IN THE PUBLIC EYE: Salish Cliffs, Shelton, Wash.
THE LAYOUT: Gene Bates designed Salish Cliffs to merge the natural terrain and environment of the expansive area he was given to work with, and the course has a very similar feel to one of Bates' other highly acclaimed designs - Circling Raven in Idaho.
Salish Cliffs opened in 2011 on 320 acres of land to outstanding reviews as one of the top new public courses in the country - including the No. 8 new course by Golf Week. It winds 7,269 yards from the tips through 600 feet of elevation change, featuring 68 bunkers with ragged edges filled with white Oregon sand - enhancing the already beautiful layout.
The course is maintained in immaculate condition, with the fairways consisting of bentgrass and the rolling greens playing fast and true.
Pine trees line many fairways, providing a unique - and secluded - experience on every hole. Holes that don't have significant elevation changes typically do feature strong doglegs and tight angles to the green if drives aren't placed in the right spot.
The tips, or Championship tees, play to a 75.2 rating and 140 slope, while the Tournament tees are 6,766/72.6/133. The Players tees are the equivalent to white and while considerably shorter at 6,312 yards (70.5/128), are still quite challenging - especially when the trademark winds kick up.
Bates wanted the course to fit the land after the final destination for the course was selected out of three potential spots. He accomplished that goal in spades with a course that has the feel of being around far longer than it has.
HEAD GOLF PROFESSIONAL: David Kass.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Pristine weather is difficult to find in the Pacific Northwest outside of July-September, particularly in the area where Salish Cliffs sits north of Olympia and south of Hoodsport, where the winds can pick up around the Olympic mountain range. If you get a calm, sunny day, there are few designs that top Salish Cliffs' in the state.
Do come prepared to add wind to the equation, and as the starter chuckles, "some golfers ask if we have a rotating course because some days it feels like all the holes are into the wind."
This isn't meant to steer you away - it's simply a regular element to account for when making your way around the beautifully-designed course.
Also take heed to the starter's advice to take one direct look for any ball that finds the fescue and quickly move on. There is no out of bounds at Salish Cliffs, but fescue that is prominent throughout the course is thick and swallows balls into the abyss.
Naturally, that places a strong emphasis on driving accuracy. It's evident from the first tee box, a downhill 514-yard Par 5 from the Tournament tees that demands an accurate drive between a large tree and fescue on the right and a bunker and red stakes on the left. A well-stuck drive does leave a reasonable look at reaching the massive green in two.
And therein lies the backbone of Salish Cliffs. You must drive the ball well to have good looks at the green, and crisp approach shots can help navigate multi-tiered greens.
As we mentioned, one of the great characteristics of the course is the uniqueness of each hole. For example, the first par-3 is a 233-yard shot from the Tournament tees, but it's a good two-club shot steep downhill to a huge green you don't want to be on the wrong end of.
One of the signature holes is the 576-yard par-5 eighth, which can be stretched out to 601 yards from the tips. Making your way back to the clubhouse on the ninth hole, you're greeted with a 380-yard par-4. The drive requires a decent carry and if you navigate a reachable bunker on the right-hand side you have a clear look at the green, which shares a putting surface with the 18th hole. Anything down the left side requires carrying water and a bunker in front of the green.
The highest point on the golf course is roughly 600 feet above sea level on the 12th hole. It's also the narrowest fairway on the course and protected by reachable bunkers on the left. Depending on the pin placement and conditions, approach shots can be rolled onto the right side of the green, which slopes markedly to the left.
The devlish 414-yard par-4 14th hole was voted one of the "Great Holes of the Northwest" by Cascade Golfer magazine readers. It requires a striped drive in the fairway to set up a reasonable second shot. The green lies just past a ravine and the surface runs away from you. Any drive not in the fairway begs for a layup down the left-hand side.
Bates has said his favorite hole is the 16th. It's the longest par-4 on the course at 428 yards from the Tournament tees and features a big dogleg right around three bunkers. But it's a potential birdie hole that plays downhill and is the No. 10 handicap on the course.
Our money for favorite hole, however, is on the 18th, a well-thought-out 514-yard par-5 from the Tournament tees that requires a gameplan. A big drive down the right-center will clear a bunker and get significant role on the sloped fairway. Or, aim further left and consider it a three-shot hole.
For the aggressive players who hit a straight drive, they're rewarded with one of the great approach shots on the course. The 18th is reachable in two, but it requires a full carry over water and a swath of four bunkers in front of the enormous putting surface. Hit the green, however, and it's a surface that runs uphill to the back and is receptive to long irons and hybrids with an eagle putt as the reward to close out your day.
OTHER COURSES IN THE AREA: If you're driving from Seattle or Tacoma, there are several excellent golf courses on the way to Shelton. Chambers Bay, site of the 2015 U.S. Open, runs along the Puget Sound in University Place just south of Tacoma, while the Home Course - which co-hosted the 2012 U.S. Amateur with Chambers - is very similarly styled and much more affordable option in DuPont.
Another good value is The Golf Club at Hawks Prairie, just north of Lacey.
The best bet is to travel to Shelton, stay the night at the casino resort after playing Salish and hit one or two of the other courses on the return trip.
WHERE TO STAY: The Little Creek Casino Resort is a stone's throw from the driving range and offers food and entertainment in addition to gambling. For those not keen on the gambling scene, there are plenty of lodging options in Olympia, or travel north of Shelton for quaint hotels in Hoodsport along the Hood Canal.
On the web: http://www.salish-cliffs.com/