Every Tuesday, a group of 10, sometimes 12 members of Fountaingrove Golf and Athletic Club in the hills above Santa Rosa, Calif., gather for its weekly games of wolf, $10 a point, greenies on every hole, sandies and birdies, trash-talking optional. Normally.
Normally, alas, took its leave on the morning of Oct. 9. On this Tuesday, eight days later, there was no golf, no money exchanging hands, no trash-talking. Only despair.
“I know 10 of those guys lost their homes,” Howie Walker, a club member and regular in those wolf games, said on Tuesday morning. “I got lucky. All my buddies didn’t. They all lost everything. It’s devastating.”
They were victims of the Tubbs fire that “made a horrific 12-mile run from Calistoga…into a dense city neighborhood in west Santa Rosa…through ranches and rural communities, sweeping through million-dollar homes in Santa Rosa’s hillside Fountaingrove development,” Julie Johnson wrote in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
The golf club lost its clubhouse and maintenance facilities, including all its maintenance vehicles, while its athletic club, located near the club entrance down the hill from the golf facilities, survived intact.
One board member, Tom Henry, said that at last count 38 members of the golf club had lost their homes and that "that may still rise." Four employees also lost homes.
Membership, as the old ad slogan goes, has its privileges, and in the case of the close-knit members of the Fountaingrove, they have each other on which to lean.
“We need to support each other in the Fountaingrove family,” a post on the club’s Facebook page said. “We will keep you posted as we know more about the effects of the fire on our club. Please do reach out through if you need help and if there is anything the team at Fountaingrove can do to help.”
Golf courses themselves tend not to burn; grass doesn't provide much fuel. But the winds, upwards of 60 miles per hour, were too strong for Fountaingrove's fairways to act as a buffer, resulting in carnage.
"There are some satellite images where you can basically see homes along both sides of every fairway on the front nine and first four holes on the back nine, and it looked to me like a large percentage of those are gone," Randy Seelye, a past president and spokesman for the golf club, said.
Walker had gone out to play nine holes on the afternoon of Oct. 8. “The wind was blowing so hard, it was really bad. I quit and had a couple of beers and went home. I told my wife, ‘We’re going to lose some oak trees.’ ”
At 2 a.m. on Monday, he received a knock on the door. It was a neighbor, telling him that Paradise Ridge on the hill above their homes was on fire, that they had to evacuate. Many hours later that day, he said he snuck back into the neighborhood and discovered his home still standing, in defiance of odds.
“I saw flames burning a neighbor’s house behind us and thought this was the last we’d see of our house,” he said.
Two days ago, Walker returned to his home, walked to the top of the hill and to the edge of the golf course. “The greens are fine, the fairways are fine, but there’s nothing left. It’s all gone. There are maybe 100 homes lining the golf course. The whole thing is gone. The clubhouse is gone. You can’t fathom what happened.”
The golf course at Fountaingrove is a Ted Robinson Sr. design that in May was the site of a U.S. Open local qualifier. Even-par 72 was required to advance to sectional qualifying. “It’s a real hard golf course, amongst those hills, and it’s tight,” Walker said.
On its website, the club describes itself “nestled in the hills above Santa Rosa, offering picturesque views of Fountaingrove Lake and, in the distance, the Coast Mountains. Old-growth oak trees dot the property. Wildlife, including deer, abounds. Visiting the club is like journeying to a private oasis in the middle of Wine Country. It’s serene. It’s peaceful. It’s a great escape from the demands of the everyday.”
Idyllic would seem a fitting one-word description, but that was before the wildfire propelled by the wind overtook it and turned it into a war zone. Now, it’s about rebuilding — homes, for the members who lost them, and the club.
“I want to stress that this will take time and patience,” club president Mark Leavitt said in a missive posted on the club’s Facebook page. “Many staff and board members were victims of this fire. They are not only helping rebuild the club, but also their personal lives.”
Fountaingrove’s only course issue was getting water on greens that had just been aerated. A local concern, Empire Asphalt, initially provided water trucks without which, “the greens would have been lost,” Leavitt wrote.
“We have wells for watering the course,” Seelye said. “We pump water out of the wells and into our lakes, and our golf course superintendent Dustin McIntosh rigged up generators to the pumps, so we're able to water the course.”
Meanwhile, three clubs—Sonoma, Santa Rosa and Lake Merced—have donated or lent Fountaingrove maintenance equipment. Said Seelye, “The hope is that about three to four weeks out from now we'll be able to open with some tents, pro shop operate out of a tent and get some carts, and also talking about food & beverage, in an effort to get things going pretty rapidly.”