Gallery Golf has wide open play

Steve Peters would rather walk than ride. As the pro shop manager at the Gallery Golf Course, the recreational back-40 of the Whidbey Naval Air Station, Peters understands that a good walk is instrumental to the game of golf.

“Riding doesn’t give me time to think about my next shot,” he said.

“Or forget about your last one,” I added during a recent outing on the course. That’s the pessimistic golfer in me, confident only in my ability to blow my next swing.

Ten minutes later, on a nice straight-away 294-yard first hole, I sank a four-foot putt for a birdie.

“The problem with a start like that,” I say, “is the day can only get worse.”

Sure enough, it did.

Gallery is a 6,050-yard, par-72 course with occasional views of northern Puget Sound. It’s a blue-collar course for the serious golfer. It’s undoubtedly the best buy on the island for a full-size course, offering a four-hour walk at an affordable price for military ($16) and civilians ($25) alike.

If for a moment you forget that you’re on a military course, there are constant reminders. A C-17 cargo jet flies over the number-4 tee. Gunfire from a nearby rifle range pops rapidly in the background. During my round, a Navy rescue helicopter hovered overhead on approach.

All this is a distraction only for the newcomer. Peters and head pro Dave Amarelo rarely look up, while I was insistent on trying to identify every craft that flew overhead.

Amarelo is the most pure golfer I’ve ever had the pleasure to play with for 18 holes. He spent 10 years in Europe working on his game with some of the best teaching pros in Germany, he said. Although he never joined the European tour, from my perspective he looked like he had the stuff to compete. He once shot a 68 at Gallery and his measured distance and accuracy remained consistent from hole to hole as he made seven straight pars.

While walking the fourth hole, I asked him, what’s the single biggest mistake common golfers make? Not paying attention to the mechanics of the swing, he said.

What about shot selection, mental mistakes, rushing the game, I asked.

“If you don’t first have the swing allowing you to contact the ball cleanly and consistently, fixing the other mistakes won’t matter,” he said.

The front nine at Gallery is largely straight-forward. Number 4 is a good hole, a short par-5 dogleg with five traps at the corner that narrows the field. It requires a drive strong enough to reach the bend and true enough to stay out of the bunkers. If you navigate the corner well, however, it offers a good chance at a par or birdie.

The front side ends with two very good finishing holes. Number 8, rated the most difficult hole on the course, requires a confident drive over a creek to reach the bend in a dogleg. The second shot has to be true because it passes through an alley lined with trees narrowing all the way to a trap-lined green. If you end up in the trees, the ball is almost always playable, but only with a short club as you pitch out of the woods.

Number nine requires long-ball hitters to know their distance. A creek passing through the fairway and back again creates an island that is reachable with a good swing. To the left it takes only about 180 yards, but to the right it’s more like 220. I confidently swing for the left, but the ball goes right, clearing the creek by about a foot. The remainder of this 481-yard par 5 is lined with aspen, a fun hole to play and walk.

Peters and Amarelo both prefer the back nine, which is more heavily forested. Although not as open as the front, it still offers wide fairways and the freedom to swing a driver.

What looked like the best two holes were unplayable on my day on the links, as the course is going through a facelift of sorts. The 15th hole is being remade, with a large water hazard built in front of it. With the 15th offline, the 14th hole is taken out of play, turning the course into a shortened 16-holer. Both holes will be reopened with a tournament planned for July 31.

Gallery is traditionally brown and fast this time of year. Over its 55-year history, it hasn’t had the resources to keep the grounds green. Water hoses were transported around from hole to hole to water tee boxes and greens, but the fairways were always left to nature, meaning they were brown, hard, and fast.

A new irrigation system is changing that. For regulars, green fairways changes the play.

“It’s nice,” Peters said, “but some people are already complaining they’re not getting that extra 30 or 40 yards (from the roll).”

In all, Gallery appears deceptively open, inviting anyone to swing away with minimal concern for the errant consequences. Most holes allow wide-open drives, especially on the front nine. Very few water hazards or trees seem to come into play.

Peters takes some exception when I tell him the course seems “forgiving.” But forgiving doesn’t mean easy. It means I walked off 18 carrying the same ball I started with on the first hole.

I never even came close to losing my ball, yet I shot about five strokes higher than my average. For reasons I never understood, the course played me as much as I played it.

Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention to my swing. Maybe it was that birdie on the first hole.

One thing is for certain: I will be back to find out.

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