THE LAST RESORT: Circling Raven, Worley, Idaho.
THE LAYOUT: For destination golfers, the Coeur d'Alene Resort Course deserves its lofty praise; the well-manicured resort course is picturesque, has a famous floating green and all the amenities one could ask for, from pre-round massages to world-class food.
But ask avid Northwest golfers for their favorite course on the east side of the Cascades, and they're likely to point you 40 minutes south to the small town of Worley, Idaho. Tucked a short drive away from the Washington border sits Circling Raven, the gem of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe that operates the casino and hotel next door.
Designed by Gene Bates, Circling Raven winds through 620 acres next to the Coeur d'Alene National Forest. The par 72 course is 7,189 yards from the tips, and heed the advice of the starter to play from the blues (6,589) or whites (6,108) unless you're an accurate bomber who has played the course before.
There are five tee boxes in all, and a true test of golf awaits from each.
Circling Raven weaves along its expansive property with significant elevation changes and a well-thought-out design on every hole. No two shots feel the same, but a good score can certainly be had with fairly wide fairways on most holes and receptive greens that roll true and fast.
There is a distinct feel of Bandon Dunes-style golf. You won't find much trouble unless you're wayward off the tee, and most of the score-busting comes in the form of plentiful bunkers and errant shots snagged by the wetlands and grasslands.
When Golf Digest re-ranked it biennial list of America's 100 Greatest Public Courses to factor in greens fees in 2009, Circling Raven ($65-95) was ranked No. 19.
Golfweek ranked Circling Raven No. 89 among its top 100 resort courses in October 2012, and Golf.com ranks it No. 90 among the best public golf courses in the U.S.
DIRECTOR OF GOLF: Tom B. Davidson
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Tony the starter is chock full of information, and soak it all in while you can because Circling Raven's undulations, bunkers and waste areas aren't all easily viewable for first-time visitors to steer clear of. Once you're out on the course, the state-of-the-art golf carts provide GPS guidance and hole-by-hole overviews.
Consider your clubs selections very carefully. The elevation changes - particularly on several of the par-3s, can turn a good swing into a sideways bunker lie in the blink of a 6-iron when a 7-iron would have done the job.
The 18-hole journey begins with the No. 7 handicap on the course, a 513-yard par-5 with a hard dogleg left. A well-place drive - Tony will caution you about anything left - makes this a reasonable opening birdie look on a green that slopes right to left.
From there, you're through the tunnel under the railroad tracks and to a 395-yard par-4 that plays uphill and has a dogleg to the right. One of the prettiest views of the course awaits at the par-3 third, which plays 217-yards with a two-club drop down the valley and a green that is well-protected by big, deep bunkers you want no part of.
If you appreciate scenery and not ducking shots from other holes, Circling Raven has more than eight miles of cart paths. Enjoy the wide swaths of blue grass as you approach No. 4 - the hardest hole on the course at 406 yards from the gold tees.
The front nine also features the short eighth, 386 yards downhill, but with danger to the right and again protected by bunkers. It's drivable depending on the tee box you choose.
The trek back to the clubhouse on the outward half closes with the 474-yard ninth, which requires a big drive that avoids the wetlands down the left side.
The back nine begins with a fun carry off the tee at the 336-yard 10th, where it's wise to play to a full club and not leave yourself an awkward approach if you're not able to drive the green.
Bates' unique vision for each hole continues on the 11th, a winding uphill par-4 that showcases the blue grass and huge space that Circling Raven takes advantage of.
If you play the tips, the 253-yard 13th with a forced carry of the wetlands is a monster. Heck, at 218 from the blues it's no picnic.
When you reach No. 15, trees greet you on all sides for a downhill 426-yard par-4 that includes another dogleg.
The 18th plays alongside the road, where white stakes definitely come into play and can snag a solid back nine score right out of your hands. And don't get over-aggressive with the approach shot - anything long or right will be stolen by the wetlands.
OTHER COURSES IN THE AREA: The Coeur d'Alene Resort Course really should be on any golfer's bucket list, but it will run you between $150-$250. Depending on the time of year, check for good specials on twilight and replay rates.
A favorite of the locals, and where many of the employees of the resort frequent, is Avondale about seven miles away. A 6,573-yard course that weaves among the trees, Avondale has a fun layout with water coming into play on several holes. Bring your straight driver, however, as the course is littered with white stakes that can balloon scores quickly.
Worley is less than an hour from Spokane, Wash., which has five fun courses that you wouldn't expect to see from a city-run operation. Each is unique and well worth the $30-35 greens fees.
Palouse Ridge on the Washington State campus in Pullman and the University of Idaho course are also local favorites.
WHERE TO STAY: The Coeur d'Alene casino has more than 300 rooms and gaming that includes slot machines, high stakes bingo, off-track betting, table games and entertainment. Call well ahead of time, however, as events like the Ironman triathlon sell the hotel out quickly.
The Coeur d'Alene Resort also can book up quickly and is very pricey. For more reasonable accommodations, head to Spokane. You can drive from Spokane to Worley, up to Coeur d'Alene and back for 36 holes in a well-traveled day. We'd advise staying in Spokane and replaying Circling Raven if you can't stay at the casino.
On the web: www.circlingraven.com.