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Driving the Central Oregon Golf Trail

By Chris Santell Special To The Washington Post

I was having one of my better rounds last October when I stepped on to the 17th tee at Tetherow, with a chance to break 90 if I could par out. The pin was near the front of the green, separated from me by a gaping waste bunker, basically 125 yards of sand. I made good contact with a 7-iron, which should’ve been plenty of club. But my ball hit the front edge of the green and rolled – slowly, irrevocably – back into the trap.

Given my shaky sand play, the odds of a sub-90 round all but evaporated. But instead of wallowing in despair, I looked ahead; there would be time for a few hours of trout fishing post-golf, a craft beer and another round at one of Golf Digest’s Top 100 golf courses tomorrow.

Such are the bounties of the Central Oregon Golf Trail.

Central Oregon, the region that radiates roughly 30 miles out from the hub city of Bend, rests just east of the Cascade mountain range and at the edge of the high desert terrain that extends hundreds of miles to the east. The Cascades serve several purposes: The perpetually snowcapped peaks of Mount Bachelor, the Three Sisters and Mount Jefferson (among others) provide a scenic backdrop on all but the cloudiest days, and they block the weather systems blowing in from the Pacific that can make Western Oregon a bit soggy. Central Oregon typically enjoys nearly 300 sunny days a year, and in summer, the weather is almost ideal: cool mornings; hot, low-humidity afternoons; and cold, clear nights that make for perfect sleeping weather. (Bend sits at an elevation a little above 3,600 feet.)

Bend’s economy once relied on resource extraction – timber, in this case. Like so many Western mountain towns, it began its transition to a more tourism-driven economy in the ‘90s. Mount Bachelor (southwest of the town) already had a fine reputation as a ski destination. The golf courses would soon follow. “There was originally some good upscale golf with an occasional world-class layout. Crosswater at Sunriver was the first, in 1995,” said Jeff Wallach, a Portland-based golf writer and the golf columnist for Business Traveler magazine. “Now you have to decide which terrific venue to play, as there are so many, … and they’re all very different.”

It can be inferred that many who came to visit Bend have decided to stay, because the population has risen from less than 25,000 in 1990 to more than 100,000 today.

“For variety, scenery, climate and a collection of outstanding golf courses, it’s hard to top Central Oregon,” said Arizona-based “Travelin’ Joe” Passov, former senior editor for Golf magazine and a regular golf contributor to Morning Read and Links magazine. “Bend features every outdoor activity imaginable, all the golf and scenery you can handle, as well as charm galore and surprising culture.”

There are 30 courses in Central Oregon open to the public. (Crosswater and Brasada Ranch are open to guests staying on the property.) They include more modest munis such as Juniper in Redmond and Meadow Lakes in Prineville, as well as Top 100 tracks such as Crosswater, Pronghorn and Tetherow. Serious linksters will probably want to tick Central Oregon’s “Big 3” off their list.

You’ll want to save your A-game for Crosswater, which meanders through meadows and wetlands created by the Deschutes and Little Deschutes rivers near the resort community of Sunriver. This layout in the shadow of Mount Bachelor, which rises to the northwest, is fittingly named; players must carry the rivers up to seven times in the course of a round. (You may find rainbow trout sipping mayflies on the river as you contemplate one of your crossings.)

“Crosswater is rugged, big-time, championship golf,” Passov said. “It’s long and tough, and if you’re hitting it crooked, you’ll be in for a fight as you contend with the deep rough. But it’s so beautiful, it’s absolutely worth your while.” The other 18-hole courses at Sunriver, Meadows and Woodlands, are more user-friendly and feature similar Mount Bachelor views; Meadows also offers an 18-hole putting course, ideal for more casual golfers. “You don’t want a golf trip full of smack downs,” Passov said. “It’s nice to have a few courses to flatter your game.” Aspen Lakes in Sisters, and the two courses at Black Butte Ranch, Big Meadow and Glaze Meadow, fit this bill.

The Jack Nicklaus Signature Course at Pronghorn Resort, northeast of Bend, was the next marquee track to come to Central Oregon, opening in 2004. Initially private, Pronghorn opened its doors to public play in 2010. The design takes full advantage of its dramatic high desert surroundings, winding through swaths of juniper punctuated by lava rock formations, with Cascade peaks ever-present.

“Pronghorn has the insular, luxurious ambiance of a very exclusive private club, which it is,” Wallach said, “but you feel you’re a member there when you play among the strangely beautiful ghost junipers. This was a course designed during Jack’s later years, when he was done torturing golfers with difficulty. It’s a challenging, aesthetic course that’s actually playable.” Brasada Ranch, down the road from the turnoff to Pronghorn, is another enticing desert track, with big fairways and bigger views.

Tetherow, which opened for play in 2008 a few miles southwest of downtown Bend, may be my favorite Central Oregon course. Designed by David McLay Kidd, who laid out the first course at Oregon’s Bandon Dunes, Tetherow fuses elements of desert golf, mountain golf and even coastal links golf on spectacularly rolling terrain, with the peaks of the Three Sisters looming to the northwest.

“It’s a cubist version of a golf course where the architect took all the familiar elements of a golf course and sort of moved them around and used them in different ways,” Wallach said. “It’s difficult and enthralling, and every hole is a puzzle to be deciphered. A lot of the approaches are counterintuitive. You don’t aim at the flags, but use the ground to move the ball toward the hole.” You can add another element of excitement to your round by renting a GolfBoard, a fusion of a Segway and a golf cart, to bring you around the course in a surfer’s crouch.

The golf options are many in Central Oregon, but it would be a shame not to avail yourself of some of the area’s other fine outdoor activities. “The golf season coincides well with the trout season here,” said Jeff Perin, a fly-fishing guide and owner of the Fly Fisher’s Place in Sisters. “We get many vacationers who want to try fly-fishing, and we have a great variety of lakes, spring creeks and bigger rivers to fish. When we take new anglers out, we want you to catch trout, but we also want to help you learn to cast, tie a fly on and read the river.” The native rainbows in the Metolius and Lower Deschutes rivers lure seasoned anglers from far and wide.

Central Oregon is also a destination for mountain bikers. “There’s fantastic access to hundreds of miles of trails, some accessible to first-timers, others best suited for advanced riders,” said Lev Stryker, co-owner of Bend-based Cog Wild, which provides guided rides, skills instruction and shuttles. “Some trails start right in town,” he says.

You can also mix an adrenaline-fueled experience with water on a white-water rafting trip on the Deschutes River. On the Big Eddy Thriller (offered by Sun Country Tours), a guide leads you and your fellow rafters down three miles of the Deschutes, concluding with Class 3 rapids – quite enough to raise your heart rate, although the spray from the waves splashing over the raft will cool you down.

There are various lodging options, too. If you’re seeking more tranquility (or are traveling with a gang of golf buddies), rental homes are available on or near the courses at Sunriver/Crosswater, Tetherow, Pronghorn and Brasada. If being close to shopping, restaurants and nightlife is more important, Bend offers options such as the centrally located DoubleTree by Hilton and the more upscale and equally well-situated Oxford Hotel Bend.

Beer lovers will swoon as they explore Bend, which is home to more than a 20 breweries. A few, like Deschutes Brewery, export their beer far and wide; most, like Silver Moon, are more locally distributed. Many of the pubs offer hearty fare to soak up the suds. Fine-dining experiences are also available, including Ariana, 900 Wall (both new American cuisine) and the Blacksmith (a steakhouse).

Although I exited the waste bunker on 17 on my first try, I failed to sink my putt for par. Another bogey on the 18th put me at 91 – very respectable at Tetherow for a golfer of my middling ability. But that evening, the trout on the Fall River were quite accommodating, rising eagerly for my Pale Morning Dun imitations. I put several nice rainbows in my net before releasing them.

And I was able to make it back to Bend Public House (Deschutes Brewery’s downtown flagship pub) well before last call.

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