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.”
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