Going the Rounds: Westport course, not golf itself, should be focus of debate

  • Tue Nov 12th, 2019 6:00pm
  • Sports

By Rick Anderson

For the Grays Harbor News Group

Although I almost certainly will be too old to play it (badly) if and when it ever gets built, I’m rooting for a links-style golf course proposed for the Westport area to eventually reach fruition.

I’m realistic enough, however, to realize that environmental and land-use considerations might well trump the financial and recreational benefits of such a project.

That’s why I was neither surprised nor offended when a Daily World letter-writer criticized the proposal last month.

Midway through a generally well-reasoned argument, though, the writer referred to golf as a “declining (sport) in the United States.” That’s a trifle deceptive.

It’s certainly true that more than 200 courses (out of more than 11,000 nationwide) closed last year. Participation numbers also have dropped over the past decade.

But many of the closures resulted not so much from a lack of golfers, but developers offering course owners a better price for the land. Some, such as Raymond’s Willapa Harbor Golf Course, eventually could re-open under different management.

In addition, there are signs that the golf industry has stabilized after some lean years.

“The last couple of years have been a lot better — and not just here, my buddies in the Northwest say the same thing,” said Ronnie Espedal, the operator/pro at Highland Golf Course in Cosmopolis. “A lot of it is because the economy is better. And the return of Tiger Woods has helped, too.”

The Westport links proposal has come at a time when the golf industry is under increasing attack from environmentalists and social activists.

Seattle, for example, has three city-owned public courses (plus an 18-hole par-3 course) — an absurdly low total for a city of that size.

Yet some members of Seattle’s ultra-liberal city government are not only opposed to adding public golf courses but want to shut down the ones that exist. They contend the land could be better used for other purposes, such as building low-income housing.

While it is always risky (and often inaccurate) to generalize, much of the opposition seems to come from non-golfers who regard the sport as frivolous.

Actually, golf is a recreational activity no more or less frivolous than fishing, boating, camping or hiking.

There’s also something off-putting about non-participants weighing in on the worthiness of quality-of-life pursuits enjoyed by others. I don’t drink coffee, but I haven’t yet advocated that all Starbucks stores be bulldozed into oblivion.

A previous attempt to construct a links-style course in the Westport area was shot down about a decade ago, primarily due to environmental concerns and misgivings about the developer.

There were also two under-publicized issues — the quality of the course and the weather — that figured into the previous controversy.

Tourists aren’t going to trek hundreds of miles to the South Beach area to play a routine resort course. While there was vague talk of PGA Tour star Phil Mickelson designing the previous links proposal, nothing was set in concrete.

But the involvement of noted golf architect David McLay Kidd with the investment group (Westport Golf LLC), lends considerable weight to the proposed future project.

The Scottish-born, Oregon-based Kidd is best known for designing the world-renowned, fabulously successful original course at the Bandon Dunes resort in Southwest Oregon — the obvious template for the Westport project. More recently, he completed Gamble Sands, a highly regarded public links course in North Central Washington.

“That tells me that these people are serious,” Espedal said. “This guy is the real deal. He’s fantastic.”

“He specializes in fun, playable golf courses,” Grays Harbor investment broker and noted golf aficionado Ed Klein added.

Klein is enthusiastic about virtually every aspect of the proposal, from the location to the investment group’s avowed intent to keep fees reasonable. He doesn’t believe that the notoriously wet Grays Harbor winters and springs will deter visiting golfers.

“It will be the destination for golf in Western Washington,” Klein predicted, noting that inclement weather hasn’t slowed the pilgrimage to Bandon Dunes.

On this count, I’m not entirely convinced. Bandon Dunes is located some 400 miles south of Westport, with a weather pattern more similar to Coastal Northern California than Coastal Washington. It will take a hardy lot to patronize a Westport course in late February or early November.

The pros and cons of this project are easily summarized. A properly developed course would be a big economic boon to an area that badly needs one. Just as obviously, there are significant environmental hurdles to clear.

One positive aspect of the initial public meetings is that key people on both sides of the issue have indicated a willingness to compromise. The proposal should receive a thorough vetting.

But let’s make it a debate on the specific project, not a referendum on the sport of golf.