At first glance, one might jump to the conclusion Alta Lake is a pushover.
The first hole quickly changes that perception. The tree-lined, 543-yard par 5 is flat-out tough. The last 150 yards ascend sharply uphill, creating a challenging approach.
“I’m always happy to have that over with if I sneak out with a par,” head pro Parker Barth said. “A lot of (visiting) writers think its one of the toughest in the state. It feels like 600 yards to a two-tiered green. It’s a beast of a starting hole.”
The challenges keep coming. The first order of business is to solve the front nine’s wavy, multi-tiered greens that were in excellent shape for late April. The back nine is tighter with slightly more forgiving greens. The course record is 65 from the back tees (6,678 yards), a low number but not exceedingly low.
Alta Lake isn’t the longest track but its sprinkled with obstacles in the form of water hazards, trees, sand and elevation changes.
“You don’t really get a breather hole,” Barth said. “You might look at No. 4 and say there’s not much to it but it still tricks you just enough. You don’t get that stretch of a couple of holes with a simple par 5 before you gear up for another stretch of tough holes.”
Barth knows every inch of the property. Don, his father, owns the course, which opened in 1974 with nine holes. Don designed the back nine, which debuted in 1994. The Barth kids used to drag sprinklers, park carts or work in the pro shop or at the neighboring 34-room motel.
There is a family feel at Alta Lake. Parker noted that large groups from the West side schedule annual visits and fill the motel and course.
Nearly three years ago, the Carlton Complex fire destroyed Alta Lake’s pro shop, maintenance building, fleet of new carts, 500 trees and 50 homes close to the course, Barth said.
The course closed for the remainder of the season, but they brought in generators to continue irrigation and keep the grass alive in the summer heat.
“The community really had to rally,” Barth said. “We kept water on the course and you could just feel the heat. There was a family of bears, a sow and cubs, and they’d walked the fairways through the sprinklers. We’d kind of look at them and they looked at us, and we’d been through the same thing.”
The Barths rebuilt and the course opened the following season.
“We did the right things with the course to get it back going,” Barth said.
In its first 20 years, Alta Lake offered two tee boxes and two flags on each hole for those wanting to play 18 on the 9-hole layout. That’s one reason for the challenging front-nine greens.
The par-4 fourth is shorter at 346 yards but holds its own with a green that essentially has four separate sectors. No. 6 is just 135 yards but shots that didn’t travel the required difference won’t reach the platform green. The back half of the putting surface is raised, and a member of our group pitched links-style into the slope and the ball rolled back within eight feet of the hole.
The par-4 seventh has an angled fairway before a demanding approach to an elevated green.
“You don’t want to have a lot of downhill putts on the front,” Barth said. “As much as some curse the greens because three putts can be the norm, you’re happy to get two putts and go on to the next hole. At the same time, the challenge is what brings people back.”
The back side isn’t as open as the front, prompting players to consider accuracy with hybrid or low iron over driver on several tee shots.
There’s a nice stretch from Nos. 12-14. There’s water right of the fairway on the par-4 13th and a three-tiered green. The 12th and 14th are par 3s, with the latter spanning 205 yards with a pond to the right.
No. 18 leaves a lasting impression, and not just because of the views of the Columbia River. It’s a 387-yard, dogleg par 4 that takes a left turn uphill on the second shot.
“That’s my father’s favorite hole,” Barth said. “You look back at the Columbia, you look back at groups behind you and maybe you have friends playing behind you and you’re having a great afternoon. It’s a great way to finish.”