Gamble Sands to Be Economic Boon for North-Central Washington

By: Bob Spiwak

While what follows is obviously about golf, it could ultimately have an effect on the economies of the Methow Valley in north-central Washington State and beyond.

Eighteen of us in the Northwest Golf Media Association were invited to a "pre-preview" of the new Gamble Sands golf course a few miles outside of Brewster on September 19 and 20. The layout is located in the sand hills across from Fort Okanogan. What this geographic feature has to do with economies is the expectation that it will become a destination, and in five years be joined in the area by the already-begun but put-on-hold Gamble Cliffs just up from the town of Brewster.

Gamble Cliffs will be an entirely different course, with an ultimate build-out that will include housing and possibly a hotel. As it is in the town limits as well as the county's the decision has not been made as to which part of the development will get the nod.

The Gamble name on both venues, owned by the Gebbers family of Brewster (and possibly the largest apple and cherry providers in the world), comes from family patriarch, John Gamble, who in 1885 completed a walk from Nova Scotia to this former gold-mining area, possibly around Harts Pass. Over the years, a Gamble married a Gebbers, resulting in a family-owned dynasty and conceivably the largest private landowners in vast Okanogan County.

The family corporation is headed by president and CEO Cass Gebbers. Cass prefers running cattle to picking apples; he played nine holes in cowboy boots. He's familiar with the Methow Valley, having run cattle at Spokane Gulch and Goat Peak.

The Gamble Sands course is built entirely on sand. Its golf architect is Scot expatriate David McLay Kidd, who gained renown 15 years ago when he produced world-famous Bandon Dunes in Oregon, also a predominantly sand-based course like those of the seaside links courses in his native land.

"Brewster," said Kidd at a dinner after a day of sunny golf, "Brewster is, ya know, not the crossroads of anything . . . My task was to build an awesome golf course. If it's crap it will be my fault."

This was in reference to being told by Cass Gebbers that Kidd had 700 acres of pure sand to work with. "When he told me that, my chin dropped," added Kidd, who now resides in Bend, Ore.

And pure sand it is. Drainage is superb; after drilling 30 feet to see how deep the sand was, all that was found was more sand. We were told this was created by ancient glaciers that left deposits at the big bend of the Columbia River.

There are 110 acres of fescue turf on the course. "It's wall-to-wall fescue," said Kidd. The lies will be tight (no lush fairway turf that will require a different style of play), and there will be no traffic noise, no trees, and no water features like lakes, falls or island greens. Just pure golf like it was played centuries ago. Unlike the days of yore, however, there will be a clubhouse, a small one with a bar that will open through sliding doors 10 paces from the driving range and 20 from the practice green.

The distance from a green to the next tee is minimal on most holes, and the course has been designed primarily for walking. There are no cart paths, although power carts will be available at $50 on top of the anticipated $150 green fees. Carts, we were told, will be discouraged and, by the time the course opens next summer, there will be trained caddies available.

And Gamble Sands is indeed a walking course, as a couple of 70-plus-year-olds in our group strolled across several thousand yards packing their clubs. There are five tee positions per hole, allowing the course to play from 7,305 from the tips to 4,920 at the forward tees.

The fairways are more than generous, designed so it is difficult to lose a ball, even if it flies into the sage and wild-plant rough. It could be a hefty climb in and out of a couple of deep washes, as the visible ball mocks the errant player.

Whether the course meets the expectations of the owners, the Gebbers family, OB Sports Management or architect Kidd, that will probably take years to determine. A worldwide media event is set for next July, just before the course opens. What those scribes write will have some effect on the future of ultra-premium golf in this part of north-central Washington.

Bob Spiwak took up golf in 1953 while awaiting the Korean War draft. First published at the age of 12, he entered the golf-writing arena in the early 1980s as a freelancer and staff writer for Golf Course News and GolfWeek, all the while freelancing for other publications in the U.S. and abroad. A co-founder of the Northwest Golf Media Association and contributing editor of Cybergolf, he lives below a mountain near Mazama, Wash., with a wife and pets on his former Whispering Rattlesnakes Golf and Flubbers Club. They have unwelcome guests like cougars, bears, deer, and Bob's very high handicap.