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August 2003 - The 'Ponky' of the Pacific Northwest
After pondering what to write about next in this journal (I know, it's been awhile), I got to thinking about my halcyon days of automobile travel. Over a 15-year period, I logged over 160,000 miles researching my book, "Golf Courses of the Pacific Northwest." Though hectic, those days were great, heading out to unchartered golf courses in the vast 1.5-million-square-mile region covered by my book. At the time, some suggested I ignore a few courses, especially those out-of-the-way dog tracks - or "Cow Pasture Pool Parlors" as they're dubbed out here in the West - that no one plays, and for good reason. But I visited all of the 550 courses anyway, and the other day got to recalling such a bottom-of-the-barrel place.
The course is now called West Richland Muni. Its 18 back-and-forth fairways cross undistinguished land next to the Yakima River in the Central Washington town of West Richland. The course is owned by the city, which since taking it over in the 1980s has leased it to various golf pros who, at the start of their tenure, believed they could turn the place around.
No one has had much luck making West Richland Muni a golf destination, but it's managed to serve the local community while sparking the golf careers of juniors in the Tri-Cities. The Tri-Cities are made up of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland (not to be confused with West Richland). Kennewick is the higher-brow of the three towns, which have a combined population of around 125,000 people. Pasco is at the opposite end of the economic spectrum to Kennewick, while Richland is somewhere in between.
Perhaps the area's greatest claim to fame is that it's home to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the place where America's first atomic bomb was built - you know, the one that brought an end to World War II after it was dropped from the "Enola Gay" and leveled Hiroshima. My uncle Joe worked at Hanford during the war. His recollections of that job were fuzzy, and for good reason. No Hanford workers knew what the heck they were building, presumably for fear that they'd honor their consciences and quit.
Joe helped put together some gizmo, just like hundreds of others did in building their own gizmos. It was only near war's end when all the little gizmos were assembled into one horrific package that the workers learned they'd built "The Bomb."
To prevent detection by the enemies, the workers lived in small, flat, indistinct residences within the reservation. The 70-mile section of the Columbia River that borders Hanford is still that mighty river's longest and least developed stretch.
Though its purpose will be forever challenged by historians, Hanford spurred the development of the Tri-Cities. The reservation still serves that purpose, thanks to a decades-long, multi-billion-dollar clean-up campaign by the federal government. One of the area's primary economic stalwarts remains the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and its many workers.
West Richland Muni fits this part of the world. Its holes cross featureless ground in a desert landscape, one of several surprisingly found in the Evergreen State. There are a few trees defining play, but not many. In no way does the course benefit from its proximity to the Yakima River. There are no forced carries over water, and there really aren't any good views of the river. About the only time the Yakima comes into play is in the spring, when it washes over its banks and covers the golf course.
When I visited West Richland Muni for the first time, it was a baking August afternoon. The temperature was 108 degrees when I showed up at 5 p.m. The course was the last of six visited that day. I'd left a friend's house in Yakima - about 80 miles away - at 5:00 in the morning, drove to the Tri-Cities, and was stopping by West Richland before returning to a city the locals like to call, "Yaki-Vegas."
I'd called ahead and talked to the head pro, Ralph Rossetti. The 5,800-yard course has gone through four name changes since it opened in 1952. The layout was built by Colin Blier, who called it Edgewater. Blier sold it to the Elks Lodge in 1968, and it became the West Richland Elks. During the Elks' ownership, the course thrived. The Elks plied its fairways and ate, drank and gambled in the clubhouse. Sometime in the 1980s, the town acquired the course from the Elks, which at about that same time was divesting itself of golf courses it owned and operated around the U.S. For awhile, the course was called Tapteal and, finally, West Richland Muni.
A friend who grew up in the Tri-Cities and later became a head professional for 30 years and counting, Ron Stull, learned his golf chops at West Richland. Ron began working at the course in 1955 when he was 8 years old. While employed there through 1963, Ron either walked to the course from his home or rode with his mother, who worked in the restaurant. Ron performed all manner of menial golf tasks, including picking the range. He was often propped up on a stool and took green fees.
Ron recently confirmed my assessment as the course being the Northwest version of "Ponky." I'm referring the Ponkaquogue Municipal Course near Boston made famous in Rick Riley's ribald novel, "Missing Links." Ron gave me a chronology of the golf pros before Ralph. Bill Walton was the first pro. Ron said the first round Bill ever shot was a 75. Before Walton took his first step step onto a golf course he haunted the driving range and honed his skills. The first hole Walton ever played he birdied.
Next up was Joe Rogers, who Ron discounted as a "common drunk." Davey Evans followed. Stull said he was a very good player but a "womanizer." Stull got his first job as an assistant pro with Evans at Glenbrook Golf Course in Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
Next up was Rosetti, a military man who got into the golf business after retirement. Rosetti wasn't exactly cut out for the customer service aspect of being a golf pro. Ron said that whenever a golfer would pull into West Richland's gravel parking lot, Ralph would peak through the window and utter, "Here comes the enemy!"
But Stull liked old Ralph. When Ron got out of the military, he played several rounds without a pair of golf shoes. When he showed up at West Richland for his first round back, Ralph loaned him a pair. Ron went out and shot a 66.
When I showed up that stiflingly hot August afternoon in 1987, I found Ralph to be cooperative but, in keeping with his personality, not really in the mood to volunteer a lot of information. After a couple of cursory answers, I asked to borrow a cart so I could take notes and photos of his course. Ralph said sure - glad to get me out of his hair, and gave me the keys to a dented Harley Davidson three-wheeler, the only cart available for rentals.
I managed to ignite the wheezing, smoke-belching Harley, and bounded down the short hill below the clubhouse to check out that day's final golf course. I rolled over the browned, hardened, rocky turf, dutifully taking notes and trying my damndest to find something interesting to write.
The perspiration was pouring, sparked by the weather and the Harley's steaming two-stroke engine. About 20 minutes into my tour, the Harley let out a loud bang followed by a billowing, noxious cloud of smoke. After a brief but final chug, the engine died - at the farthest point from the clubhouse.
I trekked through the heat and a handful of golfers to tell Ralph the bad news. He took it surprisingly well, waving his hand and saying the cart dies all the time. He'd haul it in later.
On a later visit, I got to see all the holes at West Richland Muni. About the only memorable one was the 2nd, a par-5 of about 600 yards. By then, five years after that first visit, a Richland native, Rod Marcum, had assumed management of the course. Rod was one of several good players who learned the game here. Others included Ron and his brother, Steve Stull, a long-time head golf pro and now a member of the European Senior Tour; two other club pros, Tom Planker and Gerry Lindgren; and Dick Bullock, a fine amateur who became the No. 1 player at Purdue University before quitting the game for 10 years after fulfilling his scholarship was used up. When Bullock later returned to golf, he regularly shot in the 60s.
Upon taking over the helm of West Richland, Marcum promised great improvements, such that the course would soon return to its Elks glory days. He sought to install a new irrigation system and upgrade the clubhouse. Though these two projects were difficult to complete, he made good headway with the juniors, such that a new generation of golfers would not miss out on the West Richland Muni experience.
Sadly, Marcum suffered a stroke and died in 1999 at the age of 41. His obit mentions a long-time drug addiction and his year-long participation in a drug-treatment program. Despite his off-course troubles, Rod could play. He attended New Mexico State and was Missouri Conference All-League for two years. After joining the PGA of America, Rod competed in two national club championships. He came out of nowhere to win the 1988 Washington State Open, played at the private Meadow Springs Country Club in Richland. After the victory Rod hosted a rowdy party at the bar where he reportedly spent a big chunk of his $7,000 winnings on drinks for friends.
Rod operated West Richland for 10 years, and frequently clashed with West Richland officials. In 1998, he abruptly fired 18 employees, including his brother Jeff Marcum and his sister, Terri Rullman, who ran the facility's popular restaurant. Rod then hired a whole new staff, while his brother and sister started Buckskin Golf Course near the Richland Airport. (On another food-related note, in 2001 the chef at West Richland Muni lost about 70 percent of the muscles, fat and tissue in his right leg after he was "attacked" by flesh-eating bacteria - called necrotizing fasciitis.)
But Rod loved the local muni track, and did his best to alter the fortunes of this woebegone place. "We did have our differences. There's no doubt about that," councilwoman Nancy Aldritch remarked to a reporter at the time of Rod's death. "But he worked long and hard on that golf course."
Apparently, Rod's efforts are now paying off. John Tipping, publisher of "Golf Northwest Magazine," told me that Rod's widow, Michelle, has done a good job running the course since her husband's death. The regulars are still at West Richland, playing their big money games on Wednesday afternoons.
But the course is stuck on bargain-basement $10 green fees - about what the course is worth, and city officials still claim the property as valuable "green space," even though it's brown most of the year.
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