The Golf Course that Tried to Survive - And Did

By: Blaine Newnham

This is a story about a golf course that couldn't fail. Not because it was too big, but because a few people really cared.

White Horse Golf Club

Like the three-man maintenance staff that spent the past winter "putting lipstick on a pig," mowing fairways and greens when they could, edging bunkers when the couldn't, anything to keep White Horse Golf Club near Seattle looking good to the golf public, while behind the scenes it was in bankruptcy.

Imagine three people grooming 140 acres of grass. Or, two others running the pro shot, giving lessons, ordering shirts and balls and handing out sandwiches from a cooler. It was fiscal folly.

One bank, American Marine on Bainbridge Island, Wash., took over the course from the first owner in fall 2009 until the bank itself failed and was taken over by another, Columbia State.

There was speculation that the course might be purchased by the neighboring Suquamish Tribe, but until a deal was struck the course was in an awkward limbo, more creditors than money. "A day didn't go by that we didn't get a number of calls asking if we were still open," said Bruce Christy, the course's only pro. "We had high hopes, and so did the public, but at one point that was all there was."

White Horse opened in 2007 as one of Golf Digest's "Best New Courses." It was critically acclaimed, the first course designed by Cynthia Dye McGarey, Pete Dye's niece. Built on sand through rumbling forest lands, the course was beautiful and challenging, almost too challenging.

It was the centerpiece of a real estate development by Bob Screen of Bainbridge Island. His timing, if nothing else, was terrible. Screen's conservative plan was to sell lots to pay-as-he-went for a clubhouse and the equipment the course needed for proper upkeep. After most of the initial offering of 60 lots were sold, no more did.

At the same time, Screen decided to price the golf above comparables, like the highly acclaimed 35 holes Gold Mountain in Bremerton and Trophy Lake in Port Orchard. "Because there was no clubhouse and the property had a temporary feel to it," said Mark Luthman of Touchstone Golf, "it wasn't a comparable golf experience to Gold Mountain and Trophy Lake."

Not when it cost more.

Touchstone, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, manages 19 courses around the country, half of which were repossessed by banks. The company was first hired by American Marine, then the FDIC, then Columbia, and now the Suquamish Tribe, which has plans to build a new clubhouse, make minor changes to the course, and market it with its nearby Clearwater Casino and resort hotel.

The marriage seems perfect. The divorce wasn't. Erik Linsenmayer, the 35-year-old greens superintendent, traded labor for equipment just to get the essentials done. "You'd think you have a fertilizer spreader," he said, "but we didn't."

Linsenmayer worked on the crew of Wing Point Golf and Country Club's private course on Bainbridge during spring aerification in return for the use of a spreader. He has never had the equipment to punch his greens. Consequently, they became quite firm and unreceptive in the summer. The new ownership has pledged to get the equipment Linsenmayer needs.

No matter what happened - Linsenmayer's crew was cut from nine to four and then to three, the putting surfaces were smooth and the fairways dry. "It is a fabulous golf course and in great shape," said Luthman. "Considering, Erik has done a wonderful job keeping things going."

With time off, it meant Linsenmayer actually had two people a day during this past winter, alternating days with assistant Abel Anderson and mechanic Darran Harwell. The course never looked neglected, even in the darkest of times.

"We added iron to green things up because it was cheap," said Linsenmayer. "I was from a private course background - Broadmoor, Glendale and Overlake in Seattle - and understood presentation. My pride and career were on the line. We did what we could."

Now there is a sense of optimism about the course, which has remained a popular destination from players north of Seattle who ride the ferry with their clubs across to Kingston and are picked up by White Horse staff. The Washington State Amateur will be held at White Horse in June. The course has wide, sprawling fairways but greens that are generally uphill and hard to both see and hit, let alone hold.

The slope from the back tees is 146. "This is the one course I've never had to worry about making more difficult for tournaments," said Linsenmayer. "The key here is to make it easier for average players."

This spring four well-known architects have toured the course. The Tribe is committed to spending money to make the track more playable and will do so in the fall. Construction of the clubhouse should begin next winter.

"You've got to remember that in 2007 White Horse opened along with Chambers Bay and the Pacific Northwest Golf Association's Home Course and got a little lost in the publicity," said Luthman, who at the time worked for KemperSports and supervised the startup of Chambers Bay.

"We want to have a history with the community around Kingston," said Luthman. "We want to be there a long time."

The Suquamish, who operate the nearby Clearwater Casino, purchased not only the course, but 159 adjoining and undeveloped housing lots. "We need to develop a loyalty to the golf course that has been missing," said Christy.

"We had people play one round here and enjoy it, but when they saw the gravel parking lot, the doublewide pro shop and unfinished houses, they didn't always come back."

Green fees have been scaled back to $25 during the week in the winter and $39 in the summer. An annual fee for seniors is as low as $90 a month, allowing them unlimited play Monday through Friday. For an additional $30 a month, seniors have unlimited use of the giant practice facility.

"Everyone sees the Tribe as a natural fit for White Horse," said Christy, who is also the new general manager. "The casino is 10 miles away and the Tribe has a history of building wonderful facilities. The golf course should fit in perfectly."

With few knowing how desperate the situation was.

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Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine now plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.