Gamble Sands
The 14th green with huge backboard at Gamble Sands • Photo by Darin Bunch / Golf News Net
Talking GolfGetaways Podcast

Talking GolfGetaways 127: Gamble Sands ‘Playing Lesson’ with David McLay Kidd


We’ve said it many times on the “Talking GolfGetaways” podcast — Gamble Sands in Eastern Washington deserves to be in the conversation for most fun round of golf in the United States. Co-host Darin Bunch argues that it might even be “the” most fun golf experience you’ll find anywhere.

And with that in mind, Bunch and co-host Mitch Laurance welcome golf architect David McLay Kidd (also known for his course designs at Bandon Dunes and Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley, among others) for a hole-by-hole “Talking Yardage Book” discussion of all 18 holes at Gamble Sands.

In this supersized Episode 127 (145 minutes long, which includes the big launch announcement of our all-new golf-travel website), McLay Kidd and Bunch explore all things Gamble Sands — from the welcoming customer-friendly proximity of the Golf Shop, restaurant, practice range and first tee to routing concerns and individual hole strategies, plus his own tips on how an architect who designed the course attacks each shot when visiting with friends during his own leisure time.

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We hope you’ll dive into the full podcast for all of McLay Kidd’s insights (including mentions of taco shells and basketballs in the design process). Here are just a few teasers inside the golf-course architect’s mind to whet your golfing appetite and get you dreaming about a golf getaway to the full-service resort at Gamble Sands (all hole yardages listed are from the green “regular tees” measuring 6,207 yards).

On finding the proper course length for average golfers (the “goldilocks yardage” around 6,200 yards) and what McLay Kidd has learned over the years from previous projects:

“I discovered … the average golfer at Bandon Dunes is trying to break 100. And golf course architects have this notion that the average golfer should be playing a 6,800-yard golf course and the guy is trying to make birdie against you and you’re trying to not look foolish because he’s making too many birdies. Nothing is further from the truth. The guy is playing a 6,300-yard golf course and is struggling to keep it in double-digits.”

On finding the overall routing through the high-desert Gamble Sands terrain:

“The really big thing at Gamble Sands are the giant sand washes that run form north to south and exit the bluff down onto the Columbia River. Those are real impediments. Those are difficult to cross, so the whole golf routing for the first course at Gamble Sands is really predicated on two holes — the 6th and the 14th. Those two holes are the two crossing points of the gulch, the sandy wash. And at its deepest point, that sandy wash is probably 200 feet deep and 300 yards wide.”

On the philosophy behind creating a central hub of proximity between the Golf Shop, restaurant, driving range and first tee:

“We [Casey Krahenbuhl and I] agreed that, in a perfect world, we’d want to drive up to the clubhouse, drop our stuff, order a beer and start hitting balls on the range and putt. We wanted it to be so compact. … We wanted you to be able to roll up to Gamble Sands 10 minutes before a tee time, be able to hit a dozen balls on the range, three or four minutes of putting and then hit the first tee — and have it all unbelievably close together.”

On the 353-yard Par-4 1st Hole:

“I’m trying to get golfers to understand that there’s a ground game afoot here, that the ball with run. I think Gamble Sands is the best fescue golf course I’ve ever seen in the world — and I’ve seen a few. The turf that Chip Caswell has maintained there is phenomenal — the ball will run out forever. So on that very first hole, I’m trying to say to the golfer, ‘Look, you don’t have to overpower it — you have to use your brain here.’”

On the 261-yard Par-4 2nd Hole:

“The drivable par 4 is something that’s come back into fashion over the past decade, maybe a little longer, but I all too often see them as holes that lack strategy. … I’ve built a few of them over the years, and I’ve figured out that what’s fun or me at least is to force the player into a decision. With a drivable par 4, the option you would think would either be to lay up or go for it. I think a badly designed drivable par 4 is one that lets me lay up with whatever I want. As the architect, I don’t want to give you that option. I want to make that layup a decision in itself.”

On the Columbia River Valley view from No. 2:

“I’ve often said that Gamble Sands doesn’t have the Pacific like Bandon has, but it has pure fescue turf everywhere and some of the best inland views in the Pacific Northwest.”

On the 592-yard Par-5 3rd Hole:

“Golf in Scotland, where I’m from, with the vast majority of the older golf courses, the greens are at grade. The fairways and the surrounds all flow into the greens, and the greens aren’t necessarily above or below the existing surrounds and fairways — they just flow together. … When golf came to America, greens became pushed up — because of drainage concerns, because of the USGA greens construction methodology, because of the conventions in architecture, for all sorts of reasons. And when that happens, you’ve got contours around the greens that if you miss the greens they are going to bounce the ball away. … So the third green at Gamble is one of the few on the golf course that are elevated, really only because that’s the way the ground was and that’s where we decided to put the green. So that par-5 green, if you decided to go for it in two and you’ve got the range, if you don’t make the putting surface the surrounding contours will reject the ball and actually push you farther away. Not that it’s death by any means, it’s not overly penal, but it certainly doesn’t gather — and that’s one of the few greens that doesn’t do that.”

On the 142-yard Par-3 4th Hole:

“The putter [off the tee] is the best way to play the fourth at Gamble Sands. There’s nothing in the way off the tee, not a single thing. And every contour from the tee to the green is helping that ball get to the green. And then the green falls away from you, so once that ball is rolling all you have to do is hit it hard enough to make it to the front edge. Once it does that, it’ll roll right on.”

On the 462-yard Par-4 5th Hole:

“For the architectural nerds who might be listening — and I’m sure there are a few — when I’m laying these holes out, I’m not trying to copy anything. I’m not thinking let’s build a Redan hole or the Road Hole or an Eden. We’re building the best hole that we can on the piece of ground we’re starting with. And sometimes those basic template holes end up being very similar to what we did, but not by design, really more by accident. Because the great template holes are just that — I think they would have ended up coming into existence at some point, no matter how architecture had spun out. So the fifth hole could be termed a combination of a Cape hole because the fifth green hangs out over a peninsula, and yet it has elements of a Leven hole because the front-right corner of the green is protected by a giant mound and you need to get as far left as possible if you want to see into the green. So for the architectural nerds, that would be the definition of it — it’s a Cape hole and a Leven hole that birthed the fifth hole at Gamble Sands.”

On the 217-yard Par-3 6th Hole:

“For the detractors who say width can make it too easy, the sixth hole at Gamble is a great case study here. If you’re a modest golfer and you want to put the ball on the sixth green, a good caddie should tell you to hit it way right. And let’s say the green is 220 or 210 from your tee playing the regular tee — the caddie would tell you, you only need to hit it 180. So you hit a rescue club or maybe your 3-wood for some players. Anywhere on the slope — anywhere — and that ball will roll down onto the green. Now depending on where the pin is, that ball might or might not get close. Now, if you’re a good golfer, if you’re a single-digit golfer, is that what you want to do — are you willing to take the chance that you’re going to hit it randomly onto a hillside and let it roll down onto the putting surface, or do you think that with nothing in your way, you could hit a 210-yard shot to 10 feet, 15 feet, and hole a birdie putt? Now I’m a reasonably good golfer, I think I can do that, so I rarely use that kicker slope on the righthand side. But I often recommend it to higher-handicap golfers in my group.”

On the 453-yard Par-5 7th Hole:

“It’s amazing how easy it is for a golf course architect to trick the golfer into using his ego against him, and the seventh is a good example. They see this big wash on the inside [right] and they think, ‘Well, I might try and carry it,’ but really you don’t need to — it doesn’t really help. So stay away from it, hit it into green grass and get it into play, and then the second shot gives you the chance to be aggressive. If you’re down in the junk off the tee, the second shot is purely a recovery shot.”

On the 284-yard Par-4 8th Hole:

“It’s almost like the green is sitting to the left of a conventional fairway. So if you want to, you can stand on the tee, hit it down the fairway and be pin-high, and then chip it 90 degrees onto the green and you’d have two putts for par. Very safe. I mean you can make an easy par there by just not even considering going for the putting surface. … Aggressive shots are well defended against, but it’s so tempting — once you know that hole, you know that if you can get it on line with that hard fescue sandy turf, the ball will bound and roll, catch the front of the green. The green falls away and it’ll roll right down onto the green and you’ll have an eagle putt.”

On the 355-yard Par-4 9th Hole:

“I would say the ninth plays more like a 400-yard par 4 than a 350. The second shot is severely uphill, much more uphill than you’d think, and the fairway pinches to the point where for a lot of golfers, you can’t hit driver — or you shouldn’t. It pinches way in and all the contours are kicking into a deep ‘death bunker’ on the righthand side that you can’t even see off the tee. So, for me, hitting it out left and short of the fairway bunker that cuts halfway across the fairway is the safest tee shot, but it leaves me at 170 out uphill into the ninth green. … On that particular hole, I feel like if I make par there, I got away with something because making bogey is very easy.

On the mix of golf holes at Gamble Sands:

“It’s all about the variety. There are holes out there that if you walked away with a par, you’d think you left a shot out there. And there are holes where if you walked away with par, you’d think you did really well. So our intention was to create this rollicking drama of a golf course where nothing’s predictable, there’s so much variety, you’re constantly excited and on edge looking for what’s coming next.”

On the 126-yard Par-3 10th Hole:

“The putting surface is probably the wildest green on the golf course. And the logic is simple — you’re only hitting a wedge or a 9-iron, it’s downhill, you’re in a bowl, all the contours around that green are generally helping you, so missing the green is not going to be terribly bad unless you miss short, which is all open sand. So it’s an all open-sand carry to a wild green with surrounding contours that are helpful, so my ask is accuracy. You’re only hitting a short iron downhill — I’m not going to let you have a 30-foot flat putt.”

On the 379-yard Par-4 11th Hole:

“There’s always the option to go way left — there’s 60, 70, 80 yards left of all the trouble that could put you in green grass and give you a perfectly reasonable long second shot into that green. But you’re not probably making birdie. … For those who might think that width in any way at all panders to golfers — you have a hole right there that doglegs hard right and has a fairway that’s 100 yards wide. A good golfer doesn’t see [the open space out to the left]. They see a big inside bunker and a pot bunker that are 15 yards apart [down the more direct line]. If you’re a good golfer, that 15-yard gap is what you’re looking at. Can I thread that with my driver and put myself down to a wedge into this green? The width means nothing.”

On the 304-yard Par-4 12th Hole:

“It’s fun to design a hole that is 300 yards and is a real conundrum. The average guy stands on the tee — there’s a pot bunker in the middle of the fairway at 180. So if he wants to lay up to a wedge, he really can’t because there’s a pot bunker in exactly the spot where he would want to lay up … So if you’re going to go for that green, hit it to the right side of the green — way right, 10, 15, 20 yards right of that green — and hit it as yard as you can. All the contours right of that green are pushing on to the green. So the balls that I’ve seen make the green off the tee are all played wide-right of the green, pin-high, and they feed on.”

On the 504-yard Par-5 13th Hole:

“The green is really kind of a punchbowl — it’s down in a hollow. It’s not a conventional fabricated punchbowl as many are. This was a natural hollow that was blind from the direction we’re coming at it from and has a ridge in front of it. So if you’re going to try to make it to the green, you know really all you have to do is cover the ridge. So even though the green might be 250 yards away, the top of the ridge is only 210 away. So if you can cover the top of the ridge, the ball is going to run down onto the green. The ridge is big enough that you can’t see the pin … most of the time you don’t know where the pin is, so it’s a complete crapshoot. … From the middle of the fairway, the line is usually the clubhouse, which is way in the distance.”

On the 389-yard Par-4 14th:

“Another hole where the golfer’s ego is what gets them in trouble. The hole is best played by taking the least aggressive line off the tee and just putting it into the widest part of that fairway — and then hitting a second shot using that big backboard. You can throw the ball deep and not get into any trouble at all. But golfers’ egos being what they are, they see that carry [off the tee] and they think, ‘Well I could get this ball way closer than that. I could take a big bite out of this and put myself to a wedge distance.’ So they get overly aggressive and they end up somewhere in that sand — and they go from offense to defense in a hurry and now they’re scrambling to rescue a par out of it. It’s really fun how as a golf architect you can lay out a hole that has all this common sense looking back at you, and yet the golfer just can’t help himself but turn into a drug addict and start making bad decisions.”

On the importance of putting:

“For me, putting is an underused American golfer trait — they don’t putt enough. And it’s probably a symptom of the push-up greens that we’ve seen built here over the past 100 years. That’s what golf is in America — wet, thick grass to a green that is above you. So that’s why the Mickelson wedge has such lore. But Gamble Sands speaks more to golf from my country where the greens are not elevated and it’s the same grass everywhere — it’s not wet, thick turf. So putting from off the green is an essential part of the game if you want to score. For golfers to learn how to putt with rescue clubs, to learn how to putt with their putter but using their wrists, to learn how to putt with a wedge, to just bump it forward — these are incredibly essential skills on course like Gamble Sands, every bit as essential as the tee shot, maybe more so to score.”

On designing with Match Play in mind:

“As a Scot, my golf has always been Match Play — that’s what you play. And so matches are won and lost on 15, 16 and 17. They more often than not don’t make it to 18, and they aren’t settled before 15. So those three holes on a lot of the courses I’ve done are really deciding a match. So you want those holes to be the most dramatic, the most heroic, full of drama. Death and disaster, hero and worship, all happen in each of those holes because they are where a match will end and you don’t want it to be an anticlimax.

On the 361-yard Par-4 15th Hole:

“There’s no easy out on the 15th. Whereas on many of the other holes, I’ve said, ‘OK, here are your aggressive choices and then I’ll give you a way out, a place to miss where you can probably still make par by missing over here or wimping out,’ for these three holes [15, 16 and 17] there’s none of that. You have to make a decision. You have to play golf. You can’t miss.”

On the 167-yard Par-3 16th Hole:

“I think something that’s often missed in the architectural books as they talk about bunkers and what all of their reasonings are — they’re defending a line or giving a line or stopping a ball from getting into a worse position … I think I often use bunkers to take an option off the table. I certainly do it on par 4s where I’ll position a bunker for no other reason than to take that position away, a bit like chess, taking a square off the board by putting a pawn there. … I don’t want it to be a lost ball or anything — if you mistakenly hit it in there, you can recover it — but I don’t knowingly want you to play for that slope or that position. So with that bunker on 16, there’s no missing to the front-right corner.”

On the 406-yard Par-4 17th Hole:

“[The bunker on 17] is probably the biggest expanse of open sand on a single golf hole. It runs from just past the forward tee all the way past the green — it’s probably 200-plus yards long of exposed hillside. And off the tee, it’s a simple choice: How big a bite are you willing to take off that diagonal hillside of open sand? The danger is that going into it is extremely penal — it’s deep and soft sand and you’re still way out, probably 150 yards to the green, on a very shallow angle to the green. So you’d be playing along the edge of that bunker just to get back to the green. So I, and I’m sure many others, have gotten into that bunker off the tee and hit a 100-yard recovery shot only to see it land 100 yards farther up in the same bunker. So that is no fun at all. When I get to that one, I have to try to mentally block out that whole ridge of sand and just think about the other side of the fairway.”

On the 452-yard Par-5 18th Hole:

“It’s bombs away. Par 5. Finishing hole. You want to play aggressively. Who wants to play the very final hole tentatively and nervously? So I’m giving you the opportunity to bomb one down the fairway. If you miss the speed slot, you’re still more than capable of making par. But if you catch that speed slot, which is probably 20 yards wide off the tee, it will run all the way down. I’ve hit 8-iron into that green. So it’s a very very makable eagle … there’s a lot of opportunity for scoring on the 18th if you can get a good tee shot away. And you’d probably have to work hard to make a double bogey there.”

On the Gamble Sands fun factor:

“The course is built to be as much fun as possible. And I think people who haven’t been there might hear what people say and try to find fault with it, try and think ‘Well the width is making it too easy or the scale is reducing strategy,’ but I hope that you’d agree that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s plenty of strategy there, there’s plenty of opportunity for heroics and disaster. It’s simple — the width allows confidence off the tee and the ability to recover. It’s really as straightforward as that. It doesn’t mean that the course isn’t full of strategy and intrigue and fun.”

About the author



The GolfGetaways crew of Darin Bunch and Mitch Lauarance have decades of golf travels and adventures to share, which they do here at GolfTripX, on their "Talking GolfGetaways" podcast.

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