Oregon's Willamette Valley is a sneaky-solid contrarian golf destination

Make time for these stellar value courses on the way to the Bandon or Central Oregon hotbeds.
The Reserve Vineyard & Golf Club is one of several worthy Willamette Valley spots for golf.

Few states have seen their status as a golf destination increase more dramatically this century than Oregon. Mike Keiser put the Beaver State on the map with Bandon Dunes, which continues to be the American golf resort on more avid players' bucket lists than any other.

The central-state city of Bend has had a big come-up as well, adding courses like Pronghorn, Brasada Canyons and Tetherow to its own sunny high-desert landscape in recent years and becoming famous for its sunny, temperate climate and beautiful high-desert landscape.

Or so I've heard. I haven't had the pleasure of visiting either spot...yet. But I can vouch for the budget-friendly, under-the-radar virtues of the Willamette Valley, extending for several dozen miles south of Portland, a city that has enjoyed its own recent burst of popularity.

I attended a wedding outside Portland recently, so I took the opportunity to fly up early, go against the grain and play some lesser-known but nevertheless intriguing courses a bit south of town. I was not disappointed.

Willamette Valley Golf

As soon as I stepped off my early-morning Alaska Airlines flight into PDX (shoutout to their 20 minute baggage claim guarantee), I made a beeline for Beaver country, driving 80 minutes south on I-5 to Corvallis. Just past a bridge over the Willamette River on the east side of town, I teed it up at the home course of Oregon State University: Trysting Tree Golf Club.

Trysting Tree surprised and fascinated me. It has almost no sand. Original architect Ted Robinson, Jr. defended greens primarily by elevating them above the floodplain floor of the course and scattering mounds at consequential points. This has two effects. The first is that the putting surfaces have less definition from the fairway, making it a little trickier to pick an approach shot target with confidence. It also means that missing greens can result in short, awkward chip and pitch shots from downhill lies. The course is straightforward overall but there is more going on than meets the eye. Length is a factor, too; the Beaver tees stretch to more than 7,300 yards.

A couple years ago, architect and Oregon State alum Dan Hixson came back to his alma mater to make some adjustments to the course in order to accommodate the expansion of Beaver golf team practice facilities on site as well as a local road expansion. He also reduced an already sparse bunkering scheme to just 13. Though his solo designs at Wine Valley and Silvies Valley Ranch are in the modern minimalist mode, Hixson aped Robinson's style perfectly in building three new holes and reconfiguring a few others.

Trysting Tree succeeds thanks in large part to the duo of head pro Sean Arey and superintendent Pat Doran. Arey, who has been at the course since 1992, is its biggest advocate, having assisted Hixson on a few parts of the redesign, including the new par-5 5th. He takes tremendous pride in the course and its history, including the three times it has hosted the Pac-12 Conference Championship: in 1992, 2002 and 2012. He looks forward to its next turn in the rotation in 2024. Until then, he'll continue to make sure the course offers students and guests a quality public golf experience with no fuss.

Doran has been at Trysting Tree since it opened in 1988, and even though green fees top out at just $45, he and his staff keep the course in immaculate shape. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I've played several high-end private and $250 public and resort golf courses whose conditioning Trysting Tree's puts to shame. If I could have given it six stars for Conditioning in my Golf Advisor review, I would have. The turf is perfect - firm and fast despite the course's location next to a river that floods a couple times every year.

Golf in Salem

Moving up the valley, just an hour south of Portland is Oregon's capital city of Salem. Very much overshadowed by Portland, Salem is a charming city in its own right, with a solid downtown and a couple worthwhile golf courses for anyone passing through.

Creekside Golf Club is a heartening story of reclamation. GM Danny Moore was hired by the club’s owners, a pair of successful area real estate developers, in a last-chance effort to save the course from redevelopment in 2016. In a relatively short interval, Moore took it from a drain on ownership's resources to operating in the black this year, with a healthy stock of more than 600 members, plus some unexpected extra amenities.

Moore converted a barely-used event tent into two pickleball courts. He added a bocce court. There’s an on-site nail salon that caters not just to guests but the general public. And Creekside also has one of the best fitting buildings anywhere. Overseen by Tim Spuhler, a former Dick’s Sporting Goods regional sales rep, is a full fitting studio, club repair shop and TrackMan/simulator setup where Spuhler is blowing away even Moore’s optimistic sales targets.

Then there’s Danny’s, a formerly tired, run-of-the-mill club restaurant that Moore has decorated with his extensive and eclectic golf memorabilia collection. A hand-picked staff of unfailingly friendly people brings everything together. Creekside is an example of just how significantly a course’s fortunes can turn around under committed, creative leadership.

Creekside is private but does take some public play ($60) to fill in gaps on its Peter Jacobsen-/Jim Hardy-designed course. Two creeks come into play on a total of nine holes, and some bold elevation changes affect play throughout the routing, which weaves in and out of a mid-upscale residential community.

For the visiting golfer, the jewel of the Cherry City is Salem Golf Club. I have been fortunate to visit a lot of excellent golf courses, but few have charmed me the way Salem did.

The course design won’t win any awards, but semi-private Salem's overwhelming charm and throwback feel makes it worth visiting for anyone in the Willamette Valley, including those on the way down to Bandon from PDX or on the return. Laid out by Ercel Kay in 1928 and family-owned ever since, the routing is mostly back and forth, with narrow fairways lined by tall pines, small pitched greens and a generally classic, simple feel. You'll enjoy your round ($59) as long as you revel in the course's Northwest-parkland setting first and foremost.

More than the course, it's the feel of the place that makes Salem Golf Club special. The white Colonial-style clubhouse and restaurant buildings sit in perfect relation to the first and 10th tees and the 9th and 18th greens. There is all kinds of club memorabilia in the clubhouse, from a signed photo of Ben Hogan to a trophy from the 1932 state high school golf tournament, won by the Salem squad. To roam the card room and adjacent hallways is to feel the love that the membership has for its club. Framed photos of decades' worth of club events and newspaper clippings of importance to the members fill the walls. It is one of those places where you are immersed in the joy that comes from the camaraderie of golf. For that alone, it is well worth stopping by.

Golf around Portland

Closer to Portland, the best golf becomes a bit more upscale, but it retains the spirit that marks the Willamette Valley's more far-flung courses. The semi-private Reserve Vineyards & Golf Club is home to two courses ($95) that spread out play in an interesting way. For the first half of every month, the John Fought-designed South Course is open to the public while the Bob Cupp-designed North Course layout is members-only. Vice versa the second half of the month. Naturally, then, if you can plan a trip that way, you should try to be around at the midpoint of a month in order to play both courses. (Note: Depending on the day of the week, you may be able to access the private course via a pro-to-pro call and slightly higher guest fee.)

But if you can only play one of the courses, I would give the edge to the South, which for several years hosted the PGA Tour Champions JELD-WEN Tradition tournament. The North is solid in its own right and has one of the world's only triple greens, but the narrow fairways and faux-links style seems a little bit at odds with the verdant Willamette Valley environment.

A couple years ago, Fought returned to the South Course to remove some of the excess bunkering that was all the rage in the 1990s, in favor of a simpler scheme that put more short grass around the greens. The result is enhanced playability and easier maintenance that still preserves the original design intent of the course.

There is not a weak hole on the open, rolling front nine, and the short par-5 fifth is one of the best thinking golf holes I have seen all year. A centerline bunker off the tee and a narrow, elevated green with steep dropoffs left and right make it an exacting test of both execution and shot planning.

The course heads into more wooded territory on the back nine with a couple pedestrian holes, but it finishes strong with three excellent half-par holes: a short par 4, a very long one and a grand par 5 that points straight at the chateau-style clubhouse. It's a fittingly important-feeling finish to a round on a stately golf course.

Finally, I played Langdon Farms Golf Club, where a sign proudly proclaiming "PUBLIC ONLY" flies over the entryway. Also a John Fought design, and like Reserve Vineyard South, Langdon Farms is undergoing its own bunker reduction project. As before, the course is in the hands of a student of the game. One need only look at the short par-3 sixth to see that Royal Troon's "Postage Stamp" 8th hole inspired it.

True to the name, there is a strong farm theme throughout the property, with barns housing the clubhouse and a popular event space, as well as administrative offices. Its convenient location relative to the Rose City means Langdon Farms does a lot of group business, but individual players and groups are made to feel welcome as well. Golfers exploring Portland or points south would find it a convenient and pleasant diversion.

Other notes

- Bandon is not the only Oregon destination for walking golfers. All the courses I played in the Willamette Valley encourage walking. The locals are hardy, too: on a 50-degree, wet and breezy morning at Creekside, several members were setting out on foot behind me. The best walk of the bunch was intimate, quaint Salem Golf Club.

- Trysting Tree gets its name from a tree that used to be on Oregon State campus where lovers would meet and canoodle, but it was cut down in the 1970s. Sprigs from it were subsequently planted elsewhere, including along the 18th fairway.

- Sean Arey shared a sobering statistic with me. In 1997, Trysting Tree hosted 22,000 rounds from Oregon State students. Last year, that number was just 5,000, even though OSU enrollment has grown from 17,000 to 28,000 in that time. Despite access to a quality course for less than $30, students don't seem as enthusiastic about golf as they used to. It's a shame, because college courses don't come much more playable or close to campus than this one.

- While making my rounds, I stayed somewhat off the beaten path, at the Oregon Garden Resort in the town of Silverton. This quiet, midscale resort is next to an 80-acre formal garden complex that shows off Oregon flora in both manicured and naturalistic settings. I enjoyed walking through a pine forest that served to educate visitors about tree density management. Also on property is the only house in the state designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is available for guided tours and as an events space.

- Portland is well known for its food scene, but Salem is not to be overlooked, either. In between my rounds at Creekside and Salem, I stopped for lunch at Ibendoo Ramen, and had a phenomenal bowl of rich, porky tonkotsu ramen. It was a perfect cure for an unseasonably chilly and wet September day.

- There are a few commercial flights into North Bend (OTH) airport, and some Bandon visitors prefer to fly into Eugene, but for those who use Portland (PDX) as their port of entry, any of the golf courses I played on this trip would make for interesting counterpoint plays on the way into or out of the area.

- You may notice from the photos just how lush the Willamette Valley's golf courses are. Some two-thirds of the United States' cool-season grass seed comes from the area. Bentgrass, rye and fescue from the valley reach golf courses all over the country.

- More than golf, the Willamette Valley's main tourism draw is wine, especially its pinot noirs. Napa and Sonoma tend to be the go-to golf-and-tasting destinations, but both the golf and the wine offer more value in Oregon.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.

I would add Oregon Golf Association (OGA) course in Woodburn, Oregon. Like most state golf association home courses, it maintains a popular reputation!

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I want your job! Nice review of the Oregon / Willamette Valley courses. There are a number of others (public) that could easily be added to your list of recommendations, including Pumpkin Ridge (Ghost Creek), Rose City, Heron Lakes Great Blue, and the Oregon Ducks home course Emerald Valley.

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Oregon's Willamette Valley is a sneaky-solid contrarian golf destination