Who wants to golf in the Pacific Northwest in the winter? Well, the more important thing is that you can. Scott Hanson and Craig Smith show you where in this special winter installment of our Teeing Off series of golf club reviews. So bundle up, pack the clubs and read on.
There are plenty of good reasons to play golf in the winter, and if you are lucky enough to play on a nice day, and on a dry course, it can be great fun.
But when we stepped out of our cars on an early December morning at Oakbrook Golf Club outside Tacoma, the only thing I could think about was that it was 26 degrees out and no one in their right mind would want to golf in such weather.
There was not another car in the parking lot, and we assumed the course was closed. We were disappointed that it wasn’t, and it was more survival than fun in the frosty conditions.
But about two weeks later, we played again at Oakbrook on a day that was supposed to be very ugly with heavy rain and winds in the forecast. We were pleasantly surprised when we played 18 mostly dry holes and discovered why Oakbrook has a reputation as one of the best wet-weather courses in the area.
This will be both a review of Oakbrook and a general discussion of winter golf, which has its own pleasures and advantages.
Greens fees are lower in the winter, and there are fewer people playing, which makes the rounds more relaxing: no worrying that you are too slow or getting frustrated if the group in front of you is. You can even pick up your ball, clean it and place it nicely back on the ground without being called a cheater.
Yes, winter golf can be great fun on many days. But it can also be not so fun, such as when the course is frozen and you are playing on temporary greens.
We experienced a bit of both in our two rounds at Oakbrook, which we chose for its reputation as a good winter-weather course and also its somewhat recent conversion to a public course after being a longtime private country club.
The condition of golf courses in the winter, we must point out, varies greatly. While Oakbrook’s fairways were hard and the balls would roll even despite recent heavy rains, we have also played courses where almost every drive gets embedded and has to be excavated.
But for golfers who do their homework – on both course selection and weather forecast — there is no reason not to tee it up. At least on some days.
As Craig put it: “An enjoyable round in winter lends itself to self-congratulations to have ventured onto the course. A round in harsh conditions is just a survival march in duck-hunting garb where you count down the holes – ‘Six more to go, five more to go.’ ”
Hanson: My father and frequent golf partner came by to pick me up for our second round at Oakbrook (not the frigid one), and the first thing he said was that he wasn’t going. It was raining so hard and the wind was blowing so much that I didn’t even attempt to argue, but I asked if I could borrow his rain pants. (Yes, something a true winter golfer probably should own.)
As we chatted for a few minutes, the rain let up and he had a change of heart. While happy, I was also concerned that this could turn out badly for both of us: He would be playing in the rain, and I would no longer have his rain pants.
I should not have worried. It was one of my most enjoyable rounds of the year. It rained for a few holes, and hard for a few minutes a couple of times, but each time conditions bordered on uncomfortable, it let up.
It had rained a lot the previous two days, but the course was in great condition. I only got mud on my ball a few times, and only when I was off the fairway. The fairways somehow were firm, and I never stopped being amazed when I watched balls roll for yards after hitting the ground. The greens seemed in summer condition, and at times when the sun came out, I almost felt like I was playing in May.
We played a combination of white and green tees (6,047 yards) and found it to be tough enough to be challenging but still gave us bogey (and double bogey) golfers a chance to score well. That we saw less than a handful of other golfers during our round was great for us (although not for the course revenues). And the course was in such great shape that carts were allowed on it (instead of being confined to cart paths to protect fairways).
The restaurant was a welcome sight, especially after our round in the cold. Not only was our food good – club sandwich, hamburger and the seafood stew — but I regained feeling in my toes.
Smith: Playing in the winter teaches you to deal with different conditions and concentrate on areas of your game that need work. For one thing, you can drop and hit an extra ball after botching a shot because you won’t be causing a delay.
Because Oakbrook was private for so long, my hunch is that 75 percent of public-course players in the Puget Sound area don’t know that this good course exists. The fact that four Washington Open Invitationals have been played on it tells you plenty.
Also: Although there are homes on every hole, I have never seen so many U.S. flags flying at homes. I trace this to the proximity to Joint Base Lewis-McChord. the course is appropriately named because it is lined with hundreds of oak trees.
Oakbrook was built in 1966 as a private club and became public in 2012 when purchased by Ryan Moore golf, the company headed by PGA Tour player Moore. Columbia Hospitality operates the course. The good restaurant offers “steak nights” and other promotions to attract non-golfers in the Tacoma-Lakewood-University Place area.
Hanson: The first round at Oakbrook. I’m not sure humans should even be outdoors when it’s 26 degrees, let alone play golf. The fairways had a layer of ice on them, and temporary greens were placed in fairways near the real ones. It’s just not the same putting on a fairway.
Craig discovered there was one benefit of playing in the Arctic. His tee shot on the only hole with water hit the ice that covered it, bounced up into the red hazard stake above the pond, then bounced backward onto the ice, where it stopped. The ice was so thick, Craig probably could have gone onto it and hit a shot, but “probably” was not enough to convince him. But he did get his ball back, using a club to scoop it off the ice.
Smith: Temporary greens, which are just low-cut areas of fairways, are like having a craving for fresh salmon and being handed a can of cat food. I usually putted one-handed with whatever club I had last used just to get it over with. Another problem with temporary greens is that they take almost all greenside bunkers out of play and dealing with bunkers is part of a round of golf.
When Scott sank a 99-foot chip into the hole on a temporary green, the consensus was, “Too bad you wasted that shot on a temp green.”
Also: If you don’t have GPS, Oakbrook can be difficult to find if you are unfamiliar with the area. Do your homework to avoid frustration. … About 30 Canada geese landed on 18th fairway when we played on the warmer day. … Signage to next hole is inadequate on some holes where next tee isn’t obvious.
What makes a course good in the winter? “Two words: Sand and drainage,” said Larry Gilhuly, an agronomist for the United States Golf Association. “If you don’t have sand, you better have really good drainage.” Good winter courses stay dry and firm, even during periods of rain. But many courses around here turn into a mucky mess during the winter. … Some courses put tarps over their front-nine greens overnight during freezing weather so golfers can use them in the morning. … Washington and other northern states don’t allow winter scores to be posted for handicap index purposes. One reason is that the ball doesn’t roll as far in soggy, winter conditions as it does in the other three seasons. Another is the use, at times, of temporary greens.
Smith: One nice thing about playing with Scott and his father is hearing these three wonderful words: “Nice shot, Dad!”
Rating (1 to 4 stars)
Hanson: 3½. The course is worth playing year round, and it has to be in the discussion for best wet-weather course in Western Washington.
Smith: 3. Solid course unknown to many golfers. Well worth the drive.
Weathering the weather
Here are 10 other courses that are worth playing in the winter because they remain relatively dry. (in alphabetical order). The list was compiled with the help of several local golf officials and players.
- Capitol City (Olympia) — Many say it’s the best winter course in Puget Sound area
- Chambers Bay (University Place) — Closed now as greens are being redone
- Lake Spanaway GC (Spanaway) — Over 700 tons of sand applied in 2007
- Jefferson Park GC (Seattle) — The best of the Seattle munis in the winter
- Gold Mountain (Bremerton) — The Olympic course has an edge over the Cascade
- The Home Course (Dupont) — Another reason this is a must-play
- Legion GC (Everett) — Will remain shortened by construction until spring
- Newcastle (Newcastle) — Both China Creek and Coal Creek courses fare well
- Redmond Ridge (Redmond) — One magazine once called it “best playing condition” in NW
- White Horse (Kingston) — Just another reason to make the trip.
8102 Zircon Drive SW, Lakewood, WA 98498; 253-584-8770
Scott Hanson has been covering golf for The Seattle Times since 2005; Craig Smith covered golf for decades for The Seattle Times before retiring in 2008.