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Review of White Clouds Golf Course in Sun Valley

By: Blaine Newnham


It only makes you wonder how wild the second nine might be. For the first time in 25 years, the iconic resort at Sun Valley has added more golf holes, the aptly-named White Clouds course debuting in August.

It is all part of a renewal at Sun Valley, the addition of a new first hole at the original Trail Creek course as well as a 58,000-square-foot clubhouse that serves both courses and will double as a winter-time Nordic ski center.

For students of history, Sun Valley Idaho was America's first ski resort. Indeed, the place where they invented the chairlift, one of which remains near the back nine of Trail Creek as a historic monument. You flick on the television in your room at the Sun Valley Inn and the in-house channel shows the 1941 movie "Sun Valley Serenade" starring Olympic skating champion Sonja Henie and the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

Clark Gable was allegedly at the opening of the resort in 1936. Ernest Hemingway died near here in 1961. Averell Harriman, the heir to the Union Pacific railroad fortune, picked the spot for the resort on the advice of an Austrian count.

Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood have homes at Sun Valley, but the movie crowd has been replaced in large part by big-business boys. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Paul Allen are among an annual gathering of America's biggest shakers.

Robert Trent Jones Jr. re-did the original Sun Valley course in the late 1970s, working with beautiful creek-side land at the bottom of the ski slopes, as well as the original design by William F. Bell. Among others, Bell designed the North Course at Torrey Pines.

The old course - now called Trail Creek - is good, very good in fact, at one point ranked the No. 1 course in Idaho by Golf Digest, a graceful, sneaky test of golf that uses terrain rather than a bulldozer to create excitement. It might get lost in the current raves with Circling Raven and Osprey Meadows course at Tamarack, but this is still a grand old resort course.

But the clubhouse was a cabin and the first hole weak. Golf, early on, was just another of the non-winter activities of the resort, along with ice skating on the year-round rink, swimming in three pools, playing tennis on 17 courts, or nearby hiking, biking, fishing and rafting.

The resort was originally owned by the Union Pacific railway. Earl Holding, who owns Sinclair Oil, bought it in 1977. Since then he has not sold property for development. In fact, he's eschewed housing development on the nearby surrounding hills - the areas with the best views.

In the hills he chose to build a new golf course. Donald Knott, who helped RTJ redesign the original layout, has put in nine holes that reach dramatically from one plateau to another, creating breathtaking views and memorable shots. It is links-style golf because it has few trees and lots of bunkers. The par-5 fifth hole is as long and tough as any I've played. You need a map to figure out where you're going.

But the course is as fun as it is difficult. The plan is to build another nine holes farther up the creek if the resort and the local government can agree on a land swap.

The first and ninth holes are on level land near the new clubhouse. Right off the bat you know this course is no pushover. There is OB left and water right on your opening drive. The course then begins its ascent with a par-3 hanging over a gorge, and then a short par-4 that has as much risk as reward. Hit the driver left and you can have 9-iron into a green fronted by another gorge. Hit it right and you could hit a 5-iron in.

The USGA has given White Clouds a whopping rating of 76.6 from the back tees, with a slope of 143. For women the rating goes up to 80.6 and 146. The first time out you might consider the white tees with a rating of 70.0 and 132. Forget walking; you'd need a sherpa if you did.

In high season, the green fees are $135 for resort guests for both courses. Right now, you play the White Clouds nine twice. In spring and fall, there is a rate of $89 to play either course. An off-season play-and-stay package of $137 involves sharing a room at the resort.

Besides the good deals, autumn is when Hemingway came to fish and watch the cottonwoods fluttering above the creek. It is a place no one forgets.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He went on to cover five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods's four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs out-number the people.