Located close to the state border with Washington, the 18 holes at Circling Raven Golf Club, on the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation, meander around an expansive, moderately bunkered 620-acre site. The resort development began modestly in 1993 with a bingo hall and now, in addition to the golf course, it offers visitors a couple of hotels and restaurants, a casino, conference centre and a spa.
The course opened in 2003 and it can play to almost 7,200 yards, with a slope of 144 and a rating of 74 against a par of 72, so it can play very tough for those who feel the need to be challenged from the back tees. Golfers of lesser abilities needn’t worry though, as there are plenty of other tee options available.
In fact, designer Gene Bates has said: “The resort course is the ‘sports car’ of golf courses and must be memorable to the point of being spectacular. Yet it cannot penalize players of lesser ability. Guests can count on innovative resort course designs that will entice them to play for years to come.”
The Circling Raven course is certainly no run of the mill resort layout, as evidenced by the four meaty par four holes that play around the turn, particularly at the 474-yard 9th and 446-yard 11th.Feature holes include “Grassy,” the 217-yard 3rd and “Medicine Man,” the 253-yard 13th that demands a very long carry across an area of native vegetation to reach the green. These are the longest (and best) of the four par three holes on the scorecard. The 2nd hole is a fine par four, doglegging uphill and right to the green, whilst the 581-yard 12th is a strong par five where golfers have to negotiate their way around a small group of trees in the middle of the fairway.
Taking a lead from resorts all over the world they soon set up a spa and then built a golf course, but being blessed with quite spectacular topography means that Circling Raven is a little more special than other Casino Resort courses.
It's in an area known as the 'Pelouse' which is a prairieland that rolls and folds with natural wheat grasses, surrounded and protected from the weather by mountains to the north and east. It's a vast area that one can much more readily imagine getting panic inducing lost in rather than coming across a gem of a golf course.
The course is set a good walk from the resort itself and is entered by a bespoke clubhouse which gives off a Ralph Lauren Homesteader vibe despite the Native American wall art. It's well stocked with the usual golf kit and of course everything is emblazoned with the resort logo. One day I'll find a pro shop that doesn't devalue everything they sell with their rubbish artwork. The only thing I appreciated was the free wooden tees, handfuls of which found their way into my bag. I'll happily promote your club if you give me free stuff.
The staff are awfully nice and helpful in that American way, although in Idaho you get the feeling they actually mean it! You are then taken to your buggy (cart in the US). This is a thing of wonder in itself. We sent Neil Armstrong to the Moon with less technology than this thing. It has a GPS system onboard that not only knows where you are and tells you how to get around, but it even takes control of your speed around busy areas so you don't run into people! I called mine Rufus. I figured I had better give it a name before it started bleating that it was not a number.
Rufus took me to the practice range which was functional and well laid out, but it lacks the scenic majesty of the course so you don't really know what you've let yourself in for. After satisfying myself that I can play this game (I'm a practice range legend) Rufus whisked me to the first tee. The starter gave me the usual "Where are you from?" but surprised me when I said London. Apparently he spent 13 years living in Walthamstow and how he got from there to starting at Circling Raven I have no idea.
The start takes a while because the course is built on, over and around some protected wildlife environments and they need to explain the local rules. Essentially, if your balls goes into any of these areas you are forbidden to go look for it and must play the shot again. Of course, there is one such area to the left of the first tee and once told I absolutely cannot hit my ball into a given area that is precisely where I subsequently punt it. Three off the tee…
I love golf for relaxing. I find it hard to sit in front of a TV and not think about work but being on a course, in the fresh air and with the distraction of that little white ball I forget all my real world troubles. Circling Raven takes that to another level. I have never played anywhere so absolutely calm, serene and remote. You really are in the middle of nowhere. The only noise is the distant sound of other golfer's tee shots and the bleep from Rufus as he gave me a map of the hole and told me my yardages to the front, middle and back of the green! I half expected him to start showing video evidence of my dodgy swing and offer advice.
This isn't a back and forth course. Far from it. At no point do you feel like the course is hemmed in by property boundaries. Holes one to five meander out into the Pelouse and back again before the next couple take you through some tree filled ravines and the course gives you ample opportunity for risk and reward. Dog legs left. Dog legs right. Split fairways. It's a beautiful golf course which sits comfortably in its surroundings despite being very different from them.
The starter had said that a family of moose had been spotted on the course that morning and I did find myself wondering what the protocol was if I came across one standing on the green. Do you get in trouble for hitting a moose with a golf ball? Will they get angry and aggressive? Do they count as an immoveable obstruction?
My fantasy was only interrupted by Rufus asking me if I wanted to order a burrito and have it delivered to the 10th tee. I love playing golf in the US. It's the only place where you can get fatter while walking a golf course. Although I wouldn't suggest walking Circling Raven. It's so far between some of the holes that marathon runners have been known to give up.
The front nine is a delightful track but the course really stretches it's legs on the second loop. I pride myself on an impeccable sense of direction but I was totally lost out there. I was just following the map and hitting my shots without a care in the world. I hardly saw another human being. There are some majestic par fives and a cheeky par 3 that was much shorter than I thought, meaning I had to chip up the mother and father of all grass banks to get back to the green.
I played this course twice in the space of a couple of weeks. It was so peaceful and sublime that I just had to go back. Nothing prepares you for the serenity that you feel out in the boonies on the back 9. The only downside for me was some spectacularly terrible putting that ruined both my rounds. I hit 13 GIR on one trip but 3 and 4 putted almost every hole. I guess I'm just not used to the super fast greens but this is a fault of my own, not the courses.
The only reason I did not give it full marks was because there isn't a stand out hole that stayed with me after I left. They were all good, but sometimes you need that signature hole that everyone asks about, like the 17th at Sawgrass or the 10th at The Belfry. Because of that the course didn't feel special but I would highly recommend it should you find yourself in the North Idaho panhandle.