Pronghorn Golf Resort: A project evolves

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Oregon |

Elite resort alters its post-recession vision, but the golf is always stunning

BEND — The most unforgettable hole on the golf course designed by Tom Fazio at Pronghorn Golf Resort was an unexpected surprise. To Fazio, that is.

While creating No. 8, a par 3, which plays from an elevated tee across a grassy canyon to an elevated green carved out of the rock facing, Fazio’s crew unearthed a large lava tube.

The excavation resulted in two huge, symmetrical caves below the green; they weren’t in the original design, but Fazio took this unanticipated development and crafted something special, a golf hole that you’ll remember above all the other holes on his visually stunning course, with its views of the Three Sisters in a place once owned only by sagebrush, lava rock and old growth junipers.

In a way, the story of No. 8 and the lava caves might be symbolic of Pronghorn Golf Resort itself.

What was envisioned in the original plan a decade ago — an exclusive, gated residential community between Bend and Redmond built around two spectacular golf courses, the Tom Fazio Championship Course and a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course — ran into the hard rock of a recession that gutted the market for high-end second homes.

Now, under new ownership since earlier this year, Pronghorn is seeking to redefine itself as dramatically as those lava caves redefined No. 8.

“I think that’s a good analogy, actually,” mused Pronghorn general manager Spencer Schaub. “I think that’s a very good analogy.”

The residential component remains integral, and is showing some signs of resurgence, but Pronghorn is now seeking its place as a high-end stay-and-play destination resort for golfers who will be afforded the luxury of accommodations managed by five-star resort operators Auberge — retained earlier this year — and have the opportunity to take lessons from nationally prominent teacher Tim Mahoney. The international director of education for golf management company Troon Golf arrived in June, having never seen the place in person, and hopes to spend his summers here “forever.”

As part of the transition, Pronghorn has made the previously exclusive Fazio course available for public play for the first time. (The Nicklaus course had been available to the public on a daily-fee basis since 2010.)

It’s not like golfers can simply call up and get a tee time — to play Fazio, you must commit to a two-night stay, and to playing the Nicklaus course as well, so the tab comes to $1,199 per person. But then Pronghorn was never intended for the financially challenged.

Out of the rough?

Launched a decade ago by a California investment group on a 640-acre site surrounded by public land, Pronghorn features just under 400 homesites — roughly 55 homes have been built so far — and the two golf courses, the Jack Nicklaus-designed course that opened in 2004, and the 2006 course designed by Fazio.

To become a member at Pronghorn you must first purchase a homesite or make a fractional investment in a condo. There are a variety of membership plans; for example, for a property owner to purchase a premier golf membership, with access to both courses, would require a deposit of $115,000 and monthly dues of $990.

Pronghorn features an elegant clubhouse, with lockers, spas, a restaurant and bar and other amenities — and the 48-unit Residence Club, available for resort guests.

That number is well below the roughly 190 destination resort rooms — “overnight keys,” in the lingo — that Pronghorn must provide to meet state land-use laws that allowed it to build the residential community outside of the urban area. The issue has been an ongoing controversy in Deschutes County.

The original developers contended that the economic downturn between 2008 and 2010, which caused sales of homesites to falter, had left them without the funds to add resort rooms — one extension had required a hotel on the site by last year.

Now, however, Pronghorn is under new ownership. Late last year, a Hawaii-based company, The Resort Group, purchased $43 million in Pronghorn debt from a European bank, and assumed ownership earlier this year. Since that time, The Resort Group has signed a contract with Auberge Resorts — whose list of high-class operations includes Napa Valley’s Auberge du Soleil, Calistoga Ranch and Solage Calistoga — to run the resort, restaurants and spas.

Schaub, general manager of the resort since 2010, said the Auberge stamp — high culinary standards, first-class lodgings and other touches — won’t be fully evident until next year. Meanwhile, the resort is planning to build 16 “golf bungalows,” each with eight rooms, to attract visiting golfers, and a “boutique hotel” with 30 to 40 rooms.

Timeline for both projects has yet to be announced.

“Any sort of remote-style secondary residential community certainly went through its difficulties in 2008 and ’09 and ’10,” Schaub said. “Pronghorn was no different. But we’ve come out of that on the other side with an ownership group that owns the property free and clear of any debt, which gives them endless opportunities in what they can do.

“When you look at that, and the fact that they’ve signed a very long-term management agreement with Auberge Resorts, and they’ve signed a long-term agreement with Troon Golf as their golf manager, all of that really shows stability for the property. … I’m very confident today that we’re going to have a very bright future.”

But it’s still not all tap-in birdies for Pronghorn. In May, a former Bend city councilman filed a lawsuit against Pronghorn in Deschutes County Circuit Court, seeking to require the new owners, The Resort Group, to honor terms of a 2002 agreement in which the original developers promised 20 years of free golf privileges, commencing when the Nicklaus course opened in 2004, to buyers of Pronghorn property who invested $350,000 or more in the resort in its earliest stages.

In June, more than 20 other early investors sought to join the suit, among them former Oregon football coach Mike Bellotti.

A hearing on the matter has been scheduled for Sept. 17.

The golf teacher

While the agreement with Auberge is significant from a resort-lodging standpoint, Pronghorn strengthened its lure as a golf destination this summer by luring Tim Mahoney, Troon’s director of education who works out of Talking Stick in Scottsdale, Ariz., to make Pronghorn his summer base.

Annually listed among the top 50 teachers of the game nationally, Mahoney is responsible for Troon Golf’s teaching programs around the world, and travels extensively, but he not only teaches the teachers, but works directly with clients, spending 50 hours a week on the practice range.

About 90 percent of Mahoney’s clients — who pay $175 per hour for his high-tech, high-energy lessons that include three-camera videotaping — fly in from somewhere to work with him, and a number of them have made the trip to Pronghorn, including the Hollywood movie figure who is considering investing in Pronghorn property, and a group of golfers from the Midwest, and a few Eugene Country Club members, and a couple of teen-age golfers, each with a parent, who flew in from Kansas and Tennessee to spend several days working with Mahoney at Pronghorn’s practice facility.

“You can’t ask for a better facility in terms of what I do,” Mahoney said. “This is a pretty good office.”

A strong proponent of juniors golf and golf fitness training, Mahoney has an intense, no-nonsense approach to teaching — in his view, every golfer, from the PGA Tour players he coaches to a 36-handicapper, competes on some level, and his job is to enhance that experience, so his golfers enjoy the game more and play more.

“I don’t think golf is coached the right way, to be honest with you,” he said. “That’s one of my jobs with Troon, to try to develop coaching. …

“Golf has been coached for centuries, and handicaps are getting worse; you hit a shot and come back and we’ll tell you what you did wrong. People are getting worse that way. I’m very proactive, building stations for people (posture stations, address stations, impact stations) and having them go through these stations, a lot like a football practice, a soccer practice, a basketball practice. …

“I don’t do a lot of one-and-dones. I take pride in trying to make ’em better, doing whatever it takes to make ’em better.”

Mahoney expresses confidence in the future of Pronghorn.

“This place will make it,” he said. “One, there’s a core group of membership that will not let this thing fail. No. 2, you have The Resort Group that owns it … (they’re) not going to let it fail. The Auberge people are not going to let it fail. The Troon people are not going to let it fail.”

Window of opportunity

The walkable golf courses, the star attractions of Pronghorn, are each a stunning achievement, a collage of spectacular views of the Cascades, of sage brush and junipers, of water and bunkers.

The Nicklaus course — during the current season, $150 per round, and $80 in the late afternoon — is considered the tougher of the two, the landing areas narrower, the greens smaller; it just made the Golf Digest list of the top 100 public courses in the United States, ranking No. 38.

“If you take an aerial photo of the landing areas, the landing areas on Fazio are probably double the size of Nicklaus,” Schaub said.

“Nicklaus is certainly tougher; it’s probably three to four shots harder than Fazio is, and most people feel it when they play it.”

Karinn Dickinson, a former University of Washington golfer who is working for the golf operation at Pronghorn while working on her game, agreed.

“The Nicklaus course is definitely the more challenging course,” she said. “It has some great golf holes. Narrow fairways and smaller greens compared to Fazio, which is a little more player friendly.”

Playing from the tips — and good luck with that — the par-72 Nicklaus course plays to 7,379 yards, with a rating of 75.2 and a slope of 151; from the members’ tees, it plays to 6,533 yards, with a rating of 71.3 and a slope of 143.

The par-72 Fazio course from the tips plays to 7,456 yards, with a rating of 75.2 and a slope of 142; from the members’ tees, it plays to 6,431 yards, with a rating of 70.4 and a slope of 129.

The Fazio course is memorable in many respects, with huge, rough-fringed bunker areas bordering fairways, with a stream that comes into play both left and right on the beautiful par-4 No. 6 hole, with the views of the mountains on holes like No. 11, a challenging par 3.

And the reality is that both memorable courses could, for some golfers, become merely memories one day. If Pronghorn gets built up, it’s within the realm of possibility that the Nicklaus course could be removed from daily-fee play and reserved only for members and resort guests.

But that’s in the future. For the time being, some heavy hitters are seeking to ensure that Pronghorn’s future measures up to its golf courses.

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