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Golf in Oregon's high desert

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Bend, Ore.

"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.

Pronghorn challenge

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.

I keep thinking how easy it was to lose a ball on the easiest of shots as I prepare for my next stop: Crosswater.

Crosswater trek

The drive down Highway 97 takes you by the High Desert Museum and Lava Lands Visitor Center, its massive flow visible from the road.

I'm playing with one outstanding player and two weaker ones, so we pick a middle set of tees, more reasonable than the for-masochists-only back ones from which Crosswater plays to 7,683 yards.

It's not until the fifth, a long par four, that the real game begins. The drive there must clear threebends of the Little Deschutes, after which comes an approach to a green tucked behind a marsh. But my drive reaches dry land and the second shot does too. What, me worry?

The next hole, a par five, has wetlands before the green too, but it's a routine short iron shot for a decent player, meaning only a real clunker will get you wet. And . . . well, it happens. Just like that. Lost ball one.

The carry over lost-ball-land is short on the next hole too, meaning only an idiot still fretting over a previous disaster could fall prey. Lost ball two. There's one left in my bag.

On the next hole, wind catches my shot to the green, pulling it back, but it lands over a marsh -- by five feet. A reprieve. Then my pitch rolls into the hole. There's hope.

I still have one dry ball when we reach Crosswater's 12th hole, called Endless, and it is -- a par five that runs 600 yards even from the middle tees, all along water. The blessing here is that a course marshal warns us we're playing too slowly -- all that searching for balls -- so we rush through it. There's no time to think about the peril.

When we reach the 18th, I recall how the winner of last year's senior tour event, the JELD-WEN Tradition, found trouble there. But I follow our ace and play a three-wood off the tee, then an iron home. So what if it's a three-putt finish?

As we have a drink on the patio, the man I'd met in the pro shop five hours earlier finally comes trudging up. I don't have to ask, "How many?" He says right out, "Too many to count. I ran out of fingers." He never asks if I made it with my three balls. Too bad. I had that one lonely survivor in my hand, ready to show him.

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