YAKIMA – A crudely painted sign on the north edge of town proudly proclaims, “The Palm Springs of Washington.”
Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch.
But as far as early season golf destinations go, Inland Empire residents could do much worse than this sprawling municipality of just more than 70,000 residents, which is located in the south central part of the state and boasts not only a nice variety of golf courses, but one the Pacific Northwest’s best, as well, in Apple Tree Golf Course.
This diverse and marvelously maintained layout, which opened in 1992, features five sets of tee boxes that allow the course to play anywhere from 5,428 to a hefty 6,961 yards and also includes one of the region’s most-photographed holes – the par-3 17th, with its apple-shaped island green and gaping sand trap that serves as the apple’s leaf on the apple’s walkway stem.
“That’s the hole everyone talks about,” said Cindy MacNider, Apple Tree’s longtime head professional said.
But there’s a lot more to the course than the cutesy little contrivance at 17 – which, by the way, just happens to be one terrific golf hole, especially when played from the deepest set of stagger-stepped tee boxes to a pin tucked in the back right corner of the green.
For starters, there are the beautiful views of the surrounding hills and apple orchards, from which the golf course got it name. And the diverse and demanding nature of the holes that play along the gently rolling terrain of the Yakima Valley, which averages 300 days of sunshine a year.
The course, despite offering wide fairways that give golfers of all levels a chance to blast away from the tee boxes of their choosing, can get a bit beastly from the tips, which was proven when it played host to the Washington State Amateur in 1995, the year before receiving a prestigious four-star rating from Golf Digest as one of its “Places to Play.”
Former Gonzaga University men’s basketball standout Jon Kinloch serves as general manager of the Apple Tree Resort, which is a little more than a 3-hour drive from Spokane.
Kinloch, who oversees the operation of the golf course and the Apple Tree Grill, said the feedback he and his staff routinely receive from golfers at the resort is overwhelmingly positive. But he admitted to having his own reservations about the publicity garnered by Apple Tree’s signature 17th hole, which stretches to 180 yards from the black tees.
“It’s a delicate balance,” explained Kinloch, who is in his seventh year as the resort’s GM. “I’m a marketing guy, so I get kind of tired of using 17 as our poster hole – mainly because I’m so proud of the rest of the our golf course.
“But when golf publications write about us, they all seem to like 17, and so does everybody else who comes to play it. We encourage people to take a couple of shots (at the green) there, because it is such a truly unique and incredible hole. But there are many others that are just as exciting and offer different challenges.
“If people come just to say they’ve played the apple green at 17, that’s fine. Hopefully, though, they leave realizing the whole track is one exciting, challenging and beautiful golf course.”
Apple Tree’s front nine plays to a par of 35, while the back – with its three par-5s – plays to 37. From the back tees, there are six par-4s that stretch 400 yards or longer, and one of the best is the 461-yard fourth, which doglegs right around a pair of stacked bunkers to an angled green protected by sand in the front and back.
But perhaps the most entertaining stretch of holes is the finishing three, none of which is extraordinarily long, but all of which are capable of severely punishing the over-aggressive risk takers.
Number 16 is a 388-yard par-4 that doglegs right and requires a well-place tee shot to a narrow landing area just short of the string of four bunkers that frame the left side of the fairway. The green, which is deep and narrow, is one of the toughest on the course, and getting there in regulation does not, in any way, guarantee a two-putt par.
Likewise, the signature 17 with its massive 10,000 square-foot green, offers three-putt chances aplenty.
And the 18th, a shortish 506-yard par-5, is one of the best risk-reward holes on the planet, offering big hitters a chance to carry the water and reach a small peninsula protruding from the right-sloping fairway. Those who are successful can usually get home in two and set up an eagle opportunity.
Those who aren’t usually make a big number.
“I call them our ‘Triple Crown,’ ” Kinloch said of Apple Tree three closing holes. “The great thing about them is you can go into 16, 17 and 18 with a chance to make up some ground – but you can also get yourself in a lot of trouble.”
The Apple Tree layout was designed by John Steidel, and most of the reshaping of the 100-year-old apple orchard on which it sits was done by members of the original owners group, most of whom are farmers. Apple trees are scattered throughout the course and although it is not encouraged, most golfers find themselves unable to resist the temptation of eating the fruit from those trees.
According to Kinloch, Apple Tree normally gets a fair amount of early season traffic from the Spokane area.
“We’d like to get more, naturally,” he said. “But the majority of our distance golfers, right now, are coming over from the Seattle area. A lot of Seattle folks, especially those from East Seattle and Bellevue, like to come over when the weather here gets better before theirs does.
“We sometimes struggle with bad weather through March here, but we’ve had some outstanding February and March weather this year that we normally don’t get – and that’s let the course green up much earlier. Plus, we’re always better in April than the west side of the state is.”