2006: Grand Scale
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Mark Bradley talks about this region the way some men describe their first love.
Bradley was infatuated from his first sight of the Tetons during a high school ski trip. When his mother, predictably, took exception to her 19-year-old son’s plan to drop out of college and return here in 1973, he hitchhiked from Vermont to Wyoming. Love makes a man do crazy things.
He found a job as the night waterman at Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club, taught skiing during the winter and stayed 12 years before heading back east to settle down, eventually becoming a club pro. Still, he remembers, “Not a day went by that I didn’t think about Jackson Hole.”
Bradley finally returned here in 2005, this time in his own car, to ski, and he packed his résumé, having been tipped off that the head pro position had opened up at, of all places, Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis.
When he got the job a few weeks later, shortly after returning east, it took him all of five days to give away virtually everything he owned, stuff the rest in his car and make a beeline back across the Togwotee Pass to Jackson Hole, where he squeezed in the final two weeks of ski season before going to work.
He now can boast about a course that fully reopened this month following a multimillion-dollar renovation overseen by original designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. – despite such hazards as the seven bison that decided to play through during a stampede across No. 8 one day in May. When I visited a few days after that, Bradley
was anxious to show off the revamped layout, particularly the par-5 11th, which wraps around the Gros Ventre River and is set against the backdrop of the “sleeping Indian” rock formation, and the two par 3s on the back,
Nos. 13 and 16, where the 13,772-foot Grand Teton provides your target line.
As he maneuvered the cart around the course, Bradley said that this time around, he has no intention of leaving.
“I’ll die here,” he says.
Like Bradley – whose bag tag reads simply “Pat’s Brother,” a reference to his sister, the LPGA Hall of Famer – people don’t just come to the base
of the Tetons to live and work. They come here to know that they’re living rather than simply passing time.
“This place keeps you young,” Diane North said as we walked up the short, par-4 17th hole at Teton Pines. Then she smiled, adding, “Maybe not in looks, but in attitude.”
In recent years, Diane and her husband, Larry, Pittsburgh natives who this month celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary, had done the snowbird routine – Jackson Hole in the summer, Florida in the winter. Last year they sold their Florida home and settled full time near Jackson. The Florida routine to which so many aspire – parties, golf and more parties with other retirees – had become “boring,” Diane said.
I joined the Norths at Teton Pines on one of those mornings when the Tetons, which abruptly rise as much as 7,500 feet above the valley floor, seemed almost to be strutting their stuff. Block one into the drink guarding the third green? No problem. Just turn around and admire the Grand Teton, and all is right with the world.
“It’s like heaven on earth,” Diane said. “You go away and come back, and it’s just so quiet.”
Well, usually. Shortly after she said that, as we walked off the 18th tee, picking up the pace to beat a brewing storm, we heard gunshots echoing through the woods.
“Oh, that’s probably Blake’s ranch hand shooting at coyotes,” Larry said nonchalantly. “He hates them. They killed a couple of his dogs.”
The region’s rugged western spirit has been tempered somewhat by the influx of people drawn to this idyllic setting, and perhaps the biggest reason for that is located just a few miles from Teton Pines, at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, the ski destination that put this area on the map.
Before Paul McCollister opened the now-famous resort in 1966, most people passed through Jackson on their way to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.
The parks still are a big draw, attracting about 2.5 million tourists annually. But more people are staying. The population in Teton County, Wyo., has grown sixfold over the past four decades, and while there still are only about 21,000 year-round residents, the area has attracted well-heeled newcomers willing to pay handsomely for a piece of the region’s perpetually tight housing market. On either side of the mountain pass, in Teton County, Wyo., or Teton County, Idaho, you’ll run into people who will tell you that “the billionaires are pushing out the millionaires.”
Since he first arrived here in 1974, Larry North often has heard the refrain that locals “didn’t want this to become another Aspen or Vail.” So it’s not surprising that developers get hammered from
all sides on even modest projects. And modestly sized projects are about all that can be proposed, particularly on the east side of the pass, where the federal government controls 97 percent of the land in Teton County, Wyo. That’s just fine with the locals who populate what annually is ranked as the country’s richest county on a per-capita basis.
“There’s the attitude that, ‘I’m here, now close the door,’ ” Bradley says.
Wyoming and Idaho are two of the nation’s reddest states, and that conservatism manifests itself in the most literal sense: a resistance to change. The land is and probably always will be king, and the ranchers cling to it.
“There are so many people out here who are so land-rich, hundreds of millions of dollars, and they know it,” says Clyde Clifford, part of the group that is developing the Teton Reserve community in Victor, Idaho. “But they’re living paycheck to paycheck, and they have one pair of jeans and drive a beat-up old pickup truck.”
One of the common refrains from first-time visitors is that the town of Jackson is much smaller than one would expect of such a well-known destination. Jackson still only has about 9,000 year-round residents, and it looks very much like what one would expect of a small western town. True, there’s a Gap just off the town square, and the neon sign, horse-saddle seats and souvenir shop of the famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar scream “tourist trap,” though in truth, it’s a magnet for locals.
But Jackson still holds tight to its past and its small-town ethos. Take one of its great annual traditions, the elk-antler auction, held the third Saturday each May. The Boy Scouts collect antlers from the nearby National Elk Refuge and haul them back into town to be sold primarily to Chinese and Korean buyers who grind up the antlers and peddle them as aphrodisiacs, and the whole town turns out for the festival. Six nights per week during the summer, just as they’ve done for nearly 40 years, locals re-enact a stagecoach robbery in the town square, complete with six-guns and a femme fatale.
And every Wednesday morning, a group of longtime residents – sort of de facto town elders – gather for breakfast and story swapping at the Wort Hotel on Broadway, carrying on a decades-old tradition. Larry North is one of the roughly dozen regulars, along with Clifford Hansen, the 93-year-old former governor and U.S. senator. There’s a lot to talk about these days. With the opening of high-end golf and fishing communities like 3 Creek Ranch and Snake River Sporting Club (The Golf Life, Retreats, July 1), developers have managed to neatly package the area’s natural marvels and peddle them to second-home buyers. It’s still not a booming metropolis and thankfully never will be – the lack of available land and remote location ensure that – but some long-time residents still bemoan the changes.
“There was a time, and I cherish those times, when you knew almost everybody in town,” says Vern Harkins, a resident since 1959 and a regular at the Wort gatherings. “I’d walk in here and know 80 percent of the people. Now I hardly know anybody.”
Everybody, however, knows Bill Briggs, the local legend who in 1971 became the first person to ski down the Grand Teton. You can still find Briggs kickin’ it every Sunday night with his Stagecoach Band at, appropriately enough, the Stagecoach Bar, a ramshackle, one-story building in Wilson. The band bangs out raunchy ballads from a corner of the bar normally reserved for darts, and the locals pack the dance floor while some of the cowboys mill around outside. The walls are filled with black-and-white photos of, among other things, the first plane landing in Jackson Hole in 1920, Teddy Roosevelt riding through town and one, taken not far from where the Stagecoach now stands, of horses freighting supplies up the snow-covered Teton Pass to Idaho.
Across the pass, on what some call “the quiet side of the Tetons,” the golf scene is anything but quiet. Just across the state line into Victor, Idaho, is Teton Springs, a 780-acre residential community with a resort hotel under development that will make its two-year-old golf course accessible to the public. The Headwaters Course – a group design effort by Gary Stephenson, Steve Jones and Byron Nelson – has generous fairways, and players can run the ball up to many of the greens, a useful approach given how the winds sometimes howl through the valley.
Water is in play on virtually every hole, perhaps most memorably on No. 15, a short, dogleg par 4 where players have the option of playing safe or attempting an all-carry shot across water to the green.
You’ll also find water near No. 9 on Teton Springs’ Short Course. It was there that I and two colleagues met up with Jim Hickey of WorldCast Anglers, which maintains a shop at the entrance to Teton Springs, to cast for cutthroat trout.
Like pilgrimages through the Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, you can’t come to this region and not go fly-fishing. It’s ingrained in the culture, and like golf, can fast become an all-consuming passion.
Just a few miles to the west, on the other side of Victor, life is Mike McCarthy’s passion.
“I’m 54. I’ve got to get busy,” McCarthy says, noting that his life expectancy is “only 750,000 hours.”
McCarthy, not surprisingly, is the numbers guy in a busy development group that is reshaping part of eastern Idaho. McCarthy and Clifford are spearheading the development of 448-acre Teton Reserve, which is home to perhaps the most unique golf course currently under construction in this country. The Hale Irwin design, situated on an old alfalfa field, is a reversible 18-hole layout, an idea Irwin hit upon, according to his son Steve, after reading a story about how the Old Course at St. Andrews sometimes is played in reverse.
“The style of greens is like a potato chip because it’s got to be receptive from both sides,” Clifford said as we walked the course, the first nine holes of which should be open by fall, with the remaining nine opening next spring. Teton Reserve, according to Clifford, will operate as a high-end daily-fee course for the foreseeable future, with members getting preferential tee times.
About eight miles down the road in Driggs, the same group bought The Links (formerly The Links at Teton Peaks), a public course that Bob Wilson, a lobbyist and former California state senator, originally built for his son. Long term, Clifford says, he and his partners have hopes of developing fishing cabins on the property. But for now, the new owners have poured about $150,000 into renovating the course and reopened it to residents and visitors for less than $50.
The Links used to be best known for rough that would make the sternest USGA official blush, but it has been cut back to make it more playable. The layout alone won’t win any awards – more design work is planned – but during the course of your round you’re likely to cross paths with moose, elk and other wildlife. And always, the Grand Teton is hovering in the distance. That never gets old.
“Every day,” says Diane North, “you wake up and you have a different view.”