Taking On Bear Mountain

By: Bob Spiwak

Editor’s Note: Our north-central Washington correspondent, Bob Spiwak, has become enamored with the new Bear Mountain Ranch golf course in Chelan, Wash. Never one to shy away from personal opinions, Bob is quite smitten with this new track. Here’s what the veteran scribe has to say about the course and its unique setting.

‘Tis a good thing I have an understanding wife. While my golfing might usually take me out of touch for a few hours of the day, my new love requires a round trip of about 140 miles and an all-day venture.

This new inamorata is Bear Mountain Ranch, located on the north side of a mountain above Lake Chelan in Washington State. The course, 6,209 yards from the whites, overlooks the 60-mile long glacial fjord whose blue waters are visible from most of the holes. “Signature hole?” asks head pro Von Smith. “Almost all of them are.”

Located just south of the town of Chelan (sounds like “Bataan”) in Chelan County, it is located on the east slopes of the Cascade Mountains. The sunny side. Being on a mountainside, the course could be considered hilly, and indeed there are many side-hill lies. Eighty bunkers of pure-white sand decorate the 18 holes and fairways, and on the back nine a lake and creek come into play.

Bear Mountain Ranch’s owner, Jerry Scofield, teamed up with Don Barth to create the layout. Barth, incidentally, is the owner of the only 18-hole course – Alta Lake – in neighboring Okanogan County, the largest county in Washington and 50th largest in the nation. The partners hired Robin Yount to design the footprint and routing of the course on the face of the hill. It is a course designed by committee, with all the participants in its development – including constructors – having input. Delayed by a monstrous forest fire several years ago that came onto the property, the layout opened at the beginning of April 2005, a month earlier than intended. As of September’s end, over 18,000 rounds had been played.

The greens are bent grass; fairways are a close-cropped mix, predominantly bluegrass. Most of the greens are elevated; knowing how to hit a ball sitting below your feet is a great help on many fairways on the front nine. I recently hit from 124 yards to a couple of feet below the green on No. 8, the top handicap hole. Back rolled the ball, diagonally, concluding its journey with a 155-yard shot back to the green. My 6-iron netted me MINUS 30 yards.

This is a course that definitely requires inside knowledge and a couple of circuits before some level of comfort sets in. Right out of the box, the first hole is a blind dogleg-right, with the aiming point being, “to the left of the second pine tree.” Most players should keep the “big dog” in their bag at the first hole, or you’re apt to go through the hidden fairway into a bunker, or worse, the pucker-brush. This mixture of native grasses and shrubs surrounds the course. Happily, there are no out-of-bounds, and Smith, the pro, said the peripheral areas should be played as lateral hazards. A rail fence defines the borders of most exterior fairways.

There are five tee areas on each hole: Black, Blue, White, Gold (or bronze) and red. The yardages range from 7,231 from the tips to 6,249 from the reds. I’ll reference the whites only. The second hole is a straight-ahead par-4 with a right-to-left canted fairway, only 312 yards in length. This is followed by a par-3 of 142 yards with a downhill shot. The fourth is another blind shot with a goodly carry over the sagebrush and pricklies.

No. 5 is the first of the par-5s, 555 yards of gentle dogleg-left with a fairly severe left-to-right tilt to the fairway. A par-4 follows, more left-to-right cant, then a par-3 over a pond on the seventh, which has a bailout area to the right. More of the same on No. 8, the 482-yard top handicap hole. The ninth is a lesser 329-yard version of toes-down swinging. And remember, there are 80 sand traps around the course.

Take a quick break at the turn and pick up a snack ordered from the cart when you get to the ninth tee. The on-board GPS reminds you to order. It is the best GPS system I have ever encountered. Particularly helpful – especially on the blind holes – is the location and yardage of the cart ahead.

The 10th hole is a dogleg-right of 363 yards. This is followed by a short par-3 and then into what I consider the most photogenic part of the course. At the 12th tee, a lake runs alongside; big fish break the water a lot. Ahead and uphill, the green is fronted by nine pot bunkers. Can it only be 359 yards from the whites? No. 13 goes farther up the hill to the edge of the burned trees of the big fire. Then you’re headed downhill on a 518-yard par-5 sloped left to right with a level landing area alongside the lake. The green juts out on a peninsula. The blue of the water and sky, green of the grass, white of the clouds and black of the charred trees in the distance make for an artist’s palette.

At 16 you feel you are on top of the world. The snow-capped Cascades are behind; to the left Lake Chelan stretches with orchards on more hills rising behind it. It is an understatement to call this an elevated tee. There is some carry required over the brush before reaching a wide fairway. The hole is only 367 yards long, but it looks like a mile from the top. After a par-3 with a left-to-right sloping green, there’s a long cart ride to the finisher, a par-5, 580-yard mission requiring a goodly aerial transection of a wide creek bed at the base of the green. Cowards such as I lay up; the brave will go for it on their third shot.

The pro shop, downstairs snack bar and patio and even the rest rooms are of understated elegance at Bear Mountain. Head pro Smith is one of the most congenial greeters behind the desk I have known after many years in the golf-scribing business. Following a long stint at Lake Chelan Muni (another excellent 18-holer, by the way), he was on board for the opening of Desert Canyon and remained the pro there until his move to Bear Mountain.

Tee times can be made up to 90 days in advance. It will cost you $65, which includes cart with GPS and all taxes. In the off-season, the rate drops to $45, and there is a lesser twilight rate after 2:00 p.m., seven days a week. As for its season, Smith notes, “We’ll play until it snows and reopen when the snow is gone.”

The course has a smallish practice putting green, and a largish uphill driving range that requires a token for the ball machine. Smith offers lessons for $45, which usually run just under an hour.

You’ll be greeted in the parking lot by a guy who’ll have the cart next to your car, load your bag, will check to be certain there is ice in the on-board cooler as well as a bottle of water and tees for two players.

A reality check here is needed. I, and several others, after playing for the first time, were frustrated (I lost 8 balls that first day). As mentioned earlier, course knowledge is a great benefit. So don’t give up if you don’t shoot lights-out the first time.

Golfing Bear Mountain is like a first date – she’s intriguing, but difficult and well worth that follow-up phone call. And the date probably does not bake chocolate chip cookies the likes of those by food and beverage manager Cindy Smith. They alone are worth that 120-mile round-trip.

But don’t tell my wife.

For more information, contact the Golf Course at Bear Mountain Ranch at 877/917-8200 or visit http://www.bearmt.com/golf_course.html.

Bob Spiwak took up golf in 1953 as a respite from the rigors of selling bibles door-to-door in North Dakota. Though suffering a four-year lapse, he’s back to being a fanatical golfer. Spiwak has written articles for almost every golf magazine in the Western world, although few have been published (not true). Bob’s most treasured golf antiquity is a nod he got from Gerald Ford at the 1990 Golf Summit. Spiwak lives in Mazama, Wash., with his wife and several pets next to his fabled ultraprivate Whispering Rattlesnakes Golf & Flubbers Club.