Golf Life: Silvies Valley Ranch brings unique golf experience to Oregon

Silvies Valley Ranch

Golf Life: Silvies Valley Ranch brings unique golf experience to Oregon

Courses

Golf Life: Silvies Valley Ranch brings unique golf experience to Oregon

SENECA, Ore. – My caddie, Bruce, didn’t particularly want to carry two golf bags up the slope to the green in front of us. I couldn’t blame him. The dirt and gravel path was steep, and the late-July temperatures were in the 90s even before 10 a.m.

The caddie’s on-course trainer offered this advice: Grab Bruce by the tail, and he’ll go right up the hill. “Hmmm,” I wanted to say, “you first.”

I had never grabbed a caddie under any circumstances, much less by that end. Then again, I had never had an honest-to-God goat for a caddie. Luckily, with a few peanuts for motivation the sometimes stubborn Bruce – a purebred American range goat – was on his way, and I was free to search for my wayward tee shot in the scrub. It’s worth noting that Bruce was less fussy on the downhill holes.

This is all part of the fun at McVeigh’s Gauntlet, seven unlikely holes carved atop the hills at the remote Retreat and Links at Silvies Valley Ranch in eastern Oregon. It’s a cross between rugged pasture pool and mountaineering – the kind of place where a player is encouraged to say, “Hold my beer and watch this,” before a swing.

The ranchers are training a handful of goats, two of which began working on the course this year, to carry custom leather packs built by Seamus Golf up and down the hills of the Gauntlet. The goats are on leashes and – for the most part – are willing to serve, with a bit of coaxing and a few stops along the way to nibble underbrush.

Not that there’s any reason to speed up the goats. The high-desert terrain is incredibly rugged, stunning and dry, with the views from crests sweeping miles across a massive valley. Atop one hill is an appropriately named beer tree, under which a Yeti cooler holds plenty of drinks – for humans only; the goats have water along the way. McVeigh’s Gauntlet is comprised of par 3s and short par 4s – with a bonus par 2 – and the concept isn’t traditional golf so much as it is providing a whole new experience. 

It seems most conversations among golfers at Silvies begin with, “Have you played with the goats?” The animals have climbed into golf’s social-media consciousness since the Gauntlet opened this summer, with hashtags leading to obligatory photos and plenty of jokes.

But the goat caddies are just an appetizer, so to speak, on this 140,000-acre working ranch with thousands of grazing livestock, including farmed goats who are more likely to end up on the gourmet menu than on the golf course. The real meat on the bone at Silvies, as far as golf goes, lies down the slopes from McVeigh’s Gauntlet, where 36 holes share 27 greens in a reversible layout that provides an intriguing study in obtaining multiple uses from one rollicking piece of land.

.  .  .

Scott Campbell, one of the owners of Silvies Valley Ranch, isn’t afraid to ask, “Why not?”

At Silvies Valley Ranch in Eastern Oregon, Dan Hixson built a reversible pair of golf courses. The 36 holes share nine of the 27 greens. (Silvies Valley Ranch)

For example, Campbell uses labor-intensive underground spring water for his cattle during the winter instead of stream water. The warmer spring water requires a cow to exert fewer kilocalories to heat the water internally, so his cattle produce more beef.

“We have used a lot of techniques that we didn’t make up, we just executed well, that make ranching more profitable,” Campbell said. “We have shown it can work in this environment and make ranching … at least 10 percent better.”

Silvies Valley wasn’t Campbell’s first big idea. After growing up in Burns, Ore., about 30 miles south of what is now his ranch home, Campbell obtained his degree in veterinary medicine from Oregon State in 1985. He went to work at Banfield Pet Hospital in Portland, Ore., and bought the one-clinic practice in 1987.

Campbell formed a strategic partnership with PetSmart in 1994 that eventually transformed much of the pet-care industry. Under parent company Medical Management International, Inc., Banfield, the Pet Hospital has grown into the largest companion animal veterinary practice in the world, with more than 1,000 locations. Campbell sold his shares of Banfield in 2007.

Much of Campbell’s attention – along with that of his wife, Sandy – then turned to Silvies Valley Ranch. The Campbells formed Silvies Valley Ranch, LLC, which purchased the ranch. (Another family, the Fosters, also are involved with Silvies Valley Ranch, LLC.) Campbell said the ranch was in disrepair, and he has spent millions of dollars repairing infrastructure. Campbell has occasionally bumped heads with some high-ranking officials in state government in his efforts to rebuild the environmental sustainability and economic viability of the ranch.

Campbell envisioned the resort as a small part of his overall ranch. The operation – currently with 34 lodge rooms and a handful of luxurious cabins – includes guided environmental tours, fishing, winter sports, shooting ranges and, as of the summer of 2017, golf. A spa with an indoor lap pool is scheduled to open this year, and there are plans for a sprinkling of houses away from the golf courses. Evening dining is high-end in a communal lodge.

There is no hunting available to guests; Sandy said a prized elk might make one hunter happy or attract a stream of amateur photographers.

Not even counting regulatory hurdles, there have been a slew of unusual challenges in creating the lodge and amenities. Chief among them is the extreme environment itself.

“When we first conceived this, it was just a wildlife resort, really, like many around the world. Ecotourism,” Campbell said. “The problem here is the ecotourism and wildlife are really good in the spring, when we have hundreds and hundreds of species of wildlife, a lot of birds, a lot of North America’s mega fauna: elk, deer, antelope, cougars, bears and so on. … And then we said, it’s pretty hard to make any money being open two months out of the year.”

Campbell began looking seriously at golf. He credits as inspiration Mike Keiser and his popular Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the opposite side of Oregon. But because Bandon Dunes benefits from its coastal climate and can operate year-round, Campbell could not just copy Keiser’s model in eastern Oregon, with its frequent sub-freezing temperatures and snowfall.

“One of the things Mike’s done really well – and I would say of all the businesses I know, he’s probably the best in the world at it – is focus,” Campbell said. “They know what they’re doing at Bandon. They have a great golf resort, and there’s a hyper focus, and that’s why they’re so successful. And I can’t do that here. So we had to diversify, which we did.”

But the end goal is not just for the resort to turn a profit; Campbell said that’s still a ways off. Consider Silvies Valley as Campbell’s proof of concept that eastern Oregon can support the kind of economy-boosting tourism found at Bandon Dunes and at ecotourism destinations across the American West, but that have skipped past his wide-open homelands.

It might seem like a tough sell for a resort that sits more than a three-hour’s drive away from commercial airports in Bend, Ore., and Boise, Idaho. The resort’s directions from Boise include two hours in which a driver likely loses cellular reception and probably will not see another car for 40 miles while traversing Malheur National Forest, which includes a section of gravel road. For anybody without access to a private plane to land at the ranch’s private 5,350-foot airstrip, it’s not a short jaunt.

But Campbell said the risks are worth it to prove his bigger point.

“What we’re showing is that you can attract destination tourists here,” Campbell said. “Because right now it’s not bankable. If you’re an entrepreneur and a hard charger, and you want to build 10 hotel rooms and add fishing or something, you can’t go borrow money to do that because nobody has ever been successful with destination tourism here.

“We’re going to show that you can attract people from around the world here who will play golf, shoot pistols, look at elk, fish for trout, take pictures … and they’ll be happy about it,” he said.

.  .  .

The pictured green is No. 9 on the Hankins course and No. 8 on the Craddock course.

Campbell had plenty of land for a golf course, but he got more than he bargained for when Dan Hixson entered the picture.

Hixson, of Vancouver, Wash., is a self-taught course designer who generally hasn’t moved a lot of earth. A former mini-tour pro and club professional, Hixson dreamed of designing courses since he was a child. He spent much of his teens drawing artistic golf holes, hoping to one day get the chance to sink real stakes into the ground.

In 1999 he walked away from a great job at Columbia Edgewater Country Club in Portland to pursue a career in course design. He had no formal training, but he trusted his eyes, his imagination and his golf experience to help launch a business.

To date, Hixson has built four 18-hole courses, including Bandon Crossings in Oregon and Wine Valley in Walla Walla, Wash. Both have proved popular, with Wine Valley currently ranked No. 3 on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list for its state. He also has helped multiple West Coast clubs with redesigns and renovations while building a handful of par-3 courses and practice facilities.

When Hixson was 7 years old, his golf-pro father took him to see redesign work at Eugene Country Club, where Robert Trent Jones reversed the original routing by H. Chandler Egan. Hixson said that ever since, he has looked at holes backward to see how they might play in the other direction.

Hixson said the concept of reversible routings, which can play in one direction one day then switch to play the opposite direction the next, was never far from his mind. He had even drawn up a reversible routing for the original site of Wine Valley, though that plan was scrapped.

The concept isn’t new – the Old Course at St. Andrews is a reversible course and is occasionally still played that way.

In 2009, after being hired by Campbell to build a course at Silvies Valley, Hixson originally thought his middle six holes might be candidates for reversible design.

“As I walked the site, I would walk from a tee to a green and see what the fairway would look like,” Hixson said. “Then as I would get to the green, I would look back up the fairway, and pretty clearly there were great holes going in both directions in a lot of cases.”

Scott and Sandy Campbell. (Silvies Valley Ranch)

One night after dinner and drinks, he pitched the idea to Campbell. Hixson explained how Campbell could have two courses for not much more cost or environmental impact than one, and he described the reversible layout of the Old Course at St. Andrews.

“I remember him saying, exactly, ‘Why wouldn’t we just build the whole thing reversible?’ ” Hixson said. “From that minute forward, the game changed.”

The reversible concept for the Craddock and Hankins courses became part of the business plan. The 36 total holes would use 27 greens, with each course sharing nine greens and each having nine standalone greens. Only eight holes, four on each course, would share no common ground. Most fairways would play both up and down hills that climb some 200 feet toward lightly forested ridgelines.

“I think the reversibility of the course, being able to have two courses for slightly more than the price of one, is brilliant,” Campbell said. “You can come closer to capacity if they are reversible, because they’re different and they’re more fun. Golf needs to be fun.”

Hixson would spend as many as six months a year onsite for the better part of a decade to make his crisscrossing dream a reality. He did much of the manual labor himself, mowing down sage and roughing out greens and bunkers while employing several shapers with more experience than himself to turn desert into a golf course.

“I just had to keep asking my buddies, the shapers and anybody who would come visit, if I was crazy,” Hixson said. “Everybody kept saying that you can go to the end of a hole and look back, and that’s a great hole. Then you go to the other end and look back, and you go, ‘Wow, that’s a great hole, too.’ ”

After eight years of construction and grow-in between long winters, the Craddock and Hankins courses had a soft opening in the summer of 2017, with the full opening in 2018. Also opened last year was the nine-hole, par-3 Chief Egan Course. McVeigh’s Gauntlet, where the goats ply their trade, opened this year.

The Hankins and Craddock courses aren’t alone in offering reversible golf in the U.S. During the eight years Hixson spent at Silvies Valley, Tom Doak in 2016 opened The Loop at Forest Dunes in Roscommon, Mich., to wide acclaim with a similar concept, although on flatter ground. Doak’s course might be more strictly defined as reversible because it uses just 18 greens.

A handful of other reversible courses have been built in the United States, many of them nine-hole and par-3 courses that attempt to maximize playing options in tight spaces. Silvies Valley’s courses, on the other hand, wander through more than 600 acres, with roughly 120 acres of mowed grass.

Surrounded by sage and other underbrush in untouched native areas, the fescue fairways on the Craddock and Hankins courses are wide, sometimes approaching 100 yards. The combined fairways of Nos. 17 and 18 on Craddock and Nos. 1 and 3 on Hankins offer a playing area 240 yards wide, with bunkers defining playing lines. There is little grass rough on either course, just enough to prevent balls from rolling out of play.

While there’s ample room to spray it in the thin air, players must select the correct lines off the tees to access the best approaches around bunkers into large, bouncy and tumbling bentgrass greens surrounded by chipping areas mowed at fairway height.

And it’s the placement of the rough-edged bunkers, with native grasses often sprouting knee high along the sand, that makes the reversibility work. Hixson prefers bunkers set at angles that might at first appear odd. With his plan of players approaching greens from different directions on alternating days, Hixson created intentionally misdirected, shared bunkers and surrounding ground that feed the ball onto greens on one course while repelling or swallowing balls played on the other course.

“I like bunkers that don’t face you square and frame a hole by pointing directly back at the tee,” he said. “They only function in one direction. … Bunkers that kind of point the wrong way appeal to me more.”

The Hankins course might have the better views from tee boxes and greens perched high above the valley floor. The best spot on the property might be the newly installed 11th tee box on Hankins, set back in the trees and pointing uphill to an infinity green with a 20-mile view of distant hillsides. But Hixson said many golfers describe Craddock as being more strategic.

In a surprising sleight of hand, most of the routing of either course is hidden while playing the other course. Even with shared greens and fairways, each course is distinct.

“I love to finish a project, then look back and say, ‘Oh my God, look at what I just did,’ ” Hixson said. “I do that at Silvies. If I don’t go for a couple months, when I do go back, I look around and say, ‘Holy cow, look at how cool this is.’ ” Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the September 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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