Idaho Panhandle

Idaho has earned a well-deserved reputation for fresh air, spectacular landscapes and delicious potatoes. Perhaps surprisingly to some, the state, particularly the Idaho Panhandle, has also been gaining major traction as a golf destination.

Because I also have a well-deserved reputation for enjoying fresh air, spectacular landscapes, delicious potatoes and golf, I decided to visit this neck of the woods to check out its worthiness as a serious golf spot.

I’m a believer.

While the region still might not top most golfer’s bucket list, the number of visiting savvy golfers keeps soaring thanks to top-notch, reasonably priced layouts, which include several five-star golf resorts.

Northern Idaho’s golfer-friendly weather (July’s average high temperature is only 81 degrees) and extremely low humidity complement its pristine scenery, laid-back attitude, numerous outdoor activities such as fishing and boating, and towns with numerous shopping and dining options. This includes charming Coeur d’Alene, located 2,400 feet above sea level on the shore of scenic Lake Coeur d’Alene, halfway between the Cascade and Rocky mountains.

Northern Idaho is also easily accessible, with Spokane (Wash.) International Airport less than an hour’s drive west from the Panhandle’s three major golf courses—Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course, Circling Raven and StoneRidge.

The Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course, designed by Scott Miller, brought instant worldwide recognition to the Panhandle thanks to the course’s groundbreaking, floating par-3 14th hole island green, the only one of its kind. The putting surface, an ample 15,000 square feet, looks smaller than a stovetop from the tee. I was never more relieved to make par considering how much my hands shook while striking my tee shot to the left-front burner… I mean portion, of the green.

The experience at the much-acclaimed, par-71, 6,735-yard layout is special. Every square inch of grass appears perfect, and every pitch mark on the greens is fixed by uniformed, hustling forecaddies, seemingly before approaches stop rolling. There are also custom chrome-wheeled golf carts with numerous features, including heated seats — which came in handy on an unexpectedly breezy, 40-degree morning, especially since I was wearing shorts — and a complimentary pre-round massage on the lakeside practice range, where you belt floating balls into the lake.

The course is a seven-minute water-taxi ride on beautiful Lake Coeur d’Alene to Coeur d’Alene Resort & Spa’s 17-floor waterfront Lake Tower hotel, situated on the edge of downtown Coeur d’Alene. The hotel also includes luxurious accommodations, a world-class spa (I recommend a soothing massage, followed by a hydrotherapy turn in the his-and-hers $100,000 SilverTAG showers) and 13 dining options, including Beverly’s, the award-winning, fine-dining restaurant with a 35,000-bottle wine cellar (more than 800 labels) valued at more than $1.5 million.

The resort also has a new, state-of-the-art, 7,000-square-foot event center and 4,000-square-foot lakefront celebration garden with fully retractable walls, along with an infinity-edge, lakeside swimming pool for hotel guests and members.

Fifty minutes south is the outstanding Circling Raven Golf Club, brought to you by architect Gene Bates and Mother Nature. The course and the adjacent Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort are owned and operated by the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe.

CDA Casino Resort Exterior lower 5

The sprawling 7,189-yard, par-72 gem, which debuted in 2003, winds through and around 620 acres of wetlands, grasslands and woodlands. All four par 3s on the challenging, thoroughly enjoyable course stretch more than 200 yards from the tips, and this gem’s tricky greens require a steady putter. You might even spy an elk, deer, moose or black bear. Unfortunately, birdie sightings are rare, at least on my scorecard.

Circling Raven, featuring a 25-acre practice facility, has deservedly accumulated numerous “Best of” accolades. On the back nine, golfers can only see the hole they are playing. Wetlands impact play on 13 holes, natural grasses complement the wetlands on 16 holes and a mix of Ponderosa pines, aspens, cottonwoods and birch blend into the stunning scenery.

The clubhouse is home to the Twisted Earth Grill (offering delicious, huge breakfast, lunch and dinner portions at value-packed prices), a full-service bar and a unique, award-winning golf shop.

The Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort and Hotel’s major 2011 resort expansion included 97 rooms and suites in the new Spa Towers Suites, which overlooks the ninth hole and houses stay-and-play package guests. The Spa Tower features the 15,000-square-foot Spa Ssakwa’q’n, which offers an open-air pool in a special co-ed area, a Vichy shower, cedar saunas, 10 treatment rooms, private changing rooms and a tea lounge. The Spa Tower also houses a new gourmet steakhouse, center bar area and fitness center.

The new section connects to the casino resort, which has 202 comfortable hotel rooms, a 24/7 casino with 1,600 slot machines, off-track betting and bingo, an events center hosting top sporting and entertainment events, a buffet and fine-dining options, and conference/convention facilities.

The Idaho Panhandle’s northernmost must-play course is StoneRidge Golf Course in Blanchard, about 50 minutes east of Spokane. The 650-acre, master-planned StoneRidge Golf and Recreational Community’s secluded 7,008-yard, par-71 layout, located in the beautiful Blanchard Valley, is sheltered on three sides by scenic mountain ranges.

The popular course, which underwent a 2002 redesign/renovation by Frank Burandt, formerly with The Nicklaus Group, winds through forests and over the wide open valley floor and features a unique 19th hole, a 238-yard par 4 nicknamed “Gambler” designed to settle bets.

StoneRidge, which offers executive homesites, Vineyards and Greenside townhomes and a Class “A” motorcoach resort, has several memorable holes. For instance, No. 8 is a downhill, 248-yard par 3 with water front and left of the green. My tee shot landed just short of and somehow bounced 50 feet over the water onto the green, resulting in a lucky par. The 522-yard 18th is a scenic and demanding finishing hole requiring a do-or-die approach over water fronting a severely undulating, elevated green that’s wide left to right, but shallow front to back.

Two of my three local playing companions, co-workers John and Craig, wore golf sandals and un-tucked shirts — and guzzled a ton of beer, I might add — summing up the destination’s laid-back, outdoorsy atmosphere I fell in love with. Maybe now is the time to pack your bags — and maybe even your golf sandals — and head to Northern Idaho.

The Lowdown: Idaho Panhandle

Golf

Circling Raven Golf Course, Worley: 800-523-2464; www.circlingraven.com; www.cdacasino.com

Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course, Coeur d’Alene: 800-688-5253; www.cdaresort.com

StoneRidge Golf Course, Blanchard: 208-437-4653; www.stoneridgeidaho.com

Accommodations

Circling Raven Casino Hotel: 800-523-2464; www.cdacasino.com

Coeur d’Alene Resort Hotel and Coeur d’Alene Inn, Coeur d’Alene: 800-688-5253; cdaresort.com

StoneRidge Golf and Recreational Community, Blanchard: 208-437-4653; stoneridgeidaho.com

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