Sean O'Reilly laces his golf shoes Thursday night at Birch Ridge Golf Course in Soldotna. The course has been open for a week.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
A beer in hand and hot dog in his stomach, Mark Matarrese sat in the clubhouse at Birch Ridge Golf Course wearing the look of a happy man.
After all, the Kasilof resident, who used to play golf four or five times a week, had just completed his second round of golf this year.
And he won a few skins to boot.
“Enough to buy a beer and go ahead and have a hot dog and just chat with the guys,” he said. “It’s good to be back out on the golf course.”
Judging by the crowd lounging in the clubhouse, that’s a sentiment shared by many.
Being the first local course to open on April 22, Birch Ridge in Soldotna has been experiencing a steady stream of customers so far this season, one of the earliest in recent memory.
Ice thaws on a pond at Birch Ridge Golf Course as Thomas Dewitt lines up a putt last Thursday. "I'm an avid golfer," Dewitt said. "I was here when they opened last Sunday. This is my third time through this week."
Photo by M. Scott Moon
“The conditions here are as best as I’ve seen them in the 20 years I’ve been playing up here,” Matarrese said. “This is great golf for this time of year.”
Course owner Pat Cowan said the impressive conditions are due to the way in which the grass dried this year.
“Usually the snow goes off and all the frost comes up out of the ground. Then you’ve got lots of soft spots out there and a lot of moisture,” he explained. “This year it was frozen so hard in March that when the ground thawed out, it thawed out slower. And we had so much wind that the moisture started evaporating. The moisture was coming up slow out of the ground and because of the wind it was evaporating. It got drier faster than normal.”
Amazed with the conditions, Matarrese pointed to the first hole as an example.
“I’ve never seen this course this dry. My feet aren’t even wet,” he said. “Usually this time of year, you look at No. 1 right there and there should be a lake right off the tee box.”
Traditionally a scratch golfer, Matarrese said fast greens contributed to his score of 75.
“I can’t complain this time of year. I missed a bunch of putts, but you’re going to have that happen to you,” he said. “The greens, they’re rolling pretty good.”
Things will only get better, though.
“Another three weeks, these greens are going to be awesome down here,” Matarrese said. “Conditionwise, this course is as good as I’ve ever seen it. It’s as clean as I’ve ever seen it. There’s a lot of healthy growth in the turf right now.
“In a couple of weeks, if we get any kind of weather and some sun, this course is going to be looking real good,” he added. “It’s going to be good for the entire peninsula’s golf.”
Another positive sign is how early carts may be allowed on the course. Traditionally sanctioned in early May, Cowan said carts could be welcome sometime this week, maybe even Wednesday.
And even he’s excited about that.
“That brings out a lot of people that just don’t want to walk,” he said. “As soon as we get carts, I’ll probably only walk the front nine and I’ll ride the back nine. It will be good for me, too.”
To some golfers, carts are an essential component of the game.
“The population is aging in Alaska. Obviously, a lot of guys my age like to ride. Even some young people like to ride,” Cowan said. “Our school enrollment is decreasing and our health care is increasing. Kind of tells you what the story is.”
In addition to yearly maintenance and grooming the wooded areas, Cowan said work on the netting around the driving range should be completed this season and temporary walls may be constructed around the pavilion to block the wind.
“We’ve been working for two weeks,” he said. “We’ve been working in the roughs cutting down trees, cleaning up brush. You do that in order to make it easier for the players to find their balls and hit them out of the rough.”
Also taking advantage of the friendly weather is the Kenai Golf Course, which just opened its back nine and driving range on Saturday and is set to unleash the front nine in another week.
“We were lucky this year,” said owner Gordon Griffin. “Our greens are just solid no winter kill. Everything is real solid. All the greens really turned out well this year.”
A local resident for about 14 years, Griffin is also impressed with the early opening, saying they traditionally open the front nine first, but went with what conditions dictated.
Carts could also be offered within the next week, too.
“This weather is really helping us a lot with its breeze blowing and the sunshine,” he said. “If we had a good week of what it’s doing right now with sunshine and this warm, nice breeze blowing, that’s just what the doctor ordered.”
Bird Homestead Golf Course co-owner Pat Bird said standing water is preventing the course from opening.
“Just in a few spots. It’s enough to keep it closed,” she said. “We don’t want people out tracking it up too bad. It’s hard to fill in the holes the moose make without having to fill in the ones that people make.”
With nine holes, Bird Homestead, located in Funny River, boasts a water driving range, which is open on weekends until May 5 and 6, when it will open full time. They will also be hosting an open house on those dates to get people acquainted with the course.
“We’re sure hoping for a big season,” she said. “Lots of sunshine this year to make up for last year’s wet season.”
Cottonwood Country Club in Nikiski does not know when it will open, yet.
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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