By Ted McIntyre
From Lewis and Clark to Fifty Shades of Grey, those exploring the Pacific Northwest just keep uncovering intriguing passages.
It’s been almost 110 years since the Corps of Volunteers for Northwestern Discovery, headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, reached the Pacific Ocean in southern Washington State, and just a few seasons since British author E. L. James’ erotic romance began to help boost tourism to the Seattle area.
But in between lies an even more compelling destination with its own many layers: the alluring Pierce County and its cozy centerpiece of Tacoma. Less than an hour’s drive south of Seattle and just 25 minutes from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Tacoma is idyllically situated along the southeastern shores of Puget Sound, with the mountain range of the Olympic Peninsula to the northwest with the Pacific beyond, and the almost surreal backdrop of Mount Ranier to the southwest.
The highest mountain in the State of Washington, standing at 14,411 feet—less than 100 feet shy of being the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S.—the awe-inspiring Mount Ranier feels like its breathing down your neck, despite it being a roughly 90-minute drive away.
“This region is still almost like the new frontier,” explains Bennish Brown, president and CEO of Travel Tacoma’s Convention & Visitors Bureau. “In the morning you can be kayaking on the Sound and maybe spot a whale, and by lunch be hiking on Mt. Ranier. We also have some great scuba diving, snow skiing, paddleboarding…”
Land like this tends to inspire artists as much as adventurists, and Tacoma has given birth to its share, from crooner Bing Crosby to glass-blowing legend Dale Chihuly. The latter has arguably left a much bigger footprint, with his particular craft being pervasive in the local culture—it’s taught in local high schools, there are dozens of works in Tacoma bars and restaurants, there’s the world-class Museum of Glass, and even the Bridge of Glass, a 500-foot covered pedestrian footbridge decorated with Chihuly artworks that crosses Interstate 705 and links the museum on the shorefront to Tacoma’s downtown.
And if you peer downward as you’re walking overhead, don’t be surprised to see a vintage car or two roll by. Classic automobiles hold a special place in the locals’ hearts, says Brown, “and we’re not just talking about Sunday driving either.” Despite the fact that there are just 200,000 residents here, there are two automobile museums. When the newest—the LeMay-America’s Car Museum (named for the late Tacoma business icon Harold LeMay)—opened in 2012, some of the luminaries in attendance included jewelry magnate Nicola Bulgari and then-Tonight Show host Jay Leno.
Further tantalizing the senses in this region is a diet rich in chowder and other seafood fare. Visitors can wash it down with one of the many brands from a thriving local craft beer scene, and then delight in Pierce County’s dessert of choice, rhubarb pie (the nearby town of Sumner is hailed as the rhubarb capital of the world). And it you still have a sweet tooth to satisfy, you’ll be happy to know that Almond Roca candy is manufactured and distributed in Tacoma.
And yet the thousands of tourists that will be flocking to the region June 12-18 will have almost none of these many attractions on their minds, as they’ll clearly be here for the golf. Pierce County’s emerging golf scene begins and ends with this year’s U.S. Open site of Chambers Bay, the first course in the Pacific Northwest and only the third municipal layout to ever host an Open.
Located immediately south of Tacoma in University Place, along the shores of Puget Sound, Chambers Bay is one of six U.S. Open venues where public players can still tee it up (along with Pinehurst No. 2, Pebble Beach, Bethpage Black, Torrey Pines South and Erin Hills in Wisconsin, site of the 2017 Open).
Expect to pay roughly $225 to $275 US for the privilege—but you will feel privileged. Handed a 250-acre sandbox to play in, Robert Trent Jones II composed an ode to Scottish links from a former mining site—a spellbinding, walking-only layout woven through a myriad of heaving dunes, the result of the reorientation of 1.4 million cubic yards of sand and earth.
Buffered, as it is, from the Pacific winds by Puget Sound and Olympic Peninsula, with its snow-capped mountains in glorious view, makes this a little less of a true links course. But the Scottish flavour is more than balanced by wispy golden heather, a border of train tracks, a varying assortment of bunkers and waste areas, and the absence of dreaded features common to North American golf, such as housing and cartpaths. The sandy base also ensures that rain delays are a rarity.
“The land set aside for the golf course was degraded after a century of industrial usage but contained bold landforms shaped by wind and weather,” notes RTJ II’s website. “The design team crafted a dramatic links landscape by clearing non-native vegetation and reworking the sand piles left from mining operations into massive dunes.”
The resulting design, featuring no specific line of play, encourages the creative sort of shotmaking that makes links golf so attractive.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, took note of Chambers Bay’s commitment to sustainable building and maintenance, which led its 2007 certifification as a Silver Signature Sanctuary by Audubon International—the first golf course in the Northwest to receive such recognition.
Complementing the local hit parade is The Home Course in DuPont, which, along with Chambers Bay, co-hosted the 2010 U.S. Amateur. Ranked by Golfweek as the No. 2 Public Course in the state, this walkable and very affordable design sits 200 feet about Puget Sound and features more than a dozen authentic sod-wall bunkers.
Gold Mountain’s Olympic Course, which hosted the 2011 U.S. Junior and caps out at $45 US, might be the best municipal value in the country, according to noted golf scribe Jason Deegan. “The setting of the backwoods Kitsap Peninsula is quintessential Washington State, right down to the mature evergreens, ski-slope-like terrain and the backdrop of snow-capped mountains.”
Other worthy layouts include and Salish Cliffs in nearby Shelton and Trophy Lake Golf & Casting in Port Orchard (two of its ponds are stocked with fish, with fly rods available for rent).
Another tremendous bang for the buck is Lake Spanaway in Tacoma, which tops out at a mere $39.75. The majestic 48-year-old creation from golf architect A. V. Macan (who also sculpted Royal Colwood in Victoria) is carved out of a forest of native firs—not a rarity for a place they call the Evergreen state.
Indeed, between the array of quality golf courses and the spellbinding beauty of this colourful corner of the Pacific Northwest, it might even be worthy of a book.
Let’s call it Fifty Shades of Green.
STAY & PLAY
The Championship Experience (thechampionshipexperience.com) includes two nights’ accommodations at the Hotel Murano (a 2011 Condé Nast Gold List member), as well as a round at each of Chambers Bay, The Home Course and Gold Mountain. The package, based on double occupancy, runs from $529-$669 per person, depending upon the season.
Travel Tacoma & Pierce County: TravelTacoma.com
Tacoma Visitors Information: (800) 272-2662
Chambers Bay GC: ChambersBayGolf.com; (253) 460-4653
U.S. Open ticket info: usga.org/Tickets