Pacific Gales Golf Course: Aspirations of greatness (updated)

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Oregon, Oregon Coast |

The proposed Pacific Gales Golf Course would offer sweeping views of the Oregon Coast (with August 2015 update)

PORT ORFORD — The banner on the fallen flag stick is ragged, torn apart by the winds that sweep the coastline, but there’s still enough fabric to flutter as Troy Russell lifts the stick from the dune grass and plants it in the rugged ground.

One day, when a dream becomes reality, this will be the No. 17 green, a tough par 3, a signature hole at Pacific Gales Golf Course.

Right now, as you hike through a pasture of the Knapp Ranch and climb the dunes, you can only imagine the golf course but the view from this bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the northwest corner of the 350-acre golf course site — part of a 1,100-acre cattle ranch — is an enduring reality and almost beautiful beyond imagination:

To the north, you look down upon the Elk River, one of Oregon’s great fishing waters for salmon and steelhead, as it flows between pastures where cattle graze, zigs northward and then empties into the ocean on a long spit of beach. Beyond that, you see the Cape Blanco Lighthouse, the western-most point in Oregon. (When you play your second shot on the 15th hole, you’ll aim at the lighthouse, and then the 16th fairway will take you west, along the edge of the cliff, the Elk River delta below.)

From the would-be 17th green, you look down on the waves hitting the beach and then west toward the rocks of Orford Reef. To the south you see more coastline and, on a clear day, the outline of Humbug Mountain. To the east, the Coast Range.

“I think there’s a chance to have the best closing holes in golf,” said Jim Haley, managing partner of Pacific Gales.

That’s because when you’ve holed your putt on No. 17, you’ll tackle No. 18, south along the cliff overlooking the coastline, a thinking-golfer’s par 5 toward a massive double green, now a thicket of gorse protected by a ravine, to be shared with No. 9, in front of a clubhouse to be built into a dune, with a wall of windows facing the huge green and the ocean and the reef beyond.

“When you tell somebody it’s like Bandon Dunes only prettier, they go ‘Oh yeah, right, how can it be?’” said Russell, project manager for the proposed course. “But it is. There are other things to see here that you don’t see there.”

Opportunity for investors

Russell, 56, grew up on a dairy farm on the Coquille River and first saw this piece of land on Knapp Ranch when he was a teenager. He didn’t see it again until the late 1990s, when he was working on the construction of the inaugural course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort — he served as the first superintendent at the resort for almost 10 years — about 30 miles north of here. Also working on the Bandon Dunes project were Haley, as lead shaper, and Jeff Knapp, the latter a member of the family that has owned the ranch property north of Port Orford for generations.

“And everyone was all agog about how beautiful Bandon Dunes was, and Jeff kept saying ‘you guys need to come see our place. This is good, but ours is better,’” Russell said.

Haley, now 53 and based in Omaha, Neb., remembers his first visit to the site vividly; it was a crab feed on Knapp Ranch in 1997. After the construction of Bandon Dunes, Haley formed his own golf course construction company, Highland Golf Services, and Knapp worked for him, on and off, for a decade as they built courses in Hawaii, Idaho, England and near San Francisco. Russell, after leaving Bandon Dunes, worked on the construction of the highly regarded Wine Valley Golf Course in Walla Walla, Wash.

In short, Haley and Russell have the grit of some great golf courses under their fingernails.

As early as 2001 or 2002, Haley commissioned a feasibility study for a golf course at Knapp Ranch. In 2010, after about five years of on-and-off discussion, Haley, as managing partner of Elk River Property Development, and partner Jay Kenyon signed a 130-year lease agreement with the Knapp family to develop the golf course on the site Haley had seen 13 years earlier. Inspired by the special nature of the land and by the incredible success of the Bandon Dunes resort, Haley envisioned a great links golf course, with fescue and challenging terrain and weather conditions.

By then, both Mike Keiser, the visionary owner of Bandon Dunes, and plumbing fixtures magnate Herb Kohler, whose courses include Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run, had looked at the property as well, with deep interest, a testament to the magnificence of the site and the relative rarity of privately held coastal property in Oregon.

Suffice to say, Haley lacks the deep pockets of Keiser or Kohler, and though he has some partners, including Chicago-based golf course architect Dave Esler, who is designing Pacific Gales and whose projects include the highly rated Black Sheep Golf Club in Illinois, additional investors will be needed to raise an estimated $10 million to $15 million to build Pacific Gales.

Initiatives being launched this spring will include a Founder’s Club, designed to attract investors from Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, and allowing Haley to retain overall control of the project.

“It’s kind of been a ground-up production,” said Haley who, like Russell, sees Pacific Gales as his last project, and his legacy in the sport.

“To fight all that way and turn it over and walk away from it is not something that I would want to do. I feel like I have a commitment to the (Knapp) family. …

“We think that for (that amount) we can build the golf course, the club house, the maintenance building and get it open for play. Those numbers aren’t set in stone yet. We haven’t done the final design on the golf course yet. We haven’t done the final projection on the irrigation system yet; earthworks and irrigation are the two most extensive things in golf construction.”

Though investment opportunities have existed since the project was announced in 2013, Haley said a more aggressive campaign was delayed until final permits were obtained, and that’s been a complicated process, though he believes a resolution is near. Earlier this year, the Curry County commissioners approved, for the second time, a conditional-use permit allowing the golf course to be built; that decision was appealed to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals by the watchdog Oregon Coast Alliance, which has opposed the project from the outset because of land-use and environmental issues.

The land use board will hold a public hearing on the matter in Salem on Thursday, and then have 30 days to issue a decision. If Pacific Gales prevails, and if the campaign to attract investors is fruitful, Russell said golf course construction could begin in late August — a year later than originally envisioned — with rough shaping through the end of October and seeding by mid-November. Russell said it’s possible the course could be ready for a soft opening in the fall of 2016, with a grand opening in April or May of 2017.

Worth the trip

Esler’s design for the course is still a work in progress. While some of the outer holes, on the bluff overlooking the Elk River delta and along the oceanfront, are fairly well determined, there’s still some uncertainty about the routing of the inner holes, which must avoid wetlands on the pasture land and were in limbo while the Knapps logged 120 acres on the south side of the property.

Russell said the interior holes will have a decidedly dunal look when earth is moved and construction complete. “There are several holes that there is still some mystery about,” Russell said. “But they are going to look great when they are done.”

And it’s possible the nines will be reversed with the seasons, to allow golfers to finish with the wind, which blows stiffly from the northwest in the summer, and the opposite way in the winter and will leave golfers believing that Pacific Gales is aptly named.

The course, which will allow riding carts, will have a practice range, a simple clubhouse and no on-site lodging. Green fees, still to be determined, will be similar in structure to Bandon Dunes, but not as expensive; in reality, Pacific Gales — about 165 miles from Eugene — hopes to attract the same golfers who make the journey to Bandon Dunes.

“It’s definitely not an easy place to get to,” Haley said. “But we’re pretty confident that we’re going to get the people there. There’s already a huge number that goes 30 miles up the coast to play.”

Said Russell: “Obviously, our client base is going to be the same client base as Bandon Dunes. People aren’t going to stop coming to Bandon Dunes because suddenly this exists. Our hope is that we’re offering those golfing patrons a similar but different golf experience. Similar in the playing surface (fescue) and it’s going to be a links golf course.

“But it’s not a lot different than traveling around Scotland or Ireland; you’ve made that trek, you’ve come this far, you might as well go see what some other courses are like in the region. We’re just trying to give golfers a reason to start here or finish here.

“When they get down here, they’ll see why.”

Update August 2015:

PORT ORFORD, OR. — With land-use issues largely resolved, architect Dave Esler has been able to fine-tune his design for the proposed Pacific Gales Golf Course, located on a spectacular site overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Elk River Valley north of here.

 

So what will this much-anticipated course, about 30 miles south of the famed Bandon Dunes courses, look and feel like?

 

“That’s one of the secrets we’re going to hold back,” said Esler, a partner in the project with Jim Haley, who was involved in the construction of the original course at Bandon Dunes.

 

“We know that people love what Mr. (Mike) Keiser has at Bandon Dunes. We also know that we have to do something that is very similar to that. Our property is very similar to Bandon Dunes. But we also know that we have to differentiate ourselves in the market. We have to be stylistically a little different.

 

“Jim and I are trying to flesh that out now. Whether our golf course looks like any of their golf courses when it’s done, that’s yet to be determined. The routing is spectacular. The sequence of theater, if I might say so, of taking you out to the edge, and going back inland a little bit and going back out to the edge and back inland, the drama we’re able to build in the routing, finishing both nines on the ocean, we’re really fortunate to have such a good piece of ground that allows us to do that.

 

“The routing is designed to create some drama and some excitement and some expectation — not unlike Pebble Beach. We don’t have as much ocean frontage as Pebble, but like at Pebble you go out to the edge, then you go away from it for a while, then you have the big finish. …”

 

The Chicago-based Esler 52, has done restoration and remodeling work in his career, and is best known for the design of Black Sheep Golf Club in Illinois. He said Pacific Gales, the best design opportunity he’s ever had, will be a links course “with a couple of different flavors to it.

 

“Obviously, the dunes holes are literally has good as anything in this country. Whether it’s Cypress Point (in California) or whether it’s Fisher’s Island (in New York), whatever, the Pacific Gales site has got to be part of that discussion, and our job is to coax the best out of it we possibly can. ….

 

“But in terms of the style of the bunkers, the amount of contour in the greens, the finishing touches, that’s still up for some debate and some creativity. We’re trying to be similar to Bandon Dunes but we have to be different at the same time, otherwise why would you come see us? From a business standpoint, that’s important, and as a creative person that’s important to me as well.”

In May, Pacific Gales won what appears to be a major victory when the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals ruled against several objections brought by the Oregon Coast Alliance, remanding the matter to Curry County officials only to resolve ambiguity over the allowable size of the clubhouse.

 

“We’re absolutely elated that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and it’s very close,” Esler said. He hopes the clubhouse issue is resolved by early fall.

 

“We’re at the 1-yard-line,” he said.

 

The 350-acre site for the 18-hole golf course is located on Knapp Ranch, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with views to the north of the Elk River and Cape Blanco Lighthouse.

 

Haley was working on the original course at Bandon Dunes as lead shaper, along with Jeff Knapp, whose family had owned the ranch for generations. At a crab feed at the ranch in 1997, Haley got his first glimpse of the land and saw that Knapp hadn’t exaggerated its beauty when saying it matched and even surpassed the Bandon Dunes site, and thus a dream was born.

 

Esler said it’s possible the project could be “shovel ready” for construction to begin late this year, or, more likely, early in 2016, with the possibility of some preview holes available for play by Founder’s Club members in late summer of 2016, with a grand opening possible in spring of 2017.

 

Esler and Haley, who have been funding the permit process personally, are now seeking to raise the $10 million to $15 million needed to build the course, with the main vehicle being a Founder’s Club, which brings certain playing privileges, an approach similar to that used by Keiser in constructing his Sand Valley Golf Resort in central Wisconsin, where two courses are under way.

 

“We’ve rolled the dice financially and spent a lot of time on this,” Esler said. “Maybe that’s whey we’ve been so well received in the community. We’re not the rich guys, no disparaging anybody who has a lot of dough. We’re kind of earning it, digging it out of the dirt, as Ben Hogan used to say, and that spirit is still alive.”

 

 

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