By Tony Dear
Any way you slice it, Spokane golfers are a fortunate lot. Yes, they may have to wait until the end of March or even middle of April before the quartet of city-owned courses (ran as enterprises without tax dollars) have shaken off the worst of the winter and are able to re-open. But when they do, those lucky Spokanites get seven or eight months of very affordable golf on layouts that could just about pass for private club courses.
They may have some ‘muni’ around the edges – a little wear and tear here and there; but the bones are undeniably strong. With slightly less traffic and a slightly more generous maintenance budget, a course like the Creek at Qualchan for example, would likely fill up with dues-paying members in no time at all. There’d be a waiting list too. Six miles due south of Downtown on Highway 195, Qualchan was designed by Bill Robinson, a fairly prolific architect in his day involved in well over 100 designs during a career that spanned several decades and which saw him team up with Geoffrey Cornish in the 1960s and 70s. Robinson’s work is focused mainly in New England, central and western Canada, and the Pacific Northwest where, in addition to Qualchan, he designed the OGA Course in Woodburn, Ore., Ocean Dunes in Florence, Ore., Willamette Valley CC in Canby, Ore., and several others.
Qualchan opened in the spring of 1993, making it the youngest of the City’s four courses. The head pro and general manager is Mark Gardner who began his career as an assistant pro at the private Manito GCC just a couple of miles away, before moving to the City-owned Downriver as head pro in 1990. He moved to Qualchan for the opening, and has been there ever since. Now, just a few months shy of a quarter of a century at Qualchan, Gardner looks back at the highs and lows.
“I have been a part of something that has been both challenging and extremely rewarding,” he says. “The hardest times have been the two floods the course suffered – in 1998 and 2009 ($300,000 was spent on stabilizing Latah Creek’s banks in December 2010) – which significantly affected the amount of play we recorded, and created some revenue issues. But there have been numerous high points. We obviously had no established customers, no men’s or women’s leagues, and no juniors in 1993. Now we average about 36,000 rounds a year, have the largest men’s league in the city, and are home to the First Tee of the Inland NW.”
Gardner, who hopes to remain at the course until he retires “probably in seven to ten years’ time”, is also proud of the many of the many great hires he has made at Qualchan. “I’ve been fortunate to add some amazing people to our staff here,” he says. “We have all worked hard to make Qualchan a place where people want to be.”
One such person is Bob Bostwick. You may recall Bob. Until he retired a couple of years ago, he was the Director of Public Relations at the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel and its Circling Raven GC in Worley, ID. A larger than life character people instantly warmed to, Bostwick was a familiar figure at Circling Raven for many years, and has now become a regular at Qualchan. “I don’t play nearly as much golf as I’d like to, but I enjoy coming here,” he says. “Qualchan is the best-groomed municipal course I have ever seen. The soil is quite sandy so it drains pretty well (the floods notwithstanding), but the grounds crew seems to go way above and beyond. As you make your way up the very scenic driveway, you get the impression this is a high-end country club. It’s a tough course, too.”
For Corey Prugh, however, it proved fairly straightforward during an April 2012 PNWPGA Inland Empire Chapter Pro-Am when the four-time Rosauers Open Invitational winner navigated Qualchan’s ponds, creeks, elevation changes, and avenues of pines in just 61 shots. But for you and me, the course can indeed be a grueling test with no pushover pars and a handful of holes – 2, 4, 11, 12 an even 18 – where you might actually be quite content to walk off with a bogey.
The opening drive carries over a 100ft sandy cliff and Latah Creek before plummeting back to earth hopefully somewhere near the green. It’s an exciting but relatively harmless opener, where any trouble you find is really of your own making. Trouble might come looking for you at the par 4 2nd though with a tee shot that actually looks a lot narrower than it is, and a tough, uphill approach over a tree and bush-covered embankment that calls for one, maybe two, clubs more than the yardage suggests.
Good ball-striking is necessary the whole way round, except perhaps at the quirky downhill par 4 13th which polarizes everyone who plays it. It’s impossible to be indifferent towards the hole – you either enjoy its eccentricities or think it possibly the dumbest hole you ever saw. The tee shot, with as little as a 5-iron or 6-iron drops down a steep slope to a level patch of fairway at the bottom of the hill. You then turn 90 degrees to the left and are faced with an uphill wedge to a two-tiered green.
“I may be alone, or at least lonely, but I like 13,” says Bostwick. Me? I like quirk, but this is more La La Land than Cruden Bay.
The final four holes do offer four decent birdie opportunities with two short 4s and two short 5s – a stretch that includes the terrific par 5 16th with its two water carries (there is a safer route for the less ambitious), and the somewhat daunting 18th which Gardner says looks very different to different golfers. “For longer players, it’s a good opportunity to pick up a stroke,” he says. “But it’s a very daunting, difficult par for shorter hitters who may struggle to clear the fairway-crossing chasm with their second shot.”
The greens at Qualchan began life as bentgrass, but the original turf has now been more or less entirely overwhelmed by poa annua. They nevertheless putt superbly well thanks to the expertise and diligence of Superintendent Fred Marchant whose career began at Indian Canyon in 1978. Since then he has worked at Downriver, Qualchan, and Indian Canyon again, and, last year he returned to Qualchan following a reshuffle of the City’s superintendents.
“Fred and his team do an amazing job with the small budget they have,” says Gardner.
The same is true at Indian Canyon where Josh Harty replaced Marchant as head superintendent last year. You may recall Marchant and Harty had been the double-act appointed to turn Indian Canyon’s woeful conditions around in February 2015. Quick improvements were made, and when Marchant returned to Qualchan, Harty, who had worked at three of the City of Spokane’s four courses, was the obvious choice to take over.
The 1930 Chandler Egan design, that cost $200,000 to build and eventually opened in 1935, is often ranked among the country’s best municipal courses, and recently played host to the 2A Girls State Championship won by Ephrata HS’s Kenedee Peters by nine shots with a 36-hole score of 146.