If Dan Tachell seemed to know every blade of grass, the reason was that of all the golfers playing the course that day, he was the only one who'd been up before 6 a.m. mowing it.
HIS PLAYING partners watched his shot, but I watched Dan Tachell's smile.
What they saw was a golf ball, spanked by Tachell's four-iron, leap from the tee, sail over a pond and settle softly onto the 17th green. What I saw was sunlight streaking through maples onto the gray-bearded countenance of a satisfied man.
And though I'd met Tachell only a couple of weeks before, I knew there were at least three reasons for that smile.
One, of course, was the shot. Though he swings 25-year-old, hand-me-down irons and doesn't hit them as far as he used to, Tachell still strikes the ball straight and true.
A second reason was that with his son and daughter taking on more responsibility for the business, Tachell, 54, finally has time to play this golf course, not just own it.
And there was a third reason for that smile, one not evident to his golfing partners: The last time I had seen Tachell on this spot, he was hard at work with a crew of eight, scraping chocolate-brown silt off the green after the course was submerged in an early-spring flood.
"Looks a little better today, huh?" he winked.
This is the Carnation Golf Course, a half-hour east of Seattle, nestled against the Cascade foothills in a bend of the Snoqualmie River.
It's a place where eagles glide overhead and herons sit on stumps in the water hazards, nearly oblivious to the humans who trundle by with their bulky bags of odd-shaped sticks. It's a place where otter dwell in a wetland thicket, where deer creep to the edge of the fairway and where beaver waddle up from a pond to gnaw on infant poplars.
"It's a little oasis out here by the mountains, nothing here but a golf course and wildlife," said regular player Brad Weeks, sharing a pitcher of beer on the wooden clubhouse deck with three companions after a Saturday-morning round.
Quieter than a city course, less stuffy than a country-club course, rougher around the edges than a pro-tournament course, Carnation has a user-friendly charm that starts at the open-air driving range, where adults and kids smack away toward the nearby snow-capped peaks.
With no freeway in earshot, no suburban shopping mall close by and its nearest neighbor a vast acreage of the Audubon Society, Carnation seems an escape, a retreat. But there's more than scenery here. You can gaze at these vistas and walk these fairways, but you really don't know the Carnation Golf Course until you know the Tachells. Bucking the odds that say just one in 10 family businesses survives into a third generation, the Carnation Golf Course and the Tachells are doing just that, celebrating the course's 30th birthday.
Key to the operation is that Kenny Rogers look-alike I was watching out at the 17th hole. Dan Tachell took over the business his late father, Bob, started with two partners in 1967. Dan plays in faded jeans and carries his own clubs, forgoing both the motorized carts and the pull ones. As I tagged along, each fairway, each bend and each clump of vegetation brought some mention of a landscaping project planned, another improvement he'd like to make. If he seemed to know every blade of grass, the reason was that of all the golfers playing the course that day, he was the only one who'd been up before 6 a.m. mowing it.
Approaching his putt on the 17th, he bent over to repair the dimple his ball had made on the green. Then he stopped, bent over, and fixed a couple others. Courteous golfer or conscientious caretaker? When Dan Tachell plays this course, the roles are inseparable.
On this particular day, he hadn't been having as good a round as he'd hoped, laying some blame on a face-first fall the day before when he tripped over the corner of a front-end loader back at the barn. Still, he had no trouble knocking his putt close to the hole and tapping in for an easy par.
The 17th, by the way, is "Dylan's Dive," named for a family pet, an oak-brown boxer that plunges into the pond during its morning constitutional. In a throwback to yesteryear, all the holes at Carnation have nicknames printed on the scorecard. "Hanging Tree" is No. 15, where fat, horizontal arms of an old maple near the green reach out to lynch wayward approach shots. But only insiders know the stories behind a few of the names, such as "Lucky Collins" (No. 13), where a popular longtime member once hit a hole in one.
As we walked toward the 18th tee, Dan was enjoying the round of golf, but he spoke more enthusiastically about the new pet Doberman due to arrive at the airport and the "five-gang" John Deere mower he'd just acquired, bigger and easier to operate than the old Jacobsen. When his next drive faded right into a stand of tall firs, he turned back not with an excuse or an expletive, but a bit of history: "Dad planted those."
ONLY SINCE LAST fall has Dan been able to find time to regularly get out and play with some of the course's members on the weekends. The reason he can do it now is that back at the shop, son Chad, 26, is running the course's various golf programs while daughter Stephanie Jackson, 32, has taken on the title of general manager, keeper of the books.
Both are college graduates, each in a field unrelated to golf. Stephanie was a criminology major at Central Washington University and had notions of becoming a game agent until she found out her speeding tickets would disqualify her. Another thing she learned at college was how much the course was a part of her life. "I really missed all the old guys in the seniors club. They were like extra grandpas to me." Even so, when she graduated and came to work for her Dad, she first thought it would be "just until something else came along."
Chad was three years along toward his communications degree at Western Washington University when he decided for sure that golf-course management, not broadcasting, was his vocation. "I probably always knew it," he recalls. He completed his degree, then came back to Carnation.
At times, it's not clear whether the Tachells own the golf course or the course owns them. It sets their schedules, dominates their conversation, demands their attention and reclaims much of the revenue it brings in for its own upkeep and improvements.
"Everything I've made I've put back into the golf course," said Dan.
In this tight-knit family, the members work together, play together, take long weekends to Lake Chelan together. On the job, they argue together and resolve arguments together. "Sometimes you say things you wouldn't really say to a regular boss," said Stephanie, who admits sharing a stubborn streak with her father. "Then I go crying to Mom and she gets caught in the middle."
Virtually everyone in the family has some role in running the course. Chad's wife, Heidi, often works the counter; Stephanie's husband, Steve, though a full-time insurance adjuster, frequently helps around the course and is captain of the family golf team. Dan describes his wife, Bonnie, as "the unseen boss that watches over all of us," while her father, Ray Carlton, helps on the grounds crew.
Seldom is the family spirit more evident than when the course battles back from what's become a regular winter and early-spring setback, when the 18-hole layout doesn't just have water hazards but rather becomes one. Swollen with rain and melted snow, the Snoqualmie River overflows its banks, spilling onto the course.
"The sixth green goes under first," said Chad. "It's the lowest spot on the course." But if the flooding continues, as it did in March, water spreads across the entire layout, eventually slapping against the side of the house where Chad and Heidi live, just across the parking lot from the clubhouse.
At the height of a flood, like the one triggered by a two-day drenching in March, the family can do little but watch after moving everything else portable up the hill to Dan's house. The last few motorized carts perched on a piece of high ground near the clubhouse.
Though it saturated the golf course, March's bath wasn't as devastating as those of the 1995-96 winter, when so-called 100-year floods swamped the clubhouse itself.
Like an outgoing tide, flood waters often fall as fast as they rise, leaving the real work behind. Getting silt off the greens before it dries and cakes in place is a top priority. As sunlight filtered through a light haze, Dan sprayed water from a plastic pipe onto the greens to loosen the muck, while Chad, Ray, Steve and five helpers pushed it away with rake-like tools Dan fashioned from two-by-twos.
Through a long morning, they worked to the hum of the small pump that sent water throbbing up through a fire hose to the pipe Dan wielded. Dylan the boxer, as if supervising the job, scampered around the perimeter with his stubby white pal, Otis the bulldog. Although the course was closed, the driving range was open, and when the crew moved equipment from one green to the next, Chad noticed three players hacking away on the range. "Good," he allowed. "We made eight bucks today."
What concerns Dan most about the flooding is that over time, silt carried down from the mountains has raised the level of the riverbed, so year by year, it takes less water to send the Snoqualmie over its banks. He's cut channels through some of the fairways so they can drain more quickly, and is applying for permits to raise the clubhouse.
To Carnation's regulars, the amazing thing is how quickly the Tachells get the course back into playing shape. "Everybody could learn something from the way these people deal with adversity," said Bob Porter of Issaquah, playing two weeks after the March flood. Between Porter and his playing partner, his brother, Jack, "We've probably played 50 percent of the PGA stops in the country, but we always come back here, to our home course."
That loyalty grows from a sense of belonging fostered by things like Stephanie's smiling greeting and Chad's willingness to offer tips to youngsters barely big enough to swing the clubs. Like many regulars, Porter has come to know the Tachells well. "They're everything that's good about golf," he said.
OPENING THIS course in the countryside, when Carnation was the east edge of nowhere, wasn't Bob Tachell's first choice. He'd been quite happy with Meadowbrook, his busy little nine-holer in northeast Seattle. Dan grew up on that Meadowbrook course. As a kid, he was amazed by the pocket full of change he could make fetching golf balls out of Thornton Creek, cleaning them up and returning them to their owners. "At the time, it seemed like a gold mine." As he got older, he caddied, collected greens fees, did whatever needed doing on the grounds - and decided he'd found his life's work.
The Tachells' plans suffered a setback when Meadowbook closed in 1961, the victim not of a bust, but a boom - the baby boom. Seattle's crop of postwar youngsters crowded into the schools, and lawyers for the Seattle Public Schools convinced a judge that building schools was more important than retaining golf courses. Despite a court battle that took a $40,000 divot into his savings, Bob Tachell was forced to sell the land to provide a site for Nathan Hale High School.
During the next few years, Bob Tachell supervised the construction of another course and gave golf lessons, but it wasn't until 1965 that he and two partners found the former 150-acre sheep ranch outside Carnation, an affordable site for a new course. It was a gamble, says Dan. "There wasn't much out here, and you had to take little winding roads."
Although the challenges of the new course were many, Bob Tachell saw one thing in his favor: What sheep leave behind is great for growing grass. Putting it delicately, he told a newspaper columnist, "You might say the soil is rich."
The site already had its stately maples and a smattering of cedars. The new owners added rows of poplars and Douglas fir to shape the 18 fairways; they sculpted tee mounds and greens and dug sand traps. As the course was readied for its May 1967 opening, Bob Tachell said wryly, "Let's hope nobody decides to build a school house."
At start, business was slow, dependent on the "overflow" from crowded Seattle courses. Seattle's Japanese-American community was an early source of players, thanks to the many acquaintances of one of Tachell's partners, landscape contractor Frank Yoshitake.
As Bob Tachell was bringing the Carnation course to life, Dan, fresh out of the Army, was establishing his own golf career in a management apprenticeship at Ballinger Park Golf Course in Mountlake Terrace. He moved to the Carnation course in 1978 and two years later bought out his dad's remaining partner, former superintendent Fred Ewing.
Just as a golf course had defined his youth, it seemed only natural for Dan to give his two children chores around the course as soon as they could handle them, and to share his enthusiasm for that way of life.
"I brainwashed 'em," he chuckles. Brainwashed or not, Stephanie says she never found it particularly onerous as a teenager to get up at 4 a.m. every summer morning, climb on a lawn mower and carve tidy back-and-forth patterns across the greens, hour after hour, green after green. She loved the smell of fresh-cut grass, and being around her grandpa, father and brother.
What sets Stephanie apart from her kin is that despite her enjoyment of the golf course and the golf scene, she's not that enthusiastic about playing golf. "I just never got the drive like everyone else." Her passion, instead, is raising and showing horses.
Chad, in contrast, caught the golfing bug early. "He was a pretty good little golfer when he was young, played a lot in junior golf," his dad said. But during a two-year PGA apprenticeship, he saw that one either aims to be a full-time player or a full-time course manager; few attempt both. And Chad knows that running the course will forever limit his playing time, as it has his father's.
For the Tachells, one of the most rewarding parts of the game is developing young golfers, probably a sound investment, since there's no better way to produce future customers. On Monday afternoons in the summer, the driving range is crowded with youngsters from 6 to 17, learning the fundamentals of a golf swing and hearing about the game's rules and its etiquette. Carnation is also the home course for four high-school golf teams.
"Dan is a guy that obviously loves kids and will take unlimited amounts of his own personal time to help them," said Jerry Fehr, executive director of the Washington Junior Golf Association. Fehr said Tachell not only makes his course available for group events, but lines up other courses for junior tournaments and goes along to work as an official. Chad's work with young golfers has also been noted; Western Washington's PGA chapter named him its 1996 junior-golf leader of the year.
As the mantle of responsibility at Carnation is passed to the next generation, Dan is keenly aware of the challenges the family faces. An estate plan is essential, for inheritance taxes have forced the sale of many a family enterprise. The death of Dan's mother last fall divided her interest in the course among Dan and his three siblings, and though all are supportive of the family enterprise, it's not yet clear how best to manage and reward their investment. In addition, the number of mom-and-pop courses has steadily declined nationally. "Like in any business, you have the big guys looking to buy out everything," said Dan.
And then there's the river, source of great charm and great challenge. At times it seems the Snoqualmie wants to move the whole course miles downstream, as it did with a heavy bridge there a few years ago. But there's a resilience and a determination among the people here, and if hard work, a love of the game and a commitment to family count for anything, this little oasis just might stay afloat.
Jack Broom is a Seattle Times reporter. Harley Soltes is Pacific's staff photographer.