Debating the best new golf course in Washington: Rope Rider and Salish Cliffs
Two golf writers compare two local courses.
Rope Rider: A scenic course that is fun to play
By Blaine Newnham - Special to The Seattle Times
Finally, after all this talk about making golf courses more fun and faster to play, somebody did it.
Rope Rider, the third course in the resort complex at Suncadia in the Washington Cascades, is a better look at golf's future than we see elsewhere.
There were only 15 courses — public and private — opened in the U.S. last year and two of the very best, Rope Rider and Salish Cliffs, are less than a 90-minute drive from downtown Seattle.
The two courses are similar in many ways: both in gorgeous settings, both around $90 to play during the high season, both designed by nationally acclaimed architects.
But part of the lure of golf is its continuing conversation, whether it takes place in the shadow of winter or the afterglow of a summer round.
Which course do you like better? If you had one final round, which one would you play?
Surely, Salish wins on amenities with GPS devices on its carts. It is the more difficult of the two tracks and, with 600 feet of elevation gain, wins the wow factor as well.
All of which offers me, as a golf traditionalist, little comfort. I don't like carts, I really don't like GPS, nor do I like being forced by the distance between greens and tees to ride when I really want to walk.
But, mainly, I prefer Rope Rider because it better suits my game, and that of most players. Jim Hardy and Peter Jacobsen, the architects, didn't just give lip service to making the course playable for most players.
The bunkering is not as stylish as that at Salish, and in many ways is almost illusionary, making the course look more difficult than it is.
In no way are the Rope Rider bunkers as much in play or as deep and difficult to escape as those on neighboring Prospector, the Arnold Palmer design at Suncadia.
And, as one might suspect, rounds at Rope Rider take an average of 30 minutes less than those at Prospector. The greens are more straightforward as well because the course blends into the surrounding terrain, rather than rise above and below it. In other words, they pushed less dirt to build Rope Rider than they did Prospector — or, I suspect, Salish Cliffs.
This means scoring is easier. For the big boys, however, Rope Rider can lengthen to more than 7,000 yards. Forced carries, found on two holes at Salish — No. 9 and No. 14 — don't exist on Rope Rider.
Rope Rider isn't without warts. There are a few longs walks between holes if walking, and you pay for a cart whether you use one or not.
But overall it's playable, walkable and even portioned into six-hole segments for abbreviated rounds. It has way forward tees for kids. The pro shop is in the new Swiftwater Cellars winery, and the remnants of mining days past are everywhere, including the 120-foot-high Tipple Hill.
It is simply a fun place to play golf.
Blaine Newnham, a longtime columnist for The Seattle Times, has covered golf for more than 50 years.
Salish Cliffs: No houses, great variety and a feeling of adventure
By Craig Smith - Special to The Seattle Times
Go ahead, open my envelope. In the beauty pageant between Rope Rider and Salish Cliffs for best new course in Washington, I'm going with Salish Cliffs.
Both courses are going to enhance the state's growing reputation as the home of wonderful courses, but I think the casino course outside Shelton has more going for it.
Unlike at Rope Rider, there are no homes at Salish Cliffs. To me, every home is a pimple, whether it's at Sahalee Country Club or a nine-hole course in the boondocks.
There are a lot of other things to like, too. I like the variety of holes at Salish, the way the bentgrass in the fairways contrasts with the darker ryegrass of the rough, the fact that almost every hole is surrounded by forest and the unusual shapes of designer Gene Bates' bunkers.
The course has wide landing areas for typical weekend players but can require a lot more from low handicappers. These folks can play 7,269 yards if they choose the championship tees.
The greens are smooth, with enough undulations to make things interesting, but you don't wind up playing Ping-Pong on them. The par 4s on the back nine are memorable and the clubhouse with its Native American theme is functional and comfortable. (Rope Rider has a heckuva clubhouse, too.)
Salish Cliffs has a "what's next?" adventure feel to it because the holes are so well separated. The downside is that motorized carts are mandatory. I prefer to walk, but at least there are reasons for mandatory carts at Salish Cliffs — the long haul between some holes plus an overall altitude gain of 600 feet during the round. Pace of play, not revenue, seems to be the No. 1 reason for the cart requirement, and I can live with that.
When I played the course on a cold, wet, windy day in late March my biggest complaint was the carry of more than 190 yards required to clear ball-hungry wetlands on the ninth tee. That's what you are asked to do from the "Players" tees that make the course 6,312 yards. The alternative is the "Masters" tees of 5,848 yards and a carry less than 160 yards, and my diminishing pride isn't quite ready to drop below 6,000 yards.
My partner and I wound up playing the wrong pin on the 18th hole, which is a huge double-green shared with No. 9.
I'm inclined to jokingly blame hypothermia rather than the course for the mistake.
Golfweek ranked Salish Cliffs as the No. 8 course nationwide among those that opened last year. The publication also ranks it as the No. 11 casino course in the nation, which is even higher than designer Bates' acclaimed Circling Raven in Worley, Idaho. Golfweek also puts the course No. 4 among public courses in Washington.
The course is less than a mile from the Little Creek Casino/Resort, which like the course is owned and operated by the Squaxin Island Tribe. Some promotional literature describes the course as an "amenity" of the casino. I think "gem" might be a better word.
Craig Smith was a longtime golf writer for The Seattle Times.