With the U.S. Open headed for the first time to the great state of Washington, the USGA will display its marquee event to a whole new market while introducing millions of viewers to the natural splendor of the Pacific Northwest. Chambers Bay is unquestionably the number-one golf attraction in the state and, along with Oregon’s Bandon Dunes, the entire region. But it’s not the only reason to pack your clubs and pay a visit. Within half an hour or so of Chambers is a quartet of courses that will test your skills and thrill your senses without busting your budget.
Before you go, a few travel advisories. First, don’t base yourself in either Seattle or Tacoma. Instead, drive 45 minutes south to Gig Harbor, a picturesque waterfront town on a bay of Puget Sound, its shore lined with quaint shops, pubs, and restaurants. For comfort and convenience, you can’t beat the Inn at Gig Harbor. And should you have a rough day on the links, you’ll be happy to know that next door sits the Heritage Distilling Company, the nation’s only craft distillery, where you actually can commission a 10-liter cask of bespoke whiskey, gin, or vodka.
Second, book your tee times ahead. Since these are public courses—and good ones— they get plenty of action, particularly in summer. Check directly with the clubs for their quietest days and times. But no matter when you play, you’ll rarely pay more than $50 a round, sometimes including a cart.
Chambers Bay is within half an hour’s drive of Gig Harbor, as are three of our four satellite courses, any one of which can be piggybacked for a comfortable 36-hole day. Choose The Home Course and you’ll be playing two national championship sites, this one the host of the 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links.
Its name derives from the fact that this is the headquarters of both the Washington State and Pacific Northwest Golf Associations. Perched on a blu 200 feet above Puget Sound, it’s completely exposed to the wind, but the fairways are ample and the greens expansive. That said, from the back tees it plays 7,424 yards with a rating of 76.4. Even if you play poorly, however, you can enjoy the views of the sound and the Olympic Mountains, notably at the par-four 7th, where a lake at the front of the green competes for attention with the distant backdrop of the area’s biggest draw, majestic Mt. Rainier.
The pacing is superb: From the 3rd hole to the 17th, never are two successive holes the same par, and at 17 comes another arresting view, of Puget Sound with Anderson Island beyond.
Due east of Gig Harbor, in Auburn, is Washington National Golf Club, where every item in the pro shop seems to be o ered in only two colors—purple and gold. This is the home of the University of Washington Huskies men’s and women’s teams, the rare course where the senior tees are killers, the alternative markers being the junior, sophomore, and freshman.
If you tend to slice, you’ll be comfortable on the front nine of this John Fought design, where trees line the left side of almost every hole but there’s plenty of room on the right. Massive bright-white waste areas and swaths of tall fescue add intimidation throughout, as do 18 surprisingly speedy greens. The most fun hole may be the parfour 7th, drivable for many from the freshman tees (232 yards) and even a few from the seniors (299).
The back nine is tighter as tall pines and maples encase the last severa l holes. An exhilarating finish begins at 14—635 yards from the back tees—and continues through a par four that might be drivable were it not fronted by a moat, a picturesque but tightly bunkered par three, and a spectacular risk-reward par five with a stream menacing its last 400 yards. The closer is a brutish 475-yard dogleg left that culminates in a three-tiered green fronted by a massive W-shaped bunker. Its name: Final Exam.
If you have time for only one stop other than Chambers Bay, make it Gold Mountain in Bremerton, where two superb courses— Olympic and Cascade—await, both ranked among the top 10 in the state. Of the two, the Olympic is slightly stronger. It’s set on terrain that must be seen to be appreciated. Broad, lushly green fairways lined by massive pines climb and drop, often precipitously, toward smallish greens guarded tightly by sand and occasionally water.
One of the most daunting assignments comes at the par-five 9th, where two strong shots leave the dreaded downhill partial wedge to a slim target framed by four bunkers and a pond.
On the back nine, a crescendo builds with water in play on each of the last four holes. The finisher is an oddity, a drivable par four that plays anywhere from 255 to 325 yards. Lay up if you want, but why not try to bust one over the bunkers and pond for the shot at a walk-off eagle?
How good are the Gold Mountain courses? Four years ago, the USGA Junior Amateur was held here. The winner: Jordan Spieth, thanks in part to his caddie, a moonlighting local schoolteacher named Michael Greller who has been on Jordan’s bag ever since.
The last of our four courses is a bit farther afield, in the town of Shelton, an hour southwest of Gig Harbor. It’s also pricier than the other three (though still under $100), and worth both the trip and the money.
Salish Cliffs is part of the Little Creek Casino resort owned by the Squaxin Indian tribe. It occupies an unlikely setting—a thick forest on the side of a mountain, with a total elevation change of 600 feet—but architect Gene Bates worked wonders, crafting a dramatic and beautiful course where the climbs and descents occur largely when you’re in the seat of a cart while most of the holes play either level or only slightly up or downhill. Two exceptions are the 2nd and 3rd—305 and 291 yards, respectively, from the back tees: No. 2 is an uphill par four, 3 a downhill par three.
Somewhat of an oddity for the Pacific Northwest, the entire course is sown with bentgrass, and given the climate and growing conditions this makes for some very slippery greens. As with the three other courses, there’s a feeling of splendid isolation as you play; other than the clubhouse, nary a structure is in sight. Only at the finish of each nine do things truly open up. Holes 9 and 18 play Pete Dye-style around alternate sides of a lake, joining at a 15,000-foot double green.
The bottom line: By all means, come check out Chambers Bay, then do yourself a favor and stay for a day or two. The USGA may have taken a century to discover golf in Washington, but you should act much more quickly.