This Guy Loves His Life

By: Bob Spiwak


We're sitting in the sun on the rock-walled, timber-topped, screen-protected patio at Bear Mountain Ranch Golf Course near Lake Chelan (rhymes with Bataan), Wash. Below us is the 18th green and to the right is the ninth, a wedge away. Across from me is Von Smith, head pro and director of golf. Von is 54 and I have known him half his life.

We met in the mid-1980s when Smith was the pro at the Lake Chelan Municipal course. In 1994, he moved to the new Desert Canyon venue where he worked as head pro for 10 years. Desert Canyon was running into some financial difficulties, Bear Mountain was under construction and he was lured to his current position by Don Barth.

Barth was a partner in the Bear Mountain development at the time. In addition to owning Alta Lake Golf Course, the only 18-hole track in the largest county in the state, Barth is also the head man at the nine-hole Rock Island Golf Course south of Wenatchee.

Smith got his PGA apprentice status in 1973 and his Class A papers four years later. He was well-grounded in golf course operations, working with his father who, at age 42, became manager of the Rock Island facility. Von mowed the greens with a Toro walk-behind and did the fairways on a tractor pulling a five-gang reel set while still in high school.

Von has been married 30 years to his wife Cindi. While he manages the golf operations Bear Mountain Ranch, she has the food and beverage concession that fuels the golfers on the patio at the turn and after a round. "She works 10 times harder than I do," said Von with a laugh.

I ask if Cindi is a good golfer. He suddenly turns serious. "If I could make half the putts she does inside 10 feet I'd be on the Tour." Cindi plays to a 10, while Von is a +1 or +2, depending on the day. Not only is it evident that he loves his wife, he is clearly still in love with her as well. The couple has a 24-year-old son, Ryan, who lives at Lake Tahoe. Each year they jump into Smith's Cessna 182 and fly down to see Ryan. "Flying is my passion," he grins.

Each Monday in the spring, summer and fall the Central Washington chapter of the Pacific Northwest PGA holds a pro-am tournament somewhere in the region. A regular participant, Smith flies to some of the events. The professionals garner points based with their season-long scores. In 2006, Smith double-dipped, coming out of the season with awards not only for Player of the Year, but Senior Player of the Year as well. One does not quite have to pry this information out of the modest man, but I learned about it by accident. Von is not a man to blow his own horn, even though it contains a lot of hit tunes.

About Bear Mountain Ranch

Bear Mountain Ranch, a development owned by Jerry and Mary Pat Scofield, includes a lot more than the golf course. Even while the course was under development Smith says he knew this was the place for him. Asked to identify the signature hole, he responds, "They all are."

No argument here. From the 16th tee, 1,600 feet above the 60-mile-long Lake Chelan, golfers can enjoy a 300-degree view that includes the lake, the town of Chelan, and the North Cascade Mountains. The scenic 4th tee, almost as high, looks down on an elevated green 403 yards away from the white blocks. The putting surface is fronted by a daunting group of white-sand bunkers and requires a substantial downhill carry over wildflowers and brush that eat balls not energetic enough to make the right-to-left pitched fairway. The aiming point is a peninsula sticking out into the lake a few miles away. The view here is a study of blue water, white sand, dark green fairway and a lighter-green putting surface.

There is not a hole at Bear Mountain Ranch that doesn't offer some panorama unequalled in Eastern Washington, if not the entire state. Rated at 71.0 with a 129 slope from the white middle tees, one can test a new super driver from the tips (75.3/138) or the red forward tees (70.1/125 for women.) There are also blue (73.2/135) and bronze (71.2/130) tees - something for everyone.

Overseen by superintendent Chris Smith, the course contains a considerable amount of up-and-down topography. Included in the green fees are an electric cart with GPS, a ball and club washer, and an icebox for beverages. It is Smith's job to keep the course humming and maintained. Smith's top assistant is Sharon Patrick, a savvy golfer who was with Von at Desert Canyon for over six years and has been at Bear Mountain since it opened in 2005. "She keeps me in line," laughs Smith.

That "line" has been a part of Smith as long as he has been a golf professional. It begins and ends with his politeness, accommodation of the customers, and overall superior service. He may give credit to all the other individuals involved in the course, but he sets the example, one that many other courses could benefit from.

Even though the snow comes early, especially at an altitude of almost 3,000 feet, Smith works through December. There are tournaments to book; a pro shop inventory to assess; plans for improving the course, and other more mundane chores. Smith is off in January and February, when he and Cindi ski, snowboard and vacation in Mexico for a couple of weeks. Does he play of golf down there? None. He reads. "I love to, and it is the only real chance I have to catch up on my reading."

Asked his opinion of sports psychologists and swing coaches, Smith responds, "I think they are very valuable. They teach the players how to think positively and properly. I am pretty passionate about the game. We should enjoy the day, the people we play with, and Bear Mountain Ranch - it is such a very special place. I had been looking for a beautiful spot closer to home [Than Desert Canyon] and I have found it here."

It is a bit of Nirvana. When the course opened, a mother bear with her cub was in a tree by the second tee. In late May this year, she was seen in the canyon along the 8th fairway. Next to the parking lot, a buck in velvet sauntered along the road. The lake that separates the 12th and 14th fairways is full of well-fed trout, which are feasted on by a dazzling osprey as it dives and catches one. This does not dissuade the mallards at the 12th tee who come begging as each cart arrives.

All this combines to explain why Smith says, unabashedly, "I love this place."

Bob Spiwak took up golf in 1953 as a respite from the rigors of selling bibles door-to-door in North Dakota. Though suffering a four-year lapse, he's back to being a fanatical golfer. Now a contributing editor for Cybergolf, Spiwak has written articles for almost every golf magazine in the Western world. Bob's most treasured golf antiquity is a nod he got from Gerald Ford at the 1990 Golf Summit. Spiwak lives in Mazama, Wash., with his wife and several pets next to his fabled ultraprivate Whispering Rattlesnakes Golf & Flubbers Club.

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