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Tuesday, November 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Gene Warnick: A newcomer’s guide to public golf courses in Spokane County

By Gene Warnick The Spokesman-Review

Maybe you’re a golfer who just moved to town.

Or someone who found those old Ping Eye 2’s sitting in the corner of the garage and decided to dust them off. (For the record, I’ve been playing those irons for more than two decades – and have said for years that I’ll buy new ones only when I find some that I like better.)

Last year was my first full golf season in Spokane. The only course I had played previously was Indian Canyon, and that was in the previous millennium.

So here’s a newcomer’s guide to public golf courses in Spokane County from a relative newcomer.

We’ve included the four City of Spokane courses, Downriver, Esmeralda, Indian Canyon and The Creek at Qualchan; the three Spokane County courses, Hangman Valley, Liberty Lake and MeadowWood; plus Deer Park, The Fairways and Wandermere.

That’s a total of 10 public courses, so there are plenty of options. I played all 10 last season, with a varying degree of success (the most recent time I had a handicap it was a 12).

Considering there are semi-private and resort courses charging triple-digit greens fees, all of the Spokane-area courses are relatively affordable.

If you want to hit some range balls before your round, roll like John Daly at the PGA Championship and ride a cart for 18 holes and grab a Diet Coke and a snack at the turn, you’re looking at about $50 to $60 at each of the courses.

There’s not a single course on the list that, should someone call and say they have a tee time and need a fourth, I wouldn’t play again.

Ron Barker, left, lines up his putt as Shelton Wade retrieves his ball from the cup on a sunny Tuesday morning, Feb. 23, 2016, as they share the Downriver Golf Course practice putting green, in Spokane, Wash. The course opened last weekend and will remain operating "until the snow flies" said John Hansen, who works the counter in the clubhouse. DAN PELLE danp@spokesman.com (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Ron Barker, left, lines up his putt as Shelton Wade retrieves his ball from the cup on a sunny Tuesday morning, Feb. 23, 2016, as they share the Downriver Golf Course practice putting green, in Spokane, Wash. The course opened last weekend and will remain operating "until the snow flies" said John Hansen, who works the counter in the clubhouse. DAN PELLE danp@spokesman.com (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

City of Spokane courses

Downriver: The city’s oldest course, established in 1916, runs alongside Riverside State Park and the Spokane River. The river can be seen from three or four holes.

The tall pines can be a bit intimidating your first time out, but most of the fairways are actually wider than they appear. Still, expect to spend a couple of shots chipping out of the woods.

The opening hole is a short, downhill par-5 that doglegs to the left and offers a chance to get off to a good start.

At 6,130 yards from the back tees, the course isn’t a monster but the greens are small and tricky. There are elevation changes on several approach shots, especially late on the back nine.

The 18th hole is only 323 yards from the back tees. You might think you just have a wedge in, but with an uphill second and a green that’s three times as wide as it is long, distance control is vital.

The par-3 holes are tough. Of the five on the par-71 layout, four are listed at 181 yards or longer from the white tees.

Even if the course’s lot is full and you have to park on the street, there’s a good chance you can walk on. It has a popular practice facility (even if the range is small with mats).

Esmeralda: A course named after a horse, of course.

It was built in 1956 thanks to the Spokane Athletic Round Table, a fraternal organization headed by Joe Albi.

The group’s emblem was a laughing horse named Esmeralda, and the tee markers pay tribute with a horse’s head.

The course hosted the LPGA’s Spokane Women’s Open in 1959 and 1961-63, with the winners including Hall of Famers Mickey Wright (twice) and Kathy Whitworth.

Known by some as Easy Ezzy or the Hillyard Country Club (you can even buy hats with HCC on them in the pro shop), the back tees measure only 6,249 yards and with a par of 70, you can bogey every hole and still brag to your friends and co-workers about breaking 90.

It’s easily walkable (or you can be hip and rent one of their GolfBoards), as the only dramatic elevation change occurs on the par-3 12th hole, which is 144 yards from the white tees and plays much shorter downhill. After that comes a drivable par-4 that’s 276 yards from the tips.

There are two tough par-4s of 420-plus yards, one on each side.

The back nine is a little crammed, as there are two instances of holes with adjacent tees (on both, you have to go past the first tee box to get to the one you’re really supposed to be playing).

If you play in the fall, be prepared to use your full three minutes to search for balls that miss the fairways, as there are said to be more than 2,000 trees on the course and the leaves can cause problems.

Wilton GoodStriker tees off on the first hole at Indian Canyon Golf Course Wednesday, August 29, 2018. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Wilton GoodStriker tees off on the first hole at Indian Canyon Golf Course Wednesday, August 29, 2018. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Indian Canyon: If you wear wingtips, play blades and have a Bulls Eye putter, this is the place for you.

The hilly, tree-lined course, designed in 1935, is old-school all the way. You can walk up and down the fairways and imagine Bing Crosby playing there as a kid or Byron Nelson winning the 1945 Esmeralda Open with a 22-under 266 (it was the 16th of his record 18 victories that season).

There don’t seem to be many flat lies on the course and most of the greens are multi-tiered, some with diabolical undulations (especially No. 5).

Though it’s only 6,255 yards from the back tees, even my friends who like to walk generally get a cart. (The 6-yard difference between the tips at Esmeralda and Indian Canyon feels like 6 miles, as the slope is 126 here compared to 116 at Easy Ezzy).

When you get to the back nine, there will be a couple of holes that you’ll feel like you’ve already played. Both sides open with long, downhill par-4s and Nos. 2 and 12 are shortish par-5s that dogleg left.

No. 18 is a long uphill climb to a multi-tiered green that just feels like a closing hole should.

After the round you can sit on the clubhouse patio and enjoy a beverage with a spectacular view of downtown.

The course has been updating its irrigation system, so some holes are currently closed (when I played there earlier this month there were 13 holes open, with three temporary greens). The work should be completed this summer.

The Creek at Qualchan: What’s in a name? In this case, plenty.

Qualchan was a 19th-century Yakama chieftain who has hanged nearby by Col. George Wright and his troops in 1858. Latah Creek, which runs through the course, came to be known as Hangman Creek by the locals and both names can still be found on maps.

The course is the newest in town, built in 1992. Golf Course Gurus ranked it among the top 10 courses in the state last fall and it played host to the State 4A high school boys championships this past week.

At 6,599 yards from the back, it’s one of the longer courses in the area. But with four sets of tee boxes, there are options for all skill levels – although it’s probably not the best place for a beginner, as there are some forced carries due to water hazards or the creek.

That first hole features an elevated tee with a 100-foot drop over the creek.

No. 2 might be my favorite hole on the course, a par-4 that has trees on the left and a native area on the right, with an elevated green protected by a small gorge.

Other than Nos. 1 and 9 the front is relatively flat, although there are several holes that wind around a water hazard.

The elevation changes on the back. No. 13, a par-4 of 333 yards from the tips, is peculiar. It feels like the designer planned 17 holes and then realized he needed one more. Unless you’re a (Brooks) Koepka-esque bomber who can cut the dogleg and clear the trees on the hill, the best approach is to hit a 150-yard shot down the middle, let it catch the downslope and roll 75 yards to the landing area. From there, you’ll have 100 yards to the center of the multi-tiered green.

The par-5 18th can be intimidating and frustrating, with an uphill approach over a chasm. The first time I played it, I thought I hit a good tee shot past the tree on the right side of the fairway. But the ball stopped halfway down the hill and I had no chance to get the next shot over the ravine. So I ended up chipping the ball to the end of the fairway and still had nearly 175 yards to the center of the elevated green.

A high school golfer hits out of the front bunker on the 17th hole at Hangman Valley Golf Course south of Spokane Thursday, May 7, 2009. One of the biggest improvements over the fall and winter has been the replacement of all the bunker sand with new, whiter sand, and a few bunkers have been revamped. JESSE TINSLEY THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
A high school golfer hits out of the front bunker on the 17th hole at Hangman Valley Golf Course south of Spokane Thursday, May 7, 2009. One of the biggest improvements over the fall and winter has been the replacement of all the bunker sand with new, whiter sand, and a few bunkers have been revamped. JESSE TINSLEY THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County courses

Hangman Valley: Despite being only a couple of miles past The Creek at Qualchan, this is a county course while Qualchan is a city course.

Hangman Valley, which played host to the State 4A girls championship, was originally designed in 1969 and reworked in 2008, giving a classic course a more modern feel.

At 6,906 yards from the tips and with a slope of 133, it’s one of the toughest courses in the county.

You’ll feel like you’re lost on your first trip there, but trust your GPS. The course is up ahead, just around the corner. You can try to find a parking spot close to the clubhouse, but chances are you’ll end up in the gravel lot up the hill.

If you’ve got a phobia about hazards, you’ll get over it on the range as you hit balls into the water. You’ll cross Latah/Hangman Creek a few times during the round, although it shouldn’t come into play (unless you top one off the tee).

My first trip there was with a couple of guys from the office, youngsters (late 20s/early 30s) who can knock the cover off the ball. I was pleased to scramble through the first four holes at even-par before coming to the par-5 fifth, which is 625 yards from the back tees. You’d think going down the left side would cut a few yards off the slight dogleg, but it resulted in some squirrely downhill lies. Despite a good drive, a couple of indifferent 3-woods and a three-putt led to a double-bogey.

The back nine has some brawny par-4s and a 600-yard par-5. There’s also No. 15, a short, dogleg right par-4 that goes uphill. It provides a chance for a birdie, but you best not leave your approach above the hole.

No. 18 is a shortish par-4 from an elevated tee box that gives you a chance to walk off the course feeling good about your game (which is good, since you still have to hoof it back up the hill to your car).

Liberty Lake: The course opened in 1955 but was redesigned in 2008 and reopened in 2010.

While just a par-70 layout, it has some length at 6,607 yards from the tips and hosted the State 2A boys tournament.

This was the first course I played last spring, when it was still a bit chilly, and I’ve been meaning to go back to see if it plays a bit easier in the warmer weather.

The front nine seemed fairly straightforward, my favorite hole on that side a par-5 that featured a hulking tree at the right front of the green that swatted away my approach and dropped it in a greenside bunker. Water comes into play on the front.

I found the back nine to have quite a bit more character. There’s a double green like you might find on a British links course. No. 15 is a short, dogleg par-4 to a tricky elevated green, followed by a downhill par-3 where you can pull the ball to the left and watch it kick off the hill and onto the green.

Gonzaga Prep’s Nate Plaster drives during the District 4A boys golf tournament at MeadowWood in May. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Prep’s Nate Plaster drives during the District 4A boys golf tournament at MeadowWood in May. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

MeadowWood: Located just around the corner from Liberty Lake, MeadowWood was designed in 1987 by Robert Muir Graves and played host to the State 2A girls championship.

At 6,874 yards from the back, it’s a brawny, links-style course.

Like Hangman Valley, it has a water driving range. This one is between the ninth and 10th holes. There’s no real bank on the right side of the range, so the demarcation between range and the 10th hole is a little slippery. The first time I played it, my draw seemed dangerously close to the water. When I reached my drive, the ball was sitting on grass that was literally floating on top of water. Phil Mickelson would’ve loved to hit the next shot, but since I’m not a lefty I took an unplayable lie (although in retrospect, maybe the casual-water rule would’ve applied).

Despite playing it on one of the warmest days last summer, the course was in great condition and the greens were running true.

The front nine has a couple of holes that just seem to go back and forth, but the back has plenty of variety.

The last three are perhaps the best stretch of closing holes in the county. No. 16 is a 606-yard par-5 from the tips with a dogleg left to an elevated green, No. 17 is a par-3 that’s uphill all the way (you can barely see the top half of the flagstick from the tee box) and No. 18 is a downhill par-4 that gives you a chance to get plenty of hang time on your drive.

Elsewhere in the county

Deer Park: Can you go wrong at a course whose bar and grill is named Divot’s?

Opened in 1996, the course is 6,751 yards from the tips.

The only time I’ve played there was in a scramble, The Spokesman-Review sports department’s annual Wet Dog Fur Open, but I’ve been itching to go back and see what I can do on my own.

There are plenty of hazards on the course, from waste bunkers to ponds and dry rock creeks to long fescue. Three of the four par-3s force you to carry the water.

The signature hole is the par-4 14th, a dogleft left that has a creek that starts down the left side before crossing the fairway about 140 yards from the green. Big hitters can try to cut the dogleg on the left and carry the creek, but they risk going out of bounds.

The 17th is a par-5 with a green nearly entirely surrounded by water and No. 18 is a long par-4 with a multi-tiered green.

I’ve heard the course didn’t make it through our late winter in the best of shape, so you might want to check with the pro shop before making the trek north.

The Fairways: The Cheney course is home to the annual Lilac City Invitational.

It’s flat, the wind blows and the greens are fast.

The course opened in 1987 and was designed by Keith Hellstrom, who later worked on Deer Park.

The front nine is fairly straightforward. The back nine has some quality holes… and some quirky ones.

No. 11 is a nifty short par-4, with water and a large tree to the left. You’ll need to keep your tee shot to the right for a clear approach to a multi-tiered green. No. 13 is a par-3 over water to a green that slopes severely from back to front. Even if you’re on in regulation, you’re not guaranteed a par.

Nos. 12 and 14 are par-5s. The former is a long hole that doglegs right around a pond. Your second shot needs to be practically in the left rough to have any chance at having a look at the green. The latter is a short dogleg right with a large mound to the left of the fairway and a waste area to the right.

No. 18 is a par-4 that will leave you with a downhill lie on your approach with a mid-iron to a green fronted by water.

Wandermere: This family-owned course just north of Spokane in the Little Spokane River Valley opened in 1929 and is the most affordable around.

At 6,050 yards from the tips and a slope of 113, it’s a good choice for mid- to high handicappers. There’s no driving range, so you’ll have to stop at the Pine Acres par-3 course down the road if you want to hit some balls before your round.

Wandermere is also popular for walkers, as the only significant elevation change comes late on the back nine.

The front nine is solid, if fairly nondescript, but the back nine has quite a few memorable holes.

The rolling par-5 13th is reachable in two and has trees creating a tunnel to a narrow green. The 16th hole is a dogleg left from an elevated tee, with a chance to cut the corner between the trees to leave yourself a short iron to the green. The 17th is a par-3 over the river and No. 18 is an uphill par-4 to an undulating green with backstops on nearly side.

Playing favorites

So, which course should you choose? Take your pick, because it’s tough to go wrong.

I’ve been asked which Spokane-area course is my favorite, but I don’t have one. Consider it a four-way tie between Hangman Valley, Indian Canyon, MeadowWood and Qualchan (in alphabetical order).

If I could only play one before I die, it’d probably be Indian Canyon. I used to have a couple pair of wingtips. And I always feel like I’m going to croak going up that hill on No. 18.

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