EARLY TWO HUNDRED years ago, explorers Lewis and Clark and their intrepid Corps of Discovery ventured from Missouri to the edge of the continent in search of a water passage to the Pacific. En route, they encountered mountains, forests, deserts, dormant volcanoes, fertile valleys, and a rugged shoreline that few if any non-natives had ever laid eyes on before. And that was just in what would later become Oregon.
Since then, the Pacific Northwest has remained somewhat enigmatic to the rest of the nation. But things in this quirky, individualistic, and gorgeous state have developed quite nicely — thanks only partly to the plentiful availability of good espresso. One aspect of Oregon’s current charm is that hippies and ranchers, loggers and environmentalists, software millionaires, artists, and mortgage bankers share the territory in reasonable harmony. Play golf at any of Oregon’s great venues and you’re just as likely to be paired with a fisherman in hip waders as you are with a hip waiter.
And if you think the populace of this upper left state varies widely, wait until you see the golf courses, which include windswept links layouts; tracks carved from old growth forests; lush green Willamette Valley courses (where much of the nation’s best grass seed is grown); venues stretching across the dusty buttes of the high desert; and alpine courses undulating beneath glaciated mountain peaks. Where else can you play golf in such disparate topographies without violating the Interstate Commerce Act? Lassoing up the best Oregon golf courses requires a big rope and a fast horse, but you can still do it without a saddlebag full of cash. Here’s how.
You needn’t leave the Portland metropolitan area to enjoy some of Oregon’s finest golf. In fact, you barely need to leave the airport. Located close enough to PDX’s runways to hear an airline safety talk are two Robert Trent Jones Jr. layouts at Heron Lakes. The courses comprise the best 36 holes of the “Portland 90,” a series of munis owned by the city. Heron Lakes’ Greenback Course (named after a duck) tops out at 6,608 yards and purveys a traditional design punctuated by elevated greens and carries over water. Pro Jack Young calls the 207-yard par three 16th “one of the hardest on the planet,” because it requires a perfect two-iron when the wind is ripping in your face.
But Jones’s Great Blue (as in heron) is the bird of paradise here. The 6,916-yard track’s open fairways ramble between Scottish-style mounds and pose a collection of excellent risk/reward riddles.
Many locals consider the 466-yard par four eighth hole among the toughest to solve. Big hitters can attempt to squeak a long drive between a line of trees and a creek that guard the left-dog-legging fairway, but conservatives will opt for a three-wood aimed at a directional bunker, leaving a long shot into the tucked green.
Great Blue’s three finishing holes all present the classic backpacker’s dilemma: how much water to carry. The 16th fairway is actually split by a lake and by wetlands; only monsters and lunatics will try to thread a shot between these for an easier approach.
Forty minutes west of Portland toward the Coast Range mountains, Bob Cupp’s Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club spooks some golfers with its bag full of tricks and treats. Pumpkin was the site of the 1997 U.S. Women’s Open (and will be again in 2004), Tiger’s third consecutive U.S. Amateur win (in 1996), and host to Nike Tour events and other tournaments. The public Ghost Creek course may explain why Charlie Brown’s friend Linus sat out in a field with his golf clubs waiting for The Great Pumpkin, because this is as great as a pumpkin gets.
In 1999, GOLF ranked Ghost Creek #90 in the Top 100 in the U.S. and #13 of the Top 100 you can play. The 6,839-yard par-71 bent grass track wends beside through forests of fir and Oregon Big Leaf Maple. A mischievous stream threads across the entire layout, appearing and vanishing without warning like, well, a ghost. Watch for it on number six, for example, a 371-yard slant left where the creek begins right about where the faiway bunkers do, tightening the landing area. And watch out for the triple-bogeyman, too. The ninth hole, a mere 469 yards of par four, features a large lake and two streams. Number 18 provides a 454-yard opportunity to ghost bust by reaching the well-protected green in two without splashing. Who ya gonna call when you run out of golf balls?
A short drive from Pumpkin Ridge, The Reserve Vineyards and Golf Club decants two thirst-quenching wine-themed courses, one each designed by John Fought and Bob Cupp. The Reserve rotates the two tracks between public and private play twice per month — something that’s great for the game. The entire complex is decorated with grapevine icons and even has its own wine label.
You may produce a few whines of your own if you misplace your “A” game — although the Fought and Cupp courses are more likely to elicit Bacchanalian delight.
The Cupp Course runneth over with 6,852 yards of heathland-style golf featuring such modern elements as rolling mounds and distinctive ground shaping, short-grass green surrounds, tough putting surfaces, and even a “three-leafed” triple green. Put on your thinking cap for holes such as number seven, 289 yards from the blue tees with a tree guarding the green; you’ll want to leave your woods (and perhaps your ball) in the bag.
The Fought Course pours more like a bold cabernet, though a sandy one, as 114 bunkers (in the tradition of Tillinghast at Winged Foot) speckle this venerable layout as it winds through mature trees over natural terrain.
Reaching to 7,196 yards from the tips, with a trio of par threes over 200 yards, it has the potential to stomp you like a barrel full of grapes. A rock-walled creek appears in several places, including on number ten, where it crosses the fairway.
An hour east of downtown Portland, the town of Welches, home to Resort at the Mountain, has been attracting hotel guests since 1893 and golfers since 1928. Nestled at the foot of 11,435-ft Mt. Hood, the Resort has acquired a Scottish accent, discernible in such touches as Scottie-dog tee markers and its very own tartan. Though visitors can hike, fish, raft, ride horses, play tennis and croquet, and even ski nearby in summer, there are also 27 distractions in the form of golf holes. The Foxglove, Thistle, and Pine Cone nines make for a great walk and potentially great scores. Stretching to a maximum length of 6,458 yards, any 18-hole combination will provide a handful of challenging holes, several unfogettably beautiful ones, and plenty of others that will simply make you glad to be out beneath old growth forest in the shadows of the Cascade Mountains. Management is completing a five-year plan of improvements that will create additional tee boxes, seven new greens, several re-routings, and other enhancements in consultation with architect John Harbottle. The changes will also improve fish passage for threatened salmon and steelhead on property.
The first hole on the Foxglove nine plays 311 yards over a mid-fairway boulder. Those who try to cut the dogleg may have a shot at the green, but they also may hear the echo of surlyn hitting stone. Thistle number one proffers a view of the Hunchback, an El Capitan-like rock face. The 460-yard Pine Cone fifth hole, with its new tee box set on a rock slide back in the woods, is now a fun, birdieable par five rather than a straightforward (read: boring) par four.
When it rains more than seven days a week on the west side of the Beaver State, sun-deprived locals often cross the Cascade Mountains to the clear high desert of central Oregon, where the sports town of Bend sports more than two dozen golf venues. It’s the kind of place where hyper-active head cases can ski on Mt. Bachelor in the morning, play eighteen holes in the early afternoon, mountain bike into the evening, and then check directly into the hospital.
And you can’t spell central Oregon without the lovely Sunriver Resort. Once a sort of down-home favorite getaway for Oregonians (3,300 acres of tennis courts, pools, bike trails, rivers, even an observatory), Sunriver entered the national golf vocabulary with the word “Crosswater,” the best of its three courses. Designed by John Fought and Bob Cupp and playing a gnarly 7,693 yards from the back tees, these 200 acres of heathland target golf wind through wetlands, pine forests, and meadows, all wrapped lovingly by the Little Deschutes River, which players must hit over some dozen times. The bentgrass fairways and tees are offset by bluegrass and golden fescue.
Crosswater opens with calm subtlety — a wide fairway sprinkled with defining bunkers — like the beginning of an epic symphony that starts with a few clear, pure tones. The second hole introduces water and a few more trees. The third, a short par three, offers views of Newberry crater; by number four, wetlands enter the concert, and the Little Deschutes River makes its entry on number five, among the toughest holes on the course.
The 460-yard epic par four requires a long but precise carry over the river but short of containment bunkers and woods. The long approach demands another wetlands crossing, and the long, narrow green is divided by what seems like a buried tractor trailer. But don’t relax even if you somehow manage to make par here, because the next hole is 635 yards long.
With all design elements in place, tension builds in sweeping and dramatic melodies for the rest of afternoon. Number twelve is a dissonant 687 yards from the back tees with water the entire way on the left side. The back has an opus of wonderful solos and not a sour note, but no easy riffs. Even from the blue tees (let alone the silvers and golds) some of Crosswater’s holes are just too hard, but from the whites others lose character; a combo of blues and whites makes for the best round. The tips will answer the question: how do you spell carnage.
Just in case Crosswater doesn’t provide enough golf for you, Sunriver’s Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Woodlands course adds 6880 yards of tradition in the form of deep bunkers, elevated greens, lakes, and subtle intricacies. It’s like a Stickley table — solid, well-made, and a little old-fashioned. The 416-yard finishing hole hairpins tightly around a lake and a huge tree.
Most resorts would rest contentedly with such a stack of hot offerings, but Sunriver recently added two new logs to the crackling fire of excellence — the cowboy-luxurious River Lodges, and a totally redesigned golf course.
John Fought took the previously gentle Meadows layout, borrowed a few tricks from the sketchbooks of Alister MacKenzie, Chandler Egan, and Donald Ross, and suggested that while the meek might inherit the earth, they could no longer count on tearing up the Meadows Course. While still forgiving for less-skilled players, Meadows is no longer a walk in a meadow from the back tees.
In the town of Bend itself, the private Broken Top Club is accessible to members of other private clubs located more than 125 miles from the first tee. Home to a Senior Championship event, and a crowning glory of the partnership between designers Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish, Broken Top blends an expansive outdoorsiness with a sense of peaceful contemplation. It’s a thinking-man’s course that plays 7,161 yards from the back and wends through a typical central Oregonian landscape of meadows, forests, swelling hills, and huge rock outcroppings.
The excellent opening hole doglegs left around a couple of bunkers that skew perspective and force you to think about and shape your shots. With a couple of gimmicky exceptions, the holes are full of personality, at various times perky, entertaining, exhilarating, and downright drop-dead gorgeous — such as number five, a long downhill par-three with a lake and sand complex to the left and a couple of stately trees standing sentry to the right of the green. The course guide claims that the 232 yarder contains enough water and sand for Frankie and Annette to film a beach movie. You may actually be disappointed by Broken Top’s signature hole (number 11). While the approach over a 45-foot vertical pumice wall is unique and dramatic, the blind, unfair green robs the hole of star status.
Once you’ve traversed Oregon’s various inland topographies, it’s time to head to the dramatic coast (Highway 101, which runs the length of the state, could easily win a long drive competition). In 1993, the seaside town of Florence put a few zillion acres of dunes to good use. Rees Jones designed the 7252-yard Sandpines Golf Links there with five sets of tees and three signature holes. The course really begins on the 398-yard fourth hole, replete with trees and hidden bunkers and a green guarded by a lake right and bunker left. After sweeping through stands of wind-blown pines, Sandpines provides a knuckle-biting finish as holes 16 through 18 bank around a huge lake. The 501-yard finishing hole allows you to gulp as much water as you like to try to reach the well-protected green in two if you’re playing from the shorter tees.
Many Oregon residents play Sandpines enroute to what has become the Mecca of American golf: no, not Pebble Beach — Bandon Dunes, which in several short years has already broken into everyone’s list of best golf courses not just in the U.S. but in the world. GOLF recently ranked it third among courses you can play, behind only Pebble and Pinehurst #2. In this rare instance, the hype understates how good this 7,435-yard delight with six sets of tees really is. You’ll crave haggis and want to play the bagpipes when you come in from a bracing walk around this true Scottish-style links. In fact, walking is required. Seven holes at Bandon caper along cliffs overlooking the ocean, but every hole offers a view of the Pacific. The fairways heave and roll like grassed ocean swells and are adorned with bunkering so sublime you may start talking like Sean Connery. The rough contains enough gorse and scotch broom to further confuse your geography. The greens are huge (the 17th alone sprawls to some 17,000 square feet) and curvaceous.
| HERON LAKES
$19-$35 (503) 289-1818
PUMPKIN RIDGE GOLF CLUB
THE RESORT AT THE MOUNTAIN
BROKEN TOP CLUB
SANDPINES GOLF LINKS
RUNNING Y RANCH RESORT
Please contact the course to confirm green fees.
The David Kidd-designed layout begins boldly and never shrinks back. On the 418-yard first hole, whack your drive to a receptive tureen of fescue and bentgrass, but prepare for a possible blind uphill approach over sandy wasteland edged in beach grass that camouflages the huge, sloping green. The third, a 546-yard par five, calls for a muscular carry off the tee. From there, gaze upon the rest of the layout spread like a green silk flag rippling in a salt breeze.
Number five is the most memorable on the front side, spilling across 447 yards of clifftop overlooking beach. Avoid islands of beach grass dividing the fairway into two slots. Your approach must carry a tight sliver of fairway, and you may want to consider laying up although the hole is only a par four.
Bandon Dunes’ back side begins with risk/reward: play left for a longer shot to a visible pin, or hit right over steep bunkers for a shorter, blind approach. Number 16 is the most dramatic on the return flight — a seaside holiday of 345 yards with a ravine slashing up into the fairway from the beach. When you’re finished golfing, retire to the 32,000 square foot clubhouse that houses 19 guest rooms, bar, restaurant, and other facilities.
This summer, Bandon will open it’s second stellar layout, Pacific Dunes, designed by Tom Doak. The par-71 6,827-yard rookie will play in and around giant natural dunes and shore pines, with seven holes dancing along the beachfront. Highlights will include back-to-back oceanside par threes at 10 and 11. Book now, because if — as promised — the course is nearly as good as Bandon Dunes, golfers will be wrestling for tee times.
A couple of hours inland from Bandon in southern Oregon, the Running Y Ranch Resort has corralled the only Arnold Palmer design in the state. Playing to 7135 yards from the longest of five sets of tees, the course features bluegrass fairways and bentgrass greens. The golf roundup begins in marshlands with four holes that tease along the edge of 30-mile Klamath Lake, and the first few greens — deep and narrow — request high wedges struck over ponds and white sand. The signature par-three fifth, at 158 yards, blends fresh design elements into a delicious stew: rocks behind the green that mirror distant, rocky hills; trees to the left that presage a transition into forest; and long, serene views of Klamath Lake. By number six, the toughest on the course due to a severely tilted green, the layout climbs onto a treed plateau. The back side begins in open meadows with lakes and scooped mounds. Following the steeply downhill par-three twelfth, Running Y disappears into sage-scented, creek-lined Payne Canyon, before poking back out into the open again at 17, a downhill 535-yard par five with two fairways divided by a lone pine.
Overall, the course delivers a sampler plate of golfing delicacies, which is much more than the hotel and restaurant can claim.
In 1997, GOLF ranked southern Oregon’s Eagle Point Golf Course among the top ten you can play. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., this 7,099-yard venue offers views of 9,495-ft Mt. McLoughlin, the Table Rocks, and volcanic peaks, as well as of smaller mountains of sand in the form of bunkers sprinkled throughout this lovely valley setting.
The course rolls through meadows alongside happy-go-lucky streams, and provides a score of optical illusions, such as bunkers that appear hunched up against greens but actually lie much farther out.
The 580-yard fourth hole is easier than it sounds with the help of a prevailing wind and avoidance of the central fairway bunker. The 471-yard sixth is possibly the most difficult, serving up a three-course meal of length, water, and sand.
Several tee shots play directly at Mt. McLoughlin — at least until your slice kicks in. And Eagle Point recently opened a spanky new clubhouse, where you can have a cocktail as you bemoan/celebrate (choose one) the results accumulated on your scorecard.
Summer and fall are certainly the best seasons to grab your partner and explore Oregon’s golf offerings, although locals play all year long, even when wearing knee-high clamming boots outfitted with golf spikes.
After all, Lewis and Clark spent a winter here and survived without Gore-Tex.
Jeff Wallach is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.