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WEB EXCLUSIVE: Dream becomes a journey, and journey becomes a book

by Jeff Shelley

Jeff Shelley
Jeff Shelley's quest led to three editions of the book, "Golf Courses of the Pacific Northwest."
Jeff Shelley’s quest led to three editions of the book, “Golf Courses of the Pacific Northwest.”

I might just be one of the most obsessed journeymen in Northwest golf. In 1987 I began a quixotic quest that resulted in three editions of the book, “Golf Courses of the Pacific Northwest,” with the first edition in 1990 and the final, 622-pager – published by my company, Fairgreens Media, Inc. -in 1997.

The project, which eventually involved me driving to, playing or touring 550 public and private courses in Washington, Oregon, Northern Idaho and Western Montana, was spawned at 3:00 a.m. one morning in the mid-1980s. Working then as a freelance technical writer and tiring of being some micro-manager’s underling, I awoke with an inspiration to do the most comprehensive book ever written on all the golf courses in America’s upper-left-hand corner.

The concept seemed ideal: I’m a Northwest native, played golf since age 10, loved sports, and was a professional writer. So the next morning I posed the question to my wife, Anni: “Hey dear, whatcha think about me doing a book on Northwest golf courses?” Amazingly, she said yes.

Okay, now what? I began researching previous books on the subject. Mine became an amalgam of the best parts of Kent Myers’ “Golf in Oregon” and Dan MacMillan’s “Golfing in Washington” guide. Both authors became good friends and Dan distributed my books for years.

I also sought to make my effort as pure and authoritative as possible, walking and playing every golf hole, packing my own bag along with a camera and notepad, and paying green fees to remain editorially neutral.

Before embarking on the great adventure, I decided to minimize expenses by converting my wife’s Volvo station wagon into a mobile bedroom. With $150 worth of curtain rods and cloth, enough to cover the side windows so that when the back seat was laid down I’d have cozy sleeping quarters, I was set.

Thus outfitted, I headed off from my sister’s home in Vancouver, Wash., to my first of many courses over the next 10 years – Elkhorn Valley in Lyons, Ore., then a nine-hole layout. Owned, designed and built by the late Don Cutler, I reveled in the natural beauty of the place and Don’s iconoclastic views (since widely adopted) of no yardage markers and golfers playing from tees befitting their handicaps.

After interviewing and thanking Don, I looked at my Oregon map for the best way to the next stop, Tokatee, east of Eugene. Since it looked like the fastest route would be toward Sisters, then heading south and circling back on Highway 126, that’s what I did. Big mistake. Leaving Elkhorn Valley at around 10 that morning I arrived at the Ted Robinson-designed Tokatee at 4:00 p.m. – on the heels of a high school tournament.

Dutifully walking, packing camera and notepad, and playing the 18-hole course took four hours, which by then meant the pro shop was closed. Unsure of where to stay the night in this remote area, I headed eastward as the courses in Bend were on the next day’s itinerary. I soon came upon Belknap Hot Springs and pulled in. I explained the situation to the desk person, who kindly let me crash in the parking lot in my wife’s Volvo for the princely sum of eight bucks.

Beaten and battered from that first day I quickly altered my purist ideals. Packing a golf bag wasn’t a problem, but carrying a heavy Canon A-1 and taking notes between golf swings was. I decided I’d now accept an offer to borrow or rent a cart to play or tour every course from that point forward. In the end, I played roughly half the courses in the book’s final edition.

As the months advanced I got better at planning trips, several of which – from my Seattle home – involved driving upwards of 2,000 miles and visiting 20-plus courses, in four days. With a wife and daughter at home, four days on the road was enough.

Unfortunately, the Volvo didn’t cooperate. Indeed, it became the Antichrist of automobiles with weird stuff happening like the driver’s side door handle falling out, a strange black goo spreading across my sleeping area, and other nefarious acts.

The Volvo reached a nadir on a trip to Idaho. After visiting the courses around and south of Coeur d’Alene, I was driving into the Panhandle when a huge rain and lightning storm descended. I decided to head home – North Idaho’s golf courses would have to wait for another time.

The weather cleared as I entered Spokane, revealing a beautiful and sunny 80-degree day. So I turned off the wipers, but nothing happened. They kept swishing across the windshield like they sensed something I couldn’t. Hastily checking the owner’s manual, I learned that if I removed the fuse that powered the wipers the car wouldn’t run.

So I made the sun-washed 280-mile drive from the Lilac City to the Emerald City with the bloody wipers on. This was a Friday, so my arrival was perfectly timed with Seattle’s rush-hour commute across the 520 Bridge, by then my windshield smeared with dead bugs.

During subsequent sojourns I visited every single public and private golf course that then existed in the region. Early on, I included British Columbia but, after blithely driving to Vancouver, I learned there were over 200 courses in a province bigger than “my” Pacific Northwest, and returned home, tail firmly between my legs.

Some of my favorite stops were out-of-the-way places like Ronan, Mont., Harrington, Wash., Christmas Valley, Ore., and Tekoa, Idaho. Many smaller courses didn’t have phone numbers then, let alone a Web presence, so I simply showed up. More than once, after explaining my reasons for dropping by, the response was, “Why are you writing about our (crummy) course?”

After the blessed sale of the Antichrist Volvo I ended up going through two more vehicles – neither of them my bedroom-on-wheels, as I stayed in hotels or family and friends’ places – while traveling a total of 180,000 miles. I went to high-end resorts, exclusive private clubs, “personal” courses (Caledon near Arlington, Wash., Whispering Rattlesnakes in Mazama, Wash., and Fernwood in Sweet Home, Ore., are favorites), and bustling muni tracks.

I had several close calls on the road – including dodging a dead but massive porcupine on a hairpin turn, getting stuck in a cattle drive on the desolate route between Burns and Lakeview, Ore., and almost T-boning an eight-point buck at 65 mph outside Sun Valley.

But the trips were worth it. No more work clothes and office politics for me, just a wealth of wonderful memories, over 2,000 photos, several boxes of notes and scorecards, and a big drawer of gnarled, taped-up road maps.

Jeff Shelley has been the editorial director of since 2000 and is currently board president of the First Green Foundation. He’s written or published eight books, five related to golf including co-authoring “Championships & Friendships – The First 100 Years of the Pacific Northwest Golf Association,” and received the 2007 Distinguished Service Award from the Northwest Golf Media Association. Jeff can be reached at [email protected].