Ocean Dunes & Three Rivers Casino: The golf gamble

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Oregon, Oregon Coast |

Ocean Dunes’ future renovations are a big bet on raising its profile

FLORENCE — The future seems bright for Ocean Dunes Golf Links, the picturesque and challenging 18-hole public golf course that wends its way through the dunes and trees on the eastern side of Florence.

It was purchased in March by the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, owners of the adjacent Three Rivers Casino and Hotel, to broaden the casino’s financial base by attracting more customers as a destination resort.

As early as 2014, when the casino’s hotel offerings will be expanded to 200 rooms, from 93, and an aquatics center is scheduled to be added as well, the golf course will have a revamped design — at the very least, some version of the current No. 14 hole, with its looming ghost tree, will become No. 1, because of its close proximity to the casino, setting up No. 13 as the new No. 18, a strong finishing hole that ends back at the casino.

But the changes at Ocean Dunes will involve more than just renumbering the holes, and Ocean Dunes officials say some big-name golf course architects are excited about the potential of a redesign, one that will include a new clubhouse next to the casino and a new putting green as well as a much-needed practice range, with covered stalls for inclement weather.

The entire project — hotel expansion, aquatics center, golf course improvement — is budgeted at $16 million to $20 million, with no specific breakout offered for the golf course alterations. However, the bottom line is that while the golf course was purchased, for $5 million, to be a good deal for the casino, the casino, and the revenues behind it, could be a very good deal for Ocean Dunes.

“If you’re a golfer, someone who wanted to play Ocean Dunes, the best thing that happened to this golf course was someone like the tribe purchasing it, because they have the financial wherewithal, as well as the desire, to make it a top-flight amenity,” said Mike Rose, chief operating officer of the casino and hotel.

“It’s not going to be the best of the best, but when you come out here, our goal will always be to exceed your expectations. Being a normal public golf course isn’t acceptable to us in the long term. It’s going to be something that when people leave, they say ‘I’m coming back,’ because it exceeded their expectations on all of the little things as well as the big things.”

In that regard, the future is also now for Ocean Dunes, because the new ownership has already had an effect, hiring director of golf Bob Rannow, who came over in July after 11 years at nearby nationally recognized Sandpines Golf Course, and implementing a number of improvements.

“This opportunity came up and I saw something that could become something great,” said Rannow, who has been a fixture at Sandpines. “There’s lots of different options in the redesign category. As it sits right now, it’s a very exciting golf course, a very fun golf course. … With the momentum of the tribe and the casino behind it, there’s a lot of huge energy there to move it into a new level.”

From new paint in the clubhouse, to upgraded food service, to new on-course signs that were installed late last month, Ocean Dunes has been freshened for the short-term even with more dramatic changes looming in the long-term.

“First and foremost, we hired Bob,” Rose said of Rannow. “That was a great coup for us. We have someone with a great reputation coming from a great resort. It adds credence to the fact that we’re serious about it. We’ve made it very clear to our membership and the owners around here that we have no intention of doing a housing development here. This is a golf course golf resort. And that makes people happy …

“We spent $30,000 just painting this place, cleaning it up, fixing it up, so that our present customer who comes here today can say ‘OK, you mean something, you care about our feelings.’ I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you come in and the bathrooms are clean and new and we have food seven days a week, there’s a sense of pride.”

On the course, Rannow said, the greens have been improved dramatically; by next spring, tee boxes will also be improved. And in several areas, encroaching vegetation and trees have been removed to make some of the course’s infamously narrow fairways more playable, and to give golfers more room around the greens.

Hacking back the overgrowth, workers would fill a five-gallon bucket with lost golf balls almost daily.

A hidden gem

Originally opened as a nine-hole golf course called Rhodo Dunes in the early 1960s, the course was purchased in 1989 by Bill Robinson, the noted designer of golf courses in the Northwest and Canada whose long list of other courses includes the redesign of Shadow Hills Country Club near Junction City.

Around 1991, Robinson added nine holes to what became Ocean Dunes Golf Links, and he further remodeled the course in 1997 that was notoriously short and narrow.

By then, however, Ocean Dunes had been overshadowed by Sandpines, which in 1993 was deemed the best new public golf course in America, and became the destination-course of choice in the Florence area. Meanwhile, Ocean Dunes endured as a “locals” course with a reputation for quirkiness because of the relatively short holes — from the white tees, the course plays to 5,613 yards, with five of the par 4s measuring 301 yards or less — narrow fairways and frequent blind shots over the fairway-covered dunes to hidden landing areas or greens.

Certainly, the names given the holes in the course description — such as “Slippery,” “Hide & Seek,” “Peek a Boo,” and “Twister” — didn’t give golfers any reason for optimism on the tee box. But by the same token, Ocean Dunes’ reputation might have been a bad rap — after all, don’t golfers spend a good deal of money to travel to Ireland and Scotland to play courses where greens are obscured by the dunes, and where windy conditions have a major impact on club selection?

Ocean Dunes does not, in fact, have an ocean view, and thus can’t compare with such spectacular venues as the Bandon Dunes courses farther south on the Pacific Coast. However, if you took the challenging par 3 holes at Ocean Dunes — downhill, or across a chasm choked by trees — and put any of them on one of the Bandon courses, they’d no doubt be acclaimed for their design.

The golfing mantra “to think your way around the course” might have been coined with Ocean Dunes in mind.

“A few years back, the course probably was too narrow and difficult to play, and if you were someone who wanted to grip and rip you were going to lose a lot more balls than keep them,” Rose said. “But I think with a couple of changes we have made and will continue to make, it becomes more player-friendly. It’s not a very long course, but it’s a fair course. With the tribe’s and the casino’s resources behind it, it’s only going to get better.”

The future

In a depressed golf industry, it figures that even a modest redesign would attract interest from golf course architects, and Rannow said early indications are that will be the case with Ocean Dunes, and that some of the redesign proposals could be stunning.

“I’ve heard a great deal from designers who know a lot about golf that there’s a pretty significant excitement level on their end,” Rannow said. “And that is exciting. … What do we know about links golf? We know that it needs to be built on sand. We know that the topography needs to be to a certain design level. We know you need to have X amount of acres to create a championship course. Are those elements here. …?”

Perhaps, and so the future Ocean Dunes could have more than just a new name.

“We don’t have the marquee name right now, like Sandpines or Bandon Dunes, but it will continue to get better,” Rose said. “And I think eventually when we move the clubhouse and attach it to the (casino) facility, the Three Rivers Casino-Hotel Golf Resort at Ocean Dunes, whatever we come up with for a name, it will take it to the outer public one level or two levels up.”

Golf courses have worked successfully in conjunction with casinos elsewhere, because of the similar demographics they attract, Rose said.

“Gaming is still going to be a major part of our equation, but instead of 85 percent of our revenues it might be 60,” he said. “Right now, we’re pretty one-dimensional.”

His financial goal for the golf course is to break even next year, and to turn an operating profit after that, but he notes that the course is “an amenity” for the casino, and that “at the end of the day we look at ourselves as one overall picture.”

Currently, Ocean Dunes’ weekday walking rate of $48 is less than Sandpines, at $59, and in the ballpark with Emerald Valley and Tokatee at $45; weekday greens fees at Diamond Woods are $34, and $30 at RiverRidge. (Most courses offer specials, via coupons or the Internet, below list price.) Even a post-redesign Ocean Dunes won’t stray much from that pricing point, Rose said.

“We want people to play it, not not to play it,” he said. “Our goal is to get people out here to enjoy it. I can’t do that if I only have a dozen people on the golf course.”

A couple of upcoming tournaments will bring significantly more players than that — about 100 golfers are signed up for the Florence Classic, a two-day event at Ocean Dunes and Sandpines on Oct. 13-14. And 120 players will be teeing off in the Coast Open, the annual pro-am event that will come to Ocean Dunes for the first time Oct. 17-18. Rannow can’t wait for the golfers to experience the rejuvenated greens and other changes, and to sense the course’s potential.

“It’s a great turnout,” he said. “It’s going to breed lots of stories, good and bad.”

And, at least, demonstrate that Ocean Dunes should be back in the discussion.

Comments are closed.