Never leave the farm

Never leave the farm

Steve Bergum Staff writer

Sometimes, golf is more about the journey than the game.

And nothing proves that point as poignantly as a daylong odyssey through the back country of Whitman County, in search of a true small- town golfing experience.

Three friends and I undertook just such an esoteric adventure earlier this spring when we left Spokane early one morning and drove more than 150 miles to play 27 holes of golf at three nine-hole courses.

We headed out shortly after 8 and didn’t get back until dusk, stopping in St. John, Colfax and Tekoa to stretch our legs and test our swings on three dramatically different layouts that present a myriad of distinctly different challenges.

From greens sporting grass long enough to conceal small animals, to the distracting rumble of a tractor in an adjoining field, to the amusing sight of a small pond with a community ball retriever sitting at water’s edge, our proud foursome faced it all.

At times, we howled in disgust at some of the trying conditions.

Occasionally, we shook our heads in disbelief. But more often, we laughed in delight at the charm of country golf where clubhouses – in the early spring, at least – are opened only for special events, club pros are nothing more than a rumor and greens fees, which range from $10 to $15, are collected on the honor system. Not once did we encounter a living person as we attempted to check in. We paid our way at all three courses by slipping our money into a envelope and dropping it into a slotted box positioned next to a guest book. At one course, even the beer was distributed on the same kind of honor system – but only to club members, which left us all digging in our pockets for vending-machine change.

We played golf as it was meant to be played – on foot and over natural terrain, which, in some cases, could have used a little help from a bulldozer.

We played, at times, in a fierce wind that scoured the dust off the surrounding Palouse hillsides, and we arrived home worn and weary.

Still, the experience was well worth the effort. The drive between courses gave us time to catch up on family and work-related events that had occurred over the winter. Our lunch stop in Colfax proved you can still get a decent burger at a Chinese restaurant. And the golf . . . well, let’s just say this outing was more about the journey.

Following is a brief rundown of our stops:

St. John

Our drive to this tiny farming community, located about 50 miles southwest of Spokane, was shortened to less than hour by the back- road knowledge of one of those in our foursome. We ran up behind a slow-moving combine on one of those back roads, but were politely waved past by the driver.

St. John Golf & Country Club opened in 1935 as a six-hole layout on the northwest side of town. It closed during World War II and did not reopen until the mid-1950s.

In 1995, four new holes were built, using all-volunteer labor. And the eventual elimination of one of the original holes left the course with nine holes and a more traditional feel.

The remodeling effort was amazing, considering the modest price tag of less than $100,000. And this flat, semi-private layout, which measures 2,876 yards and plays to a par of 35, stands today as a testimonial to the value of vision and cooperation. Two of the new par-4s stretch more than 400 yards, but the best hole, which is also new, is the 500-yard, par-5 third, a double-dogleg that winds along a small creek separating the course from State Highway 23. Big hitters can get home easily in two, but mid- to high-handicappers must play to the right side of the fairway and flirt with the creek, in order to set up a fairway metal approach to an angular green.

Golfers should also be warned to check the course diagram on the scorecard after putting out on No. 3. The tee box for the sixth hole sits invitingly close to the third green. Our group mistook it as the tee box for the next hole. After we had launched our drives, a friendly groundskeeper rode up on his mower to inform us of our gaffe and then, after steering us toward the proper tee box on hole No. 4, chugged back down the No. 6 fairway to retrieve our golf balls. It was, indeed, one of those classic small-town moments.

Unfortunately, the greens had been verti-cut on the morning we played, and even short putts were a bit of a lottery. And the pin placement on the tiny, severely sloped ninth green crossed the line of fairness. Still, the pastoral setting and friendly, relaxed atmosphere helped make our “front-nine” experience one to cherish.

Colfax

Making the turn, in this case, involved more than a simple swing past the clubhouse. Instead, we loaded our clubs back into the van and motored about 30 miles to the Colfax Golf Club, which sits on the north edge of town on 40 acres of flat terrain that abuts the Palouse River.

This short, tight layout, with opened in 1927, is the most refined of the three courses we played. It measures 3,010 yards from the back tees and features narrow, nicely conditioned fairways lined by tall stands of mature trees. The greens are fast, moderately sloped, average in size and putt remarkably true on most occasions. Because of its Banana Belt location, this semi-private course usually opens earlier than most of those in the Spokane area. Again, we played it just a few days after the greens had been aerated, and trying to select a proper line when putting proved to be a waste of time. Still, our stop in Colfax provided us with the purest golf experience on our trip.

The course opens in benign fashion with three shortish par-4s, including the 240-yard, risk-reward third hole that brings the Palouse River into play off the tee. But it bares its teeth abruptly on the next hole, a demanding 205-yard par-3.

The toughest hole is the 437-yard, par-4 sixth, which plays straight through a narrow chute of trees and requires accuracy and distance off the tee. The par-5 seventh, which measures 538 yards and doglegs slightly to the right over a small stream, is also a decent test, as is the 170-yard, par-3 eighth, which pinches into a small green and provides little in the way of bailout options. The Colfax Golf Club ranks as one of the better nine-hole venues in the area and is worth the drive from Spokane, just on its own merits.

Tekoa

After wolfing down a burger at the Imperial Cafe in downtown Colfax, we headed back north on another 40-minute drive that took us to the Tekoa Golf Club.

This hilly, 2,550-yard layout, which unfolds amid rolling wheat and alfalfa fields, was in dire need of a shave and haircut when we arrived. The greens were beyond shaggy and there was no discernible difference between the fairways and rough.

Having already played 18 holes, we decided to spice up our final stop by playing a two-man scramble, and it proved to be a great decision. The competition made it easier to overlook some of the course’s grooming deficiencies, as well as its physical demands.

In retrospect, we probably should have reversed the order in which we played the courses, because this was – by far – the toughest walk of the day. And it didn’t help that we made our taxing trek over the hilly terrain under threatening skies and in gusty, late-day winds that played with nearly every shot.

The most difficult hole on the course is the 464-yard, par-5 third, which plays over a hill to ridge that slopes left to another fairway and right to a wheat field. The tee shot is blind, and trying to figure which way your drive rolled after it landed is a challenge. The approach shot is also blind and plays toward a target post to a small green that is difficult to read.

Another tough hole is the 365-yard, par-4 ninth, which – according to the diagram on the sign next to the tee box – appears to play straight, but doglegs slightly to the left instead.

The course, which was built in 1960 on a leased parcel of land, was converted back into a wheat field in the early 1970s when grain prices were on the rise, but was re-opened for play after only a few years.

I had played the course once before in mid-summer when it was in much better condition. With the greens and fairways clipped, Tekoa Golf Club, despite all of its eccentricities, can be a blast to play.

This sidebar appeared with the story:

ROUND NUMBERS

Road tripping

Approximate mileage for a three-course Whitman County daytrip:

Spokane to St. John 50 miles

St. John to Colfax 25 miles

Colfax to Tekoa 30 miles

Tekoa to Spokane 40 miles

Nine-hole greens fees

St. John Golf & Country Club $10

Colfax Golf Club $15

Tekoa Golf Club $10

Copyright 2002 Cowles Publishing Company

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.