Yosemite speaks to us each in our own voice. There is no confusion, no need for translation. Such is the way of a sacred place, a place the native Awahneechee Indians called a “place of power.”
Golf has often been called the most spiritual of sports, a way to zen-consciousness, connecting in much the same way as Yosemite’s voice.
Game and place came together in a rare, serendipitous relationship when a small golf course was built behind the Awahnee Hotel in the YosemiteValley.
Alas, the course was removed from the Valley in the late 1970s.
But not gone.
Kim Porter took it.
Porter’s life has been about preservation, about saving something good. So when he heard the National Park Service would do away with the Awahnee golf course, he found a way to keep it.
“I took the greens from Awahnee and put them in here at the Wawona Golf Course,” said Porter, the superintendent at Wawona, a man who has given new meaning to the term “greenskeeper.”
“That way the Awahnee golf course still lives. It was a special course. And besides, those were very good bent grass greens.”
Porter was first touched by the voice of Yosemite in 1974, and like John Muir, Galen Clark, and so many others, he never left. He went down to Fresno State University for a degree in agronomy and came back in 1980 to make the preservation of the Wawona Golf Course – the first golf course in Yosemite – his life’s work.
“Yosemite Valley is said to have the greater glory,” said Wawona historian Tom Bopp, “But Wawona has the deeper charm.”
This small settlement, four miles inside the south gate of Yosemite, 27 miles from the valley floor, was first called “Pallachun” by the native Indians, which means “a good place to stop.”
Galen Clark, the first superintendent of Yosemite, settled here in the spring of 1856. Stagecoach travelers from Mariposa would stop at Clark’s Station. In 1874 Clark sold his station to the Washburn family, and the Wawona Hotel was born, taking its name from the Indian word for “Big Tree,” the giant sequoia common to the area.
To the seasoned golf writer, today’s Wawona resort bears a peculiar resemblance to Augusta National, with many green-trimmed white cabins and cottages standing on a vast lawn, a golf course spread below. But while the fear of offending your powerful hosts has you walking on eggshells at Augusta, Wawona has no such pretense – it is of the people, for the people, very simple.
This is a retreat, with no hustle and bustle common to present day resorts. The rooms have no telephones or televisions, and most of the guests lounge on the vast deck of the hotel, time is no longer a meaningful context. One word describes the place – relaxing.
Celebrities have found Wawona, but they meld in anonymity. Robert Redford and Brad Pitt frequent the hotel. So did Ralph Waldo Emerson. President Teddy Roosevelt had lunch at Wawona in 1903 with John Muir. Other presidential visitors include Grant, Harrison, Hayes and Taft. Today the Wawona Hotel is a National Historic Landmark.
The golf course has a history of its own.
Clarence Washburn hired golf course architect Walter Fovargue in 1917. The nine-hole golf course was dedicated in June of 1918 with Peter Hay raising a flag which fronts the circular fountain at the entry to Wawona. The first golf course in the Sierra Nevada was born.
Fovargue was a very good golfer who won the Northwest Open in Seattle in 1917. The previous year he finished third behind U.S. Open champion Fred McLeod and JJ McDermitt in a national championship at Augusta CC, and shot 299 to finish high at the U.S. Open in Minnesota at Minikahda Club, won by Chick Evans. In-depth research of Fovargue reveals that he collaborated with William P. Bell as the original architects of Lakeside Country Club in San Francisco, which was purchased in 1922 by The Olympic Club and eventually hosted four U.S. Opens.
Local legend has Alister MacKenzie involved with the Wawona Golf Course. The Washburn family was known to socialize with the Del Monte and Hay family of Pebble Beach fame, a social circle that included MacKenzie and Fovargue. Peter Hay, namesake of the 9-hole course at Pebble Beach, was the first golf professional at Wawona. MacKenzie may have looked at the plans for Wawona, but this course belonged to Fovargue.
When Kim Porter returned to Wawona in 1980 he found his golf course by the south fork of the Merced River nearly dead.
“It looked like it was abandoned,” Porter said. “I found an old fire truck, that was also abandoned, and took water out of the river to water the greens. It took a truck load for each green.”
This act would become the hallmark of Porter’s philosophy.
“You cannot replace anything around here, you repair it,” he said.
Porter tried to get some moderate pesticides for the course that first year, but he found that it nearly took an act of Congress. After all, this was a national park. And the feeling back in Washington was that the golf course should not be there. But the golf course existed before Wawona became part of Yosemite National Park in 1932, so it stood, the first golf course in a national park.
“It was such a hassle with the bureaucracy that I made a decision to just dispense with any of it,” Porter said. “No pesticides. I went organic.”
With that decision, Wawona became the first organic golf course of its time. Today it remains one of the few in the nation.
Porter found that the rye grass fairways and bent grass greens had an excellent root system, so any disease did not last long. His friends are the hawks, owls and eagles, who love rodents. Even the water is organic – reclaimed water from Wawona’s sewage system.
“We’re trying to show that the game of golf isn’t the polluter it has to be,” Porter said.
In 2003, Wawona was recognized for its environmental excellence and certified as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, the 28th golf course in California and the 457th in the world to receive this honor.
Porter’s predatory birds live in the small dell where the 6th hole resides, a 185-yard par 3. So do bears, who use that green as their personal outhouse. “Mow that green, better bring a shovel,” Porter said.
The 7th is Porter’s favorite hole, which he named Cathedral. The fairway is cut through immense sequoia and ponderosa pine, and falls to a very pretty green 420 yards distant. A few steps west of that green is Clark’s meadow, the original settlement.
The course was intended to expand to a full 18 holes, but that immense federal bureaucracy, which holds jurisdiction, has made it impossible. But this is a thoroughly enjoyable nine holes to play, with two par-5s, three par-3s and four par-4s that wander through meadow and forest at 3,011 yards, par 35. The 223-yard second hole would toughen any course, anywhere.
But Porter is not satisfied. He is quick to point out that the original ninth green is now the putting green fronting the golf shop on the other side of Highway 41.
“They squished the golf course to put that highway in,” Porter said. “I try to get the course back to what the architect had in mind.”
The voice of Yosemite is strong at Wawona, embodied fully in Kim Porter.
Green fees at Wawona are $18.50 for nine holes, $29.50 for 18. Electric carts are $15 for nine, $24.50 for 18. Call the golf shop at (209) 375-6572 for further information.