Diamond Woods: Celebrating a gem

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Oregon |

The labor of love that’s Diamond Woods marks its 15th anniversary

MONROE — In the old newspaper photograph, the Doyles never age and time stands still. There they are, Jeff Doyle with his wife, Liz, and his brother, Greg, posing for the opening of the first nine holes at their new Diamond Woods Golf Course.

It is an accomplishment to celebrate, a dream come true, and that happiness is reflected in the photo.

That was in 1997, and a year later the second nine holes opened at the course on Territorial Road just south of Monroe.

And yet time never stands still, and though, sure, Jeff still looks fit enough to play second base for the St. Louis Cardinals, as the former Oregon State star did for 13 games back in 1983 before playing two years in Japan, the years add up, and when the number reached 15 as a still-surviving golf course in a tough era for the industry, Liz Doyle wanted to mark the occasion.

Which Diamond Woods has done this summer, with a dinner celebration in June, and other events, and a website logo to note the anniversary, even if 15 years is not a traditional milestone.

“The fact that we’re still here, 15 years later, after all the sacrificing we did to have it happen, and to still be here and making a living doing something that we love to do, I don’t think you can get better than that,” Liz Doyle said.

Why not wait until 25, the brothers asked. Because the accomplishment was bigger than just the three of them, she answered.

“They were like ‘why celebrate 15 years, let’s wait until 25.’” Liz Doyle said. “And I said ‘well, there are a lot of people who probably won’t be here 10 years from now, who have been pivotal parts of this golf course.’

“You have to remember that this golf course was built with the help of neighbors and farmers. So much of what we were able to accomplish was because so many people were excited about their (Jeff and Greg’s) boyhood dream and wanted to be a part of it.”

So there were the Strodas, Bob and Carol, neighboring farmers whose sons Tony, Kelly and Kirk shaped and fertilized the fairways, charging $2,000, Liz Doyle said, when the outside bid was $160,000.

There was Leonard Moug of Territorial Rock Products, who provided the rock for the driveway, then held the bill for eight months, without interest, until the Doyles could pay it. There’s George Estey, who has repaired the equipment at Diamond Woods since the beginning, just for the cost of the parts.

“Other neighbors donated equipment, came down to see how they could help,” Liz Doyle said. “The dynamic is that there are a lot of people who have been really pivotal parts of who we are. … I think it’s an important thing to do, to stop and be thankful for where we are. Because you’re never guaranteed going forward. And we are so, so privileged to have been able to build this and to have this be our livelihood.”

At the time of the opening, the construction cost was estimated at $3.2 million. It was a family venture, like the Giustinas building Tokatee, or the Jeffries building RiverRidge.

“I don’t know if anyone wanted to start the way we did, if you could do it anymore,” Liz Doyle said. “The bureaucracy. The difficulty in not just getting permits, but getting approval to do something. The ability to get financing. And they’ve changed some land codes, affecting where golf courses can be built and what kind of land they can be built on. The barrier to entry is different.”

Added Jeff Doyle: “It’s a big-money thing now. It’s not a family getting together and doing it, it’s not the Doyles, it’s not people who did a lot of stuff to build their own places and sacrificed a lot to get it done. I don’t think you’ll find places like that anymore. I would challenge you to find people able to build their own golf courses from scratch anymore.”

Lessons learned

Sure, there were some tough times along the way. Like the night that torrential rains washed mud from the under-construction practice range on to the course below, tearing up irrigation pipe and covering newly seeded fairways. Like the night vandals drove carts into the pond, and did so again, a week later. Like the water shortage in 2005.

Like getting used to the cyclical nature of the golf business.

“The first year it was very surprising, the cash flow” Jeff Doyle said. “You didn’t realize how completely seasonal it was. The expenses keep marching on in the winter, so that was a bit of a learning curve, figuring out the cash flow. Throughout the years, the number of different things, taxes and government stuff, the different rules. … That part has gotten way, way more complex than when we first started.”

And then there was the economic downturn, activity plummeting from 32,000 rounds played in 2007 to 24,000 in 2010, and then dropping further.

“We built rounds and revenue from 1997 through 2007,” Jeff Doyle said. “And then when 2008 hit and the whole world kind of came crashing down on everybody, we slowly started losing rounds and revenue until last year, where it actually started to build back up a little bit, and this year is a little better than last year. But we’re always pretty conservative with our expenses and our cash flow, so we’ve been able to survive the downturn.

“Change is part of any business; we’ve adapted and started to learn some things.”

Part of that adaptation involves the use of water on the 7,000-yard, par-72 course that Greg designed and maintains as superintendent, with less focus on the edges, and more on the middle of the fairways and the greens. It’s a look that Pinehurst No. 2 adapted for the recent U.S. Opens there.

“We’re not the country club style, wall-to-wall green irrigation,” Greg Doyle said. “We’re more of natural, rustic type. Our adaptation to the down time is that we’ve minimized the stuff that we’re heavily maintaining. We don’t do a lot of stuff around the tees, there’s tall grass, and we try to minimize the amount that we irrigate and fertilize and mow every day. … Obviously, part of golf’s problems is the expense, and part of that expense is that when you maintain a high-end golf course, you can’t do that for a low green fee, and that shuts out a lot of people from getting into the game.”

Surviving and thriving

Greg Doyle, who has a degree in landscape architecture and worked in golf course maintenance at Corvallis Country Club, Shadow Hills, Trysting Tree, Emerald Valley and Pumpkin Ridge, designed Diamond Woods to be a complete test of golf.

“In general I’m happy with how things turned out,” he said. “I like the fact that there’s a lot of variety. You have the flat and relatively open nine holes and one where it’s tighter and more elevation change.”

About 30 minutes from Eugene and Corvallis, Diamond Woods doesn’t generally draw spur-of-the-moment golfers, but it has found a niche in what Jeff Doyle calls “the event business” — fund-raisers, corporate outings and tournaments.

“The city courses have an advantage in ‘hey, it’s a decent day, I’m going to pop out and play,’” he said. “But I think we have an advantage with the event people, because if it’s a fund-raiser or corporate event they usually have customers and vendors from both north and south, so we’re a really nice fit for them. We find that the event people keep coming back to us and seem very happy with what we do. It’s a good course for that type of thing.”

Enhancing the event business was the Doyles’ decision to build the four-bedroom Inn at Diamond Woods, which opened in 2009, with its spectacular view of the farmland and the Cascades to the east. With picturesque grounds, it has become a sought-after site for weddings — 16 this year — and other functions. Track and field athletes have rented it during the Olympic Trials, for the remoteness and privacy; a group of Tennessee fans rented it for several days last football season, when the Vols visited Oregon, and played the course every day in their bright orange garb, with the place already rented for the Michigan State and Stanford weekends this fall.

Ultimately, the success of a golf course depends on how it plays. Jeff Doyle said the greens have been particularly good the past few years, and pace-of-play has improved with nine-minute spacing for tee times, and the introduction of gold tees in the “play it forward” campaign. The Doyles believe the restoration of a teaching pro position — PGA teacher Charlie Thurston, formerly of Spokane Country Club, started working there in the spring — gives Diamond Woods another draw.

With greens fees of $40 on weekends and $34 on weekdays, Diamond Woods is a demanding test of golf, minus any pretentiousness.

“We want it to be a place where people enjoy golf and have fun, and a place that takes care of people,” Jeff Doyle said. “It makes us feel good when people come out and enjoy themselves, and they’re glad that we built it, and that it was worth their time and money.”

The marking of 15 years makes the Doyles think of the next 15 and, perhaps, a succession plan, says Jeff, turning 58 in the fall. But they’ve gotten this far, and they’d do it all over again.

“Some of those things were bad times, but for the most part, the people that we’ve got to meet and know through this business, our customers, our members, the people that we work with, have been a very positive thing that I wasn’t anticipating going in,” he said.

“I absolutely would (do it again). It’s been a really wonderful overall 15 years.”

Along the way, among all the lessons learned, Jeff Doyle has made another interesting discovery.

“I love golf way more now than I did when it opened,” said Doyle, who plays the course virtually every day. “I wasn’t really a golfer. It was Greg’s thing. But now I’m so sold on the game. It’s such a great social game, such a great exercise that you can do for a long, long time, and there’s a competitive aspect to it that is beyond any sport I’ve ever played. Both mentally and physically, it’s quite a challenge.

“For me, it’s really a great game.”

And, for over 15 years, it’s been a great life.

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