As we made our way from the Canadian border through rural Washington, our car aimed somewhere between Seattle and Spokane, we put our trust in Google to take us to Gamble Sands along the shortest route possible. We exited the main highway when instructed, up a winding secondary road along the sandy bluffs of the Columbia River Valley. After a few minutes of gentle climbing, we were told to take a right turn down what appeared to be the secondary road’s secondary road. We maintained our faith in Google and enjoyed the solitude of the route with no other human activity in sight, only evidence of it left behind as we passed enormous roadside stacks of Gebbers Farms apple boxes.
At no point did it really feel like we were about to stumble upon a golf course, but once we did, it was impossible to imagine that anything else had ever been there.
Gamble Sands was built in 2014 by the Gebbers family, who have been growing fruit in the region since 1900. They wanted to diversify their small community of Brewster, and even though they aren’t big golfers themselves, they saw the value that golf can bring to a community. Turns out, they had perfect land for a golf course — pure sand bluffs overlooking the Columbia River Valley. The arid climate and nutrient-lacking sand make it a perfect site for fescue, which tends to thrive in areas where other grasses might struggle. The place was meant for links golf.
The Gebbers family hired renowned Scottish golf course architect, David McLay-Kidd, to bring their idea to life. They knew this golf course couldn’t just be good, it needed to be great to make their quaint slice of rural Washington a golf destination. They put their complete trust in Kidd to craft the layout. Besides a two million dollar budget, they imposed no limitations or preconceptions of what it was supposed to be. According to Kidd, at no point during the process did they ever question one of his decisions.
And Kidd delivered.
Gamble Sands is as pure of a links-style golf experience as you can get without the sound of ocean waves smashing against a coastline. The scale of the sprawling property and panoramic views are staggering and provide a unique feel and sense of place. The property looks large and spread out to the eye, but is cleverly routed to make it enjoyable and convenient to walk.
Kidd managed to craft a layout that is playable for every golfer, but challenges the skilled player to think their way around the course and execute in order to score, which is the ideal in golf course architecture. He uses considerable width in the fairways, coupled with bold, well-placed bunkers and waste areas to create strategic value. Plenty of room to avoid hazards, but a reward for challenging them makes for a lot of fun.
“If you’re here to make par, I will give you a reasonable chance, and a reasonable challenge, to make par. Parity. I might win, you might win. You want to make birdie? Now the house has the odds. You better play some really good golf if you want to make birdie. If you end up wanting to make bogey, now the odds are in your favor. I will create fairways that will hold your bad tee shots, and I will create contours that push your ball back towards the green instead of reject it.” – David McLay-Kidd
Not only does Gamble offer up strategy, but the firm and fast turf presents endless options to the golfer. You can play the ball high, low, or right along the ground. You can try to attack a flag or you can get creative and sling it in off a slope. On the par 3 4th hole, it’s possible to find the green with any club in your bag, including your putter. I saw it happen with my own eyes. When we had the thrilling opportunity to play the course with David McLay-Kidd himself, his play on that hole was to use the ground and bunt a hybrid from 150 yards.
While Kidd believes that the building of Bandon Dunes created a paradigm shift in North America as to how golf should be played, he thinks courses like Gamble Sands can create yet another shift — the shift away from defending par. Golf is supposed to be fun after all, and most average golfers struggle to make par even on the easiest of golf courses. So why not build golf courses with the mindset of making it fun, interesting, and strategic, as opposed to the notion that you have to defend something? If Kidd is going to defend anything, it’ll be birdie, and his goal to have everyone enjoy his golf courses.
I was excited to hear that Kidd’s work at Gamble Sands is not likely over, with ideas for a second golf course currently simmering on the back burner. While the current 18-hole layout and well-appointed rooms overlooking the Cascade Putting Course are certainly worth the trip in itself, a second golf course would elevate the property to the next level — a destination where you could easily stay a week. Kidd believes that if everything comes together, the second layout could be as good, if not even better than the original, given the untapped pieces of land out there that he wasn’t able to utilize in the original layout.
Our trip to Gamble Sands was among one of our favorites in recent memory. It’s hard to believe that almost everyone we talked to from Canada about the trip hadn’t even heard of the place. It’s within a days drive of our hometown of Calgary, Alberta, and only a couple hour jaunt from British Columbia’s famous Okanagan Valley, yet nobody had any idea.
Well, it’s worth committing it to memory now, because I suspect you’ll be hearing a lot more about Gamble Sands in the future. Pure links golf with much better weather. How can you beat that?
A big thanks to Darin Bunch of the Golf Getaways Podcast and GolfTripX for organizing this trip, to Gamble Sands for hosting us, and to David McLay-Kidd for taking the time out of his busy schedule to tee it up with us.