The Little Course that Could Won't Anymore

By: Jeff Shelley

After 38 years of running a modest short course near Vancouver, Wash., its proprietors - like so many other mom-and-pop golf facilities around the U.S. - are finally turning in their scorecards and calling it a day.

Michael and Terry Bowyer, the owners of Bowyer's Par 3 golf course in Brush Prairie, have sold the 17.8-acre property to a local developer, Killian Pacific. The golf course was rezoned commercial after it was placed within Vancouver's urban growth boundary in 2005. Since then, the Bowyers' property taxes have tripled, making the facility no longer financially viable, a story being played out right now throughout the U.S.

The course was built by Gail Wellwood in 1958 and it opened for play in 1960. At that time, the layout was situated in a rural part of Clark County, where rows of filbert (hazelnut) trees and colorful row crops swept across rolling fields. But encroaching civilization, fueled by the widening of SR-503 - which sits right beside the course - and the addition of the Interstate 205 bridge linking east Portland with Clark County, has forever altered this slice of southwest Washington.

The Bowyers, along with Michael's parents Elwin and Phil, bought the course from Wellwood in 1969. The tidy track, with holes ranging from 90 to 140 yards, occupies only seven acres, with the remainder of the site containing two homes, a clubhouse and an open field. Both families lived on the acreage until Michael and Terry moved to a home nearby, and Elwin and Phil passed away. The younger Bowyers raised their four children on the course, all of whom worked there as well.

I remember visiting Bowyer's Par 3 one sunny afternoon in the mid-1980s while researching the first edition of my book, "Golf Courses of the Pacific Northwest." I talked to Phil Bowyer in the ramshackle clubhouse and later ran across Michael on the course. Now 63, Michael was then a robust promoter of his verdant layout and enthused about all the improvements he was in the process of making. This was, after all, prime time to be in the golf business.

The short track was very popular with locals. When it opened, a round of golf cost 75 cents. Before it closed on February 5, 2006, the price had gone up to $9. The higher tariff was needed to help defray rising operating costs.

I once did a story about Bowyer's Par-3 while the editor of the long-gone Northwest golf magazine, "Back Nine." I told the story of how two regulars, Chuck Thurman and Morris Tiede, had recorded over 40 aces between them on the course. That was in 1989. Since then, Thurman, now 83, carded 61 holes-in-one all by himself.

Thurman, who lives near the course, first played Bowyer's in November of 1976. That day he got his very first ace on the fifth hole. In those days he golfed only on weekends, but played the course almost daily since retiring in 1986. "It's been a big part of my life," Thurman told reporter Phil Danzer of the Vancouver Columbian.

Thurman aced eight of the nine holes at least three times. He had 11 holes-in-one on the fourth hole, and 10 apiece on hole Nos. 8 and 9. During his final round in early February, he just missed getting No 62 when his tee shot stopped within two feet of the 9th hole.

Thurman and many other regulars enjoyed Bowyer's Par 3 because of its conditioning. Mike Bowyer worked hard to make sure his course, though not "championship" by any stretch of the imagination, was always in great shape. "That's one thing about Bowyer's, it's the best-kept secret around because it is so well maintained," said Thurman, still relishing thoughts of his favorite haunt.

One of his regular playing partners, Ray Wilson, concurred. "They kept the place so nice. They were out there all the time taking care of things."

As for Terry Bowyer, she has mixed feelings about closing her family's little golf course. "We raised four kids here," she told Danzer as she worked the cash register for the final time. On the other hand, she added, "You don't get days off in this business."

So, for generations of Vancouver and Portland golfers, a tidy place where you could take the kids or the grandparents for some outdoor fun has succumbed to concrete and steel.

While the industry tries to get a grip on an overabundant supply of courses and a shrinking demand from golfers, people such as Chuck Thurman are left out in the cold. Perhaps worse with the closure of a course like Bowyer's is that an important entry-level block in the game's foundation is permanently removed.

Thurman best summed up the feelings of Clark County golfers when he said of Bowyer's Par 3, "I'll miss it. I know a lot of other people are going to miss it, too."