By Tony Dear
The golf season isn’t over yet. The heat may be on the way out, but warm, bright days could be ahead. For a little while anyway.
On Thursday September 28th, I played nine holes it will take me a very long time to forget. With another spare 90 minutes, I’d definitely have stayed for the back nine. Because on this day – six days after the official start of fall, Sudden Valley GC, five miles east of Bellingham, never looked so good.
It was 70 degrees, there wasn’t a cloud in the deep blue sky, the fairways were a lush green, the sand a golden yellow, and there, at the end of the 5th hole, sat Lake Whatcom gleaming like a sapphire.
Alright, alright, I’m overdoing it a bit. But if you were lucky enough to be hitting a golf ball round the place that morning, you’d know what I mean.
It wasn’t long ago you’d be pulling the bottoms of your trousers up to your shins to avoid the sludge at Sudden Valley during the last week of September. You may get an atypical year now and again when you could play without the fear of coming home wet and muddied, but more often than not you’d be sloshing about in puddles the heavy clay soil created, unable to find a patch of ground that wasn’t considered casual water.
That was in the days before Jacob Close came to town. With a mixture of qualifications (degree in Horticulture, and minors in Turf and Business from Oregon State), talent, hard work, budget, a chain saw, and lots of sand, Close has transformed the course since his arrival.
Not one to blow his own trumpet, Close cites the weather – something he can’t control, obviously – as the main reason for the course’s improvement. “We’ve had ideal conditions since the middle of June,” he says. “In addition to that though, we’ve continued to remove trees, and add sand to the bent/poa tees and fairways, and all-poa greens. We’ve also worked on our irrigation system to improve its efficiency. Now we can irrigate the course more uniformly, and therefore use less water which, ultimately, leads to stronger, healthier turf.”
Close is also in his second year of using a worm-casting extract (“basically worm poo”) called ‘Worm Power’. “We have found it helps with disease-control allowing us to eliminate fungicide applications,” he says. “It is always our goal to eliminate synthetic control of diseases on our putting greens. This is a certified organic product that helps us have a stronger plant that can fight disease on its own. It’s one more tool to help us achieve our goals while being good stewards of the environment.”
The fairways will see another application of sand in November, by which time golf in Bellingham will likely be played under a blanket of thick grey cloud. As for aerating the greens, Close says that will begin the evening of October 8th.
Ah yes, aerification – the unavoidable fall staple which, combined with increasing rainfall and decreasing temperatures, can make fall golf in Bellingham a less than joyous activity at times.
We try to be optimistic though, so let’s hope for two or three more weeks of potentially glorious fall conditions. And with green fees beginning to drop, now is a wonderful time to get out and play.
About 160 miles south of Bellingham (where, by the way, Lake Padden, Shuksan, and North Bellingham are also in fine shape and worthy of a late-season trip north), and 70 miles south of Seattle, is Salish Cliffs GC, a favorite of Golf Today NW since it opened in 2011, and where head pro David Kass is expecting a few great weeks before the weather turns nasty. “We completed our fall maintenance program September 25-28,” he says. “The course is in a state of recovery right now, so we’re offering a discount on green fees until October 12th.”
How cool is that? We so often hear of courses charging full price the day after aerating their greens or refusing to give golfers a raincheck or voucher when their tee-time coincides with a torrential downpour. At Salish though, you’ll save $19 on the regular rate by playing before the 12th, meaning you can tee it up at one of the finest courses in the state for $50 between 8am and 2pm – when the twilight rate kicks in. “It’s a great deal,” says Kass. “And even past the 12th (when the midweek rate returns to $66, and weekends $76) we know we’re going to get some great fall days. The leaves changing colors combined with great ‘sweater weather’ makes for a highly enjoyable day.”
Chambers Bay’s Matt Allen is equally confident about conditions at the 2015 US Open venue where instead of the usual core aeration technique, the course has recently converted to the DryJect method which aerates, top-dresses, and amends (in horticulture, amendment is ‘a soil-conditioning substance that promotes plant growth indirectly by improving soil qualities such as porosity, moisture retention, and pH balance) in one pass of the machine. The high-pressure, water-based injection system blasts aeration holes through the root zone fracturing the soil, and almost immediately fills the holes with amendment. By avoiding compaction, facilitating the movement of water, and sending oxygen and amendment to the plant’s root, the playing surface remains smooth and playable year-round. “Our greens are immediately playable after a storm,” says Allen. “I can confidently say Chambers Bay is the driest golf experience in the region.”
The only green that isn’t playable right now is the 7th which was re-laid recently with poa annua-sod. “It was mature sod,” says Allen, “but we will be conservative about reopening it until the roots have become fully established.” For now, a temporary green is in play 140 yards short of the actual green, and situated, says Allen, so the large cape bunker on the right serves as a greenside hazard. It is mowed at green height. “People seem to really enjoy it,” says Allen. “They say how nice it is to be able to make a reasonable par or birdie on a hole that is otherwise such a beast.”
Well-looked after greens aren’t the only reason to visit Chambers Bay now, as October 1st is the first day of reduced fall rates when everyone sees a $20 drop, and Washington residents can play the course midweek for $135 ($105 for Pierce County residents and military).
DryJect is also used at Chambers Bay’s Pierce County neighbors – Lake Spanaway and Fort Steilacoom, both of which are also managed by KemperSports, and where the greens, Allen says, are the best they have been for 20 years.
Now might be a great time to venture east across the state as the hot summer temperatures drop into the mid-60s, making a round at Gamble Sands in Brewster ($110 for resort guests), or Wine Valley outside Walla Walla ($80) extremely agreeable. “We punched our greens in August,” says Wine Valley’s John Thorsnes, “and we actually stay open throughout the winter. It might get a bit cold in December (average temperature – 38 degrees), but otherwise we’re up in the 40s. The course is always in great shape, we never use temporary greens, and the midweek rate drops to $55 midweek which includes golf, cart, range and tax.”
Heading south into Oregon, where the warm sunshine might continue a little longer, there are more fall treats to be had. Gearhart, on the coast 90 minutes west of Portland and another of our favorite destinations, should be in the mid-60s throughout most of October and, according to accuweather.com, the long-range forecast is calling for 20-plus days of sunshine (we are just the messenger here remember).
General Manager and Director of Golf Jason Bangild relishes fall golf at Gearhart which has aerated its greens already, and is in great condition heading into the season. “Each year, when the summer starts to slip away, we are treated to some of the most amazing fall days at the beach,” he says. “Incredible sunrises and sunsets bookend some of the best days of the year to play golf. The wind hasn’t picked up to its winter strength, and the temperature is right in that sweet-spot of not too hot and not too cold. And on days when we happen to get some rain, the course drains like a dream thanks to our sandy sub-surface.”
This year is perhaps more exciting than most, Bangild adds, for a couple of reasons. “This is our 125th Anniversary, and there has been a buzz all season,” he says. “And second, construction of our new building, which will house 15 more hotel rooms and a golf/fitness center called ‘The Swinger’s Lounge’, is well underway.
And if you stay at one of Gearhart Links’s hotel partners – the Gearhart Hotel, Gearhart by the Sea, and the Gearhart Ocean Inn, you can save $40 per foursome.
The Oregon coastline has another pretty popular golf hotspot, of course, 240 miles to the south just outside the city of Bandon. October is still plenty popular at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort where a round on any of the four 18-hole courses costs $250 – $25 less than the summer rate. There’s a small drop in lodging rates too, but a night in the Lodge, and a round on Old Macdonald say, will still cost you $460. You’ll no doubt want to eat, drink and purchase some memorabilia too. This is not a cheap trip you understand. But it is worth whatever you end up spending…because it’s Bandon Dunes – probably the greatest golf resort on the planet.
Venture inland to Central Oregon, however, and you’ll find far less expensive golf. No, the courses aren’t as memorable as those at Bandon, but they are definitely worth the drive south from Seattle.
Asked for a couple of good reasons why readers should head south to Crosswater and Sunriver, Director of Golf Operations, Josh Willis, gave me six. “We have four great courses (Crosswater, Meadows, Woodlands, Caldera Links), including the top 100 Crosswater,” he says. “All of them have pristine bent grass greens. The fall weather is beautiful with temperatures commonly in the 70s. And fall golf packages including a round at Crosswater, unlimited play on the other courses, and lodging are perfect for buddies trips.”
Willis adds that the resort closes each course for the year after aerification, so no one has to worry about playing on aerified greens (Meadows will remain open the longest this year with a scheduled closure on Nov 5). And fall is also a great time, he says, to enjoy the natural resources that make Sunriver such a great place to live or recreate. “Temperatures aren’t as hot so fishing, hiking, biking are all more enjoyable. And, lastly, there are a ton of seasonal craft brew releases beginning on October 1. It’s fresh hop release season which is my personal favorite. Since we can’t golf all day we need a strategy for evenings, and there is nothing better than enjoying Central Oregon craft breweries after a round of golf at Sunriver Resort.
There are a dozen more great courses in the region worthy of your fall golf budget, but two deserving of a special mention are Juniper in Redmond, and Black Butte Ranch in Sisters.
James Billings, head professional at the fantastic John Harbottle-designed Juniper, says the course has already prepared its greens for fall with a small verticut and top-dress with sand in September. “WE don’t core plug our greens at any time,” he says. “So, one reason to play Juniper in the fall is our greens are always in great condition, even when everyone else is punching.”
Billings adds that, because there is so much rock under the surface, the greens and fairways very rarely get wet. “There are no ‘Cart Path Only’ signs or plugged balls here,” he says. The October rate at Juniper will be $66 before noon, $56 after noon, and $40 after 2pm.
Rates drop at Black Butte Ranch too – $54 during primetime, and $49 after 1pm. “Our fall lodging and unlimited golf package also begins October 1st,” says Kendal Daiger, the Ranch’s Director of Sales & Marketing. ”For as little as $99 per person, per night, guests can stay in premium accommodations, receive one day of unlimited golf for each night stayed, a Black Butte Ranch logo cap, a 20 percent merchandise voucher at the Black Butte Ranch golf shops, and an accommodation microbrew amenity.”
Daiger echoes Billings words saying the courses’ (Glaze Meadow and Big Meadow) greens are in excellent condition right now, not because they have recovered from being punched, but because they have yet to be punched. “Black Butte Ranch’s aerification schedule is among the latest in Central Oregon,” she says, “so both courses remain pristine well into the month. The greens at Big Meadow will not be aerified until Oct. 16, after which the course will close for a week. It will reopen for play on Oct. 23, when Glaze Meadow’s greens will be aerified and then close for the season.”
Golfers can enjoy the ‘Last Day at Glaze’ shotgun tournament on October 22nd. Tournament format is a two-person Stableford. Entry is $60.00 and includes 18 holes, cart, range, contest holes and an awards barbeque.
If you prefer warmer temperatures than what the Pacific Northwest can offer you at this time of year, you may want to continue south, and a little east, until you hit St. George, UT, a golf destination we like very much and where temperatures typically get into the high 70s in October.
Brian Oar, owner of St. George Utah Golf which specializes in packages and tee times, says the temps can often break the 80-degree barrier, and that fall usually sees the best agronomic conditions of the year. “The greens are smooth and quick and the fairways look and play great,” he says. “There’s also a nice mix of good-value courses and high-end options,” he adds. “And the overall cost for a quality golf package in St. George makes it a very attractive option for a fall golf trip.”
Though he recognizes the value of the less expensive/less publicized venues, Oar says St. George pushes experience over price, and that it doesn’t want to get caught in the ‘discount’ mindset. “We’re a top-notch ‘bucket-list’ golf destination with really attractive options and pricing,” he says.
Wherever you play this fall – Washington, Oregon or even Utah, I hope you get a day like I had at Sudden Valley. Because on days like that, all your troubles seem so far away.