USGA conquers golf’s last frontier

Alaska prepares to host its first national championship, the U.S. Senior Women's Amateur

The United States Golf Association has been around since 1894 and managed to stage one of its championships in every state except one.

That lone exception had been Alaska, which is the size of Texas, California and Montana combined, yet golfers have less than 20 courses to enjoy in a rather condensed season. Many times the course conditions are dicey at best, and with a population of just 736,000 for the entire state you’re more likely to encounter a moose or some other wild animal during your round than a backup on the first tee.

"I have a video from last summer when we were playing Moose Run Golf Course north of Anchorage and we were on the other side of the green and a black bear just came and got one of the pull carts and dragged it down by the woods," says Rick Boyles, one of the top senior golfers in the state. "The bear was trying to get a candy bar out of the bag. It’s like a circus sometimes. It’s non-stop wildlife on the course around Anchorage."

Anchorage Golf Course
Anchorage Golf Course was designed by Bill Newcomb, whose work is mostly found in Michigan, and is set in what is known as the Anchorage Bowl and offers mountain range views in the distance.

"They come out when they want to," Anchorage Golf Course general manager Rich Sayers added when asked when the moose venture on to the course. "The moose have no golf etiquette. They will walk right over a green during play. You see them in spurts. You will see them for five or six straight days and then not again for two weeks. They will walk right past where you will be hitting, so you just kind of let them go."  

With not many sporting events remaining to cheer on you can imagine the excitement swirling around Alaska this weekend as the USGA begins U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur play at Anchorage Golf Course on Saturday. The 60th playing of the championship runs through Aug. 4.

"If your company name starts with the words ‘United States’ then you have to be committed to the entire United States, so we’re completing the full circle this year by going to Alaska," says Mike Whan, the CEO of the USGA. "I’ve never seen our employees so excited. Yeah, it’s a long trip from New Jersey — it’s like going to Hawaii — but it’s amazing that there are people like myself who have been all over the world and yet I haven’t been to Alaska. It’s nice to see and it’s going to be fun." 

Sure, it’s not a U.S. Open, but this is a monumental moment in Alaskan limited golfing history.   

Greg Sanders is widely considered the best golfer in Alaska, having captured nine State Amateur Golf Championships. He has also been a USGA rules official for 25 years and helped spearhead this historic moment for a state he loves.  

"It was known within the Alaska Golf Association community that the USGA had a championship in every state but Alaska, and for a lot of years it felt like it was just out of reach, it was too daunting of a task," Sanders says.

Few, if any famous golfers have been groomed in Alaska. The state’s claim to fame is that noted golf instructor Butch Harmon was once stationed at one of the Army bases in the 1960s.

"The state is famous for hunting and fishing — and not so much for golf," says Terry Thornhill, the executive director of the Alaska Golf Association. "You don’t hear much about golf because people come to Alaska for the rugged outdoors, the mountains and the scenery."

"This championship has really galvanized not just the golf community but with many others as well,” Sayers adds. “Everybody in town knows it’s a national championship, we’re getting national media attention and all the things we do well in Alaska and Anchorage will be on display."

Anchorage Golf Course
Not uncommon to see wandering onto Anchorage Golf Course are moose and black bears.

Sayers mentioned other former sporting events or teams that the state has hosted and were proud of, such as the Great Alaska Shootout college basketball tournament and the Alaska Aces of the East Coast Hockey League.   

“They’ve all moved on so we don’t have events like this anymore, so having this USGA event is really, really exciting and people are fired up about it,” Sayers said.

The competitors are in for quite a scenic treat as Alaska boasts 17 of the 20 highest peaks in the U.S, some of which give Anchorage Golf Course a stunning backdrop. The course is framed by magnificent views of the Chugach Mountain Range, the Anchorage city skyline, Cook Inlet and Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, which is the highest mountain peak in North America with an elevation of 20,310 feet.

Alaska is known for some harsh weather conditions and this summer has been no different, according to Sayers. He said the course suffered through a few months of drought before heavy rains hit the area.

"In a day and a half we went from cart-path only because of the dry conditions to cart-path only because of the wet conditions, so it has been some weird Alaskan weather," he says.  

Few know that most of the golfers in Alaska are considered hard-core fanatics of the game.

"When I first came to Alaska in 1983 from southwest Florida I asked my brother who lived here if there were any golf courses around, and I found out there were some really good golf courses," Sayers says. "People in the oil industry moved up here from different parts of the country and they were golfers, and there are some good golfers here, too. The lower 48 will get to see our place and maybe when they want to take a trip to Alaska they will think of golf as well. Our scenery is spectacular."  

Sayers said close to 275 volunteers have signed up to help facilitate the USGA championship. Some will be armed with bear spray and air horns to keep order if necessary between women and wildlife.  

"Our volunteers are pretty savvy and we’ll be prepared just in case," Sayers says. "If I ever get tired of seeing a moose, then it’s time to leave Alaska. They are really pretty cool and they just do their thing."   

"Golf in Alaska is not like golf anywhere else," adds Thornhill. "We play the same game, we have the same rules, but we don’t have the same golfing environment. Most of it prettier than you can imagine."