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In Alaska, avoid the bears but try the salmon, golf

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,

ANCHORAGE, AK - Alaska is a big, brazen brute of a place, too big even to contemplate in some respects.

Scale has a different meaning in the Last Frontier. Glaciers the size of Minnesota. Mountains that seem to disappear into a hazy forever. Bears as big as the ones in your nightmares.

It isn't for the squeamish. They don't sing Christmas songs about reindeer up here, for example - they eat them with their eggs for breakfast.

The marketers lure tourists to Alaska with tales of wild adventure - and there is certainly that - but danger is a constant traveling companion as well, once you step off the worn tourist track.

People die here every year in various mishaps: snowmobile accidents, bear attacks, getting lost in the wilds and dying of exposure, falling off Mt. Denali, getting caught in the bore tides that come raging out of Cook Inlet and onto the shores of Anchorage.

But, danger is what makes it exciting. There's always an edge to outdoor - and sometimes, indoor - recreation in Alaska that seems to make you feel more alive.

There's a reason Alaskans call the rest of the world "Outside." The place is a country unto itself, with its own rules and ways of doing things.

Nor is it easy to get to. And you certainly wouldn't want to plan a trip here just to play golf. But, the adventuresome soul who happens to find himself in our 49th state can find some good golf.

The best golf destination is in and around Anchorage, the state's biggest city by far. With the Chugach Mountains on one side and Cook Inlet on the other, Anchorage is cradled by mountain and sea.

Though the place isn't overwhelmed by golfers, the short season, usually from May to September, weather permitting, makes for occasional crowds on some of the better courses.

No matter the quality of golf, you'll almost always have great views.

Must plays

• Eagleglen Golf Course is on the Elmendorf Air Force Base, an 18-hole Robert Trent Jones layout. What, RTJ made it to Alaska? Yes he did, in the 1960s, and he designed one of his typical layouts, with tricky greens protected by intricate bunkers. You'll be pulling out a lot of mid- to long irons for your approaches.

The course was named the best in Alaska six times by Golf Digest, the latest honor coming in 2001. There's a lot of water and a variety of bunkers protecting the greens and making the fairways interesting. A creek slithers through the back nine.

The greens are small and fast and the fairways a combination of wide and narrow; the big hitters like the long par-5s.

This is a military course with the public welcome. Greens fees range from $11 TO $22 for military and Department of Defense employees, and from $25 to $40 otherwise. The course also has frequent player cards at discounts.

It's open until midnight and beyond in certain periods of the summer, and there is a driving range and two practice greens.

• Settlers Bay, in Wasilla, about an hour's drive out of Anchorage, is a par-72, 6,596-yard course that is flat with tree-lined fairways.

It has arguably the best greens in Alaska, water on four holes and, with the heavy trees, some of the biggest mosquitoes you'll ever have attack you: that's why they're called the state bird.

It's a public course, popular with the locals, who seem to enjoy the back nine better than the front. It features both narrow and wide fairways, and like all Alaska courses, can be rough early in the season when you may still get a rogue snowfall.

There are a few elevation changes, with raised tees and greens, and pond and marsh areas. The course lies in the shadow of 6,000-foot high Pioneer Peak.

• Moose Run at Fort Richardson was built in the 1950s by military combat engineers, which probably accounts for its basic layout, open and straight. This military course usually finds its way into various rankings, with a lot of trees and little water. Some consider it the best course in Alaska.

The front nine is hilly, flatter after you make the turn, with straight fairways throughout. The short, par-4 No. 7 carries over a ravine off the tee, and it features a great finishing hole: a dogleg left that can open up eagle possibilities if you can carry the trees and fudge the corner.

The course was expanded in 2000, opening another 18-hole course designed by Nelson Hallworth. The Creek and Hill courses make it the northernmost 36-hole course in the United States.

• Palmer Municipal Golf Course. Play this course just for the scenery. As you might expect from a course designed by a corporation (Iliad Corp.) it's an unimaginative layout, but it borders the beautiful Matanuska River and you get a chill from the wind coming off the Knik glacier.

This is Alaskan farm country, about 42 miles outside of Anchorage. It's one of the most scenic in the state. Since there are so many private pilots in Alaska, there's a small airport nearby; call ahead to the pro shop and they' ll whisk you and your clubs right to the course. Green fees are right, too: about $20-$30.

• Kenai Golf Course. This is another scenic course, especially if you make the drive down along the gorgeous Kenai Peninsula. Under-publicized course, but underrated as well.

It's one of the most challenging courses in the state, an 18-hole, 6,641-yard gem where you can see abundant wildlife. It has narrow fairways and slow greens and features, like many courses, Alaska blue nugget grass. Built on marshland, it has one of the highest slope ratings in North America.

Solid seconds

• The Anchorage Golf Course is a William Newcomb-designed course with views of Mount McKinley. It has rolling fairways lined with white birch and spruce, with water hazards on four holes. Beware, it has some blind tee shots and water.

• Chena Bend Golf Course, a newcomer built in 1996, was designed by Jerry Matthews. Golf Digest ranked the par-72, 7,012-yard course the second best in the state in 1997.

• Russian Jack Springs is a personal favorite, for its eccentricities and the fact it has a great view overlooking Anchorage.

The brochure boasts of "artificial greens that, surprisingly, play almost like natural turf." One must take an almost otherworldy liberal interpretation of the adverb "almost" for that to come even close to a semblance of truth. Balls ricochet off the greens like super balls. But, it' s cheap and close.

• Bear Valley Golf Course is in Kodiak, home of the world's largest contingent of Kodiak bears. The nine-hole course is owned and operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. It is slightly hilly with small greens.

• North Star Golf Club in Fairbanks touts itself as the northernmost golf course in the country. The links-type course has frequent sightings of moose, foxes and cranes. It has excellent greens and wide-open fairways.

• Kachemak Bay Lynx Golf in Homer has a great view of Kachemak Bay. The trip to Homer alone is worth it. There is no dress code, it's open all year and ladies tee off with the men.

• Mendenhall Golf Course is 10 miles from downtown Juneau. It's a nine-holer with views of the Mendenhall Glacier.

• Birch Ridge in Soldotna is another nine-holer with views of active volcanoes, Mount Redoubt and Iliamna, which last erupted in 1990.

Off course

You're in Alaska where there are tons of things to do. You absolutely have to try salmon fishing for the best-tasting fish in the world, bar none. There are also several areas in and around Anchorage to catch rainbow trout.

If you're there in winter, you might be lucky enough to catch the start of the Iditarod or the Fur Rendevous.

You don't have to risk your life climbing Mt. Denali; the Chugach State Park has hiking and climbing trails.

There is also flight-seeing, skiing, ice skating, watching the Northern Lights and snowmobiling.

Anchorage is also home to some great bars, like the Crossroads, Chilkoot Charlie's and, my favorite, Darwin's Theory - say hi to Barbara if you go.

Dining out

Anchorage also has some great restaurants, many of them featuring salmon. When you get sick of salmon, try the Arctic Roadrunner for the best burgers in town, or Hogg Brothers Café for a delicious, cholesterol-clogged breakfast. There's also Gwennie's Old Alaska Restaurant or the Sourdough Mining Company. The Downtown Deli and Café is another personal favorite.

For a step up, Club Paris is your best bet, or Josephine's at the Sheraton.

Stay and play

Anchorage has the usual chain hotels and motels, but you might want to try the Alaska Mountain Vista Bed and Breakfast near Wasilla; the Best Ball Bed and Breakfast in Kenai - in "moose-friendly" woods; the Alaska Wilderness Plantation or the Kenai Wilderness Lodge.

For upscale digs, try the Captain Cook.

If you really want locals to hate you, rent an RV.

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Golf and bears?

    Judy wrote on: Jan 24, 2008

    Are there any golf courses that bear frequent?


      • RE: Golf and bears?

        Lisa wrote on: Aug 11, 2010

        I live on Birch Ridge Golf Course in Soldotna and we get black and brown bears, moose, caribou, eagles, porcupine, to name a few. Fortunately the bears are not on a regular basis but the rest we see all of the time.


      • RE: Golf and bears?

        Walt wrote on: Dec 11, 2008

        In the Anchorage area, bears, predominantly black bears, are regularly sighted at Moose Run Creek course.


  • photo of man in red pants and white shirt

    ken shay wrote on: Jul 9, 2007

    He is not looking at a moose. We call this creature a caribou.