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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Raving about the Raven: Celebrating 20 years at scenic Circling Raven with the people who know it best

WORLEY – They “broke ground” in 2001 on Circling Raven, although a more accurate term would be “gently tweaked’” to create a gem of a golf course using the superb existing landscape.

It took 2½ years to build and opened in August 2003. Awards and recognition quickly followed, including annual reminders when golf outlets release their rankings for courses in Idaho and the United States.

As the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s picturesque course celebrates its 20th full season in operation, we offer anecdotes/stories/mileposts from people in the know on how Circling Raven became Circling Raven.

The name

A good place to start. Dave Christenson was one of three candidates under consideration to become the first pro. He really wanted the job, so he checked out 25 books from the library to learn more about the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

“I read through those when I wasn’t working,” Christenson said during an 11-minute video celebrating the course’s 20th anniversary. “And the name Circling Raven (a seminal tribal chief) kept coming back to me.

“So I presented it at the interview process and their jaws pretty much dropped at that point. And I knew I had a pretty good shot.”

Christenson got the job.

“I thought that was pretty good,” Ernie Stensgar of the CdA Tribal Council said. “He did his research.”

Designing outside the box

Gene Bates was selected to design Circling Raven. Nearly everyone thought the course should be located on the opposite side of Highway 95, but not Bates.

“I didn’t see anything interesting over there,” Bates said. “I thought, ‘Let’s take a walk through this area and see what the potential may be.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ The diversity of the land was very unusual and favorable for designing a golf course.

“It was like, ‘Oh, there’s a hole here, there’s a hole there, look at the one right in front of you, Bates.’ I just had to connect the dots. Obviously, it will be the most difficult to build on, but I think the results will be well worth it. I believe that’s why they chose me, because I had a different vision than the other guys.”

Undeterred by numerous wetlands, environmentally protected areas and railroad tracks running through the property, Bates plotted a layout that worked with the topography and meshed with the tribe’s vision.

“He took our stories to heart and used nature,” Stensgar said. “He didn’t want to disturb nothing. He just left it like it was.”

Plan B after canceled contract

There were some early hiccups, including a major one involving the Omaha, Nebraska-based contractor chosen to assist building the course. As the tribe and Golf Inc. were finalizing what Bates recalled as a $6- to $7-million contract, a Golf Inc. executive casually mentioned the company had just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but “don’t worry, we’ll get it done for you.”

“No, you won’t,” said tribal leader Dave Matheson, a driving force in developing Circling Raven and the Coeur d’Alene Casino. “There’s no contract between us. We’ll figure out a way to get it done.”

After the meeting, Matheson turned to Bates. “How are we going to get it done?”

“Dave, I don’t know, but I got an idea,” Bates replied. “My brother (Gary) is a great general manager, contract administrator.”

Matheson, who died in 2023, approved the hire and the course soon began taking shape.

Family ties

Shaping is crucial in bringing a designer’s ideas to life. Gary began assembling subcontractors that the Bates brothers had worked with previously when another key position demanded attention.

“I don’t know if you really understand the artistry of shaping a golf course, but every little wrinkle and roll, every little contour that is not natural ground, that was done with a bulldozer,” Gene said. “There wasn’t anybody better than we could think of my nephew, Casey. Dave said, ‘OK get him on board.’

“So it starts out, it’s a family gig. I’ve got my brother here, my nephew, I’m kind of drawing pictures. We have Dave Matheson and Ernie Stensgar. And damn, look what happened. It just turned out beautiful.”

Impact of course, casino hotel

Circling Raven and the Coeur d’Alene Resort Casino Hotel were part of the tribe’s long-range plans and important to its success and growth.

“I started since the inception, which was 31 years ago,” said Laura Penney, Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel CEO. “It’s just been a beautiful ride ever since. To see it come to fruition has been so amazing. The golf course, the casino have been effective tools to produce jobs and revenue to our tribe, but also to our community.”

Roughly half of Circling Raven’s employees are tribal members.

“The real impact in that first year that people just couldn’t believe there’s a course of this quality and how this small tribe in North Idaho had come so far,” said Bob Bostwick, press secretary for the tribe from 1991-2016.

“I don’t think I would have got into golf if this course wasn’t here,” said tribal member Beau Jones, who finished second at the Idaho State 2A Tournament early last week at Circling Raven and will play collegiately next year. “I just really want to say, ‘Thank you,’ for what they’ve given me and this community.”

Improbably super superintendent

Along with finding a designer, a backup contractor and a first pro, the course needed a first superintendent.

Enter Brian Woster, right after he was about to exit. Woster worked for Golf Inc. and was on -site when Matheson terminated their contract.

Woster approached Bates after the ill-fated meeting and asked if he could stay on in some capacity.

Yes, Bates said, citing Woster’s eagerness to work, but the designer also convinced Matheson that the course was so special, a national search for a superintendent was necessary. The tribe did so via a notice with the Golf Course Superintendents Association.

Woster applied. Bates was wary of his limited experience and qualifications.

“Why would we hire you when you don’t know what the chemicals are and so on and so forth?” Bates questioned.

“I have a lot of energy,” Woster reiterated.

“The tribe took a flier, and they hired Brian,” Bates said. “The best decision that they made through the whole process. Brian kept this place spotless.”

No. 15, I do

Penney’s favorite hole? She’s particularly fond of No. 15, a scenic, downhill par-4 framed by pine trees and mountains. There was one more important reason.

“I got married there,” said Penney, an avid golfer. “We golfed all the way up to hole 15 and that hole is just beautiful. You have the Bitterroot mountains in the background and the rolling Palouse hills and looking down toward the green it’s surrounded by pine trees.

“It’s just a beautiful setting, really something special.”

Was her golf game special that day?

“I don’t really remember,” Penney laughed. “I got a husband.”

Sprawling landscape

Augusta National sits on roughly 365 acres. Riviera Country Club, an annual stop on the PGA Tour, is 172 acres. The average size of an 18-hole course is between 120-200 acres, according to the American Society of Golf Course Architects.

Circling Raven is nestled among 620 acres.

“When you’re out there playing, you don’t see anybody else,” director of golf Chris Runyan said.

That’s not par for the course at most places.

“It’s not a traditional style course,” tribal member and guest services manager James Samuels Jr. said. “I played this course for the fourth or fifth time and the excitement I had to play our course was nice, but I never really looked around. It hit me going over No. 11 to No. 12 and you see this beautiful par 5 … to actually see the mountains and fields and wetlands from that area is absolutely gorgeous.”

Four-legged guests

During a scramble last fall, a moose sauntered along the wetlands to the left of No. 9, jogged in front of Nos. 1 and 10 tee boxes and continued into a marsh before disappearing from view. During the Epson Tour event last August, players and spectators were informed that a moose was bedded down away from the cart path between No. 12 green and No. 13 tee.

Circling Raven’s 620 acres are home to a variety of wildlife.

“There’s two eagles on No. 17 that always nest, George and Gracie,” Penney said. “We’ve had elk go out on No. 10 and tear up the green. The superintendent doesn’t think they’re very special.”

“We have seven moose that live out here,” Runyan said.

A few hundred ideas

Runyan keeps a book – Chris’ idea book – in his office. It has 300 entries to make the property “even better.”

A few of his ideas: simulators in the casino, golf-specific lodging, a nine-hole short course, a punchbowl 18-hole putting course, bringing in a PGA coach full time, starting a golf school and an artificial turf tee line on the back of the driving range.

Repeat and new customers

A full season for the course is approximately 26,000 rounds. As of mid -April, before Circling Raven had opened, more than 12,000 rounds were on the books.

“And that’s groups greater than 500 miles away,” Runyan said. “I have reservations for 2025 already from groups. They’re coming in from Arizona, California, Louisiana, everywhere.

“For a course like ours bringing in that many people from outside the area,” continued Runyan, shaking his head in disbelief.

The Utah Asian Open is holding its tournament at Circling Raven with 80 players over a three-day period. The Georgia senior golf association is bringing 80 players from Atlanta.

Runyan figures word-of-mouth advertising from satisfied customers helps attract additional out-of-town visitors.

“I track the ZIP codes: California, Arizona, obviously Oregon and Washington, Canada, a lot of Montanans, a group from Iowa, Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana,” he said.

“I had a guy from the Georgia senior golf association email me last November and write, ‘We have a couple of people that have heard Circling Raven is the place to play in North Idaho. We want to come out.’

“They’re playing three rounds. It’s just amazing.”