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Miracle at the Canyon 

Indian Canyon is a jewel among the West’s golf courses, yet Spokane has let it slip into disrepair

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The 26th Rosauers Open Invitational at Indian Canyon Golf Course, an event that over the past 26 years has contributed more than $2.5 million to charity, wrapped up last month. The tournament was a big success, but it should be remembered as the “The Miracle at The Canyon.”

The best Northwest professionals played a course that was in terrific shape — faster, harder greens; tees moved farther back; deeper roughs; and more difficult pin placements. In the end, the winning score, shot by Manito Country Club assistant pro Corey Prugh, now a three-time winner, was 14 under par — several strokes higher than most scores over the past decade.

I call it a miracle because only a few weeks before the tournament began, our civic treasure had deteriorated into its worst shape in memory.

It isn’t any secret around golfing circles that Indian Canyon has fallen on bad times. Since 1984, the most recent time the course was in great shape, the city has more or less ignored the many needs that any aging golf course will have. In early July, with the tournament looming and the city’s reputation on the line (this tournament is the largest PGA sectional in the Northwest, and word travels fast), current Parks Director Leroy Eadie brought in a new deputy superintendent to whom he gave the necessary emergency authority to put together a new team. And Eadie’s team pulled off the miracle.

Indian Canyon is unique — a throwback course to an earlier time when nature and topography mattered more than earth-moving equipment. It also writes an important chapter in Spokane’s history. For years the course has been on the Golf Digest list of best public courses in America. Courses like this aren’t designed these days — relatively short, severe sidehill, uphill and downhill lies, tight fairways, with dramatically terraced and undulating greens that together make for terrifying pin placements.

The Canyon’s history extends beyond golf. Annually, area tribes would camp on this spot to fish. The construction of the course also writes a piece of both Spokane and American history. The WPA, the FDR jobs project, built the course during the Depression.

Over the years, the Canyon has hosted two national Public Links Men’s championships, in 1941 and 1984; and one Women’s Public Links championship, in 1989. The four-round tournament record of 266 is still held by none other than Byron Nelson. He shot that score in the 1945 Esmeralda Open, winning by seven shots over a field that included both Ben Hogan and Sam Snead.

To get a sense of what needs to be done, Head Professional Gary Lindeblad obtained the services of California-based golf course architect Dan Hixson, who opened his report with this general assessment: “The course is very unique to have lived for 75 years with virtually no changes, at least architecturally. While the game has changed so many different ways in the last 75 years, at its basic core, Indian Canyon is still a great course.”

Hixson’s recommended improvements go to tee placement, better integration of cart paths, thinning trees. By just relocating and enlarging some of the tees, the course could be made more enjoyable to play and also could be lengthened to 6,600 yards, adding more than 300 yards.

The greens come in for much attention in Hixson’s study. He points out that today’s greens are actually smaller than the original greens and wants to take them back to original size.

Lindeblad also wants the city to look at management; he questions the need for the Golf Manager position. Instead, he suggests the city consider establishing a coordinating committee made up of the four head professionals at the city courses. Why the head pros? Because, Lindeblad says, “We are the only staff who see the course and the golfers every day.”

Now that the Qualchan loan has been retired, more money should be available for improvements. At present, the Park Board does not set priorities to address the kinds of recommendations made by Hixson, but priorities must be set. A coordinating committee could best provide input to the department’s deliberations.

Several years back, Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg looked at an abandoned sand and gravel pit, and instead of a hole in the ground, he saw economic development via golf. He dreamed of the United States Open.

Ladenburg managed to talk his dubious county commissioners into buying this hole in the ground, then approached the USGA, promising to do everything they wanted for a venue worthy of a U.S. Open. In 2015, his vision will be realized when the grandest of golf competitions will be held at Chambers Bay, smack dab in that abandoned sand and gravel pit. (I hasten to point out, in our state’s third largest city.)

At Indian Canyon, we begin with smaller goals. Just returning the course to 1984 standards would be a giant step. After that, there’s no reason we couldn’t see a return of those regional and even national competitions that the city took for granted just 30 years ago. 

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