WORLEY, Idaho – Leisure travel time is increasingly precious, especially for golfers. A golf vacation is not a cheap proposition, and for the curious player, the opportunity to see something new and different is part of what makes one look back on a trip in appreciation.
Even better: getting to play contrasting courses in a single trip.
That’s why Coeur d’Alene is a particularly attractive spot. The alpine lake community in the Idaho Panhandle came to golfers' attenion in the early 1990s, with the installation of one of resort golf’s most famous one-offs, but it really came into its own about a decade later, when another destination-worthy course opened.
Big water: Coeur d’Alene Resort
If you’ve been gawking at glossy magazine photos of golf courses since the 1990s, you’ve seen it.
The 14th hole at The Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course ($200) is the ur-“signature hole.” The resort even goes so far as to take the image of the floating, flowery, movable island green for its logo. It’s golf synecdoche.
Even so, it’s just 1/18th of the Scott Miller-designed golf complement at The Coeur d’Alene Resort, located in the vacation town of Coeur d’Alene and bordering Lake – you guessed it – Coeur d’Alene.
The preceding journey does a good job of building anticipation of the day’s defining shot. It usually starts with a refreshing seven-minute boat ride from the hotel to the golf clubhouse across a corner of the glassy lake. After check-in, players warm up on a water range just to the left of the famous par 3 before heading up into the first baker’s-dozen holes.
The front nine starts out innocently enough, but things get interesting in a hurry as soon as one reaches the par-3 3rd tee, overlooking the lake and climbs a hill into some very severe terrain. Things also get weird for a moment, as the awkward, shoehorned par-4 4th can claim a sleeve of golf balls in a hurry, despite calling for an iron off the tee. If you can survive, though, you’ll be rewarded with two more attractive par 3s, back-to-back. The 5th has a Jumpman-shaped green surrounded by sand and rocks, and the 6th plunges some 70 feet past tall skinny Ponderosa pines to a generous green. Parkland golf returns from the seventh fairway on, highlighted by a cool green complex at the par-4 8th and a lakeside run at the par-4 13th.
And then it’s the moment of truth. The green can be towed anywhere from about 150 to more than 200 yards from the back tees. Just redone this spring, it is adorned with thousands of flowers, and the flat, shallow putting surface is flanked by two bunkers. The entire island is reasonably large, but the expanse of the lake beyond it dwarfs it. If you find terra firma with your tee shot, the operator of the boat that ferries you to and from the island will offer you a Certificate of Achievement, commemorating your successful shot. Golf purists would bristle at the pomp, but my recommendation is to give in to the kitsch of it all; don’t fight it.
The last four holes are solid, with the tiny par-4 17th being the best of the bunch because it is drivable for practically all golfers. I recommend lingering for a post-round drink and/or appetizer on the clubhouse patio overlooking the lake.
Big sky: Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort and Circling Raven Golf Club
The Coeur d’Alene tribe’s inroads in tourism echo that of several fellow tribes, who have converted certain compensatory measures by the United States Government into relative economic prosperity. The Oneida have done it in Wisconsin and at Turning Stone in upstate New York. The Pottawatomie have done it in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Mohegans and Mashantucket Pequots have done it in Connecticut.
“It” has been the gradual establishment of casino-centric tourism and hospitality as a means of deriving revenue from the land and employing tribal members and non-Natives who live nearby. In the Coeur d’Alenes’ case, that includes a pleasant hotel and golf facility hovering around a 60,000-square-foot gaming floor with 1,600-plus video slot machines. It's odd that Idaho, though known for a libertarian bent, does not allow Vegas-style gaming (i.e. table games, poker, etc.) like neighboring Washington does.
No matter; that just gives golfers an excuse to make the most of their access to Circling Raven Golf Club ($99). A Gene Bates design that opened in 2004, Circling Raven rises to the inherent pressure of a destination-type course in a relatively remote area (Spokane is an hour west, Coeur d’Alene proper half an hour northeast). The front nine meanders past wetlands and upland meadow, where hills swaddling holes like the par-4 2nd give way to the sky in a way that makes a golfer feel properly small. The outward half reaches its apex, literally and figuratively, at the ravine-crossing par-3 7th and gliding downhill short par-4 8th.
But the back nine is what the course’s keepers, headed by Director of Golf Dave Christenson, tout most.
In the style of pre-Recession “golf experience”-type courses, Circling Raven’s inward half comprises nine holes each in their own individual space. The drivable par-4 10th proceeds from the clubhouse, and then golfers cross a bridge over freight railroad tracks into the wilderness for seven secluded holes before regaining civilization at the 18th. The peak of the routing comes around hole 15, a twisting downhill par 4 that precedes a babe-in-the-woods par 3.
“It feels like you’re the only group out there,” said Cindy, who ferries resort guests from the Spokane, Washington airport to the resort an hour east.
More golf is on the horizon at Circling Raven, which, by the way, is named not for a bird but a past Coeur d’Alene chief. The tribe and resort overseers have engaged Bates to lay out nine new holes on a parcel of land to the left of the practice facility. It will be called Twisted Earth after the son of Circling Raven, so named because of his tendency to become lost for several days before returning home from hunts and hikes. Rest assured the walkable layout will be easy to follow, with a more intimate, woodsy feel. Golf group-oriented accommodations are also planned for the site.
Coeur d’Alene: assorted notes
- Golfing oenophiles will be impressed with the wine selection at Beverly’s, the Coeur d’Alene Resort’s flagship eatery. Sommelier Trevor Treller helps oversee a wine list that is so vast – 14,000 bottles, give or take – that it is catalogued not in physical form but in a database diners can access via the iPads that serve as the restaurant’s menus.
- Circling Raven has one of the best-merchandised golf shops I’ve ever seen. Apparel brands run the gamut from trendy to sporty, and the vibrant, packed racks of clothes make it hard not to walk out with at least a little something. Dave Christenson’s wife Jennifer oversees the operation and has been named “Resort Merchandiser of the Year” by the PGA of America in the past.
- The Coeur d’Alene tribe does a nice job of providing windows into its history to resort guests. The “Story Lodge” off the lobby of the hotel is home to a brief overview of the tribe’s history, and a carved stone plaque near the first tee provides further background. The resort also offers several cultural tourism opportunities, including organizing a visit to the nearby H2H Bison Ranch.
- I often find the food at golf course clubhouses to be decent, but not generally notable. An exception is the fabulous breakfast burrito on the menu at Circling Raven’s restaurant, served with unexpectedly excellent salsa.
- Even if you stay at the casino about 25 miles away, it is worth spending time in the town of Coeur d'Alene. Numerous restaurants, bars and lake activities make it a popular summer place for non-golfers, too.
- Golfers with big private-club connections will find Coeur d’Alene a particularly nice place to play. The area’s three private clubs – Gozzer Ranch, Black Rock and Rock Creek – are some of the northwest’s most exclusive enclaves.
- Coeur d’Alene Casino’s stay-and-play rates for golf at Circling Raven are very reasonable, starting from $268 during the peak summer season for a twosome.
- The Coeur d’Alene Resort is a bit pricier, with stay-and-plays in the $500 range per night. Knowing avid golfers are often wanting to play both the Resort and Circling Raven, it is possible to arrange itineraries that include both courses from either hotel.