For a guy that says he's never been all that interested in golf, Tom Hall certainly has himself a nice little golf course.
"I've hit a few balls, but I haven't even played this course all the way around," Hall said Friday, standing on one of the greens at the Cottonwood Country Club course in Nikiski.
While Hall didn't have a whole lot of experience designing a golf course when he first started clearing land three years ago, he has more than made up for it with his vision, and the drive to follow it through.
The result is an executive nine-hole, par-3 golf course with an adjacent RV park located on Kishka Drive at Mile 32 the Kenai Spur Highway in Nikiski that lives up to its motto: "Just a pleasant place to be."
"Dad's a man of many visions," said Hall's daughter, Rachel Cox. "Many people only think about all the things Dad does. He does them."
Hall said his initial plan for the 80-acre parcel overlooking Suneva Lake (also called Lost Lake) was for a wild animal farm, similar to Big Game Alaska in Portage.
"When I started out, I was going to put in a zoo," Hall said. "I talked to three different people, and they mentioned, 'Why don't you put in a golf course?' I decided one night, got up the next morning and started working on a golf course."
Hall's first step was to have his son-in-law, Eddie Beddow, an avid golfer, walk the property and come up with a design.
"I told him to just start walking the 80 acres," Hall said. "Then I walked it, and we started compromising he wanted to cut down a few more trees than I did."
"I was always going to Kenai golfing," Beddow said. "I came home one day, and he said, 'Eddie, what do you think about putting in a golf course?'"
Ground was broken in August 2000, and Hall said they had the fairways seeded before the snow started flying that fall. Greens were seeded the next spring, and the course was open for six weeks in late July of 2001.
"We've just been working on it ever since," Hall said.
The adjacent RV park went in last summer, and currently under construction is a lodge which will eventually house a dozen hotel rooms, the pro shop and clubhouse, a restaurant and laundromat and shower facilities for guests staying in the RV park.
"The golf course was the main idea," Beddow said. "We knew we needed to put in a clubhouse, and Tom decided to build a lodge."
Hall and Beddow have plenty of other ideas, too: a putting green next to the lodge; a picnic and barbecue pavilion; cabins down by the lake; and perhaps another nine holes. Beddow also has visions of a water feature somewhere along the current nine-hole layout.
Tom Hall talks about how the course and surrounding facilities were developed.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"I love it," Beddow said of his involvement in designing and building the course. "I love designing things, and it's every golfer's dream to design his own course."
In laying out the course, Beddow said he applied what he's learned from playing golf on courses where he grew up in southern California, as well as courses he's played in Hawaii. While he doesn't have a formal degree in landscape design, the project has inspired him to possibly pursue a degree in the field in the future.
With the trees that gave the course its name lining the fairways and guarding the greens, the nine holes meander up and down rolling hills, affording golfers views of Suneva Lake as well as panoramas of Mount Redoubt and Mount Spurr across Cook Inlet. On a clear day, McKinley will make an appearance on the horizon.
"The terrain the rolling hills, the scenery, it's all tied in," said Beddow.
In addition to taking advantage of what the terrain had to offer, Hall and Beddow also chose to keep much of the existing flora intact. Ash, elder and fireweed, among others, add spots of color between the cottonwood-lined fairways.
"I wanted to leave that so people would what was here before the golf course," Beddow said.
Playing the course can be tricky. Though the longest hole measures 201 yards, narrow fairways and small greens put a premium on accurate iron play. Add to it the fact that most of the tees are at a different elevation than the greens, and the course becomes a perfect place to challenge any golfer's short game.
Perhaps the most intimidating hole on the course is the 173-yard fifth, with a pair of large cottonwoods on either side of a narrow fairway just off the tee.
"It's up a big hill. It's dead-straight, but it looks like 3 feet between those cottonwoods," said Gary Oliver after completing a round Friday.
"It's a straight shot, but you've got to hit it straight," Hall said.
Hall and Beddow admit that the trees and terrain have made for some challenging holes but that's what it's all about. Hall says he asks each golfer which trees should be cut down, and the answer is always the same: Leave them all where they are.
Oliver's playing partners were his 9-year-old son, Ethan, and Ethan's friend, Jake Stevens. Oliver made the trip up the North Road from Kalifornsky Beach and said that part of the draw was the fact that the course is a little out of the way.
"There's no pressure when you're trying to teach the kids," Oliver said. "There's not as many people, so you don't have to worry about letting everyone play through.
"It helps me with my irons. The narrow fairways, that's not good for me. If you can hit a straight ball, it's a nice course. But that's why I'm out here you have to use your irons."
While No. 5 might be the most intimidating, Beddow said No. 2 features the best scenery with its views of the mountains and the lake. No. 6, a 158-yard "perfect par-3," just might be the course's signature hole.
Tom Hall of Cottonwood Country Club in Nikiski.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The course still is a work in progress. Grass has been on the greens for about two growing seasons now, and is still maturing. Some of the greens have come in nicely, others still need some work.
Hall said other changes to the original course design are in the works. A golf pro took a look at the course last year and made some suggestions, and Hall would like to improve some of the existing features, like enlarging the tee boxes.
As it is, golfers can play the nine-hole layout twice and have a totally different experience on their "back" nine. Alternate tees have been placed around the course, many of them located in such a way as to dramatically change the way in which a hole looks and plays.
And like any other course in Alaska, golfers also can expect encounters with wildlife. In fact, while working on the RV park last fall, Beddow and Hall said they looked up to see a bald eagle absconding with one of the hole flags, pin and all. The eagle dropped the flag, but further investigation revealed it was the second flag the bird had flown off with.
To Hall's knowledge, the course has yet to be parred, though Beddow has come the closest with a 2-over 29.
"We even have a policy if you par it, it's free," Hall said.
For those wishing to try their luck, the greens fee is $10 for nine holes. Club and cart rentals are available, and tee times can be reserved by calling 776-8745.
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