Story and photos by Yvonne Pepin Wakefield
Always looking on the Sunnyside, the community and the course’s members keep this golf course going.
Bull frogs drone and dairy cows moo as golf balls slice the pastoral airs surrounding the pristinely manicured Black Rock Creek Golf Course in Sunnyside, Wash., in the center of the state’s agricultural Yakima Valley.
Surrounded by dairy farms, hop yards and grape vineyards this 18-hole course is a destination in itself, along the region’s winery trail.
In 1947 a board of local businessmen, many of them members of the Elks Lodge, began to carve nine fairways out of alkaline sage land. The original clubhouse and pro shop were located in the now-vacant building beside a new clubhouse with amenities unheard of in days when horse-drawn equipment sowed the region’s farm fields. Some of these relics rest in out-of-bounds areas positioned throughout the course, which expanded to 18 holes in the 1990s.
As the golf industry saw a change in play and demographics over the past 15 years, Black Rock Creek, like other courses across the country, saw a decrease in membership and consequent deterioration of the course.
One member, Jim Gauley, foresaw that a new business model was needed to keep Black Rock Creek from closing. In late 2018 he reached out to the board and in 2019, along with his longtime business partner, Jim Early, closed on the sale of the grounds as the course’s new owners.
Today, the original community-minded spirit is still a driving force on this par-72 layout, which has pockets of surprises, like water features populated by fowl, muskrats and amphibians and water hazards hugging fairways. But it is the members who volunteer to help out in every aspect that shape the course and conditions of play.
According to Gauley, “There is no structured schedule for volunteers. We have talented people doing everything from maintaining golf cars, cutting and trimming trees, to running our tournaments in the Golf Genius program. Everybody does what they are good at. If there is a project that needs to be done, someone comes out and helps. Our volunteers complement our talented grounds crew nicely, and can get projects done that we just don’t have the team to support.”
He notes two volunteers who spent the entire winter trimming trees. “I think they worked more hours out there than my staff for five weeks straight.”
With a solid business background, Gauley knows how to keep an operation afloat. “We’ve invested heavily in the last three years developing the course.” Investments include the purchase of new maintenance equipment, 30 new Yamaha carts, expansion of the driving range, pond development and a fairway face lift. The greens are so tight one player was prompted to pluck then chew a grass spear to confirm it was not artificial turf.
“You have to do everything right, every day, from the grounds, to the pro shop to the restaurant,” says Gauley, and cites youth programs as a priority. “We need to get young kids that are part of the Hispanic community out here. They are a crucial part of the demographic.”
Gauley is looking into programs like First Tee, a non-profit organization that teaches children life skills through golf, as a way to find the right solution for new young players.
Twenty employees keep Black Rock Creek running. Assistant Professional Beau Walker is a new addition to the team. He took up golf just three years ago and this former professional hockey player has risen to the rank of a level one associate PGA pro.
In the kitchen, Erica Cruz and Molly Ramos tend bar, serve made-to-order breakfasts and lunches and keep the to-go ice box filled with fresh sandwiches.
Located in Sunnyside, Wash. just off I-82 halfway between Yakima and the Tri-Cities, this easy-to-find, dog-friendly course is open year-round.
For information, visit BlackRockCreekGolfCourse.com.
Yvonne Pepin-Wakefield, Ph.D. is a published author and award-winning artist. She took up the game in 2016 and is known for her colorful language on the golf course. Visit her website at YvonnePepinWakefield.com.