If Circling Raven Golf Course could be cloned, blade for blade and bunker for bunker, and plopped down in a major metro area or any place that could handle the infrastructure, it could host a U.S. Open.
All golfers seem to make that claim about one of their favorite courses at some point, but Circling Raven is the real, championship-worthy deal. It’s that good, that spacious, that engaging, that telegenic. That tough, certainly, from the tips.
But it can’t be cloned, nor should it; it will forever be connected to the stunning Northern Idaho landscape surrounding Coeur d”Alene Casino Resort-Hotel, not far from the southern fingers of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Named for a Coeur d’Alene tribal leader and laced through a sprawling 620-acre parcel of some of that tribe’s most beautiful ancestral ground — coniferous forest and rolling grassland and stream-fed meadows — Circling Raven was not conceived and laid out by a front-line golf course architect with a name like Trent Jones, Doak, Coore, Hanse or Nicklaus. Not one of them summoned the outside-the-box vision of the man who eventually won the contract, Gene Bates.
A DIFFERENT VIEW
The Florida-based designer, who has worked with Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Johnny Miller and Fred Couples, and who continues to design projects around the world, arrived on the scene as the tribe’s leaders decided that their growing casino-resort needed a good golf course among its amenities.
“At first they thought they might just need a nine-hole course, but once they knew how important and special a great golf course can be, and how many fine Native American-run courses there were around the country, their vision got bigger,” said Director of Golf Dave Christensen, a native of Eastern Washington at the helm of Circling Raven for the second time, having been there when Bates signed the line and opening the course to the public 15 years ago.
In fact, he was there from the start of the proposal process. The Coeur d’Alene tribal leaders called in all the big names for initial plans. To a man, all of them looked to the relatively flat parcel just west of the resort, where water was readily available and access was a snap. Only Bates looked to the east and south, across and along an elevated railroad bed, for his inspiration.
“He was the one guy who had a different vision of what this course could be,” added Christensen. “He saw all that beautiful land across the tracks, the hills and wide corridors, and knew it was special.”
BIG, BROAD CANVAS
Bates also knew his imagination and skill wasn’t hemmed in by fences or ownership issues of any kind. This was tribal land, wild and wide open and infused with deep native spirit, and he took full advantage of its promise, its sheer scale.
He’d made his bones as a shaper, so he knew instinctively how to mold the heaving Idaho landscape to mimic its vast horizons — the distant mountain peaks, the rounded foothill forms closer afoot, the tree lines jutting into that endless azure sky. He made each hole its own set piece — why limit himself to scoping out one or two “signature” candidates when every hole site will produce a stunner?
Christensen watched Bates and his crew pull magic out of the soil, was onsite for the grow-in and maturation process, and marveled at how the final product managed to coalesce into a seamless, balanced and cohesive golf journey even though it took up more than three times the acreage of most courses.
The 11th hole at Circling Raven. Photo: Vic Williams
Then it’s over the tracks and out into the open, rolling grassland for several holes, starting with No. 2, the first of several par 4s that aren’t exactly short but can be driven by the brawny, brave … or foolhardy. Hole 5 is stout, left-turning par 5, hole 8 a downhill par 4 with a creek up the right side and a severe, forested bank to the left, leaving no margin for error from the box — in other words, the dog might have too much bite here.
The back nine kicks off with a risk-reward winner, a right-angled par 4 that’s definitely drivable, but you’ve got to negotiate 150 yards or more of wetlands, plus two tall trees that essentially split the landing area in two. Go left of them and you’ve got a mid- or short iron in; roll the dice right of them and you’re set up with a flip wedge home.
The back nine offers more forested holes than the front, with a couple forays into the open. No. 12 is a fine transition hole and, to some, the best par 5, moving downhill from an explosed tee, with a few pines perfectly placed between forked fairways to force you into yet another decision — go safe to the left, or challenge the right side with a shot at an uphill approach to an elevated green. No. 17 is Christensen’s favorite three-shotter, straightaway with a drive over the course’s only pond, leaving another decent shot at the green in two, while the final hole, a par 4 with mounding and the highway to the left and trees right, is one last risk-reward opportunity.
This is Bates at his wily, come-and-get-me best; he shares a certain playful design gene with Pete Dye. There’s plenty of room off the tee almost without fail, but it might not look that way when you step up and pick a line. Greens are big and rangy but not overly contoured, bailout areas abound and bunkers allow at least some forward progress.
It’s all fair, and right there, but play all the way back from nearly 7,200 yards, squeeze in the fescue, and yeah, we’re talking Open-caliber stuff.
But back to resort golf reality, where Circling Raven dwells through its five- to six-month season, and dwells well, thanks to Christensen’s oversight and an excellent, well-equipped maintenance staff, a sweet pro shop nudged alongside the Twisted Earth Grill (also named for a revered tribal leader), and a very good hotel just a walk or short shuttle ride away.
It’s really all you could want in a challenging, upscale resort course, and proves the perfect counterpoint to The Coeur d’Alene, with its famed floating 14th green and somewhat friendlier (though sneaky tough in places) Scott Miller design, some 40 minutes to the north.
In other words, you’ve got to play it, too.
After a fairly substantial reworking of several holes about a decade ago — most notably on the front nine — this high-end resort course became even more of a joy, with its well-trained forecaddies, flawless conditioning, optional classic wooden speed boat ride from the main resort’s marina to a dock just below the clubhouse (don’t miss it) and, of course, views of lovely Lake Coeur d’Alene at nearly every turn. And the 14th isn’t the only conversation-piece par 3; the other four — including back-to-back gems at holes 5 and 6 — boast their own sweet lake views.
Of course a night or two in the waterfront hotel is and should be an option, but at a minimum work in dinner at Beverly’s, the hotel’s five-star signature restaurant, with a bottle or two from the largest wine collection in the Pacific Northwest (even arrange a cellar tasting with an accredited sommelier). It’s a day you’ll savor through the long winter months.
GAMING AND MORE GOLF
One thing the lakeside resort doesn’t have is a casino, which is why Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort-Hotel makes for such a multifaceted home base. Guests have access to a full-service spa-pool complex and several restaurants serving fresh farm to table fare including the Red Tail Bar & Grill and Chinook, a fine steakhouse with an outdoor deck.
Beyond Circling Raven, plenty of outdoor pursuits await, and there are several small towns and local attractions to explore — including the H2H bison ranch, where you can get close (but not too close) to the huge animals and sample some bison-based cuisine.
Oh, and one other thing: Christensen says that a third nine and reconfigured practice range is in the works.
“It’ll be across the road, on a little flatter land, working back into those trees,” he said, pointing to the southwest. “Gene had designed a third championship nine that’ll be a little more walkable, and it’s under review by the tribal board. The idea is to get it built, then close each original nine, one at a time, to do some renovations. We’ll still have 18 holes available at all times. And we want to make the range more convenient to the clubhouse.”
Those renovations will touch bunkers (with a few to be removed, and a few new ones added, too) and tees, while greens will get a new poa annua-resistant strain of bent grass.
New “destination golf accommodations” are also in the master plan, giving players the option of staying right next to the course.
In the meantime, Christensen adds that Circling Raven is finalizing an agreement to host a Symetra Tour “Road To The LPGA” event next summer. “Those gals can really play, and this is a perfect course for them.”
For you, too.
Circling Raven and Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort-Hotel are located in Worley, Idaho, just over the Washington state border, about a 55-minute drive from the Spokane airport, which is served by Alaska, American, Delta and Southwest airlines. Shuttle service to the resort is available, or rent a car and soak up the scenery. RV’ing it? There’s plenty of room for even the biggest rig.