Scott Campbell is an unlikely golf pioneer in an unlikely place — building an 18-hole, reversible golf course in the high desert of Eastern Oregon, 35 miles from the nearest small towns and about a 3-hour drive from the nearest population centers of Boise and Bend, Ore.
The Retreat and Links at Silvies Valley Ranch intends to introduce travelers to "Frontier Oregon" in the peaceful valley between Burns and John Day. The owners hope to prove that destination tourism can provide an economic spark in Eastern Oregon and inject some unorthodox fun into the sometimes-stodgy sport of golf.
"We knew all along if we built somewhat of a nice golf course that didn't differentiate itself from anything, that nobody would come — not in numbers enough to do it," said Dan Hixson, the golf course architect who became a part owner. "When I brought up the reversible thing, I didn't think (Campbell) would accept it right away."
Hixson's pitch, fulfilling a dream he'd had since he was a kid, was to make the middle six holes reversible, alternating the playing direction every day. He pointed out that the ancient Old Course at St. Andrews is a reversible design that still is flipped occasionally.
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"Very quickly (Campbell) said, 'Why wouldn't we do the whole thing?' " Hixson said. "... I couldn't wait to get out there the next morning and start connecting the dots."
The result: 27 greens, 17 fairways and 36 holes of golf. Nine greens are used jointly by the Craddock and Hankins courses — named for homesteaders in the valley — and each course has nine exclusive greens. There are three holes on each course that don't overlap with the other. The routing is reversed each morning.
"It's eco-friendly," Hixson said. "You get two courses on the ground of one. It keeps people here for a couple days. ... And it gives us a story to tell."
An accidental resort
Stories are a memorable part of any visit to a ranch that dates to 1883, includes nine homestead sites, covers 90,000 private acres and 50,000 acres of public lands and has undergone an ecological and economic revitalization since Campbell purchased it in 2006.
The man who built a fortune through savvy business moves as a veterinarian in Portland never intended to open a destination golf course. He didn't even plan to live there — and he's not an avid golfer.
"We bought it as an investment and for a place to take our kids hunting," he said.
But he got sucked in, and so did his wife, Sandy — first by the challenge of restoring the ranch, then by plotting The Retreat and Links (which required approval from the Oregon Legislature) and most recently by developing a line of organic goat meat. The ranch manages 2,600 goats and 4,500 cows.
The Retreat and Links opened May 1 after a soft opening last summer to work out the bugs. Construction continues on the spa and fitness center, which will open this summer, and McVeigh's Gauntlet, the seven-hole challenge course that will feature goat caddies when it debuts in July. The Retreat employees 45, already more than the ranch.
Campbell's family has been involved in ranching in Eastern Oregon since the 1860s. He grew up in Burns.
"My wife said, 'You can buy that ranch if you want to but don't ever think I'm going to move back to Burns and live in that God-forsaken place,' " Campbell said after The Retreat's seven-course, family-style dinner for guests at a 22-seat ranch table. "Now I can't pry her out of here."
The Campbells' project will bring strangers to their place of solitude — a valley they've transformed in 12 years of ownership through projects to restore creeks and meadows and improve wildlife habitat. The ranch has 4,000 bird boxes and 1,000 bat boxes to help support a stunning array of flying creatures — and combat mosquitoes. Bald eagles, golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, great horned owls, egrets, mountain bluebirds and many other species frequent the property.
The Retreat will allow guests to explore the ranch — by golf cart, horseback, mountain bike or foot — and offer approximately 60 experiences, including shooting (on three ranges), hatchet throwing, goat herding and guided ranch tours. But it never will be teeming with people. Vacation cabins will be offered for sale but only about 10 per year will be built.
Lodging options are limited to 18 large guest rooms and eight cabins.
"It will be very exclusive," Campbell said. "... We want it to stay very small. We did it to show you can do destination tourism here so other people can see it and do it."
What's a reversible course?
While others eyed the creative possibilities in a fertile meadow, Hixson "found" the overlapping Craddock and Hankins courses in the hilly, high-desert brush above. He moved a relatively miniscule amount of dirt (less than 20,000 cubic yards compared with more than 1 million at some resort courses), moved in with the Campbells for three years and did much of the work himself with equipment owned by the ranch. Campbell raves about the low carbon footprint of the project.
"I interviewed almost every major designer," said Campbell, who hired Hixson in 2009 amid the recession. "The year we started the course, this was the only course under construction. Everyone wanted a job. Most people thought we'd build it in the meadows. But we built it on land that wasn't usable for anything else. It's where golf courses and things like that should be. ... We built it on very marginal grazing land."
The maintained portion of the course covers about 120 acres in a 600-acre plot. The rest of that property is wildlife habitat and grazing ground for goats, which eat shrubs and weeds instead of grass.
Golfers experience a mixture of dramatic, downhill tee shots (particularly on Hankins), sagebrush-lined holes, forest holes and some Scottish-style holes with sprawling fairways and natural-looking bunkers (particularly on Craddock) that challenge the mind in a different way. It's difficult to fathom until you play, but the two golf courses that share much of the same ground look and feel like separate layouts.
"You don't even really notice that you're on some of the ground you were on the day before," said Sean Hoolehan, the golf course superintendent.
Hixson's idea to create a reversible course dates back to when he was 7 years old. He grew up near Eugene, Ore., the son of a club pro. Robert Trent Jones renovated Eugene Country Club by permanently reversing the course — the 18th green became the first tee. Several ponds had been built near tee boxes; reversing the layout put them by the greens instead.
"I was so young I didn't even know golf courses were built, so to speak, and designed," Hixson said. "... I told my dad that day, 'This is what I want to do is design golf courses.' ... All the courses I'd play, I'd look backwards a lot."
He gets asked frequently, "What the hell is a reversible golf course?"
"It's features that you play in one direction that the same feature has a different meaning and a different purpose and playability from the other direction," he said.
He introduced the reversible idea during the planning stages at Wine Valley in Walla Walla. There was a permitting delay that allowed him to tinker and he actually staked the course as a reversible layout. But everyone involved knew the course would be a success as a straight 18-holer, Hixson said, so they stuck with the traditional plan.
At Silvies, Hixson was eager to showcase the beauty and elevation changes in the desert sage he found on site. He also liked the forested section at the western end of the course and the touch of grassy meadow at its eastern end. The problem: How to use it all?
By going reversible, he didn't have to choose which direction was better for a particular hole — he could have both — and by creating three holes on each course that are independent of the other he was able to utilize landscapes that otherwise would have been left out. Those beautiful elevated tee boxes on Hankins wouldn't work as green locations for Craddock.
"It really just had a great amount of variety to it," Hixson said of the site. "If you can tour the course around and really show off the land, that's the best in my mind."
He also didn't constrain himself to a 100 percent reversible course. Tom Doak, who opened The Loop at Forest Dunes in Michigan in 2016 but began construction after Silvies, built his reversible course with 18 greens. That layout often calls for playing to opposite sides of the greens from one day to the next.
At Silvies, the nine shared greens are approached from different angles but the separation is never more than 90 degrees, Hixson said. The greens' playability from those angles without being massive double greens is one of the highlights of the design. And you have to remind yourself to turn and look for the approach you hit the day before because it doesn't seem like you're on the same green.
The Craddock course tours the property clockwise from the clubhouse. The Hankins goes counterclockwise.
Several designers have built nine-hole reversible courses and Hale Irwin's original design for Teton Reserve in East Idaho was reversible but the concept remains foreign to most golfers.
"The only way you get it is to see it and play it," Hixson said. "... On a whimsical side, it's Frontier Oregon and we want people to come and discover it."
Choose your own adventure
The Retreat is more than a golf destination. It's a chance for guests to experience some of ranch life. You can walk with a goat herder (and the dogs that protect the animals from predators but demand pets from humans), fire guns dating to the 1800s, learn how the Campbells have restored 4,000 acres of meadow, visit homesteads, fish in ponds and creeks (which have redband trout) and ride bikes on the vast system of two-track roads that serve as the transportation network for the ranch.
The main proteins served at Egan's Hideout — the solar-powered golf clubhouse — and the Lodge, where dinner is served, are the organic beef and chevon (goat) produced by the ranch.
"We want guests to come and explore," said Colby Marshall, the vice president for livestock and guest services. "We want them to come out and really feel like they're on their own adventure."
If you go
The Retreat and Links at Silvies Valley Ranch is off of U.S. 395 between Burns and John Day, Oregon.
Getting there: From Boise, take I-84 west to exit 374 in Ontario, Ore. Turn right on Oregon 201 and right on U.S. 20/26. Approximately 16 miles past Juntura, turn right toward Drewsey. The road will turn to gravel after 25-30 miles. Turn left onto the pavement about a mile later. Turn right on U.S. 395 and left on NF-37 to reach the entrance to The Retreat. It's about a 3-hour drive from Boise and this route cuts about 30 minutes off of going through Burns.
Lodging: Ranch House guest rooms range from $310 to $429 per night June-September. Cabins range from $310 to $780 per night.
Green fees: The championship course reverses each day. It's $165 for Retreat guests to play and $185 for day guests June-September. The Chief Egan par-3 course is $35. The seven-hole McVeigh's Gauntlet is $77. The golf season generally runs May through October. Stay-and-play packages are available.
More info: silvies.us