Less than twenty miles from the Oregon border, Washington’s Wine Valley Golf Club was founded in 2009 among alfalfa fields outside the town of Walla Walla. A modest, small budget development with a pure-golf focus, the design here was handled by a little known former golf professional named Dan Hixson. Hixson had previously designed the Bandon Crossings public course, near the ever-popular seaside resort of Bandon Dunes.
At Wine Valley, Hixson’s canvas was very different to Bandon but blessed with the same sorts of natural undulations that most of the high-profile courses featured in this book enjoy. Here were rolling hills and soft ridges capable of exciting golf, and Hixson’s great achievement was conceiving of a routing that not only flows effortlessly across the terrain, but through a variety of subtly different landforms. Very little earth was moved during construction, and what was created became integral to both the feel and functionality of the operating golf course. An elongated sandy wash that runs alongside the 5th and 12th holes, and across the front of the par three 14th, for example, resembles the use of barranca’s at Pasatiempo and helps from both a drainage and strategic perspective.
Across Wine Valley, Hixson adheres to the strictest interpretations of strategic design, and his course is all the better for it. Fairways are consistently broad yet continually arranged to force those seeking the best approach angle to flirt with driving hazards. In many ways, the greens are outrageously contoured but always with an eye on giving the brave golfer the optimum chance at birdie or better. The bunkering is a real feature, and ruggedly shaped to feel part of the natural landscape. Many of the traps are quite large, but the key bunkers tend to be much smaller and generally more likely to dictate playing tactics. It’s not the massive crater left of the drivable 4th green, for example, that complicates the tee shot, but instead the tiny central trap that forces a choice between the safer low side or the more aggressive play up the higher ledge.
Aside from the excellent 4th, other standouts include the preceding par five 3rd and the strong two-shot 5th, which runs adjacent and then across the sandy wash. Tucked between a couple of bunkered slopes, the punchbowl green on the par five 7th is excellent, as is the strategically arranged 9th, with its green pushed against a wetland and more difficult to hold from the fat side of its sparsely bunkered fairway.
Looping partly around a large agricultural paddock, the pick of the back nine are the par threes and fives. The use of the wash as a carry hazard on the short 14th and a solitary bunker on the 11th, which foreshortens the approach, are both very effective. As is the skinny trap in front of the green on the rising par five 15th, which can be carried at times but is always back-of-mind because of how difficult the recovery shot is. The finishing five, downhill and dotted with bunkers, is a fittingly fun and strategic end to proceedings.
A genuine hidden gem, Wine Valley impresses for both its originality and the fact there are few nondescript or uninteresting holes. While the sort of course that the cerebral golfer, in particular, will enjoy, the layout is attractive enough to ensure that those who think less about their golf, and instinctively reach for driver on every tee box, can still have fun.
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