Summertime thunderstorms are rare in Northern California and are more prone to dry lightning than delivering needed rain. In the early morning hours of August 16, 2020, a massive front threw down over 11,000 bolts of lightning, igniting fires across the tinder-dry state. One of those fires became known as the CZU Lightning Complex fire, eventually torching over 86,000 acres before full containment was achieved on September 22. Nearly 1500 buildings were destroyed, including Bill Aragona’s Boulder Creek Golf and Country Club’s clubhouse, irrigation system, and numerous majestic trees left destroyed or scarred.
It took nearly two years for Boulder Creek Golf & Country Club to reopen. And it was the second time tragedy leveled the clubhouse.
Aragona was an NGCOA board member for 18 years and president from 2010-2011. He’s lived and loved a life of golf, teeing it up every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday (weather permitting) at 81 years old with his buddies at his beloved Pasatiempo Golf Club, just down the hill from his own facility. His story is one of recovery, perseverance, some luck, and adjustment to changing times.
Driving through a fire zone surrounding the course is a sobering and awe-inspiring look at nature’s fury. While some homes are being rebuilt, others are left as just a foundation and steps, the structure erased by fast-moving flames.
Aragona doesn’t have photos of his destroyed clubhouse, now rebuilt. But the destroyed water system is stark evidence of the firestorm.
Aragona and two partners, all golf buddies, purchased Boulder Creek in 1979, hoping to catch golf on the Palmer-Nicklaus fueled golf uptick. The first tragedy struck soon after, known as “Aragona’s Mistake,” a kind metaphor. Aragona uses a different phrase. Local tradition had golfers toss their scorecards into an unused fireplace in the clubhouse bar, gathered and removed before closing. A weary Aragona decided one night to burn the cards instead, sending sparks up a chimney not known to be cracked. By the next morning, the clubhouse was gone.
Boulder Creek sits at the north end of the San Lorenzo Valley, surrounded by the steep hills of the Santa Cruz mountains. Gravity feeds water collected behind two dams, upper and lower, that provide the irrigation used by the course. Sixty inches of rain fall in an average year, and Aragona can get by with as little as thirty. But early in 1982, 110 inches dropped, and the debris flow blocked the upper dam cutting off most of Boulder Creek’s water supply. Tragedy No. 2.
Aragona and his partners applied for an SBA loan to repair the dam, but at the last minute, one partner bowed out and refused to sign the papers. What could have been Tragedy No. 3 was mitigated by Congressman Leon Panetta, later the CIA director, who facilitated the SBA loan approval. However, this piled more debt upon the business during the deep recession of the early 1980s.
“You deserve a break” are the words that saved Aragona’s dream, delivered with a handshake from a local resident and golfer who noticed and appreciated all the hard work it took to maintain a valued community asset. John De Nault, an insurance executive who founded 20th Century Insurance (now 21st Century Insurance), bought out Aragona’s reluctant third partner with a promise to guarantee all losses in perpetuity. Indeed, De Nault’s family trust remains committed following the patriarch’s passing. Unfortunately, the family home, just a short drive from Boulder Creek’s first tee, did not survive the fire.
Just as forest fires spawn new life and growth, so has the CZU fire opened new opportunities for Aragona. Besides losing the clubhouse, tragedy No. 3, the facility had no electricity for months, and the course was lost with no irrigation. So Aragona and his small maintenance staff, led by superintendent Jerry Bibbey, started cobbling the front-nine system by robbing most of the back-nine components, believing nine holes were better than none. And while the back nine was growing wild, a new opportunity emerged. Boulder Creek and surrounding areas were hotbeds for disc golf, and Aragona was approached about converting the back nine to an 18-hole disc golf course.
Boulder Creek Golf and Country Club reopened in July 2022, nearly two years after the CZU fire. Newly installed USGA greens feature Pure Distinction bentgrass on the front nine. I was there two days after four inches of rain fell, and the greens were firm and rolled smooth. Aragona hopes that by maintaining only nine greens, Bibbey and his crew can keep the new surfaces free from poa annua.
And while golfers are again enjoying the new greens on the Jack Fleming-designed layout, new customers are threading their discs amongst the Redwood and pines of the maintenance-free back nine, paying a $12 “disc” fee and generating $2,000-$3,000 a month in revenue, plus what’s spent in the bar and restaurant.
“We didn’t know,” says Aragona, “how our regular customers would react to not only the loss of nine golf holes but also sharing some space with disc golfers. Our golf business is actually up – it seems nine holes is a sweet spot for more people than we imagined. And the disc golfers are very respectful of the “real” golfers when sharing space in our clubhouse. As a result, our reputation as a community asset has been elevated.”
The original Boulder Creek Golf and Country Club included condos on the back nine and several tennis courts. It was designed to be a small conference center providing lodging, recreation, meeting space, food, and a bar. The condos are all sold, and the tennis courts are overgrown and in disrepair. But the success of disc golf has Aragona considering repurposing the tennis courts for America’s fastest-growing sport – pickleball.
“Ours is a story of survival and revival, I guess, assisted by the De Nault family and its representative, Gary Reiff, our sounding board for future improvements. I’m not sure what’s next for us, but I’m here nearly every day enjoying running Boulder Creek Golf and Country Club more than ever,” adds Aragona. “I don’t think you’re ever too old to enjoy people playing the game you love and welcoming people with new ways to recreate. I’m convinced we have a bright future here.”