Zac Cowan’s steady takeover of the Birch Ridge Golf Course in Soldotna, which officially began this summer, has actually been in the works for much longer than that.
The 28-year-old Soldotna native was brought up on the course — in the house that overlooks hole No. 6 to be exact — which stretches out on the backside of the land that Birch Ridge inhabits. As grandparents Pat and Myrna Cowan begin the process of handing over the reigns to their grandson, Zac is looking to the future of Birch Ridge.
“Ever since I left, I wanted to stay in the industry,” Cowan said. “You do it because of the field, you don’t get into it to make a ton of money.”
Cowan returned to the Kenai Peninsula in April from a life in Everett, Washington, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in marketing in 2011, a degree that is geared toward golf course management.
Currently working as the head golf pro at Birch Ridge, which is for the most part a general manager position, Cowan brought with him the materials and ideas to implement updated systems at the course.
With the use of his Calloway cart fitting system, which he hauled up from Washington, Cowan hopes to improve the quality of the game at Birch Ridge, a full length nine-hole course that sprawls out to 3,105 yards when using the longer men’s tee boxes.
“Getting people to use the right clubs is a huge benefit,” Cowan said. “I brought an entire fitting cart with me, and I use analysis and technology to get people into the right clubs.”
Cowan works his magic out of a small shop in front of the driving range, which is stocked with tools to fit and size clubs to the correct length and angle for each golfer.
“It’s like hockey players using the wrong stick, tennis players using the wrong racket,” Cowan said. “Golfers perform better with equipment that helps them perform.”
Cowan is not the only one that provides the service in Alaska, but at Birch Ridge, the system is a novelty.
“It didn’t exist here (before),” he said. “They didn’t even re-grip clubs here.”
The Cowan family has a rich history that dates back to the birth of the golf course. Originally from Colorado, the Cowans made their first appearance in the Last Frontier in 1968.
Zac’s grandparents on his mother’s side of the family, Tom and Gail Smith, originally owned and operated Birch Ridge since its inaugural summer in 1973, and the Smith’s became partners with the Cowans in 1988 before fully relinquishing ownership of Birch Ridge in November 1993.
Zac, along with acquaintances Nolan Rose and Aaron Dexheimer, who he counts as one of his close friends, said he would play as much golf as he could fit in one summer during his childhood. Rose was the general manager before Cowan took over this year.
“Fifty-four holes in one day was not a problem,” he said.
Dexheimer grew up on the course and owns the nine-hole record of 62, or minus-9. “Baby Dex,” as he is known around the greens, makes regular trips back home to play in tournaments.
Naturally, Cowan began working for his grandfather, starting with general maintenance like mowing the greens, but it was a friendship he struck up with longtime peninsula resident and golf handyman Sam Best that Cowan credited for helping to spark his interest in the sport. Cowan would show up to Best’s door, which also stood on the fringes of the course, and help re-grip a club.
After making the move to attend New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, Cowan knew he wanted to stay in the industry. It was while he was completing a summer internship in Seattle that he met his wife, Anna, in Soldotna, and the couple eventually adopted two boys — Ethan, 7, and Josh, 8.
“We decided it would be best to raise them around our family,” Cowan said about the Soldotna upbringing. “It worked out to have the timing of Nolan (Rose) getting another job, and we were here.”
Cowan said he also hopes to continue the junior programs that Birch Ridge provides, which presents young players the opportunity to hone their craft and pique their interest in the sport. Programs like the Hook A Kid On Golf program have given Birch Ridge — as well as the other local golf courses on the central peninsula — the status of a well-cared-for organization.
Unfortunately, the program is no longer nationally funded, but Cowan said that will not stop him from holding Hook A Kid On Golf.
With the help of business loans and his share of invested savings, Cowan said the plan is to have ownership of Birch Ridge by next summer. Cowan said the estimated value of a course like Birch Ridge typically stands at no less than $1 million, but he added he is in a far better position than most his age.
“This is not a sinking ship, it’s a fantastic golf course,” Cowan said. “This is home.”