Caretaker at the Canyon

by ROBERT HEROLD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & arrived at the Indian Canyon clubhouse with the idrizzle. I had asked the head professional, Gary iLindeblad, to show me how he plays what he regards to be the best holes at the Canyon. I poked my head into the small, crowded office where Lindeblad can be found when he isn't giving a lesson or holding court out on the far end of the best driving range in town.

"It's supposed to rain all day," he said.

I looked out the window at the gray, leaden clouds; the drizzle had turned into real rain.

"The wind isn't blowing," I offered, "and it isn't cold."

"Your call," Lindeblad said.

I told him that I didn't want to risk him catching a cold. Lindeblad, you see, has been fighting cancer for more than seven years now, and his immune system is in bad shape. He had a very rough go last winter, but you would never know just how sick he has been if you didn't ask. Even on those days when he is poisoned by chemotherapy, by afternoon you'll find him out on the range, where he practices, teaches, jokes, tells stories -- all seemingly at the same time. In his "outdoor office," Lindeblad is a one-man cracker barrel session -- even on a chemo day.

As if the cancer wasn't enough of a challenge, he has worn out the cartilage in his left knee. So to be able to swing a golf club, he has had to overhaul his swing and wear a $2,800 brace that looks as if it were made for Darth Vader.

Still, he refuses to worry about playing golf in the rain. "Oh, I won't catch a cold," he said as he began the 10-minute process of putting on the brace. "This thing doesn't quite fit," he muttered. "I'll get it adjusted."

Just more work in progress.

Just Being Gary

Lindeblad, who became head pro at the Canyon in 1984, is now the longest-serving public golf professional in Spokane. He's our window onto public golf in the city -- our institutional memory and a bridge to our golf history. He's a genuine original and a community treasure.

And he couldn't care less.

Piety and reverence aren't in Lindeblad's vocabulary. Consider that Lindeblad may be the only person to turn down an invitation to the White House to receive an award from President Bush. Lindeblad was chosen to be Washington's "Republican Small Businessman of the Year," but he's no fan of the president, and the GOP hasn't been doing much for him lately either.

Gary declined.

Actually, he set the terms by which he would accept. He would come if and when Bush's party changed its position on abortion and gay rights. His language, however, was somewhat more colorful.

"My wife," he said, "made me rewrite my letter. She said, 'You can't talk to the president that way.'"

Gary is just Gary.

And he can play, and he can teach. In 1991, he won the tournament he founded, the Rosauers Open. He won the Lilac City Invitational in 1995. Then, after he turned 50, he qualified for the senior tour's PGA Championship and came within a couple of strokes of making the cut. He has played on nine Hudson Cups. Most recently, he received his highest honor when his peers elected him into the Northwest PGA Hall of Fame. Only the third Spokane professional selected to the Hall, he is the first to be selected for both his playing and his teaching. As for that teaching, he has been chosen by his peers as teacher of the year.

"Going back to his years as an assistant at Liberty Lake, Gary has done so much for junior golf," says Mark Gardner, head professional at the Creek at Qualchan. "He arranged the junior clinics and the camps, and continues to be involved. I've never known anyone who loves the game more."

To this day, Lindeblad collects and distributes clubs to underprivileged high school golfers who can't afford to buy equipment. He has even taken clubs out to the Indian reservations.

Lindeblad has also long been public golf's most vocal advocate down in City Hall. For example, he fought to have the Canyon's greens spread with fungicide and covered before winter arrived. After years of nagging and cajoling, he got a call from Frank McCoy, the parks director at the time: "OK, Lindeblad, your carping has paid off. We'll cover the greens -- and use the fungicide, too."

This single decision has made a huge difference in the health of the course. Before the covering, the Canyon's greens often showed the results of winter damage well into June. Today, the greens are good to go when the course opens.

Despite a slow start, the Rosauers Open has become the largest tournament in the Northwest PGA Section. The first competition was held in 1987. But he didn't just want a tournament; he wanted a community effort that would have a payoff for charity. Lindeblad estimates the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery has received around $1.5 million from the event, with much more coming through in-kind donations from the many businesses that support the event. More than 80 companies contribute to the purse. (That first year, however, he made good on his promise to the Nursery by writing a $10,000 personal check to the charity.)

Today, says Lindeblad, spreading the credit with other local pros who helped launch the event, "I'm little more than a PR guy and a greeter. We have a very good organization in place."

A Longer, Tougher Canyon

"The Canyon," designed by the highly regarded course architect, Chandler Egan (who also did the redesign of Pebble Beach), was constructed during the mid-1930s via one of FDR's make-work programs, the WPA. Nestled among ponderosas and basalt, Lindablad calls it an "elegant old course."

But in his next breath, he warns that it is in "in need of a serious facelift."

I asked what needs to be done to this jewel of a course, which has appeared many times on Golf Digest's top 100 public links list.

Then, Lindeblad lays out his vision: Begin -- and this is crucial, he says -- by modernizing the watering system.

Despite the antiquated watering system, Lindeblad says that the course is in surprisingly good shape, but only, he says, because of "above and beyond work" of the Canyon green's superintendent, Don Nelson. When I asked Nelson about the watering system, he agreed: "It's a pain in the ass."

Once the watering system is modernized, Lindeblad would then add back the many sand traps that have been taken out over the years, plus add a few more for good measure. He would also work on improving the detailing, such as cart paths.

Are Spokane's old public courses just not long enough for the modern equipment and balls?

"They are too short," says Lindeblad, adding that it would be relatively easy to add yardage to the Canyon. He identified eight holes that could be lengthened. He would also move back couple of greens. "We could bring this course up to between 6,600 and 6,700 yards without all that much trouble."

He would also reduce the par from 72 to 70 by making holes No. 1 and No. 18 both par fours: "At 6,600 yards and par 70, the Canyon would once again be a very tough test of golf, especially when we cut the greens short and grow in the rough."

With these improvements, would Spokane be positioned, once again, to play host to national competitions? "No question," Lindeblad answered. "For an LPGA tournament, or a senior tournament, this course would be perfect."

If Lindablad is right, modernizing Indian Canyon would be good not only for the local golf community, but it could also have an impact on economic development.

Pivotal Holes

"Every time this course gets written up in some magazine, they always pick the 14th hole as the best hole," says Lindeblad, "If not the 14th hole, then the 5th."

Spokane golfers know the 14th at the Canyon to be a long par four, gently swinging dogleg left, with a steep slope to the right of the fairway and trees down the left side of the fairway; the green is guarded by a trap on the right. The 5th is a long, uphill par four with a diabolically tiered green. Shots struck perfectly sometimes spin back off the green -- sometimes way off, up to 40 yards off. More than one very good tournament level player has four putted from inside of 10 feet.

Lindeblad didn't show me these holes. Instead, he wanted to show me what he regarded to be the "pivotal holes" -- three on the front side, four on the back: Nos. 1, 2, 8, 10, 16, 17 and 18.

"A pivotal hole," said Lindeblad, "is a hole where you can make birdie, maybe even an eagle, and where par isn't difficult. But they are holes where if you don't watch out, you can go for a really big number. They are also positioned in the hole sequence so as to make it more likely that the golfer will want to take a chance."

In other words, the pivotal hole is one that invites risk with the promise of reward.

He loves the 16th hole, a beautiful hole where the player drives off an elevated tee and toward the crest of a very steep slope well over 200 yards out. Carry the slope, and the ball will give you a great roll leaving a short iron to the very tricky green. But hit your tee shot even slightly to the right, and you will likely see your ball disappear deep into the woods. Hit it slightly to the left and you risk rolling down the side of a steep embankment. If you don't make it to the bottom of the slope, you will face a very difficult downhill second shot.

"I have no doubts," acknowledged Lindeblad, "that over the years 16 has given up more birdies than 14; but when you add in all the double bogeys and triple bogeys on 16, I just know that the total number of strokes taken on 16 is more than on 14."

That's what he means by "pivotal."

While he would be tempted to lengthen the short par four 17, he very much likes the hole as it is -- a seemingly easy hole with the green tucked behind a forest of trees which invites a very safe tee shot with an iron to a wide fairway. But the big hitters know that they can drive the green -- that is if they risk taking their tee shot over trees. Risk/reward, that's what Lindeblad looks for. Hit an iron and play it safe, or go for maybe an eagle by taking a crack at the green.

And the 17th is another hole that confronts the golfer with a terrifying green. More than one long hitter has found disaster after having actually driven over the green. Expecting to see their tee shots rewarded, they reach the green only to see that the ball has come to rest on an impossible downhill lie. These big hitters then must then negotiate chips to a lightening fast green that falls away. Depending on where the pin is located, five's are easy to make. More than a few have. And sometimes when the match or tournament is at stake. That's pivotal.

Lindeblad's predecessor, Bill Welch, told me once that the toughest second shot in Spokane was on the 12th hole at the Canyon. Lindeblad disagrees -- the second shot at 12 is difficult "only if you go for the green in two," he says. "If you don't -- and most players shouldn't even try because they can't reach it anyway, then all you have to do is take a seven or eight iron and lay up." And that's exactly what he had me do. I hit the eight iron and, just as he predicted, my third shot was an easy nine iron. Ho-hum.

The Natural

Lindeblad likes ho-hum, but if the situation requires it, he will walk the plank. For example, on this same hole he uncharacteristically hooked his tee shot -- his brace and new swing haven't quite been dialed in yet. We found his ball nestled amongst several trees, he looked things over, stood over his second shot and muttered: "I'm about to do something really stupid. I would only do this in the last round of the Rosauers if I was a couple down and needed a birdie."

His version of "something stupid" turned out to be a very crisp, knocked down driving hook, with a long iron, hit through at most a four-foot opening three tree rows deep. No problem.

For years, Lindeblad has amazed friends and onlookers with his amazing accuracy. In the dead of winter a few years back, he drove to the course on a clear day to hit some balls. He placed a mat outside the pro shop and began hitting four woods out over the empty parking lot into the range.

Up walks one of the Canyon's "lifers," C. J. Malico. "What are you aiming at," Malico asked?

"Nothing in particular," said Lindeblad.

Malico suggested that he pick out a target. Lindablad fixed his gaze on the streetlight located at the far end of the parking lot, 100 yards away.

"You want to see me hit that?"

"The light post?" asked Malico?

"No, not the light post. The light."

After a moment or two of the usual male boasting, challenges and counter challenges, Lindeblad took aim and, on his very first swing, made like Robert Redford in the The Natural -- he nailed that streetlight. Dead center. A light that couldn't be more than two feet in diameter. It blew apart. One hundred yards away and 30 feet in the air. One swing.

"Best money I ever spent," said a broadly smiling Lindeblad, referring to the $150 replacement cost of the light.

Big Hitters in Spokane

During the glory years of golf in Spokane, the 1940s, the city hosted a number of major events including the 1944 PGA championship at Manito, and, in 1946, the first LPGA National Open at Spokane Country Club won by Patty Berg in a tournament that saw Spokane's Betty Jean Rucker take Berg to the 17th hole before losing. The last such major LPGA tournament took place in 1959 at Esmeralda and was won by the great Mickey Wright.

Indian Canyon, during this same time period, hosted any number of national championships, including the 1941 National Public Links won by Bill Welch, who would go on to become head professional at the Canyon. Then, in 1946, the Canyon hosted first National Junior Boys Championship, which was won by local golf legend Al Mengert.

The year 1945 was an important one in professional golf -- that was the year Byron Nelson won 11 straight tournaments and 18 overall. One of Nelson's wins was the Esmeralda Open held at the Canyon, which he won by seven strokes, shooting rounds of 66, 66, 70 and 64. He defeated a very strong field that included both Sam Snead and Ben Hogan.

The last national tournaments held in Spokane were played during the 1980s when the Canyon hosted both the men's and women's U.S. Public Links championships. (For more, check out Bill Elston's Golf History of Spokane.) -- Robert Herold

Valleyfest @ Spokane Valley

Sat., Sept. 23, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sun., Sept. 24, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
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