Time to Play a Round
The Pacific Northwest is blessed with numerous destination golf resorts with national and international reputations. See our picks for the best public courses in the region.
When I meet a golfer on my travels and mention I’m from the Pacific Northwest, the question is often: “How often do you play Bandon Dunes?”
Having this Scottish-style links course in our backyard is a little like living in midtown Manhattan if you’re into musicals — or like going to Scotland if you’re passionate about golf.
But this seaside tract on Oregon’s south coast is hardly the sole reason to celebrate regional golf. Bandon may be the global star, but the 18-hole constellations twinkle plenty bright all over the Pacific Northwest.
Bandon Dunes does shine brightly in the golfing firmament. There were plenty of skeptics when golf developer Mike Keiser proposed turning a stretch of Oregon coastline far from an airport into a world-class golf destination. Others questioned the hiring of Scotsman David McLay Kidd over established design celebrities to create the eponymous Bandon Dunes, which opened in 1999. Today, his design is considered a global must-play. Then again, so are the four other 18-hole courses at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort.
Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes — opened in 2001 and designed by Tom Doak — consistently rank within the top five public courses in America. All the courses offer something unique. On the courses Old Macdonald and Sheep Ranch, for example, you can hit the green and still have a blind putt to the hole. The greatest testament to Bandon Dunes’ brilliance, however, is that almost everyone who plays here claims a different favorite.
Kidd’s Gamble Sands
Kidd’s Gamble Sands, located in Brewster, Washington, has become another example of the “if you build it, they will come,” golf-only project. Nobody leaves this links-style course (no water, lots of bunkering, crazy greens) with regrets that they made the trip, especially with the new 14-hole, par-3 Quicksands course that comes with classic rock playing from speakers and tee boxes that welcome parties of eight.
The on-site inn, vast putting green and Danny Boy pub add essential amenities that, like the new short course, make Gamble a “gimme” for groups. Out on the main course, every hole captures your imagination, with blind shots aplenty and greens that undulate like that goo in a lava lamp. It’s a ton of fun that more than holds up for a second round. A second Kidd course is in the works, too.
You’re forgiven if your first comment after visiting Walla Walla doesn’t include golf. It’s just that Walla Walla remains Washington’s “wow, who knew?” destination, thanks to supercool accommodations like The Finch, located one block away from bistros, bakeries and breakfast joints.
Not that Wine Valley isn’t a marvelous course. The undulating patterning of Dan Hixon’s design offers a test of accuracy that can be played from 5,105 to 7,600 yards. The wide-open layout can be deceptive, given the horrendous nature of the wild rough.
A poor shot can leave your ball buried in waste-high grass or searching within a bunker’s grassy lip. The gently rolling contours are always appealing. Uncorking a drive that rolls this way and that seemingly forever never gets old.
Chambers Bay not only receives reams of press, but it also played host to the 2015 U.S. Open, the first Northwest track to do so. Unfortunately, a lack of rain that spring dried out the fescue greens causing dismay among the proud locals as well as the world’s best golfers. The greens have long been replaced and the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed course has returned to elite national status.
Chambers Bay is a walking-only course, and some of the world’s greatest golfers have faced a tough challenge here. Tiger Woods hit into the narrow-waisted 10th green and Jordan Spieth drove the short 304 yard 12th hole en route to the 2015 U.S. Open trophy. In truth, my thrill comes from hiking up to the eighth tee box, which feels likes scaling a building. The view of Puget Sound is worth the ascent.
As much as I love links-style layouts, quintessential Pacific Northwest design comes in the form of alpine golf, and there’s no better sylvan path than at Gold Mountain on the Kitsap Peninsula. Arrive early and you can warm up in as fine a practice area as you’d find in any private club. There are two 18-hole courses here owned by the city of Bremerton, including the Cascade course, which opened in 1971, and the more recent Olympic course.
The Olympic course has hosted the NCAA Men’s Regional Championship and the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship, among other esteemed events, and you can see why. Opened in 1996, it was designed by the late John Harbottle III. Lined by towering Douglas firs, every hole is brilliant, with major elevation changes, risk-reward decisions and pesky greens.
Prospector and Rope Rider
Although more golfers are walking than ever before, the elevation change on some courses is simply too extreme to allow for a stroll, as is the case at Suncadia’s Prospector near Cle Elum, Washington. The hilly course meanders through ponderosa pines before dropping radically off a precipice on the 408-yard No. 10 hole.
The Arnold Palmer-designed Prospector comes with Palmer’s signature bunkering and subtle green complexes. Peter Jacobsen, a winner of seven PGA tour events, and golf designer and instructor Jim Hardy etched the companion Rope Rider layout. True to his design philosophy, the Oregon native created 18 holes that can be enjoyed by single-digit and high handicappers alike. Although Rope Rider is the much more forgiving 18, both courses never let you forget you’re tiptoeing through the woods.
Bend abounds with courses, 23 at last count. More impressively, you won’t find any duds among the designs. My must-play tandem consists of Widgi Creek and Tetherow. Located close to each other, the playing ambience couldn’t be more different.
Robert Muir Grave’s Widgi Creek wends its way beneath towering pines. With its true parkland-style layout, it offers plenty of water features, prohibitive pine straw just off the fairway and well-groomed greens. Kidd’s Tetherow presents classic desert target golf, as fine a shot maker’s challenge as it gets on this side of Arizona with one major difference: Kidd’s design reveals his devotion to natural architecture, sculpting with what the environment gives him.
Playing golf in the Pacific Northwest showcases the incredible geological diversity of our region. From Bandon to Gamble, courses take you through the woods, into the desert and around the mountains.
– Written by Crai Bower, last updated in October 2022.
–Top photo is from goldmountaingolf.com.
This article appears in the 2022 summer edition of AAA Washington’s member magazine, Journey.