We cover two contrasting golf venues in Washington state experienced in the past week. The first course is Sahalee Country Club outside of Seattle, a course as green and shaped by its majestic trees. Sahalee is then contrasted by Chambers Bay in Tacoma, a links course with one tree and running fairways, which reminds you of Bandon Dunes.
Shalee Country Club
I had wanted to play Sahalee Country Club for a long time as it was one of the elusive venues to get on as I pursue playing the best courses in the United States. I finally got the opportunity through a good friend and business associate last weekend and I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve played a lot of golf all over the country and I would characterize Sahalee as a religious experience. The course is immaculately green as it’s name portrays-“heavenly ground.” The ground might be “heavenly” but the course may be the narrowest set of fairways I have ever seen. The course is essentially carved out of a verdant forest of cedar and douglas fir trees. The trees are gigantic green skyscrapers, which shape the vision of virtually every hole on the golf course. These are the largest trees I have ever seen on a golf course. References to churches continue to come to mind as you approach every hole as if you were heading down the aisle to the green. The holes are consistent but not boring–they are mesmerizing as you continue to have to focus on hitting the fairway and getting into the right position to approach the green. Virtually every hole offers this challenge and added feature for me is that you will hit almost every club in your bag for all of these approach shots instead of blasting fairway woods all day to advance the ball. There are many courses where you have to grind through four or five consecutive tough holes in a row and then you get some relief as things ease up. Spyglass Hill Golf Course in Pebble Beach has this experience where you play the first four holes in virtual terror as each hole gets progressively more difficult and you could be 6-8 over par if things do not go well. After the fourth hole, you get to play some routine golf before it starts up again at 8 and 9. Sahalee doesn’t present the need to grind through the course. You play every hole with the same degree of concentration and focus. You have to hit the ball in the fairway with premium accuracy. Sahalee demonstrates mysterious beneficial tendencies as when you do whack the ball into the trees, the trees simply spit it out to a lie that is either in the fairway or good enough to stay in play. It’s as if you’re prayers are immediately answered for the errant tee shot. Every shot that my playing partners whacked into these trees were absolved by careening into the fairway or dropping into a lie in the rough that kept them in play. I did manage to miss one fairway, which bit the side of a tree leaving me with a decent lie in the rough.
This is a golf course that has been obsoleted for the PGA by its length as the back tees are only 7,000 yards so these guys would pulverize it with their length. The course has not had a “major” since the 1998 PGA Championship. However, it’s an excellent course for the professional senior tour and the LPGA and the club has hosted major events for both tours over the past ten years. I would like to see the course host a PGA event. I believe the course could be set up to be very difficult by narrowing these narrow fairways even more and growing the rough to the extent that it would be essentially be a stroke penalty to land in the rough and the greens are excellent and could be sped up with some onerous pin positions to create a very credible setup.
I played the East/South configuration and enjoyed it immensely. My favorite hole was No. 1 on East, which is an opening par 5. You have to hit two accurate shots to a position where you can cross the pond and avoid the back bunker to get an easy par. Hitting the two accurate shots is the key without finding any of those trees, which hug the fairway. Another favorite hole was the Par 3 Ninth Hole on the South, which played 181 yards, which requires a tee shot that approaches the green from the right to the proper level on the green. Tee shots that are short or long bring the proverbial three putt potential into this hole. I would characterize all of the holes at Sahalee as strong holes, because they all demand the same play-an accurate tee shot in the right place to make those pars and/or birdies.
We moved to Tacoma and Puget Sound to play Chambers Bay. Chambers Bay is the complete opposite experience to Sahalee. Chambers Bay is a public golf course on Puget Sound and is a links course where you will not see a tree. Chambers Bay is unlike a public golf facility that I have experienced. Chambers Bay is differentiated by its customer service and welcoming staff, which is very unlike the experience at Pebble Beach, Torrey PInes, Bethpage Black and many other famous public venues I could name. Most of those famous public facilities believe they are doing you a favor by taking a big wad of money from your pocket and then putting up a bunch of rules to comply with. Golfers are usually very compliant so there isn’t a lot of pushback to play these venues, but Chambers Bay staff were actually welcoming, helpful and supportive. Chambers Bay is part of a public recreational facility where there are many public activities for other sports such as soccer and lacrosse. The course is walking only and it is a quite a trek at 8 miles and the front nine is a real hike. Chambers Bay was the site of the 2015 US Open won by Jordan Speith. The course is a traditional links layout, well bunkered with a number of interesting holes. What you see is what you get and hitting the fairways and avoiding the myriad number of bunkers. I had a few highlights but the best one was on 14, when I drove the ball into the fairway left bunker and had no shot to advance the ball. I simply knocked the ball out of the bunker with a sand wedge and had 168 yards to the hole for my third shot and proceeded to hit a 7 wood to 2 feet for a improbable par. I avoided the bunker on 18, which is the middle of the fairway to snatch your approach shot and watch you disappear from sight–it is 12 feet down into this bunker. Two very good golf courses, with significant contrast made for a wonderful experience in the Pacific Northwest.