In Scotland, it’s St. Andrews and Dornoch. Here in the U.S., golfers hold similar reverence for Pinehurst, Pebble Beach and even places like Orlando and Myrtle Beach.
These areas aren’t simply good spots to go play golf for a few days. They are often described as golf towns – places whose ties to the game run just a little deeper than others.
One recent destination shocked me with its own strong, entrenched golf culture, and I think it might surprise you as well, but I think it deserves its own spot amongst the better-known great golf towns of the country and wider world:
Spokane, Washington is a great golf town.
Over the course of three days, Spokane went from being the place where I knew college basketball powerhouse Gonzaga University was located to one of the most hearteningly positive places for golf I’ve visited. How did it happen?
Quality, affordable golf
The golf scene in Spokane is anchored by municipal courses in a way I have not encountered anywhere else. Seven publicly-owned courses comprise the area’s golf heartbeat; three of them are Spokane County-run and the other four are City of Spokane facilities. I had the opportunity to play and visit five of these excellent examples of affordable – all less than $50 to play – local public golf.
Spokane’s municipal golf excellence begins with Indian Canyon Golf Course, which opened in 1935. Designed by H. Chandler Egan, who was responsible in large part for Pebble Beach’s design, it dives down and up the walls of a heavily forested canyon and features some of the most naturally bold fairway contours I have seen on an American inland course. Though there are some exhilarating downhill shots (the first and 10th tee shots, in particular), several pitched, elevated greens make the 6,255-yard course play sneaky-long.
Indian Canyon is also an under-the-radar USGA championship course, having hosted the U.S. Amateur Public Links championship in 1941 and 1984 as well as the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links in 1989.
The course’s current connection to competitive golf is the Rosauers Open Invitational, an annual Pacific Northwest PGA section event that attracts a strong field every year and has donated more than $3 million to a local cause called the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery. Scott Erdmann of Oregon’s Oswego Lake Country Club took the 2019 title last week in a playoff at 14-under par. Not bad for a course that is a thousand yards shorter than what most accomplished pros are used to.
Video: Super Bowl MVP and Spokane native Mark Rypien details the history of Indian Canyon
(Courtesy of David Saraceno)
Indian Canyon is emerging from the first step in a process that should ramify through the area’s golf scene. Just days before this year’s Rosauers, Indian Canyon fully reopened from a year-long improvement project that focused on replacing the course’s decades-old, inefficient and faulty irrigation system as well as addressing areas of poor drainage. Under the guidance of architect Bruce Charlton of the Robert Trent Jones II firm, the City has also removed some overgrown trees, hidden some cart paths and softened the contours of five putting surfaces that modern green speeds had made extremely difficult for everyday players.
Some other edits are on the table as part of what city landscape architect Nick Hamad calls “a 20-year plan” for the course. Among these: the possible shifting of a couple greens to lengthen the course, addition of a handful of strategic fairway bunkers and a renovation of the driving range to include a pitch-and-putt routing. Charlton’s guidance should help ensure the City maintains the classic character that, in addition to the canyon-hugging setting, makes the course special.
The Indian Canyon project figures to be replicated in some form or fashion at the City’s other three courses: The Creek at Qualchan, Esmeralda Golf Course and Downriver Golf Course. Of these, Qualchan, a 1992 Bill Robinson design, is most attractive to potential visitors. After a rousing opening tee shot that drops 80 feet to a broad fairway, the course remains on relatively mild terrain through the front nine before heading into the trees for much of the back. The par-4 13th hole here must be played to be believed. Following a blind downhill layup tee shot with a 90-degree left turn and a scary uphill wedge to a skinny green, it is one of the oddest holes I have played. The course does end on a (literally) high note with a stately uphill climb of a par 5 that sits below the hilltop clubhouse.
Having had an inkling of Indian Canyon’s hidden-gem status in Spokane before my visit, I was not prepared to be so impressed with the three County courses I played. Two of them, Liberty Lake Golf Course and MeadowWood Golf Course, sit next door to one another in the town of Liberty Lake, about 20 minutes east of downtown Spokane.
Liberty Lake cuts a more traditional figure, with good strategic fairway bunkering, relatively low-profile features and elevated greens, as well as pretty healthy rough snaring golfers who stray. The front nine is a fantastic stretch of golf, and the back nine, whose terrain gets a little more lively, has a couple more tricks and tree encroachment but also its fair share of strong holes. It dates back to the mid-1950s, with updates by well-known western architect Rick Phelps in 2010.
MeadowWood, by contrast, is hilly, wide-open and eminently playable. A 1988 Robert Muir Graves design, it has its share of eye-candy bunkers and some water hazards, but the main attractions are its very generous fairways and large, gently contoured greens whose exterior slopes overwhelmingly feed golf balls toward the center, rather than shedding them toward trouble. Large collars of fairway-length grass surround most greens and greenside bunkers, giving golfers the opportunity to play different sorts of short shots. The last two holes find more intimate confines, including the quirky, narrow downhill par-4 18th, but all in all the course offers ample opportunity to shoot a couple shots better than one’s handicap.
At Hangman Valley Golf Course, about 20 minutes south of Spokane, I turned up on a weekday afternoon to find the course absolutely buzzing with golfers. A 1969 Bob Baldock design that was touched up by Rick Phelps in 2008, Hangman Valley sits between Liberty Lake and MeadowWood in terms of difficulty. It is the most scenic of the County courses, enjoying a more secluded setting as well as several elevated tees affording lovely views of the area. As at MeadowWood, Hangman Valley’s green surrounds include generous collars of fairway-length grass, as well as a demanding elevated final tee shot.
What binds Spokane’s city and county courses together is value as strong as I have seen anywhere in the United States. Indian Canyon and Qualchan’s walking rates top out at $49. Popular among locals is a $55 “Players Pass” that knocks $10 off the cost of every round, meaning it pays for itself after just six rounds.
As for the three Spokane County courses, maximum green fees are $45 for walkers (all three courses are pleasant walks), with a similar slate of multi-play options for locals, including a 50-round card that reduces green fees to less than $25 per round. In higher-density markets or resort settings, courses of the quality of Spokane’s could easily command $75 to $100. It is a tremendous budget golf proposition.
An under-the-radar upscale option
Formerly Spokane Country Club, Kalispel Golf & Country Club represents the upscale golfer’s best option in Spokane proper. The historic club was purchased in 2015 by the Kalispel Tribe of Indians. The course dates back more than 100 years, with early architectural involvement by both Tom Bendelow and four-time major champion Jim Barnes. More recently, Robert Muir Graves shaped the course into what is a pleasant parkland test with a unique stretch of holes where by the golfer does not play a par 4 from the 6th until the 14th hole; the intervening holes go 3-5-3-5-3-5-3.
The course is eminently walkable, though walkers typically get a ride from the 9th green up a steep hill to the 10th tee in a 1931 Ford Model A truck on a modern Chevrolet chassis. It is a unique form of on-course transportation. The first six holes of the back nine meander this plateau before plunging golfers back downhill for the tee shot on the sharp dogleg-right par-5 16th for a pleasant finish by the clubhouse. I played my round at Kalispel late one afternoon, and the fading light and lengthening shadows as I strolled the inward holes made it one of most peaceful golf experiences I have had all year.
Non-member green fees at Kalispel are $140, which is a fair bit more than the public options around. But given the conditions, as well as the more private feel at Kalispel, it is a solid value, especially when combined with the nearby munis.
Playing Kalispel becomes less expensive for those who stay at the Tribe-owned Northern Quest Resort & Casino. The bright, high-energy facility’s AAA Four-Diamond accommodations are comfortable, and the suites have over-the-top multi-head Kohler shower setups that are, in a word, heavenly. Stay-and-plays start around $250 (double occupancy) for a night at the resort and a round at Kalispel. Visitors should note that the resort is about 25 to 30 minutes southwest of the golf course.
Unique golf culture and history
Underpinning the quality and affordability of Spokane’s golf courses is a strong culture supported by a rich history.
Remember when I mentioned that Indian Canyon hosted the 1941 U.S. PubLinks? The winner that year, Bill Welch, loved the course so much that after his victory, he returned to his home in Texas, packed his belongings and moved to Spokane, eventually becoming the head pro at “The Canyon.”
The course also hosted the Esmeralda Open, a PGA Tour event, in 1945 and 1947. Byron Nelson won in 1945 as the 16th of his record 18 victories that year. That same week, Sam Snead shot a course-record 63 that stood for decades. Ben Hogan made his second competitive hole-in-one at Indian Canyon.
A few miles away is Manito Golf & Country Club, Spokane’s only fully private club. It hosted the 1944 PGA Championship, where Nelson went down to defeat at the hands of Bob Hamilton in the final match.
Spokane is a historic place in women’s golf, too. In 1946, Kalispel (then Spokane Country Club) held the very first U.S. Women’s Open. Patty Berg won the match-play event, whose field also included Babe Didrickson Zaharias.
On the lighter side, Spokane must be a great place for trailer hitch sales. At every public course I visited, cart riders and walkers seemed to coexist in roughly equal numbers, but the majority of riders had trailed their own personal carts behind their automobiles and were riding them on the courses. Both the city and county facilities encourage this, as they charge such customers trail fees which run $5 less than a normal cart fee. That gives the courses a revenue stream that isn’t blunted by the depreciation of their cart fleets. And as a result, those cart fleets are both smaller and last longer than they might at courses elsewhere.
Speaking of business, Spokane County has a relatively hands-off approach when it comes to golf course oversight. The County owns the courses, yes, but the head pros run them, including owning the pro shops and the food-and-beverage operations. This dynamic gives the courses a clubby feel while remaining welcoming to all. In addition, they avoid some of the bureaucracy that bogs down municipal facilities elsewhere. Kit DeAndre has been Liberty Lake’s head pro for 32 years, while Steve Nelke and Bob Scott have helmed Hangman Valley and MeadowWood for 27 and 23 years, respectively. That sort of continuity is almost unheard-of at sub-$50 golf courses. In Spokane, it’s business as usual.
Spokane also embraces competitive golf like few other cities. The Rosauers is a well-supported professional event, but there are several other competitive golf opportunities for pros and amateurs alike. The Lilac City Invitational is a June staple, and August sees both the Spokane County and Spokane City tournaments capture the attentions of players and spectators. Several courses host their own annual, well-attended tournaments. There’s even a two-day hickory event in September.
Bottom line: few places deserve the designation of "golf town" more than Spokane.
- Spokane isn’t exactly close to tons of other population centers, but it’s relatively easy to get to anyway, with an extremely accessible moderate-size airport just west of town, with service to Phoenix (PHX), Salt Lake City (SLC), Denver (DEN) and Minneapolis (MSP), among other cities. If you’re willing to change planes once, you can get to Spokane from most anywhere.
- Even holding golf aside, Spokane is a cool city. There’s a definite artsy streak – the slogan on the visitor’s guide is “Creative by Nature” – and the restaurant scene is eclectic and high-quality, especially if you fancy Asian cuisines. I had wonderful ramen downtown at Nudo and an offbeat katsu burger at the Japanese-flair Ruins on the north side of town. Another highlight was the Sichuan food at Gordy’s. In general, farm-to-table is a way of culinary life.
- Downtown Spokane has one of the coolest old-world hotels I’ve stayed in: the Historic Davenport. Originally built in 1914, the Davenport was restored by its current owners, Walt and Karen Worthy, in the early 2000s after it had fallen into disrepair. It is now a Hilton-flagged property. The Spanish Renaissance-style lobby is worth wandering even if you’re not staying on property, and the Peacock Bar is a must-stop drink spot. Fun fact: the Davenport was the first American hotel to have air conditioning.
- Spokane is as outdoorsy a town as America has. Hiking, fishing and boating are big around here. The Spokane River waterfalls that crash through the middle of downtown are a sight to behold.
- Once the weather gets nice, it tends to stay reliably excellent through the summer and into the fall. Daytime summer temperatures can get into the 90s, but the months of July, August and September each average less than three-quarters of an inch of precipitation.
- Visitors based in Spokane and willing to drive a bit have some expanded options. Coeur d’Alene, Idaho is just an hour east of Spokane, meaning that it’s close enough for a day-trip if you’re staying in town. Palouse Ridge Golf Club, the acclaimed Washington State University course, is about 90 minutes south of town and Gamble Sands is about two hours west.