 1965, he designed four (also El Macero in 1960 and Alta Sierra and Davis in 1964). Additionally, he was responsible for nine-hole additions at Plumas Lake and Yolo Fliers.

Two other architects had major local influence during that period. William F. Bell is credited with North Ridge in 1954, Valley Hi in 1959, Rocklin in 1963 and Ancil Hoffman in 1965. Jack Fleming did Sierra View in 1953, Mather in 1959 and Dry Creek in 1963.

Bing Maloney in 1952, Auburn Valley in 1960, Cameron Park in 1962 and Diamond Oaks in 1964 also sprang to life during that period. In all, 10 of the new courses were private and five public (three municipal and two daily fee), which was typical for the period.

Bert Stamps made an impression with Cameron Park and the now-defunct Lawrence Links in 1962. He also did Rancho Murieta North in 1971 and a nine-hole addition to Cold Springs in 1978.

Diamond Oaks was among the first courses created by Ted Robinson, who also did Rancho Murieta South in 1974.

Who were these men who created so many of these staples so long ago? What was their mission? What were they up against?

Baldock was a former Class A PGA pro and irrigation specialist. Bell was the son of highly regarded architect William P. Bell and part of what was referred to as “California’s First Family of Golf Course Design.” Irish-born Fleming came to California in 1926 on behalf of Alister MacKenzie and supervised the construction of Cypress Point, among other MacKenzie designs, before becoming superintendent of grounds for the San Francisco Park Department.

Stamps was a PGA Tour player in the 1940s who served as the head pro at several of the courses he designed, while Robinson’s background was in landscape architecture. He later was dubbed the “King of Waterscapes.”

There was no MacKenzie, A.W. Tillinghast or Donald Ross among them, as it turns out; the economics of the era dictated they be more assembly-line architect than artist. The less dirt moved, the less expense incurred. In Sacramento, they didn’t exactly have an ocean view to enhance things, either.

Contemporary Sacramento-based designer Damian Pascuzzo recalls a 1990s meeting with Baldock, who was then in his 90s, and the slogan on Baldock’s business letterhead: “Sensible courses ... for a sensible cost.”

“The architect’s fee was so low in those days he might come by to walk the land and then go home with his (topographical) maps and start laying out the course with very rough instructions for the contractors,” said Paul Fullmer, who served as executive secretary of the American Society of Golf Course Architects for 30 years. “He might make one or two field inspections during construction, but clients didn’t want to pay for frequent trips.”

Fleming trekked to Sacramento on weekends in his 1940 DeSoto, hauling his crew, which included his son, John, later the superintendent at Olympic Club.

Baldock planned more than 350 courses in his career and is listed as the designer of 25 in Northern California. In summaries of the courses he designed, “well known” and “prolific” are the words often used to describe him. Not derogatory, but not flattering.

Bell laid out more than 200 courses and is the designer of record of 14 in Northern California. Fleming, who found a niche designing shorter-than-regulation courses (Rolling Greens in Granite Bay among them), designed, built or remodeled 70 courses. He is the listed designer on 13 in Northern California.

Of Stamps’ 18 credits, nine are in Northern California. Robinson did 160 courses, nine in Northern California.

“Their clients didn’t want anything fancy,” said architect Robert Trent Jones Jr., whose contemporary area designs include Granite Bay, The Ridge, Serrano and Winchester. “They just wanted a plate of sausage – routing up and back. No wandering for a change in sun or wind. None of that.”

There’s not much middle ground when it comes to interest in golf course architecture. Either you’re obsessed by it with encyclopedic knowledge of renowned designers and every nuance on their perceived masterpieces. Or you’re oblivious, your focus limited to getting clubface to meet ball in some predictable manner, shot-making value be damned.

Either way, if you play golf in Sacramento, and whether you appreciate it or not, you’ve been touched by architects who roamed the countryside six decades ago.

Looking today at those courses, their fairways lined thick with trees, it’s difficult to imagine they weren’t carved out of woods. The fact is, photos from their early days reveal mostly wide-open spaces. North Ridge and Ancil Hoffman, two of the most tree-lined courses anywhere, started with very few.

The property on which Sierra View was built initially had 300 mature oak trees and offered clear views of the Sierra, said club historian Norm Van Huff. Today, it has 1,500 trees and makes players wonder how the club got its name.

There were advantages to designing courses in the 1950s and ’60s from today: fewer environmental regulations, routing not dictated by home development, no carts so no cart paths to worry about.

“Ensuing good drainage today is about getting carts off the path and back on the course as soon as possible,” said Sacramento-based designer Brad Bell, whose contemporary area designs include Empire Ranch, Teal Bend, Turkey Creek and Yocha Dehe. “It used to be you just walked around puddles. Now you have to worry about carts doing damage.”

Cart paths had to be added to the courses, which scarred all of them to a degree since they were a design afterthought. A variety of yardage options for seniors, ladies and juniors, largely ignored until recently, have been added to a few of the courses. But little else has changed and the beat goes on.

Hundreds of architects have designed courses in California, most within the past 20 years. A diligent handful were hard at work almost a lifetime ago laying the groundwork for 15 courses that frame today’s Sacramento-area golf landscape.

Talk about a lasting impact.