Whatcom County golf courses extend hand to high schools in effort to promote junior golf

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 21, 2013 

Add together costs of clubs, range balls, necessary golf gear, accessories and green fees to play a nine- or 18-hole round at least five times a week at one of the many pristine golf courses belonging to Whatcom County.

What would it cost?

"Hundred and hundreds of dollars would be the low end," Lynden girls' golf coach Scott Sahagian estimated in a phone interview.

Mount Baker coach Chad Hoidal nearly strained his brain trying to do the math.

Courses that host high school teams, such as Homestead Golf & County Club, Lake Padden Golf Course and North Bellingham Golf Course, must make a pretty penny on all the business driven to them from junior golf then, right?

Not so fast.

In fact, it's quite the opposite.

"It's unprecedented how they treat us," Lynden boys' golf coach Russ Dorr said of Homestead, which is the host course to both Lynden and Lynden Christian, in a phone interview. "I've been there 18 years, and in regards to the opportunities presented to the kids, they are absolutely an open door."

Plain and simple, if area courses weren't such staunch advocates for junior golf, covering expenses wouldn't be feasible for the vast majority of high school golfers.

"If you were to add (regular costs) up, no parent could afford it," Dorr said. "It would be like buying a new car every month when you break down the green fees and range balls and the cost to play nine or 18 holes."

Dorr and Sahagian know just how good they have it at Homestead.

Range balls are free. Green fees are non-existent, and high schoolers who want to golf but don't have the equipment are provided clubs Lynden has gathered throughout the years. It's a golf near utopia, where there's no cost to play a sport regarded as less than affordable.

Homestead's roots are deeply embedded into the Lynden and Lynden Christian high school golf programs. Dorr coached Homestead head golf pro and Western Washington University women's golf coach Bo Stephan when he played at Lynden High during the mid 1990s. Dorr also coached Homestead assistant pro Graham Kent. Even today, many Lynden and Lynden Christian golfers work for the country club while in high school.

"It's a tremendous family feeling that started, gosh, with nine holes and a shack," said Dorr of what Homestead was before it became an 18-hole course compete with a fitness center, restaurant and other clubhouse amenities. "It's very prideful for me to see (Stephan and Kent) behind the counter. They have the love and want to give back to the program."

Stephan said Homestead's willingness to promote junior golf by making it virtually free to play for high school students is nothing new. He still remembers how good he had it during his high school days.

"My freshman year of high school was 1994," Stephan said in a phone interview. "Since I was a freshman in high school, Homestead has always accommodated us and wanted us out there. My experience in junior golf is one of my favorite experiences - that and being a golf instructor."

Dorr's players try to give back when they can.

They'll spend time picking up the range and cleaning the balls. They'll also fix divots and "do a little course maintenance." Dorr said it gives his players the opportunity to feel better about the gracious way they're treated.

Homestead is one of seven Whatcom County golf courses high school teams call home. North Bellingham hosts Mount Baker and Meridian, Lake Padden is used by Bellingham and Sehome, Blaine plays at Semiahmoo Golf and Country Club, Ferndale plays at Grandview Golf Course, Squalicum calls Sudden Valley Golf and Country Club home and Nooksack Valley plays at Raspberry Ridge. The Bellingham Golf and Country Club also hosts high school tournaments.

The consensus among Dorr, Sahagian, Hoidal, Sehome boys' coach Stu Gorski, Lake Padden Director of Golf Mel Fish and Stephan is, in their estimate, all area courses give high school golfers some sort of price break.

The reason: To promote youth golf while giving high schoolers a way to learn a sport that can turn into a life-long hobby.

"Junior golfers are the future of golf," Fish said in a phone interview. "If you don't have juniors, where are (golfers) going to come from? We want them here, and if they need our help, we want to help them in any shape, way or form."

Gorski raved about the way Lake Padden management has treated his Mariners and Bellingham High during their long-standing relationship.

"Lake Padden has been phenomenal for us," he said. "They have really taken a hold of their commitment to junior golf. They see the community and see it as a way for the golf course to give back to the community. I can't say thank you loud or hard enough to show the appreciation we have for Mel (Fish) and Lake Padden."

Gorski said Fish truly gives Sehome the red-carpet treatment. The two meet before every season just so Fish can learn how Lake Padden can be more accommodating to Gorski's team.

Fish said his strong relationship with Gorski and other high school teams dates back to "as long as I can remember."

Hoidal is another coach who's been thrilled with the relationship he's generated with his team's home course. Baker has logged countless hours playing North Bellingham.

He even credited the course for Mount Baker's recent string of success. The Mountaineers won a district title and advanced five players to the Class 2A State Tournament last year.

Hoidal said it would be unrealistic for high schoolers to play golf if regular playing fees were assessed.

"You wouldn't be able to have a team," the Mount Baker coach said in a phone interview. "You'd have to have kids buy memberships. That's the only way they would be able to play."

Mount Baker spends on average of 15 to 20 hours per week at North Bellingham, and that's not including weekend practice some players take part in.

Hoidal said he's coached a mixed bag of players who understand how good they have it. Mountaineers' Kristjan Toivola, who is a two-time state golfer, said playing for free is one of the main reasons he began golfing in high school.

Others, such as former Baker standout Addison King, have learned just how expensive the game is without help from Whatcom County courses.

"Once you get out of high school, you're not getting this for free," Hoidal said. "Addison King came back, showed up and said, 'I'm not nearly getting as much golf in for the fact it costs money to play.' Here, he doesn't have to (pay)."

Getting youth involved in the sport without having to pay tremendous fees fosters an environment where athletes can gain a love for golfing and, in some cases, make a career out of the sport, Fish said.

That's certainly been the case for Stephan and Kent. It's also worked out for Fish's son, Josh Fish, who grew up playing Northwest Conference golf, left for college where he earned a double major is business and golf management and is now the head pro at Lake Padden.

Ferndale Athletic Director, Vic Randall, who oversees boys and girls golf for the conference, acknowledged the high schools have a special relationship with Whatcom County golf courses.

"The golf courses are very accommodating of the high school golf programs - both boys' and girls' golf," Randall said during a phone interview. "It's awesome to have the number of courses we have in Skagit and Whatcom County. Those courses do a lot of work to provide to the teams."

Thanks to high school golf teams' appreciation, as well as heaps of generosity from local country clubs and golf courses, sustaining a successful high school golf team without worrying about astronomical funding has become par for the course in Whatcom County.

Reach Andrew Lang at andrew.lang@bellinghamherald.com or call 360-756-3862.

WHATCOM COUNTY HOME GOLF COURSES

Grandview Golf Course: Ferndale

Homestead Golf and Country Club: Lynden and Lynden Christian

Lake Padden Golf Course: Bellingham and Sehome

North Bellingham Golf Course: Meridian and Mount Baker

Raspberry Ridge Golf Course: Nooksack Valley

Semiahmoo Golf and Country Club: Blaine

Sudden Valley Golf and Country Club: Squalicum

Reach ANDREW LANG at andrew.lang@bellinghamherald.com or call ext. 862.

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