Sahalee Players Championship carries on legacy of premier championship golf in the region
by Craig Smith
WHEN YOU LOOK at how much Pacific Northwest golf history has been made at Sahalee Country Club, you might think the course opened in 1869, when Washington was a territory, instead of 1969.
Sahalee has been around less than a half century but has made a huge footprint in the sport. Like most of the nation’s notable golf clubs, it is already full of lore, tradition and stories.
One man with a unique perspective on Sahalee is John Bodenhamer, senior managing director of rules, competitions and equipment standards for the United States Golf Association (USGA). Before taking his current job in 2011, Bodenhamer was the longtime executive director of the Pacific Northwest Golf Association and Washington State Golf Association.
“Sahahee has had a profound impact in Northwest golf because in many ways the club set the bar when it comes to championship golf,” said Bodenhamer, a native of Tacoma. “Hosting championships was important to the founders.”
Indeed it was. Sahalee’s mission statement proclaims: “The vision of Sahalee Country Club is to have the finest golf course in the Pacific Northwest, to be highly regarded in the national golf community and to periodically host major championship events.”
Sahalee made national headlines in 1998 when it was the site of the PGA Championship, won by Vijay Singh. The club then hosted the 2002 World Golf Championships-NEC Invitational (won by Craig Perry) and the 2010 U.S. Senior Open (won by Bernhard Langer).
Mike Davis, the USGA executive director, is most familiar with the 2010 event and said: “The people who organized the U.S. Senior Open raved about the quality of the golf course and how supportive the city was. What I was told was very positive.”
The 1998 PGA Championship was particularly satisfying to the founding members of Sahalee.
When it was over, the late Carl Jonson said, “We have a place in history.” Thirty years earlier, Jonson, a member of the Pacific Northwest Golf Hall of Fame, had spent his weekends hitting golf balls down dirt fairways when the course was under construction to make sure it would be championship caliber.
The word Sahalee translates as “high, heavenly ground” from Native American dialect. Sahalee’s three nines were designed by Ted Robinson. The first head pro was Paul Runyan, who won the 1934 and 1938 PGA Championships and won 29 times on tour. He was on four Ryder Cup teams. A dining room at the Sahalee clubhouse is named in Runyan’s honor.
Sahalee hosted the Pacific Coast Amateur in 1978 and the winner was Mike Gove, now the PGA head professional at Inglewood Golf Club in Kenmore, Wash.
Sahalee has hosted an elite men’s amateur event – the Sahalee Players Championship – since 1992. It started as a Northwest event but soon began attracting top national and international players. The roll call of winners includes many who went on to PGA Tour careers: Kyle Stanley, Jason Gore, Nick Taylor, Daniel Summerhays, Ryan Moore, Arron Oberholser and Casey Martin.
Since 1981, Sahalee has been the site of the collegiate Edean Ihlanfeldt Invitational, with the University of Washington women’s golf team as host team. Past participants have included Annika Sorenstam and Juli Inkster.
Bodenhamer is proud that the PNGA has assisted Sahalee with the Sahalee Players Championship since its inception. He remembers a breakfast meeting with tournament founder Mike Jonson (Carl’s son) where Jonson explained what he envisioned and Bodenhamer agreed to have the PNGA assist.
The PNGA now schedules its prestigious men’s amateur championship the week after the Sahalee tourney so that out-of-state players can play two quality events on the same trip to the Northwest, calling the tandem the “West Coast Swing.”
The 22nd Sahalee Players Championship is set for June 29-July 1 this year, while the 114th PNGA Men’s Amateur Championship will be July 7-12 at Sunriver (Ore.) Resort.
Bodenhamer calls the Sahalee tournament “a tremendous tradition.”
“If you sit in my chair (in Far Hills, N.J.), you become aware that the Sahalee Players Championship is considered among the premier amateur competitions in America and internationally. Salahee is on the list of most of the top players. I don’t think that’s recognized in the Northwest as much as it should be.”
Bodenhamer said holding a tournament in mid-summer represents a sacrifice for club members.
“It’s not easy to do,” he said. “You have to give up your course in the prime time of the year. Yet they’ve stepped up to the plate.”
Jeff Shelley, a Seattle-based golf writer and co-author of the book “Championships & Friendships: The first 100 Years of the Pacific Northwest Golf Association,” is generous with praise for Sahalee.
“The big tournaments – 1998 PGA Championship, 2002 NEC Invitational and U.S. Senior Open – at Sahalee helped bring international attention back to the Northwest and the Puget Sound area,” Shelley said.
“After the region held some important golf events in the 1940s, there was a long gap afterward until Sahalee – and Pumpkin Ridge near Portland – got on the national radar. So the club helped re-establish the region as a viable place for future major golf championships. The big, enthusiastic galleries also showed that the game matters in the Northwest, which certainly helped convince the USGA to take a serious look at Chambers Bay before selecting it for the 2010 U.S. Amateur and 2015 U.S. Open.”
Asked to describe what he considers special about Sahalee, Shelley had plenty to say:
“Sahalee is the quintessential west-of-the-Cascades golf course. With its towering trees and claustrophobic fairways, it’s what people from outside the region stereotypically think of Northwest courses, giving the tournaments held there a clear identity and playing strategy. It looks pretty cool on TV, too.”
Chambers Bay head pro Brent Zepp said he deals with many out-of-town golfers who play Chambers Bay and then Sahalee, sometimes even on the same day.
“I’ve played Sahalee a number of times and it’s one of my favorite places,” said Zepp, who likes to call it “Sa-Hall-Way” because of the tight fairways. “I like to say one course has the most trees in the world (Sahalee) and the other has the fewest (one).”
One thing they share is a role of giants in Northwest golf.
Craig Smith is a freelance writer, formerly a longtime sports reporter and golf writer for The Seattle Times.