Wine Valley lives up to press clippings

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WALLA WALLA - I remember the day well.

It was late November, post-Thanksgiving, and the temperature was unseasonably warm, hovering near 70 degrees.

Bright sunshine painted long shadows across the first fairway as two of my Union-Bulletin colleagues and I savored our first look at the infant Wine Valley Golf Club a few miles west of town and just north of U.S. Highway 12.

That was in 2009 and John Thorsnes, Wine Valley's director of golf, was trying to drum up some future business by offering local players an opportunity to try out the front nine holes even though the back nine was still under construction and not scheduled to open to the public until the following spring.

As we stood on the first tee, enjoying a gentle southwesterly breeze and gawking at the magnificent vistas the course afforded in every direction, it was hard to envision the very same landscape covered by a blanket of snow.

But less than 24 hours later, the entire valley took on the texture of a Christmas card. And although Thorsnes remembers getting out on the course for one day in December, Old Man Winter stuck around through most of January, which relegated even the most avid golfers to hang out around their fire places and watch the college bowl games on TV.

The snow eventually melted, however, and the finishing touches on the back nine were completed. And Wine Valley held its grand opening on schedule in April of 2010.

And despite economic hard times, the Dan Hixson-designed links-style course has experienced a steady increase in play that has gone hand-in-hand with welcome recognition as one of the best new golf courses in the entire country.

Golfweek ranked Wine Valley No. 5 nationally among best new courses in 2009. And this year, Golfweek has positioned Wine Valley as the second best course in the state - right behind the Robert Trent Jones Chambers Bay course in University Place and just ahead of Palouse Ridge in Pullman - and No. 99 nationally among best modern courses.

That last list includes such prestigious layouts as the Pete Dye-designed Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis.; Jack Nicklaus' Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio; Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula, both in Pebble Beach, Calif.; TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Verde, Fla.; Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C.; and Butler National in Oak Brook, Ill., just to mention a few of the more recognizable names.

Some 20 months after that sun-splashed November day in 2009, I finally made it back to Wine Valley last week to see what all the fuss was about. I was invited to join some old golfing buddies who play Wine Valley on a semi-regular basis, and I can sum up the experience in three words.

What a treat.

Wine Valley is a surreal visual montage, with spacious green fairways, yawning bunkers, water hazards that appear to have been there since the beginning of time, and monster greens.

The course features five different playing lengths ranging from the 7,360-yard gold tees to the 5,105-yard reds. Our group opted to play from the blue tees, which measured 6,335 yards.

That's comparable to the blue tees at the Walla Walla Country Club, which are listed at 6,471 yards. Both courses are par-72, of course, and their respective blue tees slope ratings are within a half a stroke of one another.

But there's little question in my mind that Wine Valley plays considerably shorter, no doubt because the fairways are firmer and allow for more roll. And I like the idea of being able to reach most of the par-4 holes in regulation, something that is far more difficult at the country club.

But whatever advantage Wine Valley gives you in distance, it takes back once you reach the greens. That's where the fun really begins.

Wine Valley's greens are often three times larger than those at the country club. Their contoured surfaces offer severe left-and-right breaks as well as steep up-and-downhill challenges. And they're quick.

In other words, getting to the greens in regulation seldom, if ever, guarantees par.

But in my estimation, Wine Valley is a more manageable course than is the country club.

Because no matter how many hours I spend on the driving range, my distance off the tee isn't likely to improve a great deal. Which means that most of those country club par-4s will remain difficult to reach in two.

But with a little extra practice - make that a lot of extra practice - there's potential to improve my chipping and putting skills. Perhaps to the point where I can cut down on all those three- and four-putts that are not uncommon at Wine Valley.

Which is one very good reason why I look forward to my next round at Wine Valley. And I can assure you it won't be 20 months from now.

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