It’s not always the case, but when billionaire golfers decide to use a fraction of their wealth to buy or build a golf course the results are usually pretty good. Chief among the course-makers is surely Mike Keiser, whose vision and financial resources have produced a number of the world’s greatest courses.
Sixteen years ago, Tim Boyle joined the party. The president and CEO of Columbia Sportswear, who’s currently worth $1.66 billion according to Forbes, teamed up with Bill McCormick of McCormick and Schmick and a handful of other local property owners to purchase Gearhart Golf Links on the Northwest Oregon coast, 80 miles west of Portland and a 240-mile drive up the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway from Bandon Dunes.
There seems to be half a dozen courses/clubs that claim to be the oldest in North America west of the Mississippi. Gearhart is definitely a part of the conversation, though there is much speculation over how and where its timeline actually starts.
By far the most romantic, and possibly quite valid, version holds that a group of Scottish ex-pats, led by a Mr. Robert Livingstone, began knocking balls around in about 1888 – the same year John Reid and his Apple Tree Gang formed the United States’s first bonafide golf club – the Saint Andrew’s G.C. in Yonkers, N.Y.
Gearhart’s crest states the course was established in 1892, but that contradicts an October 1922 edition of the Oregon Daily Journal which said that “Oregon’s first seashore golf links was installed at Gearhart in 1911.” The discrepancy no doubt lies in what was originally an informal, casual affair and what became more official, organized golf. We can be certain that nine holes existed in 1914, as the March 15 edition of the Journal reported that an 18-hole course was nearing completion, and that, during the summer of 1914, 18 temporary holes would be made available to golfers spending the summer at Gearhart so they would not have to “content themselves by playing on the old nine-hole course.” It’s not clear how long the nine-hole course had existed, however.
The man given the task of designing Gearhart’s first permanent 18 was George Turnbull, the professional at Portland’s Waverley Country Club. Turnbull’s layout at Gearhart measured 6,100 yards and, according to the Oregon Daily Journal, resembled the courses of England and Scotland.
“When completed,” the paper continued, “this course will be one of the finest, if not the finest, on the Pacific Coast.”
The Journal also insisted it would rival Del Monte, the first course opened on California’s Monterey Peninsula (1896) and a proud member of the “oldest golf course west of the Mississippi” brigade.
Gearhart was off to a flying start, but it suffered badly during the Great Depression, its condition worsening dramatically and, at one point, bankruptcy becoming a real threat. Portland department store Meier & Frank came in to save it, however, and engaged two-time U.S. Amateur champion Chandler Egan to get it back in shape.
On Sept. 27, 1931, the Medford Mail Tribune reported Egan had been hired to “improve the Gearhart golf course.”
Don Holton, the historian at Exmoor C.C. in Highland Park, Ill., where Egan was a member before moving to Oregon in 1912 to become an orchardier, knows as much about Egan as anyone having scanned his entire collection of scrapbooks and photo albums, but says surprisingly little is known of his course design activities.
“We know he designed a number of other excellent courses in the Pacific Northwest,” he adds. “But, sadly, it doesn’t appear he kept any course plans or blueprints.”
No one can be certain therefore what exactly Egan did at Gearhart, though it’s likely he lengthened the course and sought to improve the general level of maintenance.
Egan’s involvement undermines claims that AV Macan, the Irish lawyer who emigrated to Victoria, British Columbia, in 1912 and became one of the Pacific Northwest’s best and most prolific course designers, redesigned the course in 1932. Macan expert Michael Riste makes no mention of Gearhart in his thorough biography “Just Call Me Mac,” published in 2011.
“I never credited Mac with any work at Gearhart because I could find no primary source to provide the evidence,” says Riste. “Mac never mentioned Gearhart in any of the correspondence of his that I have in my files, and nothing emerged from a complete search of the Oregonian newspaper between 1930 and 1940.”
Regardless of who designed or redesigned the course, however, Gearhart managed to survive first the Depression and then WWII intact. But it was about to take on a whole new look.
Can’t see the course for the trees
During the 1950s and ‘60s, Gearhart planted trees. Television showed tree-lined courses such as Winged Foot, Oak Hill, Baltusrol and Augusta National, and golfers all over the U.S.A. wanted the same. Dozens of hardy Shore Pines, a subspecies of the Lodgepole Pine, began appearing on both sides of Gearhart’s fairways, and thanks to seed-eating birds, they propagated easily.
Though alien to the once barren landscape, the trees at Gearhart probably weren’t to blame for the financial distress the course suffered in the final two decades of the 20th Century. The course changed hands five times in one eight-year period alone, and the Gearhart Hotel and Sand Trap clubhouse both burned to the ground at different times.
In 1999, Oregon architect Bill Robinson completed a fairly extensive renovation of the course, and though it certainly improved, the course’s fundamental flaw still remained.
Boyle (and team) to the rescue
It took Tim Boyle’s willingness to adapt to precipitate the changes Gearhart so desperately needed. Initially though, Boyle couldn’t quite get his head around the major modifications being proposed. Having bought out his partners in 2010, he took advice from Mike Keiser, owner of the successful Bandon Dunes Golf Resort; David McLay Kidd, architect of the first course at Bandon Dunes; Jim Urbina, co-designer of Pacific Dunes, Old Macdonald and the Punchbowl putting course at Bandon Dunes; and Oregon-based designer John Strawn.
Boyle, who had known his fellow Oregonian for many years, knew he could trust Strawn’s opinion and didn’t hesitate to hire him as a consultant.
“John is very experienced, local, and has a great sense for links golf,” says Boyle. “It was natural to ask him to quarterback the few modifications (besides moving the trees) the course required.”
The former CEO of Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s design firm and president of Arthur Hills and Steve Forrest’s company, Strawn has lived in Oregon since 1970 and was well aware of Gearhart’s decline over the years. And, like everyone else, he told Boyle the trees had to come down.
“They were becoming brittle anyway, but removing the trees would restore a sense of place and scale,” he says. “The mountains would reappear, and by replacing them with stands of fescue we could reestablish Gearhart’s links character. The wind would be a factor again, and the turf would be much healthier.”
Gearhart’s general manager Jason Bangild carried out the work alongside superintendent Forrest Goodling who was at Portland GC for 17 years before coming to Gearhart in 2011.
“We began taking out a few trees in November 2013,” says Goodling. “As the job progressed, however, we really began to see the value of opening up the views and restoring the links turf, so we ended up taking them all out – about 400 in all. The final step was healing the course back for play. Filling in all of the tree wells and getting grass to grow there took a while.”
It also took time for members and visitors to appreciate the changes.
“The feedback was a little sketchy at first,” says Goodling. “But the more they played it the more people enjoyed it.”
Bangild says the course now records about 23,000 rounds a year, a significant increase from a few years ago.
“Rounds are a little quicker too,” he adds. “The response at first was a little luke-warm, but now the fescue is settling and people have had a chance to see it in all conditions – sun, wind, rain, etc – and we’re really only getting positive feedback.”
Don’t forget the clubhouse
It’s not just the course that has undergone a profound transformation. The clubhouse and its famous Sand Trap bar were destroyed by fire in 1998, but an imposing Cape Cod-style brick building replaced it in 2000. The fourth incarnation of the Gearhart Hotel, Kelly House was an ambitious venture that sadly wasn’t working under the previous owners. Tim Boyle said it felt like a cold and unwelcoming sort of a place, so he invited an old High School friend to come in and revamp the place.
Mike McMenamin owns a company with his brother Brian that operates 65 brewpubs, 25 breweries, 11 hotels, nine old-fashioned theaters, two distilleries, a winery which also produces hard cider, numerous music venues and a coffee-roasting business. With timber paneling and dozens of great old photographs on the walls illustrating Gearhart’s eventful history, the re-opened McMenamins Sand Trap bar is again a fantastic place for a post-round beer and sandwich. In May 2012, 18 guest rooms were opened on the third and fourth floors, making Gearhart Golf Links a really great place for an overnight golf trip.
Gearhart Golf Links’s past may be a little vague, but its future should be well-defined. Tim Boyle, Jason Bangild, Forrest Goodling and John Strawn combined to restore a badly-bruised classic to its elegant and entertaining best.
By the Numbers
‘The Stones’ – 6,501 yards (Course rating – 72.0, Slope – 136)
Black Tees – 6,176 yards
White Tees – 5,741 yards
Green Tees – 5,157 yards
Rooms at the Gearhart Hotel start at $125/night. Stay and Play Packages start at $135/night – also available at the Gearhart Ocean Inn and Gearhart by the Sea.