The Impossible Dream

Published on Wednesday, May 17th, 2017 in Features

A quarter-century ago, a crazy idea in a beautiful setting put Northwest golf on the map.

by Tony Dear

It could easily be called the most important day in the history of public golf in the Pacific Northwest. So, it’s appropriate that strong wind and rain nearly brought it to an early end.

The day was May 1, 1991, and, after well over a year of discussion, planning, experimenting, design, testing, construction and assembly, the floating green at Coeur d’Alene Resort was ready to make its long-awaited debut. Completed the previous September, the green was unveiled to the press by Idaho governor Cecil Andrus in October, but had sat anchored close to the north shore of the lake ever since. The PennLinks bentgrass putting surface and perimeter geranium beds had been groomed to perfection, and the resort’s marketing machine had kicked into gear ensuring golf’s spotlight would shine on the Pacific Northwest.

At the time, most golf writers barely knew the Northwest existed. While private enclaves like Sahalee, Spokane Country Club, Eugene Country Club and others were hosting USGA Championships and delivering world-class golf to the Northwest’s privileged few, barely any of those public courses we now consider our crown jewels – and that regularly dot the national rankings of America’s public courses – were in existence. There were two courses at Black Butte Ranch and … that’s about it. To the world’s most famous golf course architects, the Northwest was no-man’s land, a rainy, muddy corner of the country where it simply didn’t make sense to invest resources into golf. Why bother building a course in Oregon, Washington or Idaho – where demand (and, thus, pay) was low, the playing season was short and no one outside the region had any desire to travel – when you could instead build one in Palm Springs, Scottsdale or Palm Beach and enjoy packed tee sheets and perfect conditions nearly year-round?

Because you’re Coeur d’Alene Resort owner Duane Hagadone and you see something that no one else sees: you see the future.

In Seattle sportswriter Blaine Newnham’s 2015 book, “Spectacular Golf Courses of the Northwest,” he writes of the green that would forever change the public golf scene in the Pacific Northwest: “It began with a sudden fit of inspiration, the owner of the industrial property walking his dog, gazing out at a tugboat towing a nearly round raft of logs on Lake Coeur d’Alene. He asked himself, and his dog, ‘Why couldn’t that be a green?’”

Coeur d’Alene native and resort owner Duane Hagadone had opened his 18-story Lake Tower and Resort on the Lake, on the site of the old North Shore Resort, in 1986. A hugely successful entrepreneur who made his fortune primarily in newspapers before branching out into hospitality, real estate, aviation and boating services, Hagadone understood the unique challenges of the endeavor he was about to undertake, having already built three marinas on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Initially, he chose a single-unit concrete pontoon whose advantages included high strength and long life expectancy with near-zero maintenance. But the depth of the lake where the green would be positioned was surprisingly too shallow and, with time running low, he chose a modular concrete design whose draft could be accommodated and which would take considerably less time to build. The modules would be built at Bellingham Marine Industries, then assembled in secluded Blue Creek Bay toward the east end of Lake Coeur d’Alene, about five miles from the golf course.

The final design featured 104 modules in two layers, each module weighing 25,000 pounds. Lightweight Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) would fill the gaps to give the structure buoyancy, and the modules would be connected by steel link plates, the two layers held together with steel through-rods. Two 4,542-liter tanks were built into the top layer to provide drainage and a water-collection system so water that had irrigated the green could be pumped back to shore, rather than leak into the lake.

Of course, designing a floating green is one thing. Building a 2,500-ton pontoon with a golf green on top, which needs to have a 50-year shelf life – oh, not to mention a world-class golf course to go with it – is quite another. Arnold Palmer bid on the job, as did four other architects, each of whom had to give a $5,000 presentation to Hagadone. Among those was Scott Miller – despite, amusingly, a personal distaste for island greens.

“I wasn’t terribly fond of holes like the 17th at Sawgrass,” says the Colorado State graduate, who headed up Jack Nicklaus’s western USA office before deciding to go it alone in 1989. “But I was still eager to win that contract as I really wanted to work with Mr. Hagadone. He was very committed to the town and the resort. He had an incredible eye for detail, and it was obvious he was willing to invest whatever time and money it took to get the course he wanted.”

The clincher for Miller might have been the promise Hagadone made him.

“He assured me the course would always be maintained in the best possible condition, and that I could bring any potential clients out there in future,” Miller says. “There’s not many owners that would say that.”

Before construction could commence, however, thousands of tons of lumber and other debris had to be cleared from the site of the old Potlatch timber mill close to what is now the seventh fairway.

“It took two months to clear the area of timber and chemical waste, and haul it all to a landfill,” says Miller, who spent far more time on-site at Coeur d’Alene than was typical for most architects.

“That’s just the way I wanted to work,” he adds. “I had decided I would only take a few jobs a year so I could devote as much time to each as I could.”

Also putting in long hours was the Soushek family. Patriarch Bob Soushek set up his Maple Valley-based golf course construction company, Fore, Inc., in 1971, and had worked on a number of Western Washington’s finest courses, including Port Ludlow, Indian Summer and Bear Creek. With him were his sons Dan and Jim, and daughter Lisa.

“The whole crew numbered about 25,” he says, “some of whom stayed in an old, abandoned motel close to the course and which Mr. Hagadone had purchased. We moved about half a million cubic yards of dirt, and blasted 385,000 square feet of rock.”

While Dad was the foreman, Dan, 25 at the time and now owner of his own firm – Golf Plus Construction – did a bit of everything.

“It was incredibly hard work at times,” he says, “especially getting soil up the hill to the fourth, fifth, and sixth holes. And I’d never worked on a course with so many different grasses. We had PennLinks greens, PennCross tees, PennEagle fairways, and Kentucky Bluegrass rough. Seeding the course was very time-consuming.”

Dan, however, loved every second.

“Mr. Hagadone was an amazing man to work for,” he says, echoing the sentiments of Miller and, indeed, those of virtually every other Hagadone employee. “He knew exactly what he wanted, and was quite demanding, but not in a bad way. I saw him wash concrete cart paths for four hours once. And one evening, quite late, I remember coming across a man out walking his dog on the construction site. I told him it was restricted and that he’d have to leave. He told me he owned the place, and we ended up having a very pleasant conversation.”

Soushek’s more immediate boss, however, was Miller – whom, he says, shared a few qualities with Hagadone.

“Scott was likewise very clear about what he wanted done,” Soushek recalls. “I really liked the way he worked. Some architects would suggest building this or digging that, and next day say, ‘Nah, that won’t work, let’s move it.’ Scott wasn’t like that.”

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