Building a New Track - Part 1

By: Jeff Shelley

Though it's very much in the nascent stage, all the ingredients are assembled for what should become the next top-shelf golf course in the Pacific Northwest. These elements - a supportive developer with plenty of financing, an outstanding golf course architect, and an experienced builder - are now constructing Salish Cliffs Golf Club, a new layout underway near Shelton, Wash.

The course is being built by the Squaxin Island Tribe next to its Little Creek Casino in Mason County. The Squaxins, according to casino CEO Doug Boon, are viewing the course as less a moneymaker than as an amenity to the existing facilities. The course is part of a $54 million expansion of the tribe's enterprises.

The development off Highway 101 contains an around-the-clock gambling operation; a hotel with 92 rooms - a number that will virtually double by year's end; the new Skookum Creek Event Center, which has hosted such acts as comedians Bill Cosby and Dennis Miller, Huey Lewis and the News, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd; four restaurants, including a dandy, fresh seafood bar; a tobacco-manufacturing plant; and meeting areas.

Boon says the new golf course, designed by Gene Bates and built by Landscapes Unlimited, will cost $20 million - a price tag that includes a modest-sized clubhouse and an eight-acre practice facility. Green fees will be in the $60-70 range when the layout debuts in summer 2008. Also planned is a First Tee facility, one of the first in the nation intended for members of a Native American tribe. Boon adds that, instead of engaging an outside management company, the tribe will hire a director of golf to handle the day-to-day operations of the course.

Andy Johnston, Bates' design associate, indicates he will come to Shelton, Wash., from his office in Palm Beach Garden, Fla., every couple of weeks. Johnston and Bates drew up six routings before settling on a seventh, the one now under construction.

Heading up the project are Ty Arndt, Landscapes' regional manager, and construction superintendent John Spray. The company will be on-site through fall 2007, at which time - weather permitting - the course will be fully grassed.

The schedule for Salish Cliffs is tree-clearing and rough-shaping through 2006, with fine-shaping and grassing beginning next year. At least two growing seasons in this wet climate, with around 60 inches of annual precipitation, should allow the turf - bentgrass fairways, tees and greens, and fescue on the peripheries - to be well-knitted when the layout opens the summer after next.

The 220-acre site - with 110 acres of turf - boasts considerable variety. Besides 200 feet of elevation changes, the property in the Kamilche Valley (Squaxin for "Pleasant Valley") involves second- and third-growth timber, seasonal creeks, dense underbrush and wild berries where deer and black bear roam, and stands of towering conifers. Expansive territorial views are on tap from just about everywhere.

Bates and Johnston will incorporate into the design a few forced carries over seasonal creeks. Johnston is excited about some of the tees that will be situated in tree stands; they'll create chute-like corridors that stretch out onto fairways sprawling across broad meadows. The two architects are also creating several cliff walls - befitting the course's name - by dynamiting rocky areas and crafting perched tees and greens. Appropriate for the homeland of an ancient Native American tribe, the property contains ancient petroglyphs, another theme that will be borne throughout the course.

Though the Squaxin Island Tribe had minimal requirements from Mason County - due to its ownership of trust land exempted from governmental controls, Boon said it took many extra steps to ensure the environment would be suitably protected. "We were tougher than the county in certain areas," he said. "We mitigated many buffer areas. The county has 25-foot buffer areas from wetlands and the seasonal streams, but we have 150-foot setbacks from the Little and Skookum creeks on the property." The tribe also plans to create wildlife corridors so that the lives of native species are little affected by golfers.

In Boon's estimation, there is little doubt that Gene Bates' design group was the correct choice as the architect for the Squaxin's new course. After interviewing a couple of architects, including a national firm and a local designer, the selection of Bates was pretty much a slam dunk following Boon's visit to Circling Raven Golf Club, the award-winning Bates' design at the Coeur d'Alene Reservation in the Idaho Panhandle.

"We really didn't do a bid process for architects," Boon said. "We were very impressed with Circling Raven and the work done there by Gene."

Johnston added, "The only challenge we received from the tribe was to create a five-star product."

According to Johnston and Boon, about the only similarity between Salish Cliffs and Circling Raven is that both courses will feature considerable variety. "Salish Cliffs will have different environments [than Circling Raven]," said Johnston. "We're going to let it evolve and see what it's going to be."

Johnston's view is illuminating in that he and Bates are willing to let the golf course define itself during the construction process, rather than the architects imposing their collective wills on the Squaxin Tribe's land. "The property's a living, breathing thing. I think it's a mistake to say Salish Cliffs is going to be a specific thing, without letting nature take its course."

Boon adds: "We really like Gene's approach of letting the property dictate the design."

In the next few months, I'll return to Shelton, Wash., to get a first-hand glimpse at just how much nature is letting this new golf course evolve. I'll check out the fine-shaping of Salish Cliffs - to be handled by Gene Bates' nephew, Casey Bates, and take a peak at the grassing and grow-in process.