Salish Cliffs: Shelton Washington
For the record, here are four courses that always make my list of quality golf course destinations:
Circling Raven in Worley, Idaho
Barona Creek near San Diego
We-Ko-Pa near Scottsdale, Arizona
Dancing Rabbit in Mississippi.
Those courses share one element in common: all are owned and operated by native American Indian tribes. They're big. They're bold. They're beautiful. They're interesting. And, most important, their architects did not need to compromise holes or routings as a means of selling homes. In short, they're pure.
Now, add a fifth course to that list: Salish Cliffs, owned by the Squaxin Island Tribe in Shelton, Washington. This Gene Bates design opened in late 2011. It is dazzling to look at and humbling to play, but fair. Salish Cliffs provides plenty of drama in the form of elevation changes, doglegs, and views of the Olympic Mountains.
Courses on Indian reservations almost always offer good values. Many of them serve as loss leading amenities that lure players into casinos. Salish Cliffs is attached to the Little Creek Casino Resort, which has very nice, reasonable rooms, comfortable beds, a full service spa, multiple restaurants, national entertainment, and even a cigar bar. So you won't go hungry. You won't get bored. And, you will sleep well, especially after tackling the golf course.
Salish Cliffs Golf Club is so alluring that my group played it twice in one day, and swiftly, with time for a leisurely lunch in between.
The course opens with a daunting shot on the 490-532 yard, par-5, 1st. From the elevated tee, a large tree dominates the right side of a fairway that runs slightly uphill, and then down to the hole. Depending on what you bring to the tee for that first swing, #1 can yield an easy eagle or a bogey.
For a new course, the conditioning was pristine, with uncompromising fescue grass lining the course edges, perfect lies in the fairways, and some of the most flawless bent grass greens anywhere. Despite their relative youth, those greens held long approach shots, and released on pitches.
The bunkering as Salish Cliffs is unique, fair, and beautiful. Bates used the same broad, shallow styling that he applied to the Blackhorse course at Bayonet in Monterey, California. They're sculpted to be natural looking. Not one of those bunkers lies out of place. Challenge them for your best routings into the holes.
Many of the holes at Salish Cliffs are memorable. Among my favorites:
The par-4, 294-409 yard , 9th, can be as simple or as difficult as you want to make it. Water squeezes the fairway from the left side, and a sprawling bunker from the right. A good golfer can carry both of them, easing his or her approach. Or, lay back for a longer shot into the green. It's one of those perplexing decisions that make the game worthwhile.
The par-4, 409-455 yard, 15th is both a head turner and a beast. Don't be fooled by its #14 handicap rating. As head golf professional David Kass told us, "The raters didn't have the full picture of bunkering when they came out to look at the course. It's much tougher than its number." With that in mind, study the photograph of that hole. The 15th plays down and then up into a prevailing wind. Two bunkers pinch the landing area. Two others guard the right, and right front of this bisected, elevated green. You will need to challenge those bunkers when the pin is on the right. It slants left to right from its highest point, much like a reverse redan.
One last note about Salish Cliffs Golf Club that may assuage the anti-golf environmental lobby. The course is certified 'Salmon Safe', similar to an Audubon Rating. The Squaxin Island tribe has a seminal relationship with the environment and with water. As part of that, the course protects native habitat, reduces pesticides, and installed a state of the art water treatment system.
In fact, the only part of the resort that is not 'Salmon Safe' would be the casino's seafood bar, where we heartily recommend -- the salmon.
The Home Course: Dupont, Washington
The Home Course served as a first stop on our drive from Seattle. It is worth your time, and a very good value by northern California standards. It is the home of the Washington State Golf Association, and good enough to figure prominently in USGA amateur championships and qualifiers.
Stylistically, it is really two courses in one. The front-nine is more woodsy than the back, which goes to a hardcore links style as it concludes. The Home Course has many sod-faced bunkers. They're nice to look at as long as you don't get too close to them. Both the front and back nines run hard and fast, bringing a ground game into play. That will in handy when winds pick up from the nearby Puget Sound. You will want to keep the ball down.
The 297-413 yard, par-4, 3rd, will be the first to get your attention. Sound View, as it is named, is a dogleg left that plays directly towards Mount Ranier, which dominates practically everything around here. The hole features a large fairway bunker on the left. Challenge it for an easier approach to the green. If you chicken out and play farther to the right, you will need to carry one of those steep, sod-faced bunkers in front of the green. While not a difficult hole, best to be on your game. It's a wake-up call.
The 151-209 yard, par-3, 6th, named Sequalitchew, is simple in concept and dangerous in execution if you find the pin front right, because it will sit just a few yards beyond a deep and menacing sod-faced pot bunker. For a first-timer with a breeze in his face, this otherwise basic hole can force second-guessing, indecision, and mistakes.
On the backside, two par-4's stand out. I found the 301-340 yard 11th, called Asmundson's Challenge, to be the most interesting play on the course. It is elegant in design, and appealing to my risk-reward instincts. The fairway narrows as you approach the green, with a danger and thick rough on either side. A very deep sod-faced bunker protects the right front of this green. The farther you hit your drive, the higher a shot you can play into a table-top green that just loves rejecting bad approaches into waste areas on either side.
For pure visuals, the other stand-out is the par-4, 319-400 yard, 17th, Anderson Island. While playing it, you must contend with a narrow fairway, a requisite fairway bunker, possible winds, and a long green with a tier sloping from front to back. You will remember the view. In looking over the pot bunker, at the green with the trees, the wild grass, the clouds, and Puget Sound in the background, it felt, for a moment at least, like the end of the Earth.
It's a nice spot.