Steppe Right Up: Central Oregon Golf Beckons

Each sport’s playing arenas tend to be generic with little to distinguish one pitch, field, diamond or court from another. Every football field is flat and has the same dimensions as the next. Same with basketball courts and tennis courts. The surfaces may be different – grass, clay, synthetic, maple, acrylic, etc. but that’s where the differences begin and end. Soccer pitches and baseball fields are also flat and, though not exactly the same dimensions as each other (there is no standard size for a soccer pitch or baseball field), as similar in length and width as makes no difference.

Golfers play a sport so singular in so many ways. The game’s etiquette marks it out as special, but so too does the immense variety in its playing arenas. Golf courses are so vastly different from one another they add intrigue and curiosity to every round we play. Long, short, undulating, flat, green, brown, firm, soft, difficult, straightforward, bordered by forests, bordered by oceans, clifftop, parkland, meadowland, heathland, downland, prairie, desert – the assortment of challenges and vistas is intoxicating.
Naturally, every golfer has a ‘type’ of course he prefers. Like many others, I enjoy the game best beside the seaside on firm, sandy turf and with a decent breeze in the air. But if I can’t be on the coast, give me the firm, sandy turf of the high desert – specifically Central Oregon’s high desert – instead.
Central Oregon – a region traditionally made up of Deschutes, Jefferson, and Crook counties, but for our purposes the area around and between the cities of Bend, Sisters, Redmond, Prineville, and La Pine – sits roughly 4,000ft above sea level and is almost as perfectly-suited to golf as the linksland of Britain and Ireland. The only thing it lacks really is a steady 15-20mph breeze that, on occasion, turns into a 40mph hooley. Otherwise, the firm turf, interesting undulations, terrific scenery, and scant, low-lying vegetation are all present and correct. Indeed, everything looks right, smells right, and, when you make crisp, ball-before-turf contact, it most definitely feels right.
The look includes the distant Cascade Mountains – Bachelor, Washington, Jefferson, Broken Top, and the Three Sisters – and a vast shrub-steppe that extends east further than the eye can see. The smell, meanwhile, is an invigorating mix of clean, fresh air, juniper, and sage wafting in from the countless Artemisia Nova (black sagebrush) bushes that almost blanket the ground. It’s a heady assembly of sensory triggers, but what really makes this prime golfing territory are beautiful lies on emerald fairways that give order, in the golfer’s mind anyway, to the random, rugged disorder of the landscape.
Take the Nicklaus Course at Pronghorn. In amongst all that seemingly untidy and unruly flora are 18 sublime golf holes that make up what is surely one of the Golden Bear’s finest creations. Opened in 2006, Pronghorn started life as a highly exclusive private club and community, but opened its doors to non-members in the summer of 2010 after home sales had gone into freefall due to the failing economy. Forty-eight high-end units were built for resort guests alongside the 18th hole of the Nicklaus Course which was also opened to the public, leaving the property’s other course, designed by Tom Fazio, to the members.

 

Pronghorn, Nicklaus Course. Image courtesy Pronghorn
Pronghorn, Nicklaus Course. Image courtesy Pronghorn

The Nicklaus Course starts relatively gently, but gets increasingly dramatic as the round progresses – the back nine one memorable after the other. Director of Agronomy David Freitag keeps the bentgrass tees and fairways, and A4 bentgrass greens in spectacular shape. Agronomy and golf course maintenance have come a long way in the last 15-20 years allowing more courses to achieve far better playing surfaces than ever before. Pronghorn’s surfaces are truly exceptional, however, and unless you’ve played Augusta National or any other course belonging to a private club with a big maintenance staff and bigger budget, it’s unlikely you will have encountered better conditions. The lies, in the mown areas at least, are invariably perfect, the greens as true as those at a major championship venue – better in some cases.
It’s true even in winter…almost, says Freitag, despite the fact his staff drops from a summer high of 42 (21 for each course) to just eight. “There was some extreme weather last winter,” he says. “We had record cold temps in early December of 27 degrees below zero, but fortunately there was a thin layer of snow for protection, so we did not see any damage to the golf course.” There were also several snowfall accumulations spread out through the winter, he adds, so the courses had a good amount of moisture to help them through. In the first week of February, the property received 18″ of snow – 12” more than any snowfall event of the previous 12 years. “During the week between Christmas and New Year’s,
in between the record-setting lows and equally extreme snowfall, we held a well-attended shotgun tournament with really good winter golf course conditions.”

The resort at Pronghorn has been owned by the Honolulu-based Resort Group since February 2012, and managed by boutique operator Auberge Resorts which manages seven luxury properties in California, Colorado, Oregon, and Mexico (soon to be eight with the addition of Malliouhana on the West Indian island of Anguilla) since May of that year. The golf courses and golf academy have been run by Troon Golf for nearly five years.
In 2015, Pronghorn will open the 105-room Huntington Lodge, further demonstrating how much it has evolved since its confined, restrictive early days. Named after the Huntington Trail, a wagon route first used in 1867 and which ran through Deschutes County, the lodge has been designed by San Francisco’s SB Architects in the style of National Park lodges, and is being constructed by local builder SunWest Builders which began work in April.
In addition to the new lodge, the spa is being doubled in size to 4,000sqft, and the fitness center is being updated.
General Manager Spencer Schaub told ‘Cascade Business News’ in September last year that Pronghorn was free of all debt and legal encumbrances, and that $3.2m in back taxes had been paid in order to set the resort in good standing with Deschutes County. The future is undoubtedly bright for Pronghorn which Schaub says has its sight set on becoming the premier residential community and resort in the Pacific Northwest.
Construction of new accommodations is obviously in the air in Central Oregon as Tetherow too has a new lodge (actually twin buildings) to offer visiting golfers this summer. Officially opened in April, Tetherow Lodges has 50 luxury rooms most with balconies and all with views of the Paulina Mountains or David McLay Kidd-designed golf course which opened to national raves in 2008.

 

Image courtesy Tetherow
Image courtesy Tetherow

Operations Manager Davis Smith says the Lodges is already doing good business with golf groups and visitors on golf packages (starting at $350 per person for two nights and two days’ unlimited golf). “In just the first two months, we saw a lot of local golfers and several from a little further afield come out,” he adds. “And I expect to see sellouts over the busy summer months and rolling into fall.”
Not content with 50 guest bedrooms, Tetherow will start construction of several 3-5 bedroom cabins in the fall, part of an ambitious expansion project undertaken by the resort’s owner – Velocity Capital BV, an investment company based in the Netherlands.
As for the course, Smith says that thanks to a fairly mild winter and thorough winter preparations, the fescue greened-up quickly in the spring and is now in tip-top condition. “The course is honestly in the best shape it has been in since it opened,” he insists.
That is music to Kidd’s ears. The Scotsmen has lived in Bend since 2006 and considers Tetherow his home course. “I absolutely love it here in Bend,” he says. “I try to limit myself to one international trip a month and so I can spend as much time as I can in Bend.”
Kidd has made numerous adjustments to Tetherow in the years since it opened, changes aimed at softening a few of its more severe edges. “I’ve had the chance to play it a lot myself and watch others playing it too,” he says. “I know there were playability issues when it opened so I tried to make it more forgiving for the high-handicapper. The landing areas are more generous now, and you rarely lose a ball. I also mad some of the bunkers less penal. To maintain the challenge for the good golfer, I extended some greens to find a few more pin locations.”
The course, where golfers can now rent a GolfBoard, is fundamentally unchanged, says Kidd who adds that Tetherow offers the only links experience in Central Oregon. “It’s wall-to-wall fescue and there are loads of contours to read and use. There are no flop shots here!”
Though significantly more lenient than when it first opened, Tetherow is still a wonderfully challenging course. “I think it’s a great test now,” says Kidd. “Resort golfers can certainly have a great time, but it’s a tough prospect for the low-handicapper wanting to match par. My 6.7 handicap travels very well from here.”
Though he plays Tetherow whenever he gets the chance, Kidd has become familiar with most of Bend’s courses in his eight years of residency. “This area has so much to offer the golfer,” he says. “There is almost every genre of golf here from a lot of the top architects.”
Another area property investing in its future, looking to retain loyal customers that have been coming to the resort for the last 45 years, is Sunriver, 15 miles south of Bend off Highway 97 and set more or less at the foot of the Cascades. Sunriver resort guests have access to four golf courses – the nine-hole Caldera Links designed by Bob Cupp and Jim Ramey and perfect for families, the John Fought-designed Meadows Course, the private and nationally-ranked Cupp-designed Crosswater Course which David Kidd says is his favorite in the area besides Tetherow of course, and Robert Trent Jones’s Woodlands Course which completed the five-year renovation of its greens recently.

“Rather than close the course for an extended period, we managed to remain open by doing a few greens every year,” says the resort’s Director of Golf Josh Willis, a native of Georgia who graduated from the PGA Professional Golf Management Program at Mississippi State University. “We sodded the greens with T1 Bent using turf grown in our own nursery.”

Willis says the greens were at their absolute best 90 days after completion of the project but were, in fact, perfectly playable after just 45. “You couldn’t see the seam lines between the sods,” he says, “and though they may not have been quite as quick as the other greens, they were already putting beautifully.”
Helping the course maintain its excellent putting surfaces was this past winter’s snow-cover which, says Willis, insulated the turf from cold temperature extremes and severe temperature fluctuations. The USGA Green Section says snow cover isn’t necessarily a bad thing for golf greens at all.

“Snow cover also protects turf from winter wind desiccation,” it says. “In fact, snow coverage in and of itself is rarely a problem for turf because gas exchange between the soil and atmosphere is not completely restricted, as it would be with ice.”

Willis likens the T1 to a polar bear saying it absolutely loves it environment. “It just loves cool to cold temperatures, and is a hardier strain of bent than what we have seen before,” he says. “It does take some looking after in the hotter summer months, but it is also far more tolerant of heat than our previous turf.  I fully expect the Woodland Course’s greens to be some of the best in the Pacific Northwest.”
With the golf, two great pool areas, biking, boating and numerous other activities, excellent dining, plus very comfortable accommodations, Sunriver continues to be many people’s happy place. It’s been one of mine since my family and I first visited in 2009. New, pristine greens at one of its delightful quartet of courses will only help make it even more appealing.
Fifteen miles the other side of Bend, Brasada Ranch is another world-class Central Oregon resort that epitomizes what visitors to the region find so alluring. And, like so many others, it too went through an ownership change during the economic downturn when the original developer Jeld-Wen sold to Westport, Conn.-based company Northview Hotel Group and funds managed by Oaktree Capital Management in November 2010. The same consortium also purchased Running Y Ranch in Klamath Falls and Eagle Crest Redmond from the door and window manufacturer which never disclosed why it was offloading so many of its Oregon properties (also Ridgewater, Silver Mountain Ski Resort, and Yarrow housing development in Madras) at the same time.

Image courtesy Brasada Ranch
Image courtesy Brasada Ranch

Northview spent $3.5m on upgrades with a view to making Brasada its flagship property but was careful to maintain the rustic charm of the place.
As well as what seems like a now standard list of terrific activities you can try your hand at – fly-fishing, horse-riding, rafting, mountain-biking, rock climbing – you’ll find great food prepared by Executive Chef Ryan Sturmer who recently arrived at Brasada Ranch from the Urban Farmer Restaurant at the Nines Hotel in Portland, and superb accommodations – eight elegant but comfortable Ranch House suites and 40 privately-owned luxury cabins that can be reserved by the night.
Then, of course, there’s the golf course. Brasada Canyons is a Peter Jacobsen/Jim Hardy collaboration that opened in 2008 and which might provide the best views from any golf course in Central Oregon. The course is restricted to members and resort guests so you’ll not have a problem finding a tee time. And yes, this course is worth booking a night at the resort to play. Guests receive complimentary Bushnell rangefinders for their round plus a yardage guide.
Superintendent Darren Klein, who worked on the construction crew, maintains the course in typically great condition, and says that he can’t remember a spring/early summer period when the course looked so good.
The same is true, says Superintendent Phil Lagao, of Black Butte Ranch’s two courses – Big Meadow and especially Glaze Meadow which just began its third full season since John Fought’s magnificent renovation/redesign that completely overhauled Gene Mason’s original course which had begun to look a little tired and dated. Lagao, the Oregon Golf Course Superintendent Association’s (OGCSA) Superintendent of the Year in 2012, says Glaze is now looking as good as it has done since it re-opened and that it has very nearly reached it potential. “It takes a new course, which Glaze Meadow essentially was, a few years to settle and Glaze Meadow is very nearly there,” he says. “What rough there is, is growing nicely now, and the greens are putting very well though I’d still like to see just a little more thatch.”
Thatch? Isn’t that a bad thing that superintendents want to do avoid?
Actually every green needs just a little thatch – the layer of living and dead organic matter that occurs between the green vegetation and soil surface, and which is composed primarily of turfgrass stems. “Without it, greens just have no give,” says Lagao. “There’s nothing to absorb the ball. So it’s very difficult to stop the ball on the green. That was the case when Glaze re-opened, but it’s getting much better now.”
The new Glaze Meadow has been a revelation with the men’s club and visitors who have gotten used to the new look. “The feedback is all positive now,” says Lagao. “It took some regular players a while to get used to it, but everyone loves it now.”

Black Butte Ranch Big Meadow Course. Image courtesy COVA
Black Butte Ranch Big Meadow Course. Image courtesy COVA

Black Butte Ranch’s two courses are more heavily forested than the other courses mentioned above despite Fought’s extensive tree removal which took out 3,500 of Glaze Meadow’s aspens and ponderosa pines. They may not be the quintessential Central Oregon high desert layouts, therefore, but the views of the Cascades are still fantastic and the golf every bit as enjoyable. There are over 120 vacation rentals – lodge rooms to cabins and condos to spacious homes – to choose from making a summer golf package at the 1,800-acre property (starting at just $139 per person) a bit of a no-brainer.
And speaking of no-brainers, how about this for a cracking deal…on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays in August, you can play both courses at Black Butte Ranch with a cart, range balls, and tournament coordination for just $125. And, as a bonus, every member of your group can earn $20-$40 in pro-shop credit if you book the midweek outing by July 20th (merchandise credit provided to groups of 16 players or more.)
There are plenty more courses worth a visit in Central Oregon – Aspen Lakes near Sisters, Eagle Crest near Redmond, Widgi Creek on the outskirts of Bend, Crooked River Ranch, Juniper in Redmond, Quail Run in La Pine, River’s Edge in Bend, and Bend’s Lost Tracks where if you book a tee time for between 10am and 1pm on a Sunday you automatically become eligible for the Million Dollar Shootout (see web site for details).
There really is no bad time to visit Central Oregon because if snow is preventing you from playing golf you could be skiing on Mt. Bachelor instead. But if it’s the golf you’re coming for, you might think about arranging your trip to coincide with one of Bend’s many summer festivals and events. “There really are too many to mention them all,” says the Central Oregon Visitor Association’s (COVA) Ted Taylor. “There’s the hot-air balloon festival, Balloons over Bend, July 18-20; the Cascade Cycling Classic in mid-late July which usually draws a crowd of 20,000 to the downtown area; free Munch and Music in downtown every Thursday night; a great July 4th parade (Travel + Leisure named Bend the No. 2 4th of July town in America); High Desert Classics showjumping in the last two weeks of July; and Bend Brewfest August 14-16 where one of the breweries in the line-up will be 10 Barrel whose Bend pub was the inspiration behind the clubhouse at the David Kidd-designed Gamble Sands in Central Washington which opens for play in August.

“I don’t spend much time there personally because I don’t drink,” says Kidd. “But it’s a really cool place and a must-visit for anyone who likes their beer.”

Likewise, Central Oregon is a must-visit for anyone who likes their golf.
For more information, please visit www.visitcentraloregon.com