The Squaxin Island Tribe broke ground on the course in back in 2006, but decided to put the plans on hold less than six months later due to the economic climate and the fact that there was also a major expansion project underway at its Little Creek Casino Resort, where Salish Cliffs will serve as an amenity. But last spring, renowned golf architect Gene Bates and his crew fired up the engines once again on Salish Cliffs, and is on target for a spring 2011 opening.
Industry pundits who have previewed Salish Cliff’s par 72, 7,300-yard championship layout tout it as a shoo-in for “best-in-class” honors. And Bates … whose other highly acclaimed designs include Circling Raven Golf Club (Worley, ID) and Bayonet Black Horse (Monterey, CA) and Soldier Hollow Golf Course (Midway, UT), which will host the 2012 USGA Amateur Public Links Championship … is in full agreement.
Bates … who has been honored in his career as “Golf Course Architect of the Year” by BoardRoom Magazine … recently took some time to answer questions about the progress being made at Salish Cliffs, the unique circumstances he faced while working with the lush piece of land and the work stoppage and why he believes golfers will relish the chance to experience his new layout, which resides 75 minutes south of Seattle.
What kind of progress has been made on the course since construction started in March following a stoppage for the winter months?
It’s been a very wet spring, but we’re looking forward to gearing up and going full throttle. We’ve started to install the irrigation where we left off last year and we’ve been clearing trees and vegetation on the holes that have yet to be built as well as the driving range.
Last year before the winter we ended up grassing one hole (the par-3, No. 13) and it’s coming along. You might actually be able to play golf on that hole [by the end of May]. We also expect to begin construction on the clubhouse [this summer].
How often are you on site at Salish Cliffs?
This is a hands-on project for me. I’ve been there every two weeks, which some may say is overkill, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as a way to take advantage of opportunities and be able to enhance and modify the design as those opportunities occur.
This is the way I’ve done all of my projects over the last half-dozen years or so. In fact, when we rebuilt Bayonet Black Horse (in Monterey, CA) my wife and I actually moved out there and lived in Pacific Grove and I was there every day. I’ve found that the more you are at a project, the better because you become more protective of the design and the owner’s property.
Speaking of the property at Salish Cliffs, a lot of people are talking about the dramatic scenery and 360-degree views of Kamilche Valley. What has it been like for you to be able to create a golf course on such a beautiful piece of land?
It is indeed a gorgeous site. One of the many great aspects of this property apart from the wonderful elevation changes is the vegetation and evergreen trees. They really provide a beautiful backdrop. We also have some huge maple trees that are knock-dead gorgeous. So we’re being very conscious of not taking out those kinds of trees because the scenery they provide is irreplaceable.
Despite elevation changes of up to 600 feet, you made it a point to have smooth transitions between holes. How were you able to pull this off?
The elevation changes are 600 feet, but it is spread across such a broad area there’s really no steepness to it anywhere. We’re able to transition from a 100-foot level up to the 200-foot elevation very easily. It’s almost like steps on a stair case. That whole transition is very moderate. You almost have to see it to believe it.
How difficult was it for you as the architect to have to stop construction on the course and then pick it back up again more than two years later?
To be quite honest, it wasn’t difficult at all. There were no challenges. In fact I think it benefited us, if anything, because we had pretty much cleaned out the entire course with the exception of three or four holes and the driving range. So what happened was the perimeter vegetation got so much more healthy and strong during the stoppage that it now provides more visual impact than it did before. The trees that were left were able to expand so they look more like forest trees now rather than timberland trees.
During the work stoppage, did you ever doubt that this project would be completed?
When we stopped construction the project was never forgotten in my mind because the tribal elders said at the time that they were never going to give up on the idea. They stopped because they had so many things happening at the same time.
They were expanding the hotel, doubling its size. They had other infrastructure they were building in the way of a waste water treatment plant. So they had millions of dollars worth of work going on. Obviously there’s a financial capacity for everybody. They just didn’t want to get overextended.
So they took the one element of expansion that was least necessary to keep the resort on an upward path and put it on hold. Once they got through with those items they were able to come back and refocus on the golf course and allocate the money for that and away we went.
You mentioned the people of the Squaxin Island Tribe. What has it been like working with them?
Oh, I have to tell you this is my second Native American project (the first was the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Circling Raven) and it has been as enjoyable and as fun and rewarding as the first. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe was a wonderful, exuberant client. They said don’t hold back on anything. Whatever you need, we want to have because we want this course to be as good as it can be.
The same is true for the Squaxin Island Tribal Council and the tribal members. They want to be so proud of this thing. They’ve been so encouraging. They don’t want to take any shortcuts. That says volumes for the kind of people I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. They are such fine people. We all know how great this is going to be and they are very proud to have it on their land.
Can you compare Salish Cliffs to Circling Raven?
I don’t like comparing Salish Cliffs to Circling Raven because they are different in many ways. But if there’s one sequel to Salish Cliffs it’s that … like Circling Raven … the individual holes are completely set apart from the rest. Nine and 18 come together, but that’s really about it. That kind of isolation will be pristine and comforting. In addition to being an excellent test of golf, it’s going to be a scenic trip through the mountainside for our golfers.
As much as I love Circling Raven, I don’t want people to think of it when they play Salish Cliffs. I don’t want to build one course that resembles another. I don’t want to be cookie cutter. What I want people to say when they walk off Salish Cliffs is, “Wow. What an experience. I don’t know who designed it, but I want to come back.”
The name Salish Cliffs touches on the Squaxin Island Tribe’s ancestry and its dedication to maintaining its relationship with Mother Earth. What steps have been taken to do so at Salish Cliffs?
We have to be very careful not to add any pollutants to the creek bordering the property. We have a drainage watershed that actually consumes 20 square miles above where we are on golf course. We have a lot of water that comes through the golf course from the higher elevation that has to be filtered and cleaned up. We have also been proactive in our treatment of reclaimed water so we are not using any other water resources for irrigation of the golf course.
Water quality is one of the big issues in keeping salmon safe. We’re following other parameters such as keeping 100 feet away from the edge of the banks and ensuring the proper amount of shade along the creek so that some of the spawning areas and salmon resting areas are protected. This is critically important to the project.
According to the National Golf Foundation, nearly 400 golf courses … measured in 18-hole equivalents … opened in the year 2000. In 2009 that number dropped to 49.5 and projections call for between 50 and 75 openings in 2010. How proud are you to be working on what will be one of only a handful of golf courses that will open its fairways in the next year?
I feel so fortunate that we’re up there working on this project. With the timing of the economy and the rebirth of this project, it’s almost like it was meant to be. So what can I say? I’m very thankful that we’re there doing our job, that we’re able to do it, and we’re actually getting paid to do it.
Last question: What do you think golfers will remember most when they first play Salish Cliffs?
I hope they remember it as player friendly. It’s not going to be type of golf course that’s narrow and has a lot of penal aspects to it. If you’re looking to go out and have a good time, it’s going to be a wonderful place to play. But on the other hand, for the golf aficionados out there with a single-digit handicap, it’s also going to provide a wonderful test of golf in a very scenic atmosphere.
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