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The Walla to Walla Tour - A Cybergolf Diary (Part 2)
Day 3 - Gold Mountain (Olympic Course)
5:15 a.m. Seattle
No matter how many times I do it, waking up in darkness isn't for me. My body clock is used to the California hours that all entertainment lawyers keep, even in New York City. (If a Cali lawyer calls you at 4:59 his time and you're not there, as Ian Faith said, "They start screaming like a bunch of Poncey hairdressers.")
The 16th at Gold Mountain's Olympic Course
Once again, the older-model, borrowed Garmin I was using tried it's hardest to send me from Seattle to Bandon Dunes instead of Gold Mountain, giving me bizarre instructions to leave the highway and take a route I knew to be longer and more circuitous. I'm lucky I got there at all.
There are some serious woods up here in western Washington, really tall timber. At one point, the fir trees were so thick it seemed the only person to ask directions from would be the Blair Witch. A winding road finally led past a sign for the facility and a few more turns through the forest brought me (finally) to Gold Mountain.
8:45 a.m. Bremerton
The 36-hole Gold Mountain Golf Club hosted the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur (won by Jordan Spieth) and the 2006 U.S. Amateur Public Links (won by Casey Watabu), but it is best known for its excellent value. Walk-ups paid $24 to play today, $30 if they wanted to play all day long. The course's rate in the high season for non-locals is $60, but you can frequently get in a round for far less. Golf Digest once called it the second-best value in America, and Golf Magazine also praised its egalitarian price structure.
They are both right. Where else can you get a country-club-for-a-day atmosphere and two high-quality golf courses at that price? As my dad would say, "That's a bargain all day long!" Like Bowling for Soup rock 'n roll - it's champagne quality at beer prices.
The Olympic Course, which debuted in 1996, is the flagship at the facility and has an interesting story behind its creation (the other course is Cascade, which opened in 1971). Back in the mid-'90s a consulting firm did a study and determined that it would not be feasible to build a second course at Gold Mountain. That firm's numbers all indicated a second course just couldn't sustain itself economically. Enter director of golf Scott Alexander and friends.
"I kept careful track of how many groups got turned away and showed my figures to the powers-that-be," explained Alexander. "I found that we turned away 65,000 people in a single year. That's not good business." Faced with indisputable evidence that Washingtonians would be thrilled to have an additional course, they tapped hometown favorite John Harbottle of Tacoma to design it.
It's a local-boy-done-good, feel-good story. Harbottle has spent his entire life around golf thanks to his parents. His mother is Pat Lesser Harbottle, one of the Pacific Northwest's most recognizable and famous champions, who won the 1950 U.S. Girls' Junior and the 1955 U.S. Women's Amateur. His father, John Harbottle, Jr., is a lifelong amateur who's won many big regional tournaments, finished as the medalist in the 1993 U.S. Senior Amateur and, in 1997, joined his wife (inducted in 1985) in the Pacific Northwest Golf Association's Hall of Fame.
It was only Harbottle's third design on his own, but he learned at the elbow of Pete Dye and roomed with Tom Doak beforehand, so you know he was encouraged to be creative.
"Pete taught me all about routing a golf course and about balancing lengths of shots and directions of shots, and requiring fade off the tee and draw into the green on one hole, and then draw off the tee, fade into the green on the next," Harbottle stated energetically. "And he taught me to keep the ground game in play. Keep fairways wide, but require there to be a right side and wrong side of the fairway."
And that's exactly what you find at the Olympic Course. Extremely wide fairways, sometimes as much as 80 yards across, with excellent horizontal movement (and therefore, multiple ways to play the hole), yet tightly guarded greens with good internal movement. Off the tee, bunkers are turned perpendicular to the line of play. The rolling terrain makes it easy to design bold holes that, nevertheless, follow the natural lay of the land. Oftentimes, Harbottle opted for deep grass bunkers as hazards, which he calls "dungeons," as an interesting spin.
As an aside, both Harbottle and Alexander are well over 6 feet tall. I'm 5'7" and change, so playing with them is a little like Frodo traveling with Gandalf and Aragorn. But eager as gun dogs that heard their master take the firing piece off the shelf above the fireplace, we lined up for golf on a cold, blustery January day, hot cocoa as well as golf clubs in our trolleys.
John Harbottle Plays out of One of his 'Dungeons'
It was great fun, despite the cold. The short par-4 second has a bunker cut diagonally in the line of play you can try to avoid or carry. "It's one of my favorites," beamed Harbottle, "a really interesting drive-and-a-pitch hole."
My favorite on the front was the uphill, par-4 fourth hole that begins with a tee shot meant to carry or avoid a perpendicularly turned bunker that juts into the fairway, followed by an approach over a deep center-line green to a shallow plateau green with interesting contours.
Yet another excellent perpendicularly-placed bunker appears at the par-5 11th, another of Harbottle's favorites. "You have to make a choice. You can safely lay up about 100 yards short of bunker, but that leaves you a full shot into a shallow plateau green that sits at diagonal to you," he observed. "Challenging the hazard and carrying the green presents a much better angle, straight into the deep part of the green."
The finishing stretch provides the most interesting options on the golf course. At the par-3 16th, you get some of the elements of the architectural bloodline of Macdonald, Raynor and Banks. "This par-3 over water has elements of both the Eden hole and Lion's Mouth, two of my favorite templates of Macdonald," Harbottle begins. "The Eden part is that the green is wide to the line of play, but you need to carry it over hazards and get close to the pin to get birdie. Like the original at St. Andrews, over the green is dead. The front bunker is the Lion's Mouth bunker, with the gull wings of the green around it."
The par-4 17th has a fairway bisected diagonally by a stream. Long hitters can play down the left - the more dangerous side, but the shorter route to the green. Finally, the 300-yard closing hole features a green surrounded by water and sand that can serve up anything from eagle to triple-bogey. It does what all great tempting holes do - gives you just enough rope to hang yourself.
As an aside, I usually prefer a tougher finisher. A truly great golf course needs a sterling closing hole: a summary of all that came before. While you get everything but the kitchen sink at the Olympic Course's 18th, it can be a pushover if you want to play safe. It's much stronger as a match-play hole.
That being said, many great courses end on a hole that plays a "half-stroke easier," such as Cypress Point (a short par-4) and Bandon Dunes (a short par-5). No. 18 at Olympic proved to be great fun for the U.S. Junior Amateur as it had all the kids thinking, and that's the hallmark of a great golf hole.
Gold Mountain won't beat up the bogey golfer, but will play tough for the expert. The wide fairways give you more room to play the game, tack your way around the course, and recover from the occasional bad shot. It's not overly long - the 6,600 member tees are negotiable for the average golfer, so long as he plays intelligently.
If there is a one drawback, the course may get a little repetitive off the tee - you see the same "dip and a rise" to hit over on many tee boxes. We're not averse to blind shots here, but there was a feeling of sameness off the tee on some of the par-4s and par-5s.
Overall, the course is great fun and an even better deal. It's definitely a source of pride for Washington golfers and with good reason.
The Punchbowl 7th Green at Wine Valley
Day 4 - Wine Valley
Ugh. This 5 a.m. wake-up call is getting difficult and I desperately need coffee. It's a five-hour drive across the state - from Seattle to Walla Walla - to get to one of the country's hottest new golf destinations, and the road takes you across several diverse ecosystems. Interstate 90 east of Seattle first climbs into the mountains and past two of Washington's many ski resorts. The snow, ice and cold make for a tough drive, even on this four-lane highway, especially when semis come roaring by at ludicrous speeds.
Then the road takes you across central Washington's desert region, past rugged, rolling hilltops and verdant gorges. At one point, you turn out off a hillside pass and a city in a valley lies sleepily beneath you, tucked cozily in the vale. Finally, I arrived at Walla Walla's wine and wheat country.
The drive was certainly worth the five hours, and Wine Valley's golf course is a marvel. We'll have a much more in-depth review next month and an interview with architect Portland-based architect Dan Hixson to go along with it, but long-story-short, run don't walk to Wine Valley. Its greens are that good.
Some have called the course "a public Ballyneal." While that may be a little strong, there are similarities. Both courses are in the middle of nowhere. Both courses have wild, hurly-burly greens with fierce contours. Both have a bold, natural look complete with blowout bunkers. Both are built over enormous areas (Wine Valley spreads across 300 acres), yet both are minimalist in design; hardly any earth was moved during construction at either. Both courses play fast and firm. And both courses have an ardent cult following; each is the stuff of holy whispers by and among the golf cognoscenti.
Five and seven are the best holes on the front nine. At the long par-4 fifth, a trench bunker runs along the left side off the tee, then cuts diagonally across the fairway. The seventh offers a marvelous punchbowl green with a mound shaped into the interior, a brilliantly original concept. I haven't seen a green this good since Oakmont or Ballyhack.
The Gorgeous Skyline Green at Wine Valley's 15th
On the back, you get a great cross-hazard at the par-4 12th, and a wondrous skyline green at the short but uphill par-5 15th.
I also agree with local player Ken Cole of Waitsburg, Wash. - the par-5s are the most memorable holes. "My favorite holes are the par-5s," he asserts. "Every one of them gives you a chance to go at it and get on in two, yet the bunkers are deep and penal. Those holes offer great risk-reward options; you can catch up in match-play matches. Plus, the greens are fantastic."
Wine Valley regular Mike White of Walla Walla also had some poignant observations. "At this whole course you have options around the greens. You can bump-and-run, putt or pitch. You have plenty of risk-reward options and you're going to have birdie chances, maybe even eagle, but you can also get nailed on any hole," he explained.
Then White's eyes flash mischievously and he puckishly adds, "And you know the other great thing about this course? There's no freakin' trees! Old guys like me? We hate slogging around and punching out of the trees all day."
That's two other things Wine Valley has in common with Ballyneal: both allow the ground game and there's no freakin' trees.
As another aside, don't you just love White's enthusiasm, and his colorful assessment? Brilliantly laconic! "No freakin' trees!" - It's a catchphrase!
There's no question that Wine Valley may be the second-best course in the state of Washington, and being spoken of in the same breath as Chambers Bay is rarified air indeed. There's something for everyone at Wine Valley: great views of the Blue Mountains, a rugged golf course, brilliantly conceived greens, multiple options on recovery shots, the ground game, minimalism, "no freakin' trees" - it's the total package.
Returning to Seattle
The drive back in the dark was long, with the climb through the mountains the worst. Semis fly by at breakneck speeds during a freak squall. Here, it's snowing while at Wine Valley, miraculously, it was 50 degrees in the first week of January. My group played in wind shirts. I played all three days, even though weather reports called for occasional highs of 25. One week later, Seattle is in the vise-like grip of winter, enduring its worst snowfall in five years - six inches and counting.
Meanwhile, I had the best middle seat of my life on the flight home: the flight was supposed to be full but the only person who missed the plane was the guy who had the window seat next to me. And if that's not enough, the aisle seat was taken by a smokin' hottie, a doctor with raven tresses, dusky eyes and roller-coaster curves. I lost a little sleep, but ended up with her in my arms. Isn't it great being single in New York?
Of course she did break one of the "Eight Simple Rules for Dating Jay Flemma." Rule 8 clearly states "Don't kiss me first and then tell me, you've had bronchitis for a week." But whatever, I'll give her a mulligan, she missed the memo when it came out.
6:40 a.m. Forest Hills
It's warm in New York this morning, though still dark. I hate winter. The sun rises too late, sets too early, and usually stays hidden behind grey, sullen and oppressive clouds. But this morning I'm basking in the afterglow.
Our great game gave me a timeless gift this week: the warm open-hearted camaraderie of Robert Trent Jones, the USGA's Mike Davis, Chambers Bay's assistant pro Brian Simpson, the stunning beauty and originality of Chambers Bay, the easy-going friendship of John Harbottle and Scott Alexander, the wild beauty of Wine Valley, the gracious warmth of the Shelley family, and a shapely adorable at Trail's End, the cherry on the sundae - BOO-YA!
Golf, God, and Country - add girl and sushi as needed. In a few hours, it's back to the law office, but for now, as my head hits the pillow for a well-earned rest, life is good.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.