There is something happening in the far reaches of our corner of the continent, where a game is becoming more than a game, and its players are becoming more than players, as the small Northwest Indian College introduces a golf program to its students
by John Tipping
The main campus of the Northwest Indian College is located on the Lummi Indian Reservation, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border, outside of Bellingham, Wash.
Founded in 1973, the now-accredited school began as a single-purpose training program to prepare Native-Americans for technical positions with Indian-owned and operated fish and shellfish hatcheries.
Today, far removed from its early roots but not its original goals, which are to help Native-Americans find their way to a successful life and career, NWIC has four bachelor degree programs approved by the U.S. Department of Education, the Veterans Administration and the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board. It also has a variety of associate degree programs available to its students, including Hospitality and Golf Management.
If the story ended there, it would be enough. But in 2018, the Lummi Nation joined an ever-growing list of tribal associations adding to its list of self-owned and managed businesses when it purchased Loomis Trail Golf Club.
Located less than half an hour north of the college, up near the Canadian border, Loomis Trail has long been considered one of the best courses in the state – ranked in the “Top 10 Best Courses You Can Play In Washington” by Golfweek magazine, and site of many top-flight events such as U.S. Amateur qualifying, U.S. Senior Open qualifying, and the 2009 NCAA Division II Men’s National Championship.
When the course was bought by the Lummi Nation, some saw an opportunity to not only add to the experiences the students could get at the college, but the golf course itself could fulfill one of the main objectives of the golf industry as a whole – introducing the game to new players.
One of the advantages for tribal members, at least where the golf course is concerned, is an opportunity to learn the game from the ground up – with access, equipment, instruction, you name it.
And that has resulted in the creation of a new golf club at NWIC.
“This is a great opportunity to do and try something they’ve never done before,” said Greg Masten, Executive Director and Education Liaison with the Northwest Indian College Foundation. “Many of our students have never been exposed to the game or never even been on a golf course. So, there is a learning curve, but we knew that would be (the case).”
Masten and his group of educators and tribal leaders have a five-year plan to cement golf into both the college’s and students’ plans, and Loomis Trail will play a central role.
“In year one, we want to create awareness (of golf),” added Masten, “and it is starting as a school club. We started off with seven or eight club members, and we are already up to 16 or 17. Year two we become a formalized team.”
The goal then is to start building a program that can compete on the college level with other programs.
“We are also working to create a mentorship program with other, established schools’ golf programs,” noted Masten. “We have reached out to other schools to help us, teach us about the game and hopefully build our knowledge and understanding of what it takes to be a golf team.
“We are one of the few regional (Native American) colleges,” said Masten. “We have students from 130 different tribes attending our college, mostly from the Northwest, but also California, Arizona, and even back East. We have received really good initial support from major manufacturers interested in helping us get the program started.”
Masten noted that a lot of NWIC’s students come from poverty backgrounds and are first-generation college students. Not only have they not always been encouraged or directed toward a college education, but golf was never a part of the picture.
Josh WIlliams, general manager at Loomis Trail, and his staff (including Justin Conlan, PGA head professional) have helped with the coaching and organizing of the club this year. They have furnished equipment, time on the course, instruction, rules, course etiquette and more.
Will Alvarez is one of those students who have come out for the golf club at NWIC. He is a gregarious 32-year-old from Southern California who has also taken on a bit of a leadership role for the club.
“I had never played before,” Alvarez said. “This was a great opportunity for me to do something I had never done before. I am grateful they (NWIC) made it available to us.”
Alvarez is joined by 16 or 17 others who have since joined the club. They get together at the course, warm up on the range, the practice greens, as though they have been doing it all their lives.
“We are proud to be the development site for NWIC golf,” added Williams. “Our ownership, the Lummi Nation, has been there from the start and quick to commit, not only to the education of these students, but also to growing the game of golf.”
The college’s plan is to begin building a full-on team, putting together a match schedule and participating as an independent school.
The college will begin to recruit athletes for the golf program, just as they currently do in other sports such as basketball, where the school has a team that plays other regional schools including those from Division III and the junior college ranks.
Sounds like a good plan.
John Tipping founded Golf Northwest magazine, a precursor of the Golf Washington section of the PNGA’s magazine; and co-owned the Seattle and Vancouver golf shows for more than a decade. He manages the website GolfNW.com.