"That's what we call a 'seven-ball course,' " a local tells me when he hears I'll be playing Crosswater, named because it keeps crossing the Deschutes and Little Deschutes rivers. I shake my head, assuming that says more about his hideous golf game than those 18 holes.
How can a course be that perilous if one of the old pros went 16-under par when the senior (Champions) tour played here last summer?
The subject rears its head again as soon as I arrive at Sunriver Resort 15 miles south of Bend. When I check in at Crosswater, the showpiece of its four courses, the man in front of me drops two sleeves of Titleists, six balls, on the counter. "Is that all?" a young assistant pro asks him.
Enough! I buy one sleeve of three and announce, "That's it for me. If they run out, I walk off," thus setting my goal for this first taste of golf in Oregon's high desert: not beating any score, but surviving with that ration of balls.
When business far removed from golf had me going to Bend, the fast-growing city on the east side of the Cascades, I pondered whether it might be possible to make a side trip to Bandon Dunes on the coast, which has been giving Pebble Beach a run for its money among serious players.
One of Bandon's courses ranks right behind No. 1 Pebble Beach on Golf Digest’s list of the top 100 American public golf courses, and two others there are not far down the list.
But it's a trek to the coast. And when I mentioned my trip to a friend, he pointed out that the Bend area has an entry too: Crosswater, at No. 32. And another course here -- Pronghorn -- is as highly rated but not on the list because it's classified as private, though the public, in fact, can play it.
Teeing it up
Crosswater, at Sunriver Resort, Box 3609, Sunriver, Ore.; (800) 801-8765, www.sunriver-resort.com. Guests of resort only. Rooms begin at about $250. Greens fees $175.
Pronghorn, 65600 Pronghorn Club Drive, Bend, Ore.; (800) 541-9424, www.pronghornclub.com. Nicklaus course available to public with referral ($225 plus cart) or by booking a lesson at the Nicklaus Academy. Half-day school plus 18 holes, $350.
So after the two-hour Horizon Air flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Bend-Redmond Airport and my first meeting, I head for that course, the Jack Nicklaus-designed 18 at the upscale Pronghorn real estate development.
The views here are spectacular of snow-capped Cascades, notably Mt. Bachelor and the Three Sisters. The sun is piercing, the air crisp and light. Indeed, dealing with the altitude is one challenge of golf in the high desert.
On the first hole at Pronghorn, my playing partner advises me to use one less club than usual, and I do. Setting up a seemingly easy birdie putt, I promptly zoom 10 feet by the hole.
At Nicklaus' direction, the greens are almost pro-tour fast. Also typical of his designs, the course requires a lot of strategy, with large bunkers or waste areas often forcing you to pick a route, left or right.
But it's the physical environment that makes the strongest impression, starting with the abundant junipers and occasional bare-limbed "ghost" trees, ragged, scary things. Then comes what's just off the fairways amid the desert brush: hardened lava.
PronghornAll is going smoothly until the 12th hole, in which we drive over wasteland toward an uphill green guarded by a juniper. But I can't blame the tree. Or the thin air. It's a short par four, barely 300 yards, and I have a simple flip to the pin . . . which becomes a skull over the green, into the desert. My attempted recovery hits a lava rock, and the ball shoots back over my head, farther into no-man's-land. Gone.
Never mind that I recover to birdie the signature 13th hole, a par-four around a lake with a stone wall and waterfall framing the green.