A golf major hosted at a bowling alley? Why Sahalee has pros going wild

SAMMAMISH, Wash. — There’s something meditative about the grounds at Sahalee Country Club, host of this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. There’s something spiritual about the setting. It’s the trees, it’s the shadows, it’s the calm.

“It’s just pretty different from anything we play,” World No. 1 Nelly Korda said. “It’s just a beautiful walk.”

“It’s almost like an oasis of its own here,” added Lydia Ko. “I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been really peaceful.”

“It’s beautiful. The trees are just so impressive. It’s kinda of magical,” said club pro Stephanie Connelly-Eiswerth, similarly wowed.

In her practice rounds, Brooke Henderson she didn’t even feel like she was on a golf course.

“You just feel like you’re in amongst nature. It’s just a great feeling,” she said. “I love just kind of looking around and breathing deep and feeling that fresh air. It’s an incredible feeling.”

Studies have demonstrated the benefits of being in nature. Reduced stress. Lowered blood pressure. Improved physical and mental well-being. Based on their descriptions, that checks out.

That is, until the golf starts.

“I heard it’s called ‘Sa-Hallway’ down here,” Ko said.

“It’s kind of like hitting on a bowling alley,” Connelly-Eiswerth added.

Like bowling, baseball or organized labor, golf is a game of strikes. But when golf fans think of Seattle-area golf they sometimes think of Chambers Bay, the mega-links some hour south of downtown that hosted the 2015 U.S. Open and the 2022 U.S. Amateur, among others. You can see the entire wide-open expanse of a course from the clubhouse. You can see most holes from most other holes. There’s very literally one tree on the property — and it’s not even in play.

This week’s test is a bit different.

Sahalee is no stranger to big-time tournament golf; the course hosted the 1998 PGA Championship and the 2010 U.S. Senior Open and the 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship plus top amateur events in between. But to get there you leave Seattle and drive 15 miles east into the heart of the forest. Sasquatch is literally sewn onto Korda’s golf bag this week. They’ve undergone some tree-trimming in recent years, reducing the estimated tree count on property to … 7500. They loom over every fairway and every green. That’s where the descriptors come from. Sa-Hallway. Sa-Alley. There’s lots of talk of chutes and corridors and grocery-store aisles.

“I think I was a bit nervous coming into this week because I knew it was narrow,” said Madelene Sagstrom.

Several of the game’s top stars played their way to the top of the first-round leaderboard on Thursday. Celine Boutier, Charley Hull and Leona Maguire shot 2-under 70. Nelly Korda and Patty Tavatanakit shot 3-under 69. And Lexi Thompson shot 4-under 68. Other stars showed out, too: Cedar, fir, hemlock, maple. It’s not just the number of trees but their size; they’re 150 feet tall or more and loom over fairways. You can catch a good lie in the rough but get stymied. Hell, you can hit the fairway and get stymied.

Hence the bowling metaphors.

“This course has its teeth for sure,” Tavatanakit said. “A couple of drives I hit really good today and I ended up getting blocked by the trees.”

In a modern golf world where tree-chopping is in vogue and wide-open vistas all the rage, there’s something wonderful about a major championship heading to a setting that’s so obviously the opposite. Sahalee is the Pacific Northwest. It’s set in the same type of forest that’s home to Bigfoot, to the werewolves from Twilight, to the escape of D.B. Cooper. Mystery hangs in the air, broken only by the thwack of ball on tree.

What’s the toughest tee shot at Sahalee?

“I think they’re all super, super tough,” Korda said. “Y’know, No. 1, the tee shot, that’s going to be your first tee shot of the day and that’s a really hard hole.”

She started ticking through the rest of the challenging tee shots and eventually stopped; there were too many.

“Majority of the round I will be hitting driver just because you don’t want a longer club into these greens,” she said. “This is the type of golf course where you just got to sack up and hit your driver.”

That’s the tough thing about this major championship setup; you can’t exactly just lay back and play it safe. Yuka Saso, who won the U.S. Women’s Open a few weeks ago, outlined the challenge.

“I’ll probably hit drivers most of the holes, unless they move the tee up or the wind changes or anything like that,” she said. “Hitting driver obviously the target gets narrower. But I think I have to hit driver; KPMG is one the championships that is very long. I don’t want to have like 5-iron or hybrid [for my] second shot.”

She summed it up like this:

“This golf course it’s very narrow, so you have to be aggressive but also conservative. You have to hit it straight but also long.”

Ah, that’s all.

There are some intriguing wrinkles the trees provide. In the morning the course stays shaded, the ground stays dewy, the temperatures stay cooler, the greens stay more receptive.

“I feel like in the morning you can definitely be a little bit more aggressive with a majority of the pins being in the shade and a little softer,” Korda said. “But once the greens start to see a little bit more sunlight they start firm up a bit more and you have to play a little bit more defensive.”

In the world where Sahalee’s a bowling alley, the trees sometimes serve as bumpers. Thompson was among those to ricochet a tee shot off a fairway-adjacent tree trunk only to see it bounce back into play.

“Ended up getting some pretty decent shots out of the rough and gave myself some birdie opportunities,” she said.

Other times the trees can serve as gutters, swallowing up wayward shots. Thompson called it a “first-shot” golf course. Stats guru Justin Ray reported that the early wave shot 74.65 shots while the later wave shot 75.71. Every par-3 and par-4 averaged over par.

“Overall I think the whole golf course is demanding,” Korda said. “By the end of the week we’re going to be really tired. You’re going to have to put a lot of the thought into all your shots.”

From talking to players and caddies it’s clear the trees can loom so large they can intrude into your thoughts…

…unless you’re Charley Hull. The British star temporarily lost her golf clubs en route to Sahalee, delaying her pre-tournament prep — but she scouted the course Wednesday and cruised to 70 on Thursday, shrugging at the challenge.

“No, I’m pretty tight on my targets anyway, usually every week. This golf course feels like home to me,” she said. “The Duchess at Woburn [her home course in England] is exactly like this. Even tighter. So it doesn’t really faze me too much.

“I feel pretty comfortable. I love tree-lined golf course. The tighter it is, usually the better I play.”

That’s the spirit. Fortune favors the bold, in golf and bowling. Aim for the headpin. Then see what’s left for your second ball.

Dylan Dethier welcomes your comments at dylan_dethier@golf.com.

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