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Thursday, May 31, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blaine Newnham / Times Associate Editor

Kayak Point offers quintessential Northwest golf experience

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STANWOOD - For the quintessential Northwest golf experience, there is nothing around here quite like Kayak Point.

You play in relative seclusion, on a bluff above Puget Sound, among towering trees, without homes but with wildlife.

Your mythical playing partner would more likely be Eddie Bauer than Jack Nicklaus.

But it is more than just the remoteness of Kayak that speaks to its Northwest ethic. The golfers there make a difference, too.

Frankly, they are my heroes. They wouldn't take having to ride in a cart sitting down.

To get to Kayak Point, you take the Marysville exit on I-5 just north of Everett, and drive 12 miles west.

The course, built in the mid-1970s, is owned by Snohomish County, which got the land in a deal with Atlantic Richfield, which at the time was trying to build an adjoining subdivision.

The homes were never built, but a golf course, designed by Ron Fream, was. The course, because of the setting and the design, was spectacular.

And because it was owned by the county it was also affordable. Golf Digest included it among the 50 best public courses in the country. In terms of the Northwest experience, it was rivaled in price and beauty only by Tokatee, a course in the mountains east of Eugene.

Snohomish County wisely turned the course over to local pro Elwin Fanning, who for 20 years concentrated on its condition. The marriage worked perfectly, much as it would later at Gold Mountain, where Scott Alexander would operate the course and the City of Bremerton would set the green fees.

In 1999, Fanning turned the operation over to Arnold Palmer Golf Management, which pumped money into the course by upgrading cart paths and trimming trees.

Then the other Etonic fell.

Citing a need to improve the speed of play on the weekend - Friday through Sunday - the new operators required the use of a cart which, besides preventing players from walking, also increased the cost of playing by $13.50.

"They used speed of play as an excuse," said Bill Cabin, a member of the Men's Club, "when everyone knew they were just trying to recoup some of the money they'd spent on the course.

Kayak Point Golf Course

:: Where: Stanwood, 12 miles west of Marysville exit on I-5.
:: Course: 6,719 yards from the back tees (72.9 rating, 138 slope), 6,109 yards from the white tees (70.2, 127), 5,332 yards from the red tees (71.1, 125).
:: Cost: $29 during the week, $33 on weekends. $13.50 per cart rider. $5 for 18-hole putting course. Yearly fee of $999 allows for $5 rounds any time, yearly fee of $499 allows for $5 rounds Monday through Thursday.
:: Telephone: (360) 652-9676.
"OK, but let's at least be up front about it."

Cabin, the business manager of the Bricklayers Union in Seattle, drives from Renton to play golf at Kayak.

"I love the place," he said. "I'm a rider myself, but I still feel a guy should be able to walk if he wants to. We lost a lot of single-digit players because of that rule.

"We're just starting to get them back now."

It has been estimated that a third of the Men's Club's 300 members left Kayak in protest to play somewhere else. Someone at Arnold Palmer Management - maybe even Arnie himself - took notice.

"Give them credit for listening," said Mike Nelson of Bothell, the Men's Club secretary. "The guys leaving had nothing to do with the course. If you want to walk, you want to walk, and generally you play better."

The weekend mandatory cart rule was dropped earlier this year.

"Our goal was to speed up play on the weekends," said Rand Veal, the head pro, "but it became obvious requiring carts wasn't helping."

Slow play is a problem at Kayak, especially on the weekend where five-hour rounds are common.

We walked and played in 4:15 on a Tuesday morning when there were few groups on the course. It was delightful.

The one thing that hasn't changed at Kayak are the reasonable green fees. This summer the charge is $29 during the week, and $33 on the weekend.

With Gold Mountain now at $33/$40 for its Olympic Course, Kayak Point might well be the best value in the area.

Cabin said he learned to play the game at Kayak even though it is not a beginner's course.

"I didn't want incoming balls slamming into me, or being worried I might hit someone, either," he said. "I wanted to play in the seclusion of my own group."

The trees at Kayak provide that. I don't remember seeing another golfer the entire round we played this week.

"You learn to keep the ball in play at Kayak," continued Cabin. "If you're an 18-handicap at Kayak, you're going to kick some butt when you play anywhere else."

Kayak is not a resort course. Its fairways aren't acres wide or free of bumps. But by standards other than those seen on television or offered on courses that cost twice as much, the place is in good shape.

The course is an adventure in golf. It is not unlike taking a hike through the woods, offering search and rescue along the way, up the hill on the top-rated No. 6, down the hill - way down the hill - on No. 7.

"It follows the natural terrain," said Nelson, "not where some bulldozer has pushed the dirt."

Kayak is for serious golfers. The first hole is a downhill, 375-yard par 4 that is treed on both sides of a fairway that slopes sharply to the right. Hit it to the right, and you're done almost before you get started.

For my mind, it is too tough a starting hole. But No. 1 is a signal of things to come.

You must keep the ball in play. The course isn't that long (6,100 yards from the white tees) and requires no hero shots - long, forced carries over water or ravines. A high-handicapper will do fine if he doesn't try to do more than he can. It isn't a course for wild swingers.

A local rule unknown to most visitors says a ball lost outside the tree line can be played within two club lengths of where it passed into the rough with a stroke penalty.

The goal is to speed up play even though it violates the rule for losing a ball.

"That's not golf," said Cabin of the rule.

The par 5s at Kayak are all wonderfully strategic. The 14th hole, a par 4, has two fairways from which to choose. Neither route is easy. While the par 3s aren't overly exciting, one can easily remember all the par 4s.

If you've got visitors from Texas who want to understand the essence of Northwest golf, of how we think and play, then take them to Kayak.

And for exercise and the sake of those who left in protest, shun a cart for a long, hilly walk through the woods.

Blaine Newnham can be reached at 206-464-2364 or bnewnham@seattletimes.com.

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