Back in January 2011, David Kass knew instinctively that his new gig as Head Golf Professional at Salish Cliffs was more than worth the cross-country drive from his previous job in South Florida. The holidays were in his rear-view mirror and it was time for a fresh adventure in the heaving hills and dense conifer forest of western Washington, just a few minutes from downtown Olympia and a scant 45 from 2015 U.S. Open site Chambers Bay. He fell in love with architect Gene Bates’ lovely creation from the get-go.
“I was in on the ground floor, and I knew right away this course and place were special,” Kass said as he sent yet another laser 3-wood down the middle of one of Salish’s perfectly coiffed fairways. “I watched the course grow in and get ready for our opening that summer. It’s just gotten better and better from there.”
Not only is Kass one heck of a player, he’s as friendly and accommodating as his course is a blast to play, day after day. As the de facto golf ambassador for Little Creek Casino Resort and the Squaxin Island Tribe, Kass knows how to provide visiting golfers the authentic Pacific Northwest experience they’re looking for, rain or shine. And there’s more shine that one would think, especially in the peak season of July through September.
“We do around 20,000 arounds a year, most of them in the summer months,” he says. “It’s just the right number for us — the course stays in great condition, tee times are spaced out so our guests can experience it the right way, and the locals have really become attached to it, too.”
That’s not difficult to understand. In a state with so many great, award-winning tracks, from Wine Valley in the eastern agricultural belt to the handful of Top 100 layouts in the Puget Sound area, Salish Cliffs quickly distinguished itself as one of Washington’s best. Some of it is God’s doing, some Bates’s. Some is the dedication of Kass and his main man, Superintendent Robert Pearsall, who keeps things fairly fast and firm even in the region’s damp and cool climate. Play these 18 handsome holes once and you quickly pick up the rhythm and visual balance that distinguishes all great courses; play them again, when you’ve figured out where to place the ball off the tee and embraced Bates’ challenging but fair way with a green complex, and you’ll be asking yourself, “Why didn’t I get up here before?”
It’s truly one of those “no weak holes” affairs, starting right from a first tee carved high on a bluff. You look across a ravine to the landing area guarded by another slope to the left and a big madrone tree to the right. Nudge a gentle cut up the left side, catch a bounce to the landing tier and you’re looking at getting home in two on the par 5; anywhere else and you’ll be lucky to find the surface in three.
Right on the opener’s heels is a delightful, drivable par 4, and the thrills spool out from there, winding and climbing and tumbling through the forest at just the right angles. Doglegs right and left and doled out in fairly equal measure, and landing areas always end up wider than they appear from the box — clearly Bates is a fan of guys like Tom Fazio and even Pete Dye, both of whom made their bones by tricking the eye yet opening a clear path to the pin. At 601 yards from the tips, No. 8 is ranked Salish’s toughest, but play it judiciously — tee shot over the left bunker, second shot cheating right, final pitch right-center — and you’ll find par within easy reach.
The back nine play a couple strokes tougher thanks to an uphill, into-the-wind middle section, starting with No. 12, with a downhill par 3 giving some relief before the one-two punch of 14 and 15. Both hover around 400 yards from the second set but play much longer; the latter’s second, shot, from well below the putting surface, is probably the toughest approach out there. Eek out a par there and you’re set for a flat-out phenomenal final trio. No. 16 is as fun a downhill, right-swooping par 4 as you’ll find, No. 17 is little more than a wedge over a cliff to a subtly canted green, and the finisher is a tasty par 5 with water guarding the green on the right. Blast your drive down the hill and eagle enters the conversation. Make that happen and the beer and burger (or wings, fish and chips, salad or sandwich, all a cut above “normal” clubhouse fare) will taste even better.
Then again, even a bogey on the final hole won’t wipe the smile from your face. Salish Cliffs gets under your skin like a cool Pacific breeze. To stir in some vacation heat, add in a night or two at the resort just down the hill. Hit the casino (they even offer full-on craps!), sample more great food (The Island Bar is an underrated winner). Block out a couple hours in the spa, lounge around the indoor pool, head upstairs for a few hands of poker, knock down some sushi in the oyster bar — Little Creek runs the gamut of big-league fun.
And if your trip is all about the golf (of course it is), make sure to include a pilgrimage to Chambers Bay for a round among newly-minted major championship memories. The 2015 Open left its mark here in many ways, mostly in how the course has changed from its early days in 2007-2008. The fescue off the fairway is deeper and denser, though in keeping with the Robert Trent Jones II design crew’s vision, the place still keeps to its modern links roots — firm and run-into-the-bunker fast, with bump-up shots to the huge greens the rule rather than the exception. Yeah, it’s a tough round, a seven-plus-mile walk up and down those big manmade dunescapes, but your caddy, should you get one, has the local knowledge to kick the wow factor up a few notches.
In fact, Salish Cliffs and Chambers Bay make for a stirring, starkly different duo that’s available nowhere else in the West. Kass found that out when he showed up. Now it’s your turn.