Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Golf courses appeal to locals, guests

But it could be final summer for Warm Springs


Continuing our series on local golf courses, the Express takes a look at local favorites Warm Springs, Bigwood, and Sun Valley golf courses.

Warm Springs Golf Course

Walking into the clubhouse at the Warm Springs golf course, you wouldn't really know that the end is near.

Plump and juicy hotdogs are steaming in the steamer, beers are cooling in the beer cooler, and the employees smile as though nothing has changed.

In a way, nothing has changed at the Warm Springs Golf Course—yet.

But with this likely being the course's final year before development begins on the new Warm Springs Ranch, manager Karen Walker and her staff are operating under the bitter assumption that this is the last hurrah.

"It's hard for all the people that have worked here for all those years," she said, adding, "It's even harder for all the people in the valley who won't have any place inexpensive to go golfing."

At this 11th hour, patrons arrived early this wet spring to buy discounted season pass memberships for $250. The price of those memberships has increased to $350 since June 15, but the price still seems reasonable to many people looking to play inexpensively.

Warm Springs is best known for its scrambles, which along with its low prices truly define its local appeal.

"Thursday scrambles are booked through August," said Walker, who also said that spots on less popular Tuesday nights still remain.

For $38, scramble golfers get nine holes of golf with a cart, beer, and dinner at the Warm Springs Ranch Restaurant. Shotgun starts are at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursdays.

The course is playing much as it has since Ketchum's Owen Simpson designed, developed and opened the creekside layout in 1960. Only the times—and the number of golfers in the valley—have changed.

For instance, when Simpson's grandson Pat Simpson took over Warm Springs in 1974, a huge weekday was 10 or 12 players on the course. The rates were $3.50 for nine holes.

About the only golfers interested in playing back then were hackers with a powerful thirst for beer, the Mountain Express reported in a 1997 article.

Extremely tight approach shots framed by towering pines lead the golfer to pinhead greens, some steeply crowned. The course, quirky as it may be, presents shots to challenge even the best golfer.

Rates are $26 for nine holes, "$38 if you want to go around twice," said Walker.

Warm Springs Golf Course is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week.

"It's a fun atmosphere out here," Walker said.

Sun Valley Golf Course

This year the Sun Valley Golf Course welcomes new head professional Jeff Peterson from Sage Lakes in Idaho Falls. Doyle Corbett has taken over as Director of Golf.

Both Corbett and Peterson will be available for lessons this summer and Sun Valley continues its clinics.

Corbett emphasized that Sun Valley is a "public resort golf course," although Sun Valley guest golfers are given priority at the 18-hole championship golf course.

"Sun Valley is not as restricted as people may think," he said, adding that its accessibility to the public is all the more important with Elkhorn Golf Course now becoming a predominantly private golf course.

One indication of Sun Valley's local acceptance can be seen in full season memberships—a little over 100 this year, Corbett said, with an additional 40 holding spring/fall memberships.

Public tee times are welcomed two weeks in advance. During the June 1-Sept. 30 high season, the 18-hole rates for resort guests, with cart, are $125 while the public rates are $145, with cart. There is a nine-hole rate of $80 after 5 p.m. at Sun Valley.

Minor changes have been enacted on the course this spring. Maintenance crews improved various tee boxes and cart paths, said Tate Mills, pro shop associate. Corbett added that hole number 14 was lengthened from 508 to 562 yards from the back tees for the current season.

Sun Valley Company has outlined plans to expand its golf course by nine or 18 holes sometime in the near future. "There is a possibility of nine or maybe 18 holes later, but that all depends upon Mr. Holding," said Corbett, referring to Sun Valley resort owner Earl Holding.

The pro shop is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and the driving range ($3 tokens) from 7-7 except for Tuesday evenings, when it closes early for mowing.

Bigwood Golf Course

David Hardison has plenty of experience with golf in this valley.

From 1997 to 2000, he was the director of golf at Elkhorn golf club. From there, he spent a few years at Teton Pines Country Club in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

This year, Hardison returns to the Wood River Valley as head Professional for Bigwood at Thunder Spring.

After Thunder Spring incorporated in 2000, immediate improvements were made to the Bigwood course.

First among them was the spacious clubhouse, now welcoming golfers for its third year. The facility replaced the previous clubhouse, built in the 1980s that still remains intact near the third tee. That space is currently unused, but can be reserved for private functions.

This season, Hardison's main focus is two-fold at Bigwood.

On the grass, he is determined to make the popular nine-hole course a smooth operation by cutting down on back-ups in play.

In the clubhouse, the story is all about food with the opening of the Terrace Café. The all-outdoor seating café opened Memorial day weekend and is "open to the public and Zenergy club members and also for regular townfolk," said Hardison.

"It's the best deck in town," he added, noting the views of Baldy and the Boulder Mountains.

Speed of play, always an issue at Bigwood because it's a nine-hole course that plays to 18 holes, was one of Hardison's first obstacles to tackle.

By separating tee times by an extra three minutes, positive results are already visible, he said. Time is valuable to golfers and by making his course more efficient, Hardison indicated he can improve the overall atmosphere at Bigwood.

"The recreation value is much better this year," Hardison said.

With average prices for golf at Bigwood under half than those at Sun Valley or Elkhorn, Hardison expects more travelers and resort guests to visit his course this season, "depending on how much they've budgeted for golf."

The regular summer rate will be $35 for 9 holes, $10 extra for a cart.

The course is "very walkable," though, Hardison said. "For people wanting a pull-cart or to carry, it's nice not being forced to take a cart," he said, referring to mandatory cart rules at Sun Valley and Elkhorn. (Only members may walk the Elkhorn course.)

With a new clubhouse, more players, and a determined state of mind, Hardison says that Bigwood "is a better course than it used to be."

Bigwood also hosts local and regional events and tournaments.

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