WARM BEACH — Steve Stensland drove past the large boulder that distinguishes the second hole of Kayak Point Golf Course.
On the next hole, Stensland brought his golf cart to a stop and paused to gaze at a lake ringed by trees.
“This is one of my favorite spots,” he said. “I just love it here.”
Stensland has been golfing at Kayak Point since the early 1980s. He figures he made his first trip there at 13, when he came up from Woodinville with his dad and his dad’s friends. They would return to play the wooded, hilly terrain about once a month.
These days, as general manager, Stensland is in charge of running the course — and working hard to keep its 18 holes open to the public. Snohomish County owns the property and Stensland’s employer, Redmond-based Access Golf, leases it.
“We are so happy to be here and to have our partnership with the county,” he said. “You can hear it in my voice — this is such a special, special place.”
Publicly owned golf courses have had a tough time since the Great Recession, and Kayak Point is no exception. The county recently reworked its lease with Access Golf, hoping to keep the relationship going well into the future.
“We have a quality operator,” county parks director Tom Teigen said. “They’ve been a good partner, they’ve been great to work with.”
But keeping things going might require creativity.
The location between Tulalip and Stanwood is both an asset and a challenge.
For regulars Ray Weis and Jim Fenton, it’s worth the drive from Edmonds several times a week.
“I’ve always liked the trees, the hills,” said Fenton, 65.
“It’s a good test,” added Weis, 72.
Fenton appreciates the tranquility and wildlife. Common sightings include deer, beaver, owls, eagles, hawks and coyotes.
“And you don’t hear traffic at all,” Weis said.
The course marked its 40th anniversary in July. It’s part of Kayak Point Regional Park, but sits up the road from the park’s beach, hiking trails and yurts. Some fairways provide vistas of Puget Sound, Camano Island and the Olympic Mountains.
The course used to host up to 50,000 rounds of golf per year back in the sport’s boom times of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Tiger Woods was at the height of his popularity.
Then came the recession. In recent years, annual rounds have fallen as low as 25,000, Stensland said.
Similar pressures have doomed some courses and threaten others. Mountlake Terrace closed its nine-hole course on Lake Ballinger in 2012 and converted it into a park. Everett raised rates last year to buoy revenues at Walter Hall and Legion Memorial golf courses.
To try to keep Kayak Point healthy, the County Council in December approved a contract amendment. It lowers Access Golf’s base rent to $90,000 per year, from $170,000. The lease was shortened by three years to run through 2020. The arrangement is different from other publicly owned courses, where a city or county pays a management company to handle operations.
The county and Access Golf have been working together to upgrade the facilities. The county puts in $10,000 annually for capital improvements and the company matches those investments. Recent work has focused on irrigation systems.
“That should help golfers see greener fairways this summer,” Stensland said.
The general manager credited the course’s new superintendent, Zach Dunaway, for putting in hard work.
“He’s busting his tail all winter long to make sure golfers have a good experience out here,” he said.
The new agreement allows Access Golf to charge for non-golf events. Possibilities include cyclocross bicycle races, cross-country events and orienteering.
Stensland said the course is exploring free weekly concerts by local bands. Golf, however, will stay their focus.
They’re trying to sell people on a fun and affordable experience. They don’t plan to raise greens fees. They haven’t for several years.
“I’ve always looked at this as a country club for working folks,” Stensland said. “We want people to come out, have fun and enjoy the day.”