by Howie Stalwick

Thanks to its floating green, the 14th hole at the Coeur d'Alene Resort Golf Course is one of the most famous golf holes in the

world. The floating green, however, has suddenly drawn worthy competition when golfers near and far discuss their playing experiences in golf-mad North Idaho.

Two new 18-hole courses, the Club at Black Rock and the Circling Raven Golf Club, promise to add significantly to the steady stream of golfers who savor golf and natural beauty -- not necessarily in that order -- amid the tranquil, forested mountains of North Idaho.

The ultra-ritzy, ultra-private Black Rock course opened earlier this month. Semi-ritzy, ultra-public Circling Raven (built by the adjoining Coeur d'Alene Casino and Hotel) opens to the public on Saturday. Both courses have been delicately carved into the countryside half an hour south of Coeur d'Alene.

We'll start with a tour of Black Rock because... well, because money talks. You have to shell out a cool 100 grand to play Black Rock (that's for a lifetime family pass; guests can play six times a year with a member for $100 a round). It's another six or seven figures if you also want to buy a lot, but at least you'll be in good position to ask for autographs of Black Rock golf-only members like John Elway and Jake Plummer, the former and current quarterbacks of the Denver Broncos.

Black Rock, simply put, offers some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable on a golf course -- or, for that matter, a national park. Lake Coeur d'Alene, a massive aqua jewel sprawled beneath mountains and pine trees, shares the scenic limelight at the golf course with waterfalls, babbling brooks, ponds, black-rock cliffs, wetlands and grasslands on a Halle Berry-gorgeous course with more peaks and valleys than grandma's heart monitor.

Unless you're training for a triathlon, don't even think about walking Black Rock. If you can't hit it straight, don't even think about playing Black Rock. If the knee-high grass doesn't get you, the gazillion sand traps will. Or the ravines. Or the cliffs. Or the water. Or the greens, which rise and fall more than the stock market.

"We had a member who lost five-and-a-half dozen balls during a three-day tournament," Black Rock head pro Greg Rowley says with an evil grin. "He lost 29 in one round. That was the most, but not by much."

The imaginative and sadistic soul who designed the course is Colorado's Jim Engh, who is nationally renowned for his design work. Judging from all the course's bells and whistles, Engh must have been provided a blank check by Black Rock developer Marshall Chasrown, a former auto sales magnate who bought the property from the Pring family of Spokane.

Black Rock's front nine plays tougher than the back nine, but only if you can keep your mind on golf when viewing all the waterfalls and spectacular lake views. Oh, and keep an eye out for the elk, deer, bald eagles and brown bears who frequent the place on occasion.

The par-4 11th hole, 413 yards from the back tees, is almost worth the price of membership all by its lonesome. The elevated tee offers breathtaking views of the lake, including Rockford Bay. To the left, two waterfalls cascade over steep black cliffs to feed a pool in front of a postage stamp-sized green that is squ-e-e-e-e-zed between giant rock formations on either side.

"If it [the 11th hole] isn't famous yet, it will be," promises Rowley, a Post Falls native who formerly served as assistant pro at the Hayden Lake Country Club. "Jim Engh calls this his favorite hole he's ever developed."

The 36,000-square-foot clubhouse, a stunning combination of wood and stone, was built by noted clubhouse architect Eric Hedlund (a native of nearby St. Maries, Idaho). The clubhouse, tastefully appointed with art, chandeliers and upscale furniture, is scheduled for completion next summer. Open only to members and guests, it will include a fully stocked pro shop (already operating), restaurants, bars, wine cellar, fitness center, sauna, massage center, meditation room (!) and outdoor swimming pool.

Fifteen miles south on Highway 95, Circling Raven is not nearly as dramatic as Black Rock -- how many courses are? -- but it's gorgeous in its own right. As an added bonus, it costs about $100,000 less to play.

Green fees are $70 (discounts are available for groups and tournaments) and, like Black Rock, include a cart and range balls. The casino and hotel are just a John Daly drive away, with a fine restaurant, gaming, off-track betting, live entertainment, occasional pro boxing cards, etc. Circling Raven's impressive clubhouse includes a pro shop and a small cafe and lounge area.

Unlike Black Rock, Circling Raven does not have caddies. However, carts at Circling Raven are equipped with electronic scorecards and graphics of each hole, complete with exact distances to the pin, front of green and back of green on every shot. There's even an electronic "tip from the pro" on certain shots, and you can order ahead so your food is ready at the clubhouse when you make the turn between nines.

Black Rock offers four tees on every hole, with scorecard provisions that make it possible to mix and match hole lengths to create three more options. Circling Raven has five tees on most holes and six on holes like No. 13, a tough par-3 that covers 253 yards from the back tees and requires a drive over thick grasslands.

Circling Raven is as pleasant to the eye as its name is to the tongue. Noted course designer Gene Bates managed to retain the rural feel of the surrounding farmland while creating an interesting, challenging course that is slightly longer (7,189 yards) than Black Rock from the back tees and slightly shorter (4,708 yards) from the ladies' tees. Both courses fill bunkers with snow-white sand produced in Emmett, Idaho.

Bates built the entire course on the east side of Highway 95 (a tunnel under the highway leads to the gargantuan driving range and chipping green). The design companies of famed pro golfers Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf had proposed that most holes be built on the west side of the road.

"Gene Bates designed the course to blend with nature," says Circling Raven head pro Dave Christenson, the former assistant pro at Spokane's Indian Canyon Golf Course. "He wanted to use a lot of the natural terrain, grasslands and wetlands and separate the fairways."

The course has a natural, open, breezy feel. Rock Creek will add to the course's appeal when springtime pumps new life into the currently stagnant water.

Christenson, who named the course, says he's been impressed with the cooperation he's received from the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and course superintendent Bryan Woster.

"These guys do things right," Christenson says. "This is the job I wanted. I probably spent 400 hours on the interview process, and I checked out about 25 books from the library on the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. I'm really glad I'm here."

For more info, call the Club at Black Rock at (208) 665-2005 or Circling Raven at (800) 523-2464.

Publication date: 07/31/03

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