Tom Lang: Idaho golf is no spud

The Circling Raven course is top-notch in design and land use

Published On: Jul 09 2013 09:32:17 AM EDT

By Tom Lang for dbusiness --

In my nearly 10 years as media manager of the former Ford Senior Players Championship, PGA Tour officials would repeatedly cite two main factors that determined any golf tournaments’ financial success -- the leaderboard and the weather. Frustratingly, those are two things no one has control over.

The weather in particular can affect many businesses for both good and bad, but golf is a major industry touched by the “friendly skies.” I recently discovered that some of the friendliest territory can be found far to our west.

Idaho’s panhandle, stretching high toward the Canadian border, is little-known on the national golf scene -- which is exactly why Michiganders should give it serious consideration for their next vacation. Few crowds, reasonable pricing, and Pacific Northwest views to treat the eye.

And what Idaho does not have is perhaps its best summertime feature. The unique region, nestled between the massive Cascade and Rocky Mountain ranges, does not have the constant, soaking rainfall that is generally associated with the top left corner of the U.S.  According to the locals, the panhandle area on average receives maybe one inch of rainfall during the entire summer and into the fall.

“Right around July 1 and all the way through mid-October we tend to be warm and very dry,” says Tom Davidson, director of golf at Circling Raven at the Couer d’Alene Casino Resort, an Indian tribal-owned property by the same name. “There’s a few occasional, quick afternoon storms when it gets the hottest in August, but for the most part golfers will have warm, dry, calm conditions to play in. In that time frame rain just shuts off like a switch.

“Weather for golf is such a big deal and we’re lucky we’re on this side of the Cascades (Mountain range), where it’s normally drier. We get nowhere near the moisture the west side gets.”

What golfers do get is excellent golf options, some unique Pacific NW food choices, deep fresh-water lakes, rolling plains covered by waving wheat fields set against mountainous backdrops — all enjoyed in temperatures similar to northern Michigan.

The Circling Raven course is top-notch in design and land use. It’s been a consistent top-15 ranked casino-owned course on GolfWeek’s national list, and is steadily in the top three overall in Idaho — right along with a companion golf course at the Couer d’Alene Resort on Lake Couer d’Alene, a 50-square mile body of fresh water. While the names are nearly identical, the latter is a privately-owned resort about 40 minutes away and boasts the only true island green in the country. Golfers must ride a small boat called “Putter” to go from tee to green as absolutely no land connects the two.

The Couer d’Alene Resort course is a unique combination of lakefront holes, parkland style terrain and tiered holes that traverse parallel back and forth up and down the side of a large hill, providing a five-hole stretch which combines elevation drops and some with rock wall backdrops. The two courses have virtually no similarities — except excellent weather and great conditioning — but enjoy a respectful relationship that urges golfers to give both locations a try.

Back at Circling Raven — the day begins at the rustic-looking clubhouse, where Davidson and crew won resort merchandiser of the year from PGA of America in 2010.

“It’s one of those things that sets an expectation and so now the challenge is still living up to that award every single day with every person that walks through, so there’s a lot of responsibility that comes along with it,” Davidson sys.

Once on Circling Raven, it’s common to see moose or elk tracking the property, which is a gorgeous mix of rolling plains, wetlands and some tree-lined holes on the predominantly links-style design. No two holes are alike and the overall design features a good variety of elevation changes, long and short par fours and varying par 3s.

Like Michigan resorts have reported in recent years, Davidson says: “This area is sort of being rediscovered in many ways by Canadians. A few years ago their dollar wasn’t as strong so they weren’t traveling to the States as much. But now that the dollar is stronger they are coming in some very significant numbers.”

Golfers enjoy the Couer d’Alene region so much that large flocks come from Seattle (five hour drive), Calgary (eight hours), Edmonton (11 hours) and Vancouver (seven hours). About 30 precent of golfers utilize stay-and-play packages and that number would be higher if not for casino visitors. Davidson says golfers need to make room reservations at the newly-expanded hotel at least one month in advance during peak golf season — a nice problem for any resort property to endure.