Craig Teasley gets a taste of the golfing scene in the often overlooked US state of Oregon, and ends up with one of the country’s best championship courses entirely to himself.
There’s a moment on the back nine holes of Pronghorn Resort’s Tom Fazio-designed championship course when I actually think I’ve stumbled into a Disney film. The sky is so blue it looks a swollen sort of purple, and in the distance, 2,500-metre-high snow-capped mountains are staggered across the horizon. As I stand at the tee-box, I try to determine whether to hit my ball left or right of the slow trickling mountain brook that cuts the fairway in two. Beside it, a green is positioned between sharp volcanic rock walls and two huge sand traps.
In the end, it matters little that my drive careers off at right angles, defying the nuances of this clever Fazio layout. Because from where I stand in the seemingly eternal sunshine of an Oregon summer (whoever said Oregon is wet and grey obviously never went beyond Portland), I’m happy to ride up and down this course in a buggy, soaking up the setting.
Oregon may not attract even a fraction of the golfers its neighbour, California, does in a year. Yet it offers up some of the United States’ best public courses. For those who do make it here, days like this one are not uncommon: I have one of the country’s best championship courses entirely to myself.
Here in Oregon’s centre – near the cosmopolitan, adventure-crazy town of Bend – you’ll find the Central Oregon Golf Trail, home to two dozen golf courses, three of which are rated in America’s top 55 courses. There are more than 300 days of sunshine in a year around these parts and you’re up high where the air’s thinner, so your ball goes further. And I like that.
One of the highest-rated courses in these parts is this one at Pronghorn Resort where I’ve entered through a front gate into a private world of old-growth juniper forest where two championship courses run out side-by-side. Just a few minutes’ drive up the road, Sunriver Resort has four championship courses on site, one of which, Crosswater, hosted a US PGA Championship in June. Also nearby, Tetherow Golf Resort offers a links-style championship course with views across the valley as far as your eyes can see.
Bend is the kind of place where you waste entire afternoons perusing real estate windows thinking you might move here, though you know you probably won’t. It’s not just the surroundings – though Bend, with its red brick buildings and tree-lined streets where people dine al fresco in trendy eateries, was just named one of the best towns to live in the USA by Outside magazine – it’s the lifestyle, and it’s the people who live here. If there are friendlier souls, they’re probably fictional characters on TV shows.
I spend a week in the area, playing golf each morning then hiking, rafting, or biking in the afternoon, before evenings in town spent bar-hopping in the long summer twilight as the mountains on the horizon turn toffee-brown with the slow-setting sun.
When I take off west I’m told the coast is like being in a different state of the US entirely. But that’s what makes Oregon so desirable, locals say: it’s not the same place all over. And so I hit the highway west, passing Kombis and Airstreams driven by old hippies who left California when peace, love and understanding got side-tracked by crowds, increased property prices and severe drought. I drive until I climb into fir-tree covered mountain ranges, taking a slow, winding road that follows the pretty North Umpqua River. There’s sheer volcanic cliffs off the side of this road, and vistas so pretty with wildflowers and sparkling water where the river bends just beside the road that I have to stop every few kilometres to take it in away from the wheel.
I keep driving west – when I get near the Pacific Coast, the temperature drops a full 15 degrees as a blustery wind blows its way across the chilly, white-capped ocean. It’s near gale force by the time I stop my car, which must mean I’m at Bandon Dunes.
When the wind blows – and boy, does the wind blow through summer – Bandon Dunes is arguably the planet’s toughest golf links resort. Sure, you can argue about that with the folk on Scotland’s west coast and Northern Ireland’s north coast, but I’ve played across all coastlines and never experienced anything like Bandon Dunes. It’s home to five of the world’s top links championship courses on the one site. These five courses stretch out for kilometres, with greens perched on rocky plateaus high above the sea. Most days, coastal fog creeps across fairways, making the improbable task of achieving par almost entirely impossible.
Cottages are built throughout the property and there are six restaurants and bars on site, so golfers never need leave for the world outside. Here, groups of players in Titleist caps can talk golf for hours without fear of a single interjection. It is that place every true golfer has dreamt about.
Bandon Dunes has three courses listed in America’s top 10 public courses – it’s that good. And yet, like the rest of this great golfing state, I tee off on uncrowded fairways, never once stopping for the group in front – nor ever being hit up on by the group behind.
There are more than 220 golf courses to find all across Oregon and most of them are as quiet as the ones I’ve played. It would take a year to play them all – it’s best to get started soon.