Oregon Coast 9-holers: Coasting, to the nine

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Oregon, Oregon Coast |

Nine-hole courses dotting the coast provide a pleasant diversion and good golf

They are, for the travelers driving by, often merely signposts on the Oregon Coast Highway, sort of Another Roadside Attraction, along with beaches and the art galleries, the aquarium and the Sea Lion Caves.

Between Gearhart to the north, and Gold Beach to the south, there are roughly a dozen nine-hole coastal golf courses. They live in the shadow of the bigger courses, the world-famous courses at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, for example, or the 18-hole courses such as Sandpines in Florence, or Salishan Golf Links in Gleneden Beach.

They aren’t destinations, as much as diversions. They draw tourists who are already there for the beach-combing and the clam chowder. They draw loyal locals, the same foursomes of cronies who play together regularly. They make no pretense about being championship golf; they are community golf, part of the coastal scene, even though they don’t necessarily offer ocean views.

On a recent summer morning, a couple of golfers left Eugene before dawn to play three of those nine-hole courses in one day, a journey of discovery, a decision to take the turns off Highway 101 instead of driving by to get somewhere else.

We went through Philomath to Newport to play Agate Beach Golf Course, built in 1931, when Herbert Hoover was president, and operated by the same family for more than 50 years. Then we headed south to Waldport, driving a mile east of 101 to play Crestview Golf Club, a course dramatically redesigned five years ago by Dan Hixson, the Cottage Grove native who has earned acclaim for his designs of Bandon Crossings Golf Course south of Bandon, and Wine Valley in Walla Walla.

And then we continued south, past the crashing waves below, past Cape Perpetua and Heceta Beach, to Florence for a late, long lunch in Old Town, and then on to Reedsport, to find, tucked behind a neighborhood and protected from what had become a three-club coastal wind by a range of hills, a wonderful hidden gem of a golf course, Forest Hills Country Club.

Collectively, the courses have been nurtured through the ups and downs of the economy in general and the tourist industry in particular, vital to the enduring survival of the golf courses, to keeping them in play as golf courses instead of becoming real estate for developers.

“It’s tourism, there’s no doubt about it,” said Sean McGowan, the new head professional at Forest Hills. “The coastal economies depend so much on tourism.”

But the courses are also valued assets in their own communities.

“There’s a niche out there for nine-hole courses still,” said Mark Campbell, a co-owner of Crestview. “We’re still out there for the families, it’s affordable, dad will come out here at seven o’clock in the morning and he’ll be done before nine, when mom and the kids are still rousing from the hotel rooms. There’s still a market out there for nine-hole clubs. We get overlooked.”

The weather, so crucial to the golf industry, has been favorable this summer, and it was beautiful on the day of our visit.

The first drive was struck at 8 a.m., in 50-degree weather on a sunny and amazingly windless morning at Agate Beach. The last putt rolled home at 6:18 p.m., at Forest Hills, on a day that reached the high 70s. We drove home along the Umpqua River, past the elk, on a day the scenery was as wonderful as the golf, arriving at dusk, a trip of 27 holes and 272 miles, the combined scores on two cards, alas, somewhat higher than that.

At each course, on this bright and fog-free day, there was a sense of enthusiasm, fun — and pride. The courses are in good shape, and the operators clearly dedicated to the game, and to the people who play it.

And committed to the courses staying the course.

Agate Beach Golf Course

The course was designed by Frank Stenzel, who also designed Glendoveer Golf Course in Portland, and was purchased in 1960 by Bill and Ramona Martin; Bill’s father, Bill Martin Sr., had built Forest Hills Golf Course near Hillsboro — not to be confused with Reedsport’s Forest Hills — in 1927.

The current owner and head professional, Terry Martin, was 4 years old when his parents purchased Agate Beach; he has spent his life and his career there.

“I have two kids just coming out of college. We’ll see what they do,” Martin said. “I don’t know if they’re going to get in the business or not. It’s a fun family business. It would be nice to see a third generation able to keep it going. Hopefully we can continue on. It’s a little more difficult these days, with the economy …. but I think we’re in the right niche for affordable type of golf course.

“We try to keep a nice friendly staff working here, in the restaurant and the pro shop. We try to make everyone feel at home here. We allow dogs out on the course on a leash. We’re a little more casual than a lot of courses.”

At this time of year, Martin said, the clientele is 80 percent tourists, but there are also annual memberships, and a men’s club and a women’s club, the latter of which won an award from the Oregon Golf Association last year for its mentorship and support of the Newport High School girls golf team.

The routing, with fairways bordered by mature shore pines, is mostly true to Stenzel’s 1931 design, with one key exception. When he purchased the course in 1960, Bill Martin converted the ninth hole, a short par 3, to a practice green, converting the par-5 eighth hole into a much better finishing hole, and built a new No. 8, a par 3 that plays roughly 115 yards uphill into the old growth trees, with a gaping bunker on the downhill side of the green. It’s the course’s signature hole, and dedicated to the memory of Bill Martin, who died in 1995.

It’s an excellent hole, part of a strong stretch of finishing holes, the most interesting on the course, starting with No. 6, a long par 5 along a quiet neighborhood street, with a slight dogleg at the end. It continues with No. 7, a par 4 dogleg right where golfers are well-advised to favor the left side on their tee shots, and ends with the course’s second par 5 at No. 9.

“We try to keep it in good shape, trimmed up and greens rolling good,” Martin said. “It’s easy to walk and fun because it’s scoreable, but there’s still plenty of trouble to get into. It’s walkable; you don’t have to have a cart to play. Being nine holes you could play it in an hour and half. And it’s fun. I’ve played here since I was 5 years old and I never get tired of playing it.”

Crestview Golf Club

About 17 years ago, Mark Campbell and his wife, Patti, were hoping to move from Alaska to escape the snow. They were considering purchasing a bowling alley in La Pine, but read in the newspaper that there was already snow on the ground there.

In October.

And so, instead, they found this golf course for sale in Waldport, a course built on logged-off property in 1969.

Over the years, Mark Campbell became immersed in Waldport; he coached the high school golf team for 15 years, and he’s now president of both the Waldport Chamber of Commerce and the Waldport City Council.

A few years ago, the Campbells took on partners, old friends Dale and Linda Laurence; Dale Laurence is an Oregon State graduate and president and CEO of Occidental Petroleum Co. That provided an infusion of capital that enabled Crestview to undergo a major transformation, the redesign by Dan Hixson that closed the course from Memorial Day in 2008 to Memorial Day the following year.

Construction was done by veterans James Milroy and Tony Russell, noted for their work at Bandon Dunes and other courses. The project added 10 acres to the golf course, moved it somewhat west, and also added homesites, plus a new clubhouse and restaurant. The overall effect is that Crestview is a nine-hole course that feels like it should be an 18-hole course because of the expanse of the property and larger size of the greens, even though it plays to shorter yardages than most courses, with only one par 5 and a total par of 34.

So dramatic was the change that Campbell considered renaming the course.

“Dan did a really fine job of giving each hole some unique character to it,” Campbell said, noting that the extent of the redesign was “huge. Every hole’s different. It’s a new course. There’s not a single hole that’s the same. …”

“A lot of nine-hole courses are stuck with a smaller piece of property and often don’t get too creative in their design, and the differences between the holes are not too discernible. We have nine notable experiences.”

Golfers are advised to bring their short games.

“You have to be able to chip and pitch well and putt well in order to score, because you can reach all the greens typically in regulation,” Campbell said. “There are a couple of par-4 holes that are actually driveable; the risk-reward feature is there that if you pull it off, wonderful, if not, you’re screwed.

“And that’s fun for people. And it’s very friendly and very forgiving for the lesser golfer, which is what we want. We’re not championship golf, we’re tourist golf, fun golf, family-run and geared toward that sort of thing.”

Forest Hills Country Club

McGowan, a longtime Eugene-area teaching pro, had never played Forest Hills Country Club when he heard that the not-for-profit course in Reedsport, owned by its membership and open to the public, was looking for a new head professional.

“My first impression was that it was just really fun,” McGowan said. “I remember thinking, gosh, this place is great. It’s so much fun to play and it’s nestled in this beautiful little valley. From a business standpoint, I saw nothing from untapped potential. The way it’s laid out is perfect for a smaller golf course.”

Since taking the job on April 1, McGowan has brought energy and vision. He’s restocked the pro shop, put in a little par-3 course, free for beginners, in the eight-acre practice range, implemented $5 drop-in clinics, brainstormed future tournaments and enticed caddie-friends at Bandon Dunes to come play and get the word out. The course has a restaurant atop the clubhouse, which is located after the fifth hole. Only got time for the last four holes? At Forest Hills, that’s OK.

“We can capture people going to play Bandon, at a fraction of the cost,” McGowan said. “I know some caddies at Bandon, and they’ve played here and talked about how they’re not walking around in a four-club wind. It’s a lot less windy here, because we have this little mountain range in front of us.”

In making plans to celebrate the course’s 50th anniversary, McGowan has also immersed himself in the fascinating history of Forest Hills, built by International Paper Co. for its employees and opened for play on May 1, 1965, when, according to the weekly Reedsport Courier, the course was “already credited with being the finest nine-hole course in this part of the country.”

The other day, Bill Hardy, now 76, recalled doing the preliminary layout for the course as a young forestry graduate; the 53-acre site was largely a swamp, part of a ranch that had been used as a pasture for burros.

The course was purchased by its membership in 1988, and is simply a beautiful track in a serene, peaceful setting, surrounded by mature trees.

“I’ve always believed that the small communities, they need a place like this,” McGowan said.

The signature hole is No. 2, a picturesque par 3 where water comes into play, a meandering creek, and the quality of the course is consistent and challenging, from hole to hole.

“We can get golfers to come back here,” McGowan said. “They just don’t know about it.”

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