Following the success of his debut design at Bandon Crossings, self-taught architect Dan Hixson has surpassed expectations with his second solo project at Wine Valley Golf Club. The result of his endeavours at Walla Walla is a layout that offers as links-like a golfing experience as you could hope to find without playing next to the sea.
Minimalism was the watchword when Hixson laid out the fairways here over an expansive property with the Blue Mountains as a dramatic backcloth. It’s firm and fast golf played on a grand scale, where broad fairways offer multiple lines of play and heavily contoured greens present all sorts of putting conundrums.
The 535-yard 7th is the pick of the holes on the front nine, played to a very deceptive punchbowl green. On the inward half, the favourite hole for many is the 470-yard short par five 15th, where the slightly uphill fairway leads to a shallow, offset green.
The following edited extract by architect Daniel Hixson is from Volume Six of Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective. Reproduced with kind permission. To obtain a copy of the book, email Paul Daley at [email protected].
“Located in Walla Walla, Washington, the experience of building Wine Valley Golf Club was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The extent of this magnificent site is in excess of 700 acres, comprising former alfalfa and wheat farmland, with great soils, gently rolling valleys and wonderful long vistas of the surrounding area.
Plainly, any golf architect would have given their eye-tooth to work upon this site; the easiest thing, and most embarrassing outcome, would have been to screw it up and build something ordinary. The owners, being Jim Pliska, John Thorsnes and myself, did not want anything ordinary. Everyone who was involved in the project was willing on a great result.
From the first trip, until construction started, the project had been five years in the making. I had spent around forty days walking the land, and produced at least as many routing plans over that period. John and I has staked out a course numerous times, hashing and rehashing the possibilities of each. With great topography and no trees, the possibilities kept growing.
The land is a series of valleys, swales, ridges and hills formed millions of years ago during the Ice Age. The deep soils are called loess: fine silt, deposited off the bottom of glaciers, with the valleys formed by the receding waters from ice dams and wind blowing it into almost dune-like ridges and hills. The great soils in the region make for very good farming conditions.
Eventually, I decided on a routing plan that we all agreed best-suited the circumstances. It consists of two nine-hole loops: the front nine moving counter-clockwise, and the back nine describing a ‘figure eight’, but generally moving counter-clockwise. The plan required about 100,000 cubic yards to be moved, mostly to build two drainage-retention ponds and our irrigation lake.
Three main shapers were hired: Kye Goalby, Brian Cesar and Dan Proctor. We hired Rexius, a general contractor, to install irrigation, build our ponds, attend to the mass excavation, and anything else we needed. I can’t say enough about Kye, Brian and Dan and what they did for this project. They each brought 20 or more years’ experience of shaping and building courses (and) I learned a heck of a lot from these gentlemen.
Wine Valley taught me a lot about designing and building golf courses. It reinforced the fact that an important industry skill, critical even, is one of assembling a team of talented and passionate people to build a course. I learned to always try to hire people that are smarter than you, at least in some areas, and to seek out people that you can call a friend.”
Of the courses I played in Washington, I would rate Wine Valley the highest. I admit to having a bias towards links-like courses. I place Wine Valley above Chambers Bay because Wine Valley is more natural, but perfectly routed over the 800 acres of rolling land. It does not suffer from the three bad holes at Chambers Bay (7-9) and its pedestrian opening. It also does not have the over-the-top use of sand that one finds at Chambers Bay. With regards to a comparison to Gamble Sands, quite frankly Gamble Sands is the far superior course on visual appeal course but suffers from a lack of strategy and decision-making. Gamble Sands plays too easily; in many cases devoid of challenge. The greens at Gamble Sands are inconsistent with some outstanding ones and some that are boring. Wine Valley does not have a boring green nor a boring hole even if the surrounding vistas are not interesting nor the change in terrain not as dramatic.
For the courses in Washington that I played, I consider Wine Valley and Sahalle North/South to be the only championship courses. Aldarra and Tumble Creek are very good courses to play and one should do everything they can to play them, but the land they are detract from them being championship courses even if they mix fun and difficulty very well.
Wine Valley hit every box for me. It is located on compelling and interesting land. There are wide/long views across the fairways of the surrounding countryside which is essentially one of the wine capitols of Washington as there are over 130 wineries nearby. I liked the routing that moves in all directions on both nines despite returning to the clubhouse. It reminded me of Muirfield and Saunton East where the routing ensures one often does not play more than twice in the same direction. One interesting feature of the course is that the back nine plays around a very large tract of land that sits as almost a perfect square between the tenth, fourteenth –eighteenth holes. It made me wonder why this land was not used. Perhaps it will be used later for a par 3.
I also liked that very little earth was moved to create the course. This course primarily sits naturally on the land.
The greens are fabulous with a lot of internal movement, multiple pin locations, nothing overly silly, well bunkered and with good contouring near the greens. Near every green is short grass given one a very good chance to recover. Some of the short grass near the greens make it difficult to distinguish the beginning of the greens. As one who often uses a putter from as much as 50 yards from the green I found this to be a good characteristic to the course.
The course can play “fast” due to roll-out. There is a good mixture of length as well as direction of holes and the overall routing moving every which way. It is very much a walking course unlike Aldarra and Tumble Creek where a cart is normally preferred.
The bunkering is varied, sometimes more traditional and sometimes of the blowout variety. The bunkers vary both in depth, length and shape. The deeper bunkers are often steep faced. They use a different form of dirt-like sand here due to the winds in order to keep the cost of maintenance down as well as to ensure there is adequate sand in the bunkers. I found this type of sand did not play very differently from other more granular sands.
There is nothing that is repetitive at Wine Valley.
Over such a bit piece of land, Dan Hixon, the architect could have routed the course in many directions. When I finished the round, I thought he had gotten it right and I could not imagine a better routing. I played as a single as the second tee time of the day, starting about 20 minutes behind a threesome in a cart. I went through them after the front nine. But playing as a single allowed me to putt from multiple directions on the greens first to the pin location on the day and then moving around the green to “imaginary” pins. All of the greens are well shaped and sized. The greens reminded me of those at Wild Horse, another fine public golf course that is links-like in Nebraska. The greens at Wine Valley might even be superior although it’s a close call. But of the greens I played in Washington, I felt Wine Valley’s to be the best.
The fairways are generous, a trait of modern designers. If one wants to critique Wine Valley, it is that the line one takes off the tee is fairly evident. I do not recall a blind shot on the course, and there are few semi-blind shots only as a result of getting well out of position. The course does not have a green that is elevated well above you even if some sit on higher ground.
The course is long enough, playing to 7600 yards from the Gold tees par 72 rated 76.4/133. I played the Black tees at 6760 yards rated 72.6/127. There are three sets of lesser tees and well as combination tees creating a total of seven rated yardages.
1. Par 4 – 470/405. The opening hole plays slightly downhill to a fairway going out to the left before coming back right to the green. There is a large and long blowout bunker down the right side but with ample room to play away from it. Bigger hitters can fly the bunker but have to be careful they do not hit it so far they go into a bunker about 410/340 yards up the fairway placed on the left turn that is deep. The green is angled to the right with flanking bunkers on the side. It is a much longer green than it appears with short grass surrounding it. This is probably one of the flatter greens on the course yet it still had sufficient slope and movement.
2. Par 4 – 410/360. You turn back nearly the opposite way and play uphill. The edge of the long bunker on the right of the first hole comes into play on the right of this hole but there is ample room to play away from it. Two additional bunkers come in from the right about 100 yards from the green. There is a left central bunker. The fairway has rolls to it. The ground is higher to the left and rear of the green. I hit a poor second shot but nearly chipped in to a back left pin. There is a central interior swale with the front right of the green being lower. This is a fun hole.
3. Par 5 – 575/535. The first par 5 has essentially three central bunkers but with adequate room to either side. This hole reverses direction again. However, those choosing the left side of the fairway bring a long pond into play as well as the third central bunker (more left than central). The play on this hole is to stay right even if the green sits on the left side of the hole nearer the water. Another bunker is in play down the right side for one’s second shot. There is a final small fairway bunker 10 yards short of the green. The only greenside bunker is a deep one on the back left corner. The green is slightly raised on the left side with a mound and a central depression. It rises to the back half. There is ample short grass all around this green.
4. Par 4 – 390/350. This hole reverses direction similar to the second. It plays uphill again with an early bunker on the right shared with the previous hole. The fairway features several rolls. A deep sliver central bunker is about 100 yards from the hole. One of the largest bunkers is on the left side beginning about 60 yards from the green blocking the entirety of the left/front of the green due to the green being angled to the left. This bunker sits about five feet below the level of the putting surface. Behind the green is a slope acting as a backstop. The green has a higher left side and slopes to the front. I found this hole to be the second most fun on the front nine.
5. Par 4 – 515/460. One reverses direction again playing a different direction to the opening holes. This hole plays downhill so one can get a favorable rollout. A long thin waste area goes down the entire left side crossing diagonally across the fairway left to right beginning about 120 yards from the green on the left. This waste bunker continues down the entirety of the right side of the green. I admit to never having seen this before; a waste bunker going the entire length of a golf hole, especially one of this length.
6. Par 3 – 210/180. This is a very nice par 3 playing to a green placed on the other side of a pond with a rise between the pond and green. There is also a somewhat thin bunker on the left and a rear bunker that is hidden. The miss to the green is on the left side where short grass is available. The green has several smaller shelves and swales in it. I liked the hole.
7. Par 5 – 625/535. I liked the ending to this hole which plays as a dogleg left. There is a large blowout bunker on the left side built into a rise. The right side of the fairway has an earlier bunker placed inside the wide fairway. The green is partially hidden behind a mound on the right side which is fronted by another large blowout bunker. The left side and rear of the green has a rise that can bring a ball onto the green unless one hits their approach shot too hard and finds the large bunker on the back right on the higher ground. Stopping a ball to a near cup on the green is very difficult. Finally there is a very small bunker on the middle front. The green has a back left swale and tilts going each way. If coming into the green from the right side of the fairway one will have a semi-blind shot as half of the green will not be visible. It is a compelling approach shot.
8. Par 3 – 255/200. This hole plays from an elevated tee to an elevated tee with a right side bunker becoming a middle bunker due to the green being angled to the right. While this hole is visually unexciting from the tee, the inner movement of the green as well as the elevation and angle make it a good hole.
9. Par 4 – 480/430. Seven and eight are the two holes playing in the same direction on the front nine. The ninth goes in the same direction as the fourth heading back to the clubhouse. The fairway rises a bit to a turn to the left. There is a long bunker on the left side of a fairway with plenty of ripples in it. The defense of the hole is further enhanced by a pond on the right side that begins about 50 yards from the green continuing down the right side. This is another well shaped green, almost peanut-like angled to the right. There is a right bunker and two bunkers at the rear, although one seems to be more grass. The right side of the green is difficult to stay on due to the shallowness of it. There is an early depression on the front of the green. Off the green is a lot of short grass to the left of the green but the recovery shot has to successfully a lot of undulations on the green. It is a fine finishing hole to the outward nine.
10. Par 5 – 610/580. I really liked the visual look and design of this longer par 5 playing in front of the clubhouse from an elevated tee with the land falling away, then rising, then falling away finally ending at a green on higher ground. There are a lot of rolls in the fairway which runs parallel to the third hole. The tee shot needs to avoid the large blowout bunker on the right side which longer hitters will carry and shorter hitters can play to the left. The next fairway bunker is on the right and cuts into the fairway about 35 yards from the green. The green is angled slightly left with a large and deep bunker on the left front. The green is above you with a vertical spine.
11. Par 3 – 180/155. This green complex features a central front and rear bunker with fall-offs to each side. This green is smaller than what came before. This is a nice short hole from the Black tees.
12. Par 4 – 435/405. The direction of the hole changes again in an entirely new direction playing straight. Like the fifth hole, a long sinewy bunker runs the length of the hole, this time on the left side. The fairway falls from the tee then rises with another central bunker about 70 yards from the green. There is a large, deep bunker on the left middle of the green which for the first time is somewhat flat.
13. Par 4 – 505/435. Thirteen moves in the exact opposite direction of the twelfth hole and bends to the right with a deep bunker on the left corner and a long, thin bunker on the right side. The green has a double bunker on the right side followed by a large bunker. The hole plays fairly level to the green. This is the rare green that does not have much short grass around it.
14. Par 3 – 175/135. This is a fun short par 3 playing to a green angled to the left with a large, deep bunker cutting diagonally in front of it continuing down the left side. There is a small crescent shaped bunker on the right side and a large bunker behind the green. The green is higher on the back and left side with a bit of a bowl on the right front. From the tee this is a visually strong hole as the green and green complex sit well below the tee.
15. Par 5 – 515/470. This is the best hole on the golf course due to a fabulous green complex. The green has a lot of rolls and movement in it with various rises and valleys. There is a long bunker down the left side with a smaller one on the right. Another center-line bunker is used about 60 yards from the green. The more difficult bunkers are the large, deep bunker on the left front of the green and the two small ones on the front right. The green is very thin at the front which is where my cup was located. The green widens at the rear but the slant of the green makes any putt from the back of the green down to a front pin both fast as well as moving to the left. It is a very clever green if the pin is in the front section while the back half of the green also features a lot of movement.
16. Par 3 – 195/175. This hole plays across a valley to a raised green with a fronting bunker on the right. There is a lot of short grass on the left side of the raised green with a substantial false front. The green has a bowl in the front center. This is another very good par 3.
17. Par 4 – 470/400. One of the better par 4’s comes next playing uphill from the tee. A long and deep fairway bunker comes in from the right with a smaller thin one on the left side. The fairway pinches together at these bunkers. This is another very good green with two bunkers on the front corners and one on the right side. The green is elevated with another central depression at the front that first one has to clear and then not go too long into the green. The green has a back to front slope. This might be the best green on the course.
18. Par 5 – 585/550. From an elevated tee one looks down a rolling fairway. You are now finishing going around the square of grass. The hole plays straight although the long bunker on the left and the smaller one on the right tighten the fairway. Longer hitters can carry these bunkers. Near the green is a bunker placed inside the fairway about 40 yards short. The green is very long and sits on a bit of a plateau with two bunkers on the left and one below the green’s surface on the right. The green is higher to the back and long. This is a fine finishing hole.
Wine Valley is wonderful offering a links-like experience with views across the fairways. The routing has the course essentially always moving in a different direction. The bunkering is varied and well placed. The holes vary in length. But as good as the routing and bunkering are, the star of the course are the greens which are varied, challenging, and always interesting yet fair.
I played Gamble Sands the next day and I would play here more often.
I would describe Wine Valley as a masterpiece in the middle of a hayfield. The course designer, Dan Hixon, has done a wonderful job of creating something from virtually nothing.
The course is located in the middle of nowhere and, for the most part, can’t even be seen as one approaches the property. Thank goodness for the quite efficient signage as I approached from the highway. Otherwise, I would have felt like I had taken a wrong turn.
Wine Valley has three water hazards that really only come slightly into play, as well as some slight elevation changes that help lend some character to the course. The fairways are very generous in size, including the 3rd, which at one point I measured at 125 yards wide. Otherwise, I felt it was really the very strategic bunkering and the undulating and sizable green complexes that take the course to the next level. The course is maintained like a true links. There is some rough, but everything around the greens is mowed down so tight that I found it impossible to figure out where the collar ends and the green begins. In some cases, I found I needed to play approach shots well short and away from the flag in order to properly use the contours and allow the ball to feed to the hole. There are also many cases, depending on the hole location, where backboards are available.
I would describe the bunkers at Wine Valley as more like dirt pits. That sounds a bit harsh, but really it is quite unique – they play fine, look natural, and in my opinion, play a major role, based on their design and strategic positioning, as why this course is ranked so highly. The steep high faces of most are similar what one would find on a Scottish links without the stacked sod. The sand contained within is much like dirt, with small clods included, and really seems to me to be quite natural for the area. Again, I can confirm that they really play quite nice, with a good depth of sand/dirt that allowed me to play my greenside and fairway bunker shots just as I would on any links style course. However, heed this warning - if playing a shot into the wind, be prepared for a dusting.
In summary, I found Wine Valley a pleasure to play, despite 30 MPH wind gusts I encountered at times. Also, it should be noted, for those who love to walk as I do, this course is very walkable.
My spouse and I played Wine Valley Golf Club on a beautiful September afternoon. I can still break par on a good day and played the black tees at 6760 yards. Marlene who is just starting to score in the 90's played the red tees at 5105. A testament to just how good a golf course this is, we were both able to navigate the course aggressively at times, cautious and conservative at others.
On the first hole our drives were near each other. I hit a short iron twelve feet left of the flag. Marlene played a five hybrid safely down the left side away from the green side bunker and got enough bounce and roll to also catch the green. With a par and a three putt bogie we were off to a good start.
The eighth hole is the longest par three on the course. I flew a five wood 230 yards to the back of the green flag, perhaps my best shot of the day. Marlene birdied the hole using a driver from 145 yards, flew the ball to the front of the green and rolled it to sixteen feet.
Hole fourteen is a par three that I played at 147 yards. My eight iron caught a ridge left of the flag and found the hole. My fifteenth hole in one but my first in thirteen years! My spouse played a wedge from 85 yards to the heart of the green and two putted. She posted a final score in the high 90s with three pars and a birdie.
Marlene and I play a lot of golf together and are lucky to play many top ranked golf courses. Rare is the golf course that treats us both with such fairness and equal challenge. Wine Valley Golf Club delivered a great day of golf for both of us.
Wine Valley is about the last thing I would of expected from Walla Walla. Wine, yes, onions, definitely, but great golf, well not exactly.
Boy was I wrong. I drove hours out of the way to make a large cirle and hit Wine Valley on the way home. It was 100 degrees in the middle of summer, it can be warm in Walla Walla and there are prairies as far as the eye can see. It’s perfect landscape for a links like inland course and this was indeed a welcome addition to the PNW golf scene that just keeps getting better all the time.
This course is characterized by very large rolling greens, wide fairways and tons of short grass. The bunkering is of the natural blowout nature and fits nicely into the surrounding settings. They have made the course plenty long for the modern game and despite the fact that this is prairie land there really are surprising elevation changes that are faced throughout the course.
Visually the open vistas are wonderful to take in and the sense of space and scale of everything is quite impressive as there is nothing around it to speak of except the rolling hills.
When the wind picks up this course provides quite the links experience and plenty of challenge no doubt.
I won’t run through a hole by hole but Wine Valley is worth driving several hours out of your way to play and well within reach of Portland or Seattle though it would be better to come up for at least a couple days.
Wine Valley is really very good. Its massive length is countered by the firm and fast surfaces and we left the 7,600-yard gold tips well alone and played from the 6,700-yard black tees which suited our group perfectly. There’s plenty (and I mean plenty) of width here in a similar vein to Gamble Sands. With width you get options and with the wind that blows here it’s a necessity.
I don’t know much about Dan Hixon but I’ve played Bandon Crossings and I’m hoping to get to see his new reversible course at the ultra-remote Silvies Valley Ranch in the Oregon hinterland this summer.
Wine Valley is better than Bandon Crossings but not quite as good as Gamble Sands in my view. WV will appeal to the minimalists but it just seemed a touch bland off the tee lacking focal definition to my eyes – a few more fairway bunkers perhaps. Apart from that I loved everything else about Wine Valley.
The most impressive aspect of Wine Valley is architect Dan Hixson did not have any formal connection with another architect before getting into the business. Hixson neither studied to be a golf course architect nor worked under an architect as an apprentice. Initially, Hixson attempted to play professional golf but that dream never materialized. Even at an extremely early age Hixson was enamored with courses and would often draw holes on paper.
His tenacity to enter a field filled with highly trained competitors is an incredible story of total resolve and utter tenacity.
It is hard to imagine someone without the formal education or in-the-field experience would excel so well. Wine Valley in Walla Walla is an inspired effort and well worth playing for those who venture to this remarkable location in the Pacific Northwest of America.
The Walla Walla area of Southeast Washington State is an area known for its wine production and its totally appropriate that the logo for the club is a corkscrew with a flag placed on top of it.
The course is blessed with a quality site -- rolling -- with plenty of movement which has been skillfully incorporated into the final design. It is not excessive to the point of shot distortion but does call upon the player to show great skill in constantly shaping shots -- from both side-to-side and with trajectory dexterity.
Hixson has always been inspired by the work of the legendary Alister MacKenzie and the style and flow of Wine Valley is reminiscent of that style. Bunkers are totally natural -- not rigorously shaped to excess -- but free flowing and allowing for various shapes and dimensions.
Wine Valley wisely eschews the penal insertion of heavy rough that would only serve to make the course harder but not likely better. The fairways are amply wide but there are always preferred areas to find when sizing up one's approach shots.
Hixson demonstrates at Wine Valley a rare skill in having the layout work with the terrain -- the course fits the land -- not the other way around.
You get a great sense of what the round is going to be about starting with the 1st hole -- a long par-4 of 470 yards which plays slightly downhill and dog-legs right around a massive bunker that appears as if it was there for many years. Hixson allows for aggressive play -- and when successfully executed -- provides a corresponding reward. Those who take a more conservative approach will then face a more challenging next shot.
Wine Valley is also quite elastic in how different levels of players can tack their way around the course. Hixson does provide alternate routes -- the key is deciding what works best for one's game. At Wine Valley you encounter a course that provides various avenues -- there is not a one-way dictate to the design.
Clearly, some will point out that total yardage from the back tees which comes out to 7,600 yards. It's important to point out that elevation is roughly 1,000 feet and the daily warm conditions with low daily humidity allows for golf balls to travel quite well. It's also helped by the daily firm and fast conditions which were truly superb when I played the course. Although the course rating is high -- it is to Hixson's credit that the slope numbers are quite balanced so the higher handicap player can reasonably succeed without facing extremely slender fairways -- out-of-control rough and obligatory forced carries.
Hixson also varied the flow of the fairways -- they are not laboriously straight razor cut. The same applies to the positioning of the putting surfaces - they are angled in various ways -- often times a solitary bunker positioned just to get you thinking on what might happen if the execution is just a tad off. The internal contours are exceptional -- just landing on the green does not provide safe passage.
The only hole type I would have liked to have seen is a short par-3 and par-4 to add another element to the repertoire of holes faced. If that had happened Wine Valley would have merited an even higher rating from me.
Hats off to the superintendent and crew in having a course so well prepared -- that sort of attention to detail is what brings to the fullest the various architectural details Hixson envisioned and ultimately delivered.
Washington State has clearly made a recent move in terms of golf offerings. Much of that attention came in '15 when Chambers Bay hosted the US Open just outside of Tacoma. However, the recent addition of Gamble Sands in Brewster and with Wine Valley now has clearly been a real plus for public course players to enjoy.
When you reach the par-5 18th -- you'll be on the highest part of the property -- the vistas truly an eyeful for sure. The hole gives the golfer one last opportunity to end his or her day in fine fashion. Wine Valley -- like good wine -- is meant to be savored -- relished for the enjoyment you'll be surely experiencing here.
by M. James Ward