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Circling Raven Golf Club, a Northern Idaho must-play, gives you miles to gawk at

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

WORLEY, Idaho - Circling Raven Golf Club is about as cramped as your average sultan. Room? You want lots and lots of room? How's this for room?

Circling Raven Golf Club - Hole 3
Even the sky pops out more blue on Circling Raven Golf Club's grand stage.
Circling Raven Golf Club - Hole 3Circling Raven Golf Club - NatureCircling Raven Golf Club - GreenCircling Raven Golf Course

Eight and a half miles of cart path. Holes that could each use their own postal code. A sense of being away from it all as complete as some safaris provide.

Forget something at the clubhouse? At Circling Raven, once you're well into the golf course, that's almost like leaving something across a foreign border. It's a long ways back.

All this immense space sets the stage for a golf experience you're never going to forget. Standing on the 11th tee, seeing the striking long blue grass swaying in the breeze, with the flag up ahead, around a bend, up on a hill - seemingly, its own undiscovered planet - you almost have to step back and take another look around. You'll want to make sure there's really no glimpse of anything but this hole. There isn't. No matter how much Lasik eye surgery you've put yourself through. Heck, Superman's not seeing beyond this hole if he's on the tee at Circling Raven.

"We call these our 360-degree holes," Director of Golf Tom Davidson said, sweeping his arm around. "Because you can look in any direction and see nothing but our blue grass."

And striking blue Idaho sky. Even the heavens somehow seem unspoiled over Circling Raven, a course on the massive Coeur d'Alene Indian reservation, about an hour from the Spokane (Washington) airport.

If you could build your own private golf course with no limitations on space, no worry about houses and the budget of an oil sheik, Circling Raven is what you'd build. When you come here, you don't need Exxon money, though. It costs less than $100 to play Circling Raven during the summer high season.

Which can make someone who loves golf - who takes trips far and wide to find a course like Circling Raven - just grin in wild appreciation.

The Coeur d'Alene Indians were known "as shrewd traders" by the first European settlers in the region, according to Davidson, who's studied the tribe's history. It's hard to imagine a move more shrewd than what's been pulled off with Circling Raven in modern times, though.

"Many people said we were crazy to build this golf course," Dave LaSarte-Meeks, chief executive officer at the Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort Hotel, said. "They didn't see how it would work."

Once the golf magazine accolades started coming in, once the word of mouth from golfers who played it began getting around, suddenly all those doubters at other Northern Idaho clubs started coming around to get a look at the buzz themselves.

Circling Raven is not geared toward squeezing every dollar it can out of golfers. It's a draw to bring folks to the Coeur d'Alene Casino that's next door (and another world away while you're on the golf course). It's still fussed over, though. The annual maintenance budget runs more than $3 million per year - in Northern Idaho, where that's still a princely sum.

Once you leave the first tee at Circling Raven, thoughts about budgets or anything else that doesn't have to do with the actual golf game tend to disappear. Almost every hole's a nature postcard with trees, birds and conversation with your playing partners your only companion.

These are big, bold holes too, with forced carries over tall grasses and ponds the norm. Given this vast canvas, course architect Gene Bates didn't come timid. He took advantage of the opportunity by making each hole pop out on its own.

"You play the first nine and you're like, these are some great holes," vacationer Mick Thressler said. "You can't pick which one you like the best, but you're thinking, all right, this is the better of the two nines.

"Then, you get to No. 10 and you're blown away."

That's because Circling Raven's 10th through 18th hole run is one of the best nines in golf, period. The only thing that's come close in my recent travels is the back nine at the Four Seasons Experience at Koele Course on the ridiculously scenic Hawaii island of Lanai. And Circling Raven's front nine is in another class from Experience at Koele's beginning.

It's not just all the space you have at Circling Raven, the sense that you could scream out your deepest, darkest secret from a tee box and nobody outside of your foursome would hear it. The key to Circling Raven comes in how the scenery's used to challenge.

No. 15 illustrates the blend. This downhill, dogleg 426-yard par 4 has you navigating a fairway with tall trees on all sides. If you spray your driver, the elk and moose are probably the only ones who will ever find it. Of course, some days they may find your ball on the green too.

A big moose is known for lounging around 15, crossing the fairway at whatever pace he pleases.

Circling Raven, it's a cool place to hang out, whether you have two legs or four.

The verdict on Circling Raven Golf Club

There are a few, special courses that almost demand a special trip just to play. Bandon Dunes comes right to mind of course, new favorite Chambers Bay, which will host the 2015 U.S. Open, deserves to be there, as does Pinehurst No. 2. Well, Circling Raven's one of them as well.

If you love golf - truly unique golf - you want to consider coming to Northern Idaho to check out the course with as much room as some tiny European countries.

"The first thing most people say is how big the place is," Davidson said. "How big everything is. The Coeur d'Alene tribe really doesn't have a small scale."

It's big time golf too, complete with optical illusions. When you're standing on the eighth tee, the pin almost looks close enough to reach out and touch with your driver. It's a par 4, though, and you'll pay for holding back too much. Looking toward the green, there's just nothing in your eyes' way.

Sometimes space can be used to befuddle, too. That 139 slope rating from the second set of tees that most golfers will play Circling Raven from is no misprint.

If you land in any of the tall grasses that fill the course, there's little chance you'll find your golf ball this century. Circling Raven's got mystery too. When you're this big you produce some tales.

Just how much room is there? When the resort lost electricity one day, meaning the golf carts could not be charged, it let golfers walk one of the most unwalkable courses ever to play at half price.

The average round lasted seven hours. Where's that compass?

Northern Idaho hotels

Circling Raven is right at the Coeur d'Alene Casino, which is awfully convenient if you've been up late gambling or just don't like early-morning rising. It's also a 45-minute drive from the Coeur d'Alene Golf & Spa Resort, home of the golf course with the famous floating island green and one of the best spas in North America.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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