Oregon Golf Adventure

2011-Summer-Oregon-Golf-Travel-Chris-Meier-golf-balls-in-hands
Chris Meier, 43, on tour for the 1859 Gonzo Golf Cup in Oregon. / Photo by Tim Labarge

What happens when you bring together three golfers and a golf agnostic for three days in an all-Oregon gonzo marathon in May? The following is a 3,500-word answer with epiphanies, miracles, a time travel machine, rain, sun and, of course, golf.

Let me begin with the disclosure that of these people mentioned above, I am not one of the golfers. I play once a year whether I need to or not, mindful of the physical state of greens and the mental wellness of greens-keepers. I once made the claim, emboldened by beer, that I’d rather slam my leg in a car door than write about golf.

Yet.

After trailing and observing these golfers over three days and six courses, I found a new respect for a game and its participants.

The trick to any good golf story is to select a crew with personality and passion. Then add a local wildcard player at each course, test them with thirty-six holes each day at some of Oregon’s best public courses, add a van (the kind that runs on vegetable oil and is large enough to hold a well-stocked cooler) and spread it out over the Willamette Valley, Bandon and Central Oregon. A road trip with golf clubs!

Inspiration struck and we put together this sporting challenge of playing an early morning and afternoon round in three golf markets, each hundreds of miles apart. The rules were simple: We’re all in. Lightning alone could halt play—and not the far away kind two holes away. We’d stand pat, and in the name of Intrepidity herself, play, come what may in the middle of May.

To raise the stakes, we’d score our golfers true and bet them like horses. The field of golfers we assembled for this endeavor looks like this:

Mike Lee is a 43-year-old tournament director and director of sales at Peter Jacobsen Sports in Portland. His handicap is 5.9, “plays more like a 15” and counts among his strengths that he dresses like a PGA TOUR pro and always leaves the driving range and practice green under par. His real handicap is a tweaked back that gets progressively worse and is made only incrementally better with Coors Light and ibuprofen. “I try to play as often as I can,” says M. Lee, “but the old saying is true:’When you work in golf, you don’t play golf!’”

Chris Meier, 43, is the club kid who shoots straight except for the rare occasion when he duffs an airless shot or two. C. Meier, a seventh generation Oregonian of the Meier & Frank 1857 department storestartup and partner at Herzog-Meier auto dealership in Beaverton, has found himself at the world’s greatest courses from the secret Nanea course on Hawaii commissioned by Charles Schwab and Safeway’s George Roberts, to St. Andrews, Scotland, the re-birthplace of goff. C. Meier considers himself a ten handicap … “before the drinking starts.”

Finally there’s Mike Galeski, 55, the sage Obi-Wan Kenobi of the younger field. M. Galeski was brought up in a Connecticut golf family before the real money joined the game. Among other industry jobs, he worked for club-maker Callaway for twelve years before moving to Oregon to work for Peter Jacobsen Sports. M. Galeski, a lifelong golfer who’s played with President Gerald Ford, pro golfer Phil Mickelson and bat-eater Alice Cooper, last year played only three times and not at all this year until our first tee time. His handicap has been as low as a one, “but who knows now,” he says. His strengths are fast play and the ability to negotiate greens with an unusually long putter. His weaknesses are the ability to tolerate slow play and whining. At 55, (“I don’t feel a day over 54.”), M. Galeski counts his ailments as left thumb arthritis, ankle and shoulder pain and the “display of multiple mental illness quirks during a round of golf.”

DAY ONE

Langdon Farms, Aurora
Blue Tees 6,522 Yards
Par 71

OGA Golf Course, Woodburn
Blue Tees 6,307 Yards
Par 72

We come to our first of 118 tees at Langdon Farms—a pastoral stretch of green in Aurora, a town founded by William Keil as a utopian commune in 1855. Keil, originally from Prussia had his first utopian experiment in Bethel, Missouri and then transported his idealistic feast along the Oregon Trail. There is no evidence that the mystic and healer ever picked up a club in the name of golf.

Where many golf courses might have erected a fence with a key entry, Langdon Farms built an archway with a contrarian inscription of PUBLIC ONLY. Landgon Farms, designed by John Fought and Robert Cupp, has rated highly in local and national media for Oregon’s best courses to play. Fought and Cupp are the Rodgers and Hammerstein of Oregon course architecture, coming together on Pumpkin Ridge’s Ghost Creek Course and Crosswater at Sunriver. The clubhouse is a handsome towering red barn built in 1999. Its chandeliers in the restaurant are enormous tribute to chicken feeders that hang twenty feet up in the trusses. Outside the windows is the eighteenth hole, framed by a spitting sky in a month that has seen 20 percent more rain than average.

Jim McCabe, 65, a Langdon Farms regular, joins us for the round. “The greens are in phenomenal condition and fast,” he said. “Make sure you leave your putts close to the hole and make sure you have friends who’ll give ’em to you.”

As straight as a hallway, Jim drives his tee shot more than 200 yards on this 372-yard hole. M. Galeski recalls that he played only three times last year and none this year, and punts the ball into the rough. Meier pulls out an enormous white-footed driver and rips a whopper. Not to be outdone, Lee takes two check swings like a batter and slams out a 300-yard-drive to set him up for a birdie on the first of a 118-hole three-day slugfest.

Langdon Farms Total

Yards 6522
Mike Lee 76
Chris Meier 84
Mike Galeski 90
Jim McCabe 85

Par 71

And so it went at Langdon Farms—Gentleman Jim hitting straight steady hallways, M. Galeski exploring personal and geographical boundaries, his muscle memory on greens keeping him in the mix; C. Meier socking away in the hunt for consistency and M. Lee snapping his spine into long-hit balls yet often leaving his putts feet short of the hole.

For the morning, M. Lee shot three birdies and topped the field with a score of 76, or five shots over par on a 6,522-yard course. C. Meier took second with an 84. Gentleman Jim McCabe shot a straight 85, while M. Galeski took an additional stroke.

After the first round, M. Lee was the rabbit with the others in the hunt. With every swing, Lee launched a legion of aggression, his back and his arms the infantry. At one point, I doubted that the ball would have played any shorter if he had struck it only with his open outstretched hand. Golf is a game of perseverance and inches—something’s gotta give.

Altogether eighteen holes took two hours-forty minutes. Galeski clocks it. “There are three things killing the sport,” he says. “Time, cost and access. We made good time.”

OGA Golf Course Total

Yards 6307
Mike Lee 78
Chris Meier 87
Mike Galeski 82
Jim Coleman 85

Par 72

In the parking lot sits our ecoShuttle, a nine-passenger Dodge Sprinter and shining beacon of sustainable golf roadtrips. This biodiesel van consumes vegetable oil and leaves a greatly reduced carbon footprint. Will Sampson, an engineer doing penance, is the owner and driver.

We take lunch at Langdon Farms’ restaurant and, in good spirits and health, board the veggie-mobile bound for the Oregon Golf Association Course in Woodburn.

Five miles out from this course, the Sprinter begins to act out and rumble loudly. Sampson feathers the gas pedal, but the rumbling grows louder. We slow to a crawl on the back roads of Marion County. Speculation about whether we’ll make OGA begins and tension grows. Suddenly the life inside the rumbling dies. Then the first miracle happens. While we are coasting with our last momentum, the sign of the OGA course appears. Sampson steers the van into the course’s driveway where it goes silent. Perfect.

OGA is a different feel than the rural farm course of Langdon. Built into a community of houses, the OGA course showcases your shots, good or bad, for the scrutiny of any living room or kitchen denizen. Filbert groves line several of the fairways. This course is one of a handful in the country owned by a golf association. The promotion of golf to all meets its own eighteen holes.

It’s here we meet Jim Coleman, a retired school principal from Silverton who once flew helicopters in the armed forces. “My secret is that I’m really old and pudgy, kind of a sleeper,” he says with laughter. “They forget about me, and I sneak up on them.”

Rain is a false prophet through most of the round. The eighteenth hole, a rapture of rain. The Portlanders barely take notice.

Principal Jim shoots a near-flawless 78 (six over par) and matches M. Lee for first place on this 6,307-yard ramble. A warmup round has served M. Galeski well as he fires off an 82. He’s taken some detours to get there, but his long putter holds true. C. Meier drops from second to fourth with an 87, though the upcoming turf-like hit-and-run courses are more his style than soft green grass.

It’s never about the problem; it’s how you deal with it. In the three hours of the OGA course play, ecoShuttle owner and driver, Sampson, has had the Sprinter towed, declared it dead and returned with a bigger veggie-mobile with spare room for twenty people, clubs and a cooler. Wahoo!

It’s exactly five Coors Lights, three Deschutes Mirror Pond Ales and several pulls of blended scotch between Woodburn and Steelhead Brewery in Eugene—or Track Town, USA, to non-drinkers. We eat a fine meal there and are soon back on the shuttle bound for the coast.

Tomorrow is a walking game at the renowned Bandon Dunes Resort and still hours to drive before we take up overnight residence. All three golfers have played the Dunes courses a number of times and know what to expect in May—driving rain and gale force wind.

DAY TWO

Bandon Dunes
Pacific Dunes Course
Black Tees 6,633 Yards
Par 71

Bandon Dunes
Bandon Trails Course
Black Tees 6,765 Yards
Par 71

In 1471, British Parliament prohibited the playing of golf on Sundays, fearing that its engagement prevented His Royal Majesty’s soldiers from practicing their archery skills with the longbow. History is sketchy here, but most credible condensed accounts point to the year of 1999 that golf resurfaced on the shores of Oregon at Bandon Dunes Resort. It was here on the sandy dunes of coastal Oregon that young Scotsman David McLay Kidd transformed a piece of Oregon into his native land. His golf pedigree fit this monstrous task. Kidd’s father, Jimmy Kidd, was, for more than two decades, the head greens-keeper at Gleneagles, one of Scotland’s top golf clubs.

In 1999, Kidd, the younger, encountered a stark land of soft sand and thorny gorse. Of the sand, he made deep pots and put them in places that would swallow any misdirected ball. Of the gorse, he left it on the sides of fairways for its yellow flowering beauty, to provide shelter from strong winds off the Pacific Ocean and to remind golfers of the true cost of a golf ball lost in its thicket. He laid a fine mat of fescue grass between these perils to keep struck balls in motion. After all, he brought international to this sleepy coastal town on this, his first attempt. There would be more.

The Pacific Dunes and Bandon Trails courses at the resort (the former designed by Tom Doak and the latter designed by Bill Coore and golf great Ben Crenshaw) followed in 2001 and 2005 respectively. Pacific Dunes feels a lot like Bandon Dunes, a fast course that plays like an enormous putting green. Pacific Dunes is a 6,633 yard, par 71 that sits on the foreground of a beautiful painting of the Pacific Ocean. Bandon Trails (6,765 yards, par 71) keeps the fast fescue grass but moves into a forest of tall Douglas firs and spruces.

Pacific Dunes Total

Yards 6142
Mike Lee 82
Chris Meier 84
Mike Galeski 81

Par 71

The accommodations at the Chrome Lake at Bandon Dunes Resort are par for the course at a world-class venue. Linens are crisp, the fireplaces are eco-friendly gas, and there is a praiseworthy separation of bathroom and shower, the church and state of morning ablutions.

We’re up at 6 for a 7:30 tee time, and the crew looks lively despite last night’s liver tourism. Pacific Dunes and two loopers await. What? You couldn’t truly expect these athletes to carry golf bags for thirty-six holes and still hit precision shots?

It’s a perfect May day of sun and warmth on the Oregon Coast. After thirty-six holes and an articulated nineteenth hole, M. Lee’s back seems no better for the wear. Still, never underestimate the power of the breakfast burrito at the Pacific Grill before a seven-mile walk over two courses.

Off the first tee and into the gorse we go. Gorse, or Irish hedge, is a flowering and highly flammable thicket that was brought to Bandon in 1873 by George Bennett, an Irish immigrant, who wanted America’s Bandon to look more like his native Bandon, Ireland. Grow it did indeed, on the sandy banks of the young town. And burn it also did with alarming intensity in the great Bandon fire of 1936 that destroyed the entire town.

According to the Oregon History Project of the Oregon Historical Society, Bandon resident D.H. Woomer told a Coos Bay Times reporter, “That Irish hedge was the worst thing—when the fire hit it right across from my house, the flames shot up high into the air. It was just as though there had been gasoline poured on the fire. And water was just no good against it—wouldn’t touch it! The stuff seemed just full of oil.”

To an errant golf ball, the dense thorny thicket of gorse might as well be fire, for a ball in is a ball beyond retrieval. But on this sprawling Pacific Dunes course, perhaps we lost two balls to the gorse. Still no one cares because the sun is shining and the wind not a factor—a great outcome for Bandon in May.

Because the course is lain with short, fast fescue grass, it plays like a very large green. C. Meier is in his element here and birdies the fourteenth hole to finish with an 84. M. Lee continues hitting long shots with the smack of a hammer, but birdies evade him and he ends with an 82. It’s M. Galeski’s putts—impressively long putts—that earn him two birdies and a stroke lead of 81 going into the afternoon round at Bandon Trails.

Never short on opinion, Mark Twain famously opined that golf was a good walk ruined. At that point in his travels, he had never seen Bandon Dunes courses.

After lunch, we’re off to our afternoon round. Bandon Trails is part of the same resort, but it has a complete different ecology than the neighboring Pacific Dunes course. Surrounded by spruce and Douglas fir, Bandon Trails feels like you’ve stumbled upon a series of green meadows in a secluded coastal forest.

Bandon Trails Total

Yards 6260
Mike Lee 81
Chris Meier 86
Mike Galeski 90

Par 71

In this seclusion and after 74 holes, M. Lee musters a low score of 81, ten over par. He two-putts from fifteen feet out on the seventh hole after dropping a twenty-foot putt to pull out a bogie on the sixth hole. M. Galeski retreats to the woods to come out with a 90, and C. Meier narrowly misses an eighty-foot putt for par on the seventh and ends with an 86. After a couple of celebratory drinks at McGee’s Pub, we pile back on to the ecoShuttle now bound for Sisters some five and a half hours away.

The Oregon Coast is also known as The People’s Coast—a nod to its emergence as a public entity open to all under Governor Oswald West. These People include golfers at Bandon, vacationers in Cannon Beach, fishermen in Newport and one dude outside of Reedsport.

At this pit stop along our trip, we pull off at a store that was once a gas station. Enter Charles, a man in his late forties with a half-crazed thought bouncing around his eyes. If Google Earth had microphones, it would have heard Charles’ accurate announcement of our intended business there. A moment later, though, in the hushed voice of conspiracy, Charles confides that he once was a helicopter logger and that he had built his own time machine from balsa wood and rubber bands from a Galileo drawing. Awesome.

Premature as it was to leave Charles and his time machine, it would have been nice to dial back the hours to savor FivePine Lodge in Sisters after arriving at midnight. This classic Craftsman lodge built just three years ago sacrificed no comfort in the name of sustainability. Its campus includes Three Creeks Brewery, a barn-style movie house, an athletic club and Thyme, a top-notch bistro. Sadly all of these stones we left unturned as we rose early for a round at Aspen Lakes.

DAY THREE

Aspen Lakes, Sisters
Black Tees 6,919 Yards
Par 72

Tetherow, Bend
Black Tees 6.955 Yards
Par 72

Aspen Lakes is a beautiful gem painted in crushed burgundy gravel and dark green grass. Tall Ponderosa pines outline the course on this side of the Cascades. When it’s not raining, the snow-capped Three Sisters are visible in the distance. Golf course architect William Overdorf designed Aspen Lakes to take advantage of these views and to be “tough but fair,” according to Matt Phillips, the PGA pro at the course. Matt makes up the fourth as the crew, whipped by cold, rain and cold rain, embarked on a new course speed record.

Within 6,919 yards and two hours and fifteen minutes, the round was over. Even though Phillips is the teaching pro, his game has not suffered horribly. He shot nine over par for an 81 to top the leaderboard. M. Lee was on his heels with an 82. M. Galeski and C. Meier came in at 84 and 85 respectively.

We lost no time in lighting out for Bend, where we’d play the final round with golf designer David McLay Kidd at his new project—Tetherow.

“You know why they made that club white, don’t you?” he asked. C. Meier deadpanned, “To reduce sun glare and make more money.” Kidd laughed.

Tetherow rolls southwest over a plot that was burned in the 1990 Awbrey Hall Fire that ravaged more than 31,000 acres and twenty-two homes, and created the ideal open canvas for Kidd’s work. Trees aren’t germane to Scottish- style links, and without them, the Cascade Range is in full view. The design is as complex as nature. Undulating hills, tufted bunkers and fescue grass come together in a stunning high-desert links-style course.

Golf Magazine named Tetherow as the best new golf course of 2009. More pageantry followed with Golf Digest crowning Tetherow one of the best 100 public courses in the country. Farther afield, Kidd has also designed The Castle Course at St. Andrews, the holy chalice of Scottish golf, Machrihanish Dunes in Scotland, Charles Schwab’s Nanea course in Hawaii, and a private course for Red Bull cofounder Dietrich Mateschitz on the Fijian island of Laucala to drop a few names.

Tehterow Total

Yards 6955
Mike Lee ??
Chris Meier ??
Mike Galeski ??

Par ??

Though M. Lee and C. Meier have played Tetherow a half dozen times since it opened in 2009, neither of them has met its creator. While his reputation is global, Kidd remains local as he stepped out of the clubhouse to greet us. “I thought I’d bring you the true Scottish experience,” he quips as rain began to fall again over the high desert of Central Oregon. The high desert feels more of the former and none of the latter as the foursome hit from the first tee—the last round of the All-Oregon Gonzo Cup.

C. Meier pulled out his bulbous TaylorMade white driver as David eyed it suspiciously. “You know why they made that club white, don’t you?” he asked. C. Meier deadpanned, “To reduce sun glare and make more money.” Kidd laughed.

The longer they played, the worse M. Lee’s back but the better the banter. “A little prayer. That’d be my caddy’s advice,” Kidd said to M. Galeski, who was trying to hit out of sagebrush and onto the green.

Even as the banter was sublime, clouds dumping something close to snow blew out of the northeast. By the seventh hole, a wall of hail fell on us while cold winds snapped it into our faces. When, at the outset, we boasted that lightning alone could halt play, we hadn’t accounted for the unaccountable weather of spring in Central Oregon.

Instead of beating an immediate retreat, however, the seventh and final hole of the journey would be one of the most fun for these golfers, especially C. Meier. Holding an umbrella as large as a satellite dish in his right hand and his sand wedge in his left, he hit his best trap shot of the three-day tour. Kidd, six feet from the hole, and with a steady beach of hail forming between his ball and the cup, bent down and began brushing a path as if he were a curling champion. Seconds later and still holding the umbrella, C. Meier sank a twenty-foot putt to end the first 1859 All-Oregon Gonzo Cup.

Aspen Lakes Total

Yards 6919
Mike Lee 82
Chris Meier 85
Mike Galeski 84
Matt Phillips 81

Par 72

A challenge that started three days and 97 holes ago with three golfers, a skeptic, a cooler and an ecovan, came to an Oregon conclusion—weather. Our round truncated there’s no better eighth hole than regional cuisine and wine at Tetherow’s restaurant. A meal fit for royalty soon got underway. Lobster crab shrimp cakes in a lemon aioli appeared. There was tender osso bucco and crisp iceberg lettuce wedges draped in bleu cheese and bacon. There were bone-in New York strips seated on a two-inch thick platter made from Himalayan sea-salt.

Of course, not every story ends with a two-fisted feast and a one-handed twenty-foot putt in a hailstorm. But, if you play golf long enough in Oregon, you know that the sun will eventually appear and the stories will fly.

As the sun’s blush went pink then scarlet, the shuttle arrived at a soft surprise for the crew—The Oxford Hotel in downtown Bend. The new Oxford, is a beacon of sustainability, taste and comfort. The following morning, the well-rested crew then got back on the bus, bound for Portland to finish where they had started.

As many Kesey-ians know, magic happens when you get on a bus. For me, though, the most unexpected things happened off the bus. Golf toursim in May in Oregon was challenging, adventurous and a great motivation for seeing some of the world’s greatest walks preserved.

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