Change for the Better

By Tony Dear

A lot has been happening at Spokane’s golf courses the last few years. Lawsuits, bitter city politics, and poor maintenance soured the scene for a while. But could the city finally be emerging from this less than memorable period?

It’s a polite and dignified voice at the end of the line, one I’ve heard many times before. “Hello, this is Gary Lindeblad calling from Kalispel Golf and Country Club in Spokane.”

 

I hear the words ‘Gary’, ‘Lindeblad’, and ‘Spokane’. The rest don’t reach any part of the brain that can make sense of them. Why, it’s Gary Lindeblad, calling from Indian Canyon in Spokane I naturally think to myself.

But wait…what now? There’s an anomaly here, an irregularity, a glitch. Did he say ‘Kalispel Golf and Country Club’?
Cards on the table; I’ve not been to Spokane since the middle of last year, and have not kept fully up to date with the situation at Indian Canyon, and the dispute that saw Lindeblad, head pro at the wonderful 80-year-old muni for 31 years, and the City of Spokane finally part ways.

indiancanyon
Courtesy Indian Canyon Golf Course

To cut what turns out to be a pretty long story short, Indian Canyon had been deteriorating certainly for several years due largely to indifference and a lack of investment from the City that owned it. Green fee revenue was way down, as were takings in the pro shop and restaurant, from where Lindeblad drew his income. So when, in 2014, the City ordered Lindeblad to pay nearly $90,000 for poor bookkeeping dating back years, he almost immediately came back with a handwritten invoice for $190,000 – the amount he calculated he had lost due to the City’s failure to maintain Indian Canyon properly.

The City was apparently willing to accept Lindeblad’s demands and, in March of last year, the two parties settled out of court.

Shortly after, the City announced it would not be renewing Lindeblad’s contract and that he would have to re-apply for the job he’d held for over three decades.

He didn’t because he found a new job; or rather the Kalispel Tribe had the good sense to offer him one – a shrewd move given Lindeblad’s experience and good-standing in the Spokane golf community. Starting in February this year, Lindeblad would be the Community Relations Manager at the new Kalispel Golf and Country Club.

The what? Ah yes, that’s another rather interesting Spokane golf story.

In 2009, a group of four female members of Spokane Country Club filed a $4.5m lawsuit against the club saying it discriminated against women. They paid the same initiation fees and annual dues as the men, but didn’t receive the full benefits of membership. Club management made a few changes, but nowhere near enough according to the courts which found in favor of the plaintiffs in March 2013.

The bill for legal fees and costs, plus the amount awarded to the four claimants, was all too much for the club to withstand so, two months after the verdict, it filed for bankruptcy.

Kalispel Golf & Country Club
Courtesy of Kalispel Golf & Country Club

And two and a bit years later, the Kalispel Tribe which had been keen to enter the golf industry for some time, outbid a local investment group and consortiums headed by Phil Mickelson and Ryan Moore, purchasing the club for just over $3m and immediately renaming it Kalispel Golf and Country Club.

Les Blakley, the former head professional and General Manager at Spokane CC, was retained by the Tribe becoming the Director of Golf Operations. Lindeblad, meanwhile, described his role as ‘similar to that of a Walmart greeter’.

On the phone, however, Lindeblad tells me Blakley has decided to take another job with the Tribe and that he, Lindeblad, would take over and be the man in charge of golf at the Kalispel Golf and Country Club.

“Effective when, Gary?” I ask.

“Right now,” he says. “Les decided he wanted to pursue another position and I’ll be replacing him. I have no formal title yet but, whatever it is, it’s effective from today.”

Kalispel Golf & Country Club
Kalispel Golf & Country Club

Lindeblad explains that while the club will still have a private membership, a handful of tee-times will be available to the public most days and guests at the Northern Quest Casino, owned by the Kalispel Tribe, will be able to play the course as part of the resort’s Golfers Getaway Package.

The new Director of Golf, or whatever he’s going to be, also details what the Tribe has done since becoming owners. “A lot of money has been spent redesigning the entrance gate and parking lot,” he says. “The clubhouse has been totally gutted, and has a new public restaurant – 1898 Public House. It’s a gastro-pub, and gets its name from the year the original Spokane CC was formed (the club moved to its current site on Waikiki Rd in 1911 when Englishman, and future US Open champion, Jim Barnes had a hand in the design of the new course).”

Tyler Schwenk, who spent a year as sous-chef on Duane Hagadone’s luxury yacht sailing the Atlantic and French Riviera before returning to the US where he became sous-chef, then chef de Cuisine, at Beverly’s at the Coeur d’Alene Resort, is the executive chef at 1898 and has created part formal/part casual brunch and dinner menus featuring favorites like the 1898 Gastro Burger with house-cured bacon, Cougar Gold white cheddar, and dijonnais, and the Indian Taco with bison chili and lime crème fraiche. “The less formal Kalispel Grill is located downstairs in the main clubhouse,” says Lindeblad. “It caters to golfers that have either finished their round, or are in the middle of theirs (you can order food and pick it up at the turn). There’s also a workout room and swimming pool for club members.”

The course itself will remain as is for the time being although, says Lindeblad, it will likely look even better than it always used to. “Spokane Country Club always was in good condition,” says Lindeblad. “But the maintenance crew is going to be three time bigger than it used to be with a crew of 28-30 working full-time during the golf season.” Jeff Gullickson, who was at Overlake CC before coming to Spokane CC in 2000, has been kept on and now, says Lindeblad, will have the budget and manpower to make the course really outstanding.

A tee-time at Kalispel GCC will soon become a very highly-prized commodity, if it isn’t already. “The few public tee-times will be determined by club events and other activities going on at the club,” says Lindeblad. “We currently have between 230 and 240 members, and will look to cap it at 350. Until then, word of mouth will be the best form of advertising, so a few tee times will be available.”

But what of Indian Canyon? How will it fare without the rudder that guided it for so long? Will it capitulate still further, or have steps been taken to preserve a great course that Golf Digest rated the sixth best public course in the US in 1981?
Thankfully, it has a lifeline. Four in fact. The first is one it wisely held on to following the Lindeblad controversy. Kathy Gildersleeve-Jensen built a fantastic teaching/coaching partnership with Lindeblad at the course, opening and operating the Impact Golf Academy. Jensen, a longtime contributor to this magazine and the 2014 PGA Teacher of the Year, says she will remain at Indian Canyon for the foreseeable future. “I’ll be the Director of Instruction,” she says. “It was very sad to see Gary go of course, but I’m very happy to be staying on here. It is a special place, and it’s home for me and my family.”

The second instrument that will safeguard Indian Canyon’s future, in the short-term at least, is the new maintenance leadership, made up of Head Superintendent Fred Marchant and his assistant Josh Harty – a partnership the City installed in February last year. Described by Lindeblad himself as Indian Canyon’s new ‘Dream Maintenance Team’, Marchant and Harty have already had a profound effect on the course and driving range. Last April, talking to the Spokesman-Review, Lindeblad said the course looked better than it had in five years.

Marchant began his career as a seasonal employee at Indian Canyon in 1978, becoming a full-time assistant superintendent in 1991. He then moved to Downriver and finally the Creek at Qualchan where he became Head Superintendent in 2010. Harty also began as a seasonal employee at Indian Canyon before going to Walla Walla Community College where he earned his AAAS degree in Turf Management. After six years at Wenatchee GCC, he returned to Spokane where he worked as Assistant Superintendent at Downriver and Esmeralda before moving to Indian Canyon.

Indian Canyon’s third source of hope is Doug Phares, the man who replaced Lindeblad as the course’s new Head Golf Professional in January. Phares, who signed a five-year contract with the City, obviously saw a lot of potential in the course as he was willing to invest an incredible $90,000 of his own money giving the pro shop and 1,200sqft clubhouse new carpets and paint. He made numerous other improvements, transforming the clubhouse into a very popular pace to hang out. A former assistant pro at Downriver and Qualchan, Phares moved to Clarkston Golf & Country Club for his first head pro job in 2000, and first met Gildersleeve-Jensen many years ago. “I’ve known Doug for a long time,” says Jensen. “We started in the industry at about the same time. He is a really great person, and will be a great asset to Indian Canyon. We are very fortunate to have him.”
The fourth and final ace up Indian Canyon’s sleeve is a group of devotees, headed by Manito GC pro Steve Prugh and called the ‘Friends of Indian Canyon’. In November last year, the Spokesman-Review profiled the eight-strong group saying it had urged the City to spend $4m on restoring and upgrading the course, and that it would put up $2m itself to help turn Indian Canyon into a genuine championship course again, one that could host USGA events as well as the Champions, Web.com, and LPGA Tours. Prugh stressed the intention was to partner with the City, and that with the $6m investment, annual revenue could reach $1.2m.
The $6m outlay had been the recommendation of golf course architect Dan Hixson who, in 2011, was commissioned by the Kalispel Tribe to calculate what it would take to restore Indian Canyon to something capable of hosting national tournaments – it staged the 1941 and ‘84 US Amateur Public Links Championships (after Texan Bill Welch won the 1941 title, he said Indian Canyon was the most beautiful course he’d ever seen, and that he didn’t want to go back to Texas. He did, but only to pack his bags for his return to Spokane), the 1989 US Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship, and the 1945 and ’47 Esmeralda Open, won by Byron Nelson and Herman Keiser respectively. Ben Hogan aced the 4th hole, and told the club’s head pro the course and driving range were among his favorite, and Sam Snead held the course record – 63 – for nearly 50 years. Gary Lindeblad had approached the Tribe and suggested it enter into a public/private business venture with the City at Indian Canyon – a plan that obviously interested the Tribe initially, but which it ultimately rejected in favor of purchasing Spokane CC.

The Spokesman-Review said Parks Board members seemed to approve of the group’s proposal, the paper quoting Preston Potratz, chairman of the board’s golf committee, who said “I’m excited to see where this goes.”

You, us, and everyone else with even the slightest interest in the course Mr. Potratz. Indian Canyon is a jewel that has been sadly neglected over the years, and lost its luster as a result. Doug Phares has done an amazing repair job helping the shine to return, but one man can only do so much. Sadly, Phares’s efforts came too late to prevent officials at Rosauers again moving the Rosauers Open, one of the largest PGA Sectional tournaments in the US, away from its traditional home to MeadowWood CC (MeadowWood hosted the event in 2014 too), 20 miles due east of the city and a mile short of the Idaho state line.

Courtesy MeadowWood Golf Course
Courtesy MeadowWood Golf Course

“Everyone knows Indian Canyon has struggled with its conditioning in recent years,” says Mike Shirts, Chief Operating Officer at Rosauers and the tournament chairman. “It’s certainly beginning to improve under the new superintendent, but it wasn’t great when we decided to hold the tournament at MeadowWood in 2014. Everyone really enjoyed that event, so we decided to go back.”

MeadowWood, opened in 1988 and designed by Robert Muir Graves, is one of three courses owned and operated by Spokane County – the others Hangman Valley and Liberty Lake. Both are wonderfully peaceful, enjoyable rounds and will be looking to rebound after a tough 2015. “It was a challenging year,” says Kit DeAndre, head pro at Liberty Lake. “We had some extremely high temperatures for long periods – several 100+-degree days in a row at one point. And of course we had problems with the wildfires for 30 days or so.”

But, says DeAndre, the County, and Superintendent Todd Harper in particular, have done a superb job getting the course back in good shape to host this summer’s 1A Boys and Girls State Championships. “It’s a really big deal for us,” says DeAndre. “We love hosting the kids, and the kids really enjoy the tournament. Last year in the 2A championships, we had Nick Nolan from Bellingham High School break the course record with a 64. His parents were here to see it so it was a great day.”

Back in the Lilac City though, life hasn’t been terribly easy. The accusations of inadequate investment coupled with very high summer temperatures and no-snow winters made maintaining the four City-owned courses very tough. Even the City itself admitted as much in February 2015 when it announced Fred Marchant’s move from The Creek at Qualchan to Indian Canyon. “Fred promoted into the Golf Superintendent at Qualchan in 2010,” the press release said, “and has had five successful seasons leading the maintenance crew through some challenging times at this course.”

Photo copyright Rob Perry Photography
Photo copyright Rob Perry Photography

Someone else having a rough time at Qualchan is Kris Crocker, meteorologist at KXLY, who broke her foot in two places when running a few weeks ago and hasn’t been able to hit the links since. The last time we checked in with golf-mad Kris was in 2014 when she was playing once a week and introducing her girls to the game she loves. “I haven’t been able to swing a club for almost three weeks,” she says. “I am going crazy. I checked with head pro Mark Gardner about whether or not I could have my cast on the greens, and he assured me it wouldn’t damage them, so I might sneak out sometime soon.”

Before joining the disabled list, Crocker says she was taking lessons with Qualchan’s assistant pro Derek Seisser whom she regards as the best instructor she’s ever had. “He put me on one of those fancy TaylorMade swing analysis machines, and it was extremely helpful,” she says. “When you’re not playing regularly, you can really reconstruct your swing without messing up your game. I was hitting some incredible shots on the range the night before the accident.”

Fortunately for her, and those lucky enough to see the show, Crocker’s accident didn’t prevent her from appearing as Pamela Peabody, a flirty board member at the fictitious Quail Valley CC, in Wes Deitrick’s production of Ken Ludwig’s comedy ‘Fox on the Fairway’ at Spokane’s Civic Theater throughout April.

Crocker says she is definitely a meteorologist who acts a little rather than the other way round, and that she had tremendous fun playing a woman she describes as a ‘bit of a cougar’. “We got great reviews and standing ovations,” she says. “The play is hilarious. I was hoping we would pack the house with golfers, but the weather improved in April, so instead of introducing golfers to the theater, I think we introduced theater-goers to golf.” Being so keen and knowledgeable a golfer, Crocker actually re-wrote some of the phrases in the script she felt hadn’t been written by a die-hard golfer. “There were a few turns of phrase that just didn’t sound right,” she says. “So we changed them.”

Of course, a few lines from Fox on the Fairway’s script weren’t the only things on the Spokane golf scene that saw a good deal of change recently. It’s early days perhaps, but the City could possibly be on the brink of something very special. Indian Canyon is showing significant improvement under Frank Marchant and Josh Harty, and the Friends of Indian Canyon are talking the talk the course has so desperately needed for years. And a new era has begun at Kalispel Golf and Country Club where the city’s oldest course promises to look better this summer than it ever has. Gotta be worth a visit, right?

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