The most highly anticipated round of my five-day central Oregon golf trip in Sept. was getting to play Pronghorn Golf Club’s Nicklaus Course, ranked No. 33 in the Golf Digest Top 100.
In its course summary, Golf Digest praised the back nine as possibly “the most delightful Jack (Nicklaus) has ever designed.” ”Delightful” may hinge on the state of your game, but memorable is certainly in play. You won’t forget the signature hole on the side, the grand par 4 13th, nor likely the finishing tee shot.
The course conditions at Pronghorn and the facilities are first rate. Pronghorn’s location is indeed remote, but it’s a journey to a place unlike any I’ve been before. I simply don’t have a comparison for this course.
Which bring us to the first of my impressions about playing Pronghorn …
Now For Something Totally Different … & Completely Unique – If you’ve never visited the Pacific Northwest’s high desert, this terrain will seem alien to you. In fact, only the tees, greens, fairways and mountains might be familiar.
Your image of golf in Oregon is likely fairways lined and defined by towering pine trees with shots occasionally played over meandering streams. That applied to two of the courses I played (Crosswater and Meadows, both at Sunriver). That’s not Pronghorn.
Built in a juniper forest, this desert scape is similar to the terrain of other courses in the area, but definitely notches above anything else I played in design and overall experience. The course is actually quite wide open, but looks can be deceiving here. Nicklaus is visually always throwing something at you (we’ll talk more about this in a second).
My round included a few interesting shot scenarios, but none more than finding my ball in a juniper bush short left of the green after my second shot on a par 4. I hit out of the juniper bush (my ball was 6 inches off the ground), into a juniper tree and, like Plinko on “The Price Is Right,” my ball trickled down and made a satisfying thud on the green. Knowing the green sloped toward the hole, I was hopeful. Yep. Three feet from the pin. I saved par for the up and down of the trip by far.
You need a little luck and a dose of local knowledge to play Pronghorn well if you have only once chance. But regardless of your card, the course is a joy to discover with unique designs greeting you on every hole.
Golf XXXL – Golf at Pronghorn is done on a grand scale. Big greens. Big sandtraps. Big rock walls. Big knotty, twisted trees. Big vistas (all the way to the Cascades). And big fairways on many holes. And a huge collection area to one elevated par 3.
And this design grandeur even moreso applies to the Fazio side, which is the 18-hole private course. (I’ve linked a photo tour at the end of this.)
Visually there’s always something coming at you to dazzle you. It truly is a feast for the senses. There’s nothing predictable about the layout – and there’s a big surprise waiting for you on the back. And the cool part is you get to preview it from the front nine.
You pass by tee on No. 13 while playing the front and you can’t help but overhear the oohs, aahs and banter (“Can I just build a house here?”). Your curiosity beckons you to stop and take a peak. This is what you see …
No. 13 – No. 13 is a short dogleg-right par 4 played to a green guarded by a pond on the right and a massive sand trap in the back. Truth be told, the sand trap is mostly scenery (you shouldn’t be in there) but it adds a visual access to the hole akin to how the beach complements the ocean. In fact, that’s what it looks like: Pronghorn Beach.
The tee shot, with tail wind, is played over the pond to a generous fairway with a fly-over pot bunker in the middle. The approach is the type of shot golfers live for.
With likely a wedge in hand, you’re looking at a sizeable green in front of a massive rockwall with two waterfalls to the right filling a pond that should mostly be taken out of play with a decent drive. You’ve got ample room to make a safe landing in regulation and set up a shot at a cherished birdie or par. (One caveat: We had perfect weather; local rumor is that the wind can really blow here.)
This is hardly the toughest hole on the course but it’s one you’ll never forget. And you get a third glimpse of it on No. 18.
On the 18th tee box, you get an overview of the green and can see the creek that feeds the waterfalls. The entire hole is a magnificent shrine to the central Oregon golf experience – and you get a 360 appreciation of it. So cool.
Speaking of cool …
Ghost trees are cool – One high desert phenomenon that quickly captured my attention is the ghost desert.
“Aim at the ghost tree” was my first reference, given to me by a caddie. I deduced that the ghostly white deceased juniper tree in front of me was the intended target.
These trees are everywhere in central Oregon and used mostly effectively in the design of Pronghorn. (There’s even a Ghost Tree Drive in the development.)
They’re just one more geographic marker that will leave you with an indelible impression of Pronghorn.
Risk And … Reward? – As I was warming up in the short-game area, a fellow golfer dropped a sack of balls and advised, “Hit plenty of these.”
He meant chips off thin lies. And I did as recommended, which came in handy. It ended up later setting up the only birdie putt I sank.
Looking back from the elevated green on that short par 4, we noticed two tee shots driven to within close range – a tough chipping distance. These are the plays and club choices that are tough to make in one round here. The course likes to tempt you … and you don’t know enough yet to resist.
Similarly, on an elevated and crowned par 3, three of use took great runs at the flag … only to watch our approaches trickle off into a massive collection area, which did make for a quite fun uphill recovery putt.
Playing it for the first time, the course allows you to get your shots in, but know that it has ways of taking them back. Overall, it’s an experience that transports you to what is a very different place for most of us, but you’ll be glad you made the journey.
For a photo tour of the Fazio course, go to socalgolfblog.com/2015/10/05/photo-post-touring-the-fazio-course-at-pronghorn-golf-club/