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Off-Trail Oregon

By: Jeff Wallach

Appeared in November/December 2003 LINKS

I know what you’re thinking: not another golf travel story about Oregon. Thanks largely to the fervor surrounding the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, the Beaver State as golf destination is in danger of overexposure. But this time we’ve bypassed all the usual suspects and highlighted four destinations slightly off the radar screen. En route, we’ll examine the four topographical zones that define the state and offer recreational opportunities within each. From Pacific coast to verdant valley, from glaciated mountains to dusty high desert, Oregon has it all, including a handful of outstanding courses you’ve probably never heard of—until now.        

Starting along the Pacific coast, force yourself to ignore Bandon Dunes and head north a few hours to the refreshingly unknown Gearhart Golf Links and Resort. One of the oldest courses in the West, Gearhart opened in 1892 with four holes. Over the years a number of course architects (including Chandler Egan) left their marks here. In 1999 the links received a full makeover at the skilled hands of William Robinson, who replaced all tees and bunkers as well as several greens, installed new irrigation and otherwise generally spruced things up. The new 21,000-square-foot Victorian clubhouse recalls the original 1900s-era hotel.           

Gearhart rolls and dips among grass-covered dunes. The ocean only provides subtext here, remaining just out of sight, although it can be heard, smelled and felt. The 6,218-yard layout is charming and subtle. Its front side careens along nicely, if uneventfully, before reaching the outstanding 5th hole, a 372-yard dogleg left with a narrow landing area. Even a slightly mis-hit drive may leave a difficult approach over a pond to a small green. The 341-yard 10th also shines, with angled bunkers creating a landing area that widens farther from the tee, an enticement to long hitters. Throughout the course, narrow ridges and other topographical features carom balls every which way, so be patient and enjoy a breezy adventure in British-style golf.           

The coastal town of Gearhart is perfect for beach walks and gallery browsing, the kind of place Portlanders have retreated to for more than a century. These days visitors rent weathered, Cape Cod-style beach houses, perfect for reading, relaxing and preparing fresh local seafood. Elsewhere along this part of the scenic coast—tucked between crashing surf and Pacific forests—you can tour the Tillamook cheese factory, glide through the Tillamook Air Museum, visit lighthouses and Lewis-and-Clark historic sites, fish, kayak, hike the headlands in a number of state parks, or visit kitschy shops and chowder houses before retreating to a comfy bed-and-breakfast for the night.           

As you head inland over the Coast Range to the lush Willamette Valley, try your best to turn a cold shoulder to Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club and instead set your sights on the OGA Golf Course. Unlike its name, the course is anything but unwieldy. Located half an hour south of Portland, this Bill Robinson layout boasts a couple of reachable par 5s, a huge double green at Nos. 9 and 18, and some of the finest putting surfaces in the region.           

The layout opens with two dogleg—No. 1 bends slightly right while No. 2 turns left. The second has more bite, with a hazelnut orchard right, a pond left, and a tree and bunkers that could come into play as one approaches the green. The 4th hole is a complex 516 yards, beginning with a blind tee shot that runs toward a ravine. The second shot climbs back uphill between bunkers and through forest, over a chasm to a plateau green.

The Willamette Valley is the grass seed capital of the world, but a much more enticing crop grows here as well: grapes that yield some of the best pinot noirs ever fermented. Try a trip to McMinville, close to the OGA Golf Course, where you’ll find more than half a dozen wineries, including the popular Eyrie Vineyards. You can also sample multiple products at the Oregon Wine Tasting Room, or just leave all the driving to someone else and travel with Grape Escape Winery Tours.

Oregon isn’t quite as famous for mountain golf as some western states, but that’s no reason to miss Elkhorn Valley Golf Course, a quiet symphony of fine holes nestled in the foothills of the Cascades. The original nine, built over an 11 years and opened in 1976, was a labor of love for Don Cutler, whose children now run the place. A second nine finally opened in 2000.           

Once grouped among the best nine-holers in the country, the current front side of Elkhorn Valley winds among canyons, streams, wetlands, lakes and towering Pacific forests. Conditioning is exceptional and holes are challenging to the aggressive player, but also full of bailout areas for the timid of heart. The 377-yard 14th is one of the best holes on the return nine, its wetlands strongly suggesting a lay-up on the tee shot, in which case the approach is a long one to a narrow green.           

Near Elkhorn Valley, the activities of choice are all outdoors. Silver Falls State Park boasts the highest concentration of waterfalls in the U.S.—half of its 14 cascades are taller than 100 feet. Also close by is the Breitenbush Hot Springs Resort, a place to contemplate the meaning of life over a plate of tofu.           

In the high desert east of the Cascade Mountains, force yourself to forego the obvious golf mecca of Bend and ride on toward the Native American-owned Wildhorse Resort and Casino, located just outside Pendleton. This underrated and largely unknown track at the base of the Blue Mountains stretches to 7,112 yards. Designed by local architect John Steidel, the holes wind across high plains amid native grasses and 1,400 planted trees, including ponderosa pine, mountain mahogany and western larch.           

A century ago, the town of Pendleton boasted 32 saloons and 18 houses of ill repute. Today, it’s most famous for the Round Up, a rodeo that’s been held every September since 1910. Downtown, pick up the Pendleton Underground Tour (541-276-0730), which proceeds through tunnels and authentically decorated subterranean rooms that once housed the Shamrock Card Room, meat market and Chinese laundry. Spend all your extra gold dust at the Pendleton Woolen Mills factory store—you should have plenty left over after playing the affordable courses on this tour of off-the-beaten-path Oregon.

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