April 8, 2011 in Sports

Scenic course a real test

Wildhorse Resort offers beauty, brawn
By The Spokesman-Review
 

This John Steidel-designed gem is part of the Wildhorse Resort & Casino, which is operated by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and is currently undergoing a massive expansion project that includes the construction of a 10-story on-site hotel – complete with 32 suites and both indoor and outdoor swimming pools – that is scheduled to open in September.

The scenic par-72 course, which opened in 1997, features large bent grass greens, wide inviting fairways, six ponds, 66 bunkers and four sets of tee boxes that allow it to play anywhere from 5,718 to 7,112 yards long. The early spring views of the nearby Blue Mountains are sensational, and the condition of the course when I played it was remarkable, even in the middle of a heavy, day long rain.

There is a certain links feel to the way the course unwinds over relative flat terrain. But trees do come into play on several holes, and other hazards abound.

The front nine features a couple of par-4 holes that play over 450 yards from the back gold tees, and two challenging par-3s – Nos. 4 and 8 – that will test the nerves of even the most accomplished player.

The fourth hole stretches to 213 yards from the back tees and plays to a large, hour glass-shaped green protected by massive sand traps on the front left and back right. The eighth is a scenic short hole that plays 197 yards from the tips and brings water into play – in a big way – just left of the green. A gaping bunker that guards the right front of the putting surface all but eliminates any bailout options and forces smart golfers to play to the middle of the green to avoid making a big number.

The back nine is a bit more challenging than the front and boasts not only one of the longest and most innovative par-3s in the region at No. 12, but also three of the most entertaining finishing holes one can imagine.

The 12th, which is demanding enough simply because of its length, also has two separate sets of four different tees boxes. A long, narrow bunker that guards the right side of the putting surface makes in necessary to fly the ball onto the green from the set of tees on the right, while the hole opens up considerably from tees on the left, making a run-up shot a possibility.

And not long after navigating No. 12, golfers are forced to deal with the three finishing holes that add so much to the Wildhorse experience.

No. 16, considered to be Steidel’s signature hole, is a craftily designed 172-yard par-3 that plays over water to an angled green that is guarded by a massive trap in front and two smaller bunkers on the front and back right. The farther left the pin placement, the longer the carry to avoid first the water, and then the trap.

The 17th is another special par-4 that might tempt a rare beast or two to try to drive the green. But a deep bunker directly in front of the putting surface puts a premium on accuracy, while also suggesting the better strategy of trying to wedge an approach shot close in what one might consider a last-chance try at birdie.

Why?

Because the 18th is a nightmare of a par-4, playing 474 yards down a narrow fairway – the last two-thirds of which are protected on the right by a large pond that also wraps around the right side of the green. A pair of bunkers on the left of the fairway further pinch the landing area off the tee, and a scary deep sand trap to the left of the green leaves no bailout option, even though most approach shots will require a mid- to long-iron – or maybe even a fairway metal.

“It’s one of the most memorable 18th holes you’ll ever play,” said Clint Abels, the assistant PGA professional at Wildhorse. “There’s just no way of getting around it; you have to play two good shots to have any chance of making a decent number there.”

According to Abels, Wildhorse draws most of its out-of-area play from Boise, Portland, Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities. But he added that Spokane is also a big target market, and that the course is seeing a good number of golfers making the drive from our region, “especially during the winter and early spring when the courses up there are still under snow.”

The course has not undergone any major changes since opening, but the addition of 200 young trees this spring will undoubtedly up the degree of difficulty in the not-so-distant future.

“The feedback we get from golfers is almost all positive,” Abels said. “Most people consider it a great resort golf course you can make as easy or as hard as you want because of the multiple tees.”


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