Northwest Munis Are Top Notch!
Jay Turner, owner of RedBird Sports on Seattle’s Beacon Avenue South, a member of the Seattle Golf Steering Committee and a former course record holder at Jefferson Park, knows the value of affordable golf for all. “Municipal golf courses tend to be melting pots so to speak, as all members of the community are welcome,” he says. “This was very beneficial for me as a young person as I was able to meet and play with all types of people; young and old from a wide variety of professions and many different ethnicities.” David Wood, a former stand-up comedian and now an author and regular at West Seattle GC, is another big fan of municipal golf. “I think the game is improved when all walks of life are included and that’s what municipal golf does in spades,” he says. “The game suffers when exclusion is the rule. I love the fact that strangers can meet for the first time at a city course and in a matter of hours be fast friends. What’s better than that? Most of my longtime friends have come from being paired up on the 1st tee.”
Colin Gants, the Head Professional at West Seattle GC, says it best. “A community without public golf courses would be like a community without libraries,” he says. “It would be like having no swimming pools, community centers or civic theaters. Municipal golf courses are an integral part of any city that wants to give its citizens a well-balanced assortment of community activities.”
Non-golfers might not agree, but for those who hit the links with any sort of regularity it might not be too great an exaggeration to suggest a city with no municipal golf is a city with no soul. Added to which, every men’s or ladies’ golf club attached to a municipally-owned course seems invariably full of the down-to-earth golfer that always enjoys their game whatever the occasion, whatever the weather and whatever the result.
Seattle certainly has soul, and golf clubs full of folk who play golf for no other reason than to enjoy the game. But its list of publicly-owned courses is not a long one.
That said, the ground over which the city’s three courses (four if you include Interbay which has a two-tier range and nine-hole executive course) are laid is regarded as sacred by the tens of thousands of golfers that call them their golfing, if not spiritual, home.
West Seattle is the youngest of the city’s trio having opened in 1935 – five years after Bob Johnstone and Frank James created Jackson Park just north of downtown, and 20 seasons after Scotsman Tom Bendelow built Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill. West Seattle was designed by the 2004/5 US Amateur champion H Chandler Egan and accommodates nearly 65,000 rounds a year. Gants who grew up playing Liberty Lake and Indian Canyon in Spokane, has been at the course for 20 years and says he loves it now more now than ever.
“Golf courses need to have variety to capture a golfer’s attention,” he says. “Hitting a bunch of drivers and wedges simply doesn’t get the juices flowing. At the same time, having a 7,500 yard course that requires a lot of drivers and long irons is no fun either. West Seattle has a great variety of holes.”
There are three Par 4s that measure less than 350 yards; two of them usually set at under 300 yards for the Seattle Amateur Championship to entice players to take on the green. Three are between 350 and 400 yards and there are four Par 4s over 400 yards. The Par 3s are even better, says Gants. “Very few courses have four Par 3s that require four different clubs,” he adds. The Par 5s are a nice mix too. And the course really doesn’t favor one style of golfer; four holes dogleg slightly right, four go left and four are straight. There are uphill, downhill and side-hill lies as well as flat. The greens are always interesting. Seven are difficult, laid naturally on the ground. There are eight holes affected by water. And did I mention the views?
Ah yes, the views. Coal Creek at Newcastle, 17 miles across the West Seattle and I-90 floating bridges, has panoramas that probably top those at West Seattle, but it’ll cost you $125 prime time to hit a ball off the 1st tee toward the Bank of America Tower. That’s more than four times what you pay at West Seattle.
But for its totally inadequate practice area and outdated clubhouse (areas that the city’s Golf Masterplan will hopefully address next year), West Seattle would be the equal of most facilities – municipal, public or even private – in Western Washington that charge double, even triple, the $30 that it costs to play the most popular of Seattle’s municipals. “One of my biggest pet peeves is when golfers say, ‘West Seattle is great for a muni,”‘ says Gants. “I hope people agree they can drop ‘for a muni’ and see that this is simply a great course regardless of what type of facility it is.”
Seattle’s second busiest 18-hole municipal (Jackson, Jefferson and Interbay all have nine-hole courses), according to last year’s figures at least, was Jackson Park which fell just 426 rounds short of 60,000. Jefferson Park was third with 3,176 rounds fewer than Jackson although it does have the distinction of being where Bill Wright, the first African American to win a USGA national championship, and 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples developed their unique talents.
Munis are, of course, the ideal place to learn the game. As Jay Turner says, they promote growth by offering affordable programs and group lessons specifically aimed at attracting new golfers. “These programs benefit all types of golf facilities in the long run as more people are exposed to golf and encouraged to it a try,” he adds.
Lake Padden in Bellingham takes its instruction and developmental programs very seriously although, as Director of Golf Mel Fish insists, the object is always to make it fun. “We offer the most comprehensive junior programs in Whatcom County with programs designed to meet the needs of the community,” he says. “We also run a couple of classes in conjunction with the local YMCA. We always strive to develop strong values and ensure that golf is fun to play.”
As for the course, Lake Padden is a wonderful walk through the woods and a stiff test even at just 6,575 yards from the blue tees. The course’s web site suggests it plays 20% longer than the actual yardage, but that would make it a 7,890-yard behemoth and probably no fun at all when, in reality, you’d have a job to find a more pleasant challenge.
And speaking of pleasant challenges, Everett’s two city courses; Legion Memorial and Walter Hall, Riverbend in Kent, Maplewood in Renton, Auburn in…Auburn, the ever popular Foster Golf Links in Tukwila, the John Harbottle/Lynn Horn-designed Sumner Meadows near Puyallup which hosts roughly 48,000 rounds a year, and Tacoma’s Meadow Park are all a big hit with golfers looking for easily-accessible courses charging sensible rates.
Eight miles southwest of Meadow Park on the other side of I-5 is the hugely underrated Pierce County-owned Lake Spanaway Golf Course which started life in April 1967 and which stands as a monument to the commitment and passion of Tom Cross, the Director of Pierce County Parks and Recreation from 1958 to 1981, and Lorne ‘Shorty’ Campbell, the Parks Superintendent who worked so hard to bring plans for a recreation center to fruition. Lake Spanaway is a typically engaging AV Macan design that demonstrates perfectly the Irish-born architect’s philosophy on building golf courses; that holes should be designed so that the man who pays the bills, namely the average golfer at the club, can have a nice day. Spanaway stretches to 6,992 yards from the Blacks and can be played for only $26, during the week – a deal that in Washington, only Spokane’s Indian Canyon and Bremerton’s Gold Mountain can hope to compete with.
Another H. Chandler Egan gem, Indian Canyon is a genuinely great course with 17 fun holes. The odd hole out is the tortuously uphill Par 5 18th which, though described on the city’s golf web site as a ‘great finishing hole’, seems to us like the result of what Egan was left with after laying out the rest of the course.
Best not to dwell on that. Instead, let’s sing the praises of the wonderfully thought-provoking 7th hole – a short Par 4 with a stand of trees at driving distance, the exacting Par 3 8th, the invigorating downhill 10th and the intriguing short Par 4 17th.
The 18th might work better if it came earlier in the round, but there are just too many good holes that come before it to matter. The standard green fee is a whole dollar more than Lake Spanaway’s, but no one who tees it up at Indian Canyon will bemoan the extra outlay.
Nor could they possibly fret over the $4 more they’ll require to play the superb Olympic Course at the City of Bremerton-owned Gold Mountain, venue of the 2006 US Amateur Public Links Championship and which will welcome the USGA back in 2011 when it hosts the US Amateur Junior Championship.
One of John Harbottle’s finest, the Olympic Course at Gold Mountain opened in 1996 and is ranked the eighth best course in the state by Golf Digest; behind six private courses and another municipal that is so good it is set to host the US Open in five and bit years’ time.
Chambers Bay belongs to Pierce County. But unlike Lake Spanaway which is owned and managed by the city’s Parks Department, the future major championship site is part of the Public Works and Utilities Department. It has been open for two and a half summers and earlier this year surged into Golf Magazine’s top 100 courses in the US (46th) and, indeed, the world (77th). The fescue-covered faux-links will get a taste of top competition next summer when the best amateurs in the world gather for the US Amateur. Those that haven’t seen the course already will first marvel at its stark beauty before discovering just how difficult it can be, especially if the usually clement August weather turns sour. Pierce County residents can get on for only $49 in December while those arriving from out-of-county pay $69. Considering the quality of the course and the prestigious events it has in its future, $69 can rightly be considered a bit of a bargain, meaning Chambers Bay moves alongside Gold Mountain, Indian Canyon, Lake Padden, Lake Spanaway and West Seattle in the race to determine Washington’s best value. If you do take advantage of the December rate, just remember to arrive with an umbrella, some hand warmers, a wooly hat and the good sense to know that Chambers Bay at this time of year can be an absolute brute that will likely tear your handicap index to shreds.
The Evergreen State possesses a number of other 18-hole municipal courses that will never disappoint, unless you show up expecting Augusta National-like conditioning perhaps. In Olympia, there’s Capitol City and Tumwater Valley. The City of Richland possesses a fine Jim Engh design at Columbia Point – great value at just $33 a round midweek. Pasco’s Sun Willows, like Columbia Point, is an IRI Group-managed facility and boasts several fine holes and, in addition to Indian Canyon, Spokane has three more popular munis – Downriver, Esmeralda and the Creek at Qualchan. Spokane County’s Hangman Valley, Liberty Lake and MeadowWood all get their share of good press, and Veterans Memorial in Walla Walla, part of the Veteran’s Memorial Park, is a lovely stroll.
Nearer Seattle, Enumclaw is a course you can easily fall in love with and Lynnwood, though short, is more than adequate for locals with an urgent need to play golf.
Heading south toward Portland, Tri-Mountain is a well-maintained Bill Robinson design in the city of Ridgefield, 10 miles north of Vancouver. Owned by Clark County, the 6,589-yard layout with views towards Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams, was placed in the very capable managerial hands of Billy Casper Golf in late 2003 since when the operation has benefitted from a number of improvements which include a new drainage system that went in earlier this year and which had a considerable impact on the course’s turfgrass this summer. “We have also constructed a new web site where visitors can book tee times,” says Thomas Barrett, Billy Casper Golf’s Western Regional Vice President. “And we’ve trained the staff with a view to improving customer service, added a new fleet of carts, purchased more maintenance vehicles, increased our capability to host golf outings, banquets and weddings, worked with the local high school to offer the team a place to practice, and assisted with an increasing number of local charity events.”
Portland Public Golf/Central Oregon/Idaho
Over the state line, it isn’t long before you’re driving through excellent municipal golf country as the City of Portland offers its slightly more than half a million citizens access to five top-notch 18-hole courses – two more than Seattle whose population is roughly 50,000 higher. Immediately after crossing the Interstate Bridge, golfers should take Exit 307 off I-5 and head east on 120 towards Heron Lakes’ two Robert Trent Jones Jr-designed layouts. The 6,615-yard Greenback opened in 1971 and is the easier of the two, appealing to beginners and higher handicap golfers. The Great Blue, 21 years Greenback’s junior, is a much sterner test at 6,902 yards and was the venue for the 2000 US Amateur Public Links Championship won by DJ Trahan.
2010 will be an exciting year for Heron Lakes as ground will at last be broken on the new clubhouse made possible thanks to improved flood control measures built on the 100-year flood plain known as West Delta Park. When the Army Corps of Engineers removed the building restrictions, plans got underway to replace the 700sqft trailer that has served as the courses’ 19th hole for over 35 years.
“Having a trailer gave the perception of a muni course with mediocre accommodations and cheap golf; quite the contrary to the reality; an outstanding layout at an affordable price,” says Quincy Heard, Executive Director of the First Tee of Portland and the Portland Youth Golf Association, and a member of the city’s Advisory Committee set up to provide guidance to the design consultants and project staff. “It also limited the size of events that could be hosted there.”
An architect for the project has been chosen – Portland-based Hennebery Eddy – but the size of the building and the start date have yet to be decided. “The design concept has been defined, however,” says Heard. “We are currently looking at creating a ‘green’ facility that adheres to LEED standards. When the clubhouse is complete, it will give the course the opportunity to host large-scale events, and Heron Lakes will become the crown jewel of the City’s golf enterprise.”
Rose City, the city’s second oldest municipal course and situated about four miles east of downtown, plays over land that was once the city’s first ever airfield and an early site of the Portland Country Club. The first nine holes were developed in the spring of 1922 on the site once known as the Rose City Speedway 8. The course measures 6,520 yards from the back tees and recently underwent a number of changes that saw a lake go in close to the 5th green and a new drainage system greatly improve the playing surfaces.
Five years older than Rose City is the beautiful Eastmoreland Course, designed by Chandler Egan and bordered at various points by the city’s 10-acre Rhododendron Gardens and Crystal Springs Lake. As is true of so many of the courses mentioned here, the regular green fee; $26, is an absolute steel.
That just leaves RedTail which was featured quite heavily in last month’s article about the region’s best driving ranges. RedTail is the sort of place at which the committed golfer could spend all day – all week if no one came to pick him up. Besides the two-tier range there is a Golf World Top 100 pro shop teeming with club-fitting specialists and teaching professionals, including General Manager Craig Zimmerman who US Kids Golf named as one of the Top 50 Kids Teachers in the country. There are putting and chipping greens and a demo center where you can test drive thousands of clubs, for free.
Then there’s the 7,107-yard golf course. Originally called Progressive Downs and designed by Erv Thoreson in 1966, the 163-acre layout was totally rebuilt by Portland Golf Director John Zoller in 1999 and renamed after the red-tailed hawks that call the course home.
While Portland is blessed with a good many quality 18-hole municipals, the rest of the state seems sadly lacking. The best of what’s left is undoubtedly the City of Redmond’s John Harbottle-designed Juniper Golf Course, owned by the city’s Public Building Corporation which acquired the land from the Bureau of Land Management. In 2007, Juniper was ranked the 6th best public course under $75 by Golf Digest and, not surprisingly Harbottle rates it as one of his finest. “It’s a wonderful minimal layout,” he says. “We only moved about 100,000 cubic yards of earth building it. The gently rolling terrain and natural rock outcroppings allowed us to create lots of variety. Juniper not only has the length and character to challenge the scratch player, but also plays as a sporting venue for the average golfer from the shorter tees.”
The greens, adds Harbottle, are the heart of the course. “Some sit up, some down and others at grade. They are angled to put a premium on placing your shot in proper position to approach the pin.”
Fifteen miles east of Juniper is Prineville’s Meadow Lakes, built in 1988 to give the city a place to dump thousands of gallons of waste water that were seeping into the Crooked River at a cost of $25,000 a day in fines. One of the first ever recipients of Golf Digest’s National Environmental Leaders Award, Meadow Lakes was designed by Bill Robinson and disposes of all that waste water in 10 evaporation ponds that serve as water hazards.
Buffalo Peak in Union is owned by Union County and is a William Phillips design laid out over sparse, rolling hillsides 16 miles southeast of La Grande. The 6,467-yard layout is extremely exposed and has a look of Wine Valley in Walla Walla about it…no bad thing.
Quail Ridge in Baker City, 20 miles south of Buffalo Peak and designed by Bill Robinson is a lovely walk, the original nine holes built in 1936, the second nine 63 years later. At 5,975 yards it’s not the mightiest course in the world and opens only from April to November.
While Oregon – rural Oregon at least – is a little short on full-length municipals, Idahoans seem strangely well catered for. Outside the state capitol Boise, there are a dozen fine munis for the inhabitants of the country’s 39th most populated state to enjoy. The City of Boise has just one course on its books – Warm Springs, located just a few minutes from downtown. Until March, 18 holes here will cost just $19.
Elsewhere in the Gem State, public golfers tee it up in Idaho Falls – (Sand Creek, designed by William Bell, Sage Lakes, Pinecrest), Meridian (Lakeview), Nampa (Centennial, Ridgecrest), Caldwell (Purple Sage), McCall (McCall), Pocatello (Riverside, Highland), and Twin Falls (Twin Falls).
Between them, Washington, Oregon and Idaho can muster nearly 40 city-owned courses where you’ll rarely pay more than $30 for a great round of golf. That’s just as David Wood likes it. “Green fees should be reasonable and affordable for all,” he says. “You shouldn’t have to forego getting braces for your kids just to support your golf habit. And really, other than paying the green fee and playing by the Rules, of course, anything goes at West Seattle. For me, there’s nothing better than a good muni.”