Date Played: August 2014
If you’ve visited this site, you’ve likely heard me talk about Gamble Sands. The David McLay Kidd designed gem, on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River and the town of Brester, WA, is 2014’s most publicized and maybe only new course. A joint venture from The Gebbers Family (one of the largest apple and cherry producers in the country) and OB Sports (one of the largest golf management firms in the country), it was originally intended to be the 2nd course in a master planned community that would serve as the centerpiece of North Central Washington. The recession of 2007/2008 quickly changed that, and the Dye designed Gamble Cliffs course was left with just 3 holes complete and the project was shelved indefinitely.
Flash forward to 2011. The economy had shifted a bit, and Gebbers Family decided to move forward with plan B. Luckily for golfers, Plan B entailed scaling down the residential community aspect of the project and instead focusing on a natural links style course on the opposite side of the river, about 20 minutes from town. David McLay Kidd, the polarizing Scottish architect who designed Bandon Dunes and the Castle Course at St. Andrews, had been previously selected to design the track, recently revealing at media day that the major selling point was his vision of “landing the course right out of the sky”.
And land it he did.
To put it simply; Gamble Sands is 18 spectacular and naturally shaped holes that flow as rhythmically as any course I’ve ever played. It’s a broader reflection of a major philosophical shift in the DMK mindset. Kidd had gotten tired of the “love it or hate it” nature that his courses were known for. Despite the accolades of the major golf publications, Kidd stopped hearing the word “fun”, and that was troubling to him. When he set out to craft Gamble Sands, the idea was simple; make a minimalist course that was gentle and fun for the duffer yet tough enough for the scratch player. Somehow he pulled it off, and what he turned out is without a doubt the best golf course in the state of Washington.
Better than Sahalee? Better than Wine Valley? Better than Chambers Bay? Yes. Really.
It’s a marvel of design in my eyes. It’s the architects answer to Mark Kings ill-conceived 15″ cup. It’s Hack Golf, but on golf’s molecular level.
When you arrive at the property, it feels like you’re pulling into a ranch. A small frontier styled clubhouse that seems no more than 1,500 square feet in size is stocked with brands that signify what’s left of the old David Kidd. Seamus Golf headcovers, Jones Co. bags, TRUE Linkswear shoes. Small brands committed to the game of golf. A modest restaurant and bar with one of the best 19th hole patios on earth is packed in there, as well as a couple of restrooms. That’s it. No meeting space, no headquarters, no frills.
As for the course, the front nine is really the king. The par 4 1st hole is a gentle start with its left offset green and friendly bounces. The 2nd hole brings one of the great vistas I’ve ever encountered. A driveable par 4, just 301 yards from the tips, it overlooks the Columbia River valley below and makes for one fantastic hole. A deception bunker strikes fear on the right-to-left sloping fairway, while the bunker to the back right of the green and the front left do the real dirty work if you decide to go hard.
The 3rd Hole might be the best par 5 on the course. A 633 yard beast in which you tee of over a large ravine, the tee shot is actually very manageable with its football field sized landing area. If you decide to try to get home in two, you’ll face a blind approach and the green side traps left and front will likely be your fate. If you instead take the smart route and lay up, the approach becomes a very stickable shot into a gentle green.
While the 517 yard par 4 5th hole might seem to oppose this new “friendly” David Kidd philosophy, it’s actually both downhill and downwind. With the fairway sloping hard left-to-right, playing at the left fairway bunker is the best play as your ball will feed forever down the hill. Your likely long approach will be best served by landing it short and letting it run on the green. Just beware of the lip of the right bunker, it can jump up and get you and it’s not a place you want to be.
The par 3 6th hole is Kidd’s take on the famed redan hole. The redan concept which started at North Berwick in Scotland (and was popularized later by C.B. Macdonald at National Golf Links of America), is to put it as simply as possible, the idea of attacking a hole from the less obvious angle (traditionally this means the right side). There is a sand trap in the front and the green slopes hard, both from right-to-left and more importantly, from front-to-back. It’s a sucker shot to go pin hunting, but you’ll see plenty of birdies made on this 265 yard monster by kicking it into the right side and watching it run down near the pin.
The back 9 doesn’t have quite the splendor or signature holes that the front 9 does, but as with any great course, it’s a vital collection of very good holes. What sets the back apart from the front are the myriad birdie chances that anchor the day and give the player a chance at redemption. The split fairway on the 437 yard par 4 14th allows good risk/reward options for players looking to make up ground. The reachable par 5 18th does the same. With its annoying fairway bunker that spans most of the fairway about 50 yards short of the green, it forces you to make you final big decision of the day. If you had a good drive, you have a great shot to get aggressive and card eagle to finish out the round on one of the more imaginative par 5’s you’ll encounter.
Bottom Line: There’s not a better place to play golf in the state of Washington. And outside of Bandon Dunes, I’m not sure there’s a better place in the Northwest. It’s public golf at its finest, and the friendly contours of the course allowed this 13 handicap to play a round on a single ball. I also managed 3 birdies and nothing worse than double en route to an 82. I’ve spent the past 4 days wracking my brain; trying to think of a time I had more fun golfing and for the life of me, I can’t. It’s an amazing place that puts golf at the forefront and not much else behind it.
The day-to-day head man, Dave Christensen, has done a great job and even members of the Gebbers Family themselves can be found helping out to make sure everyone leaves with a smile. Only 4 hours from Seattle, 5 hours from Vancouver and 3 hours from Spokane; no matter where you find yourself in Washington, you need to make time for Gamble Sands. This masterpiece gets Golf by Bryan’s highest score ever, and with very good reason. Final Score: 95/100
Design – 24/25 – Great routing with no turn. Nothing forced or gimmicky. Very walkable, even in summer heat.
Test of Golf – 25/25 – Wide enough to keep the high handicapper under triple digits and subtle enough to challenge the scratch player. Perfection in this category.
Value – 17/20 – It’s $120 prime time to play ($150 to ride), but for the best course in Washington, it’s a bargain compared to Newcastle and some others.
Condition – 10/10 – Still young, but fescue grasses are in great shape and the natural sand base will ensure great conditions as turf matures.
Amenities – 9/10 – Great driving range and practice green. Nice restaurant/bar and a pro-shop with boutique brands. Once “Cliffs” opens, it’s a 10.
Experience – 10/10 – Unmatched staff, unmatched course, unmatched views. I’ve never had more fun playing golf than at Gamble Sands.