Three Northwest Golf Resorts Are Reinventing the Game

Gamble Sands captures the classic golf vibe—but has also added innovative new forms of the game. Photograph courtesy Gamble Sands.

Golf has long been overdue for a refresh. A leisurely game that requires oodles of time and acres of open space, its fussy reputation lingered even decades after Tiger Woods redefined golf superstardom. Northwest courses have been sneakily recalibrating what a round on the links should ask of us—and what it can provide. Goats? Frisbees? A pop soundtrack? Golf has a brand-new bag.

Skamania Starts Over

A luxury resort on the Columbia Gorge tore up its 18-hole course and welcomed a new type of golfer—one who doesn’t even carry clubs. 

On a clear day, the front nine of Skamania Lodge’s 18-hole golf course was a beaut—lush fairways that tumbled down toward the Columbia Gorge, the river sometimes visible in peekaboo views through the evergreens. The back nine cut chasms between Douglas firs. The only problem: Nobody had time to play the whole thing.

“That’s part of the challenge with the golf biz,” says Skamania golf professional Guy Puddefoot—who has overseen the resort’s golf program on and off since it opened—of an industry where he saw stagnancy as the best possible situation. Rumors that Skamania, a golf and conference resort east of Portland that opened in 1993, would mix up its traditional links began pre-pandemic; by summer 2021, the old 18 holes had morphed into three totally new experiences.

First, a par-three course. The short versions of a traditional golf setup, sometimes called pitch and putts, have been around for decades and are increasingly popular at prestigious resorts like Oregon’s Bandon Dunes. Skamania’s nine par-three holes, two of which shifted almost unchanged from the old setup, use a portion of the old acreage. 

“It’s so accessible for juniors, for families, for people that are learning the game,” says Puddefoot of the new Gorge 9. “It has lost the intimidation factor that keeps people away from the game.” Rather than rely on a powerful driver shot and complicated moves around sand traps, the short course can be played with a handful of clubs, without Tiger Woods levels of power, and in less than two hours.

The old driving range? Now an 18-hole putting course. Not putt-putt, exactly—no creepy clowns or moving windmills, just a series of greens with natural rock hazards. The Little Eagle 18, like the par-three course, uses artificial greens that use fewer chemicals during maintenance, among other ecological upsides. “Being able to reduce the amount of water used is really important,” says Puddefoot. “It’s one thing that gives golf courses a bad name.”

The rest of Skamania’s holes found a new life even further from the old birdie-and-bogey model: a disc golf course. The Professional Disc Golf Association admits that the sport has a “long and blurry history” but what was first known as Frisbee golf became increasingly popular in the 1970s. Today courses number in the thousands internationally and disc golf highlights have aired on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Instead of fairways and greens, the landscape needs only special elevated baskets (the “hole”) and a few signs, and little of the arduous upkeep of a traditional golf course.

Puddefoot calls the disc course an immediate success; he already sees growing numbers for a sport that is much more affordable than the club-swinging kind. A set of discs—yes, one is designated as the putter—can run as little as $20. Skamania’s pro shop has already taken on a more relaxed feel, all bright colors and casual athletic wear. For a resort that’s added a ropes course and luxury treehouse cabins in recent years, it’s a better fit for the sporty families that flock to the Gorge.

Today the open fields of the old front nine are filled with whizzing flying discs, the Columbia still glistening below. Puddefoot doesn’t mind that his job has shifted so dramatically. “It’s just about getting outside and getting exercise and enjoying surroundings,” he says. “We have become a lot more experiential—we try to be all about the Gorge.”

Just Kidding 

Deep in the ranchlands of Eastern Oregon is something you’ve never seen before. 

It’s fine to tip your caddy peanuts at Silvies Valley Ranch—your caddy is a goat, after all. Besides working for literal peanuts, he’s profoundly discreet if you shave a stroke or two off your score.

Bruce and Mike, the goat caddies of this Eastern Oregon course, are far from the only unique aspect of
Silvies’ golf program. Both courses they work are par-threes (with two par-fours in the mix), shorter-than-usual holes meant for a breezy afternoon or a departure-day round at an upscale guest resort in the middle of a working ranch. Goats will haul clubs around the more traditional Chief Egan course, whose greens cluster around a lake stocked with fish for guests, or they’ll march up McVeigh’s Gauntlet, which almost sadistically redefines the short-course experience. 

“If you’re not a good golfer, it’s horrendous,” says Tygh Campbell, son of ranch owner Scott Campbell, pointing to where McVeigh’s runs over ravines and up steep hillsides. This bonkers experience—they call it a “challenge course”—contains practically no fairways, more akin to a dare than a gentleman’s pastime. (One staffer calls it “Dr. Campbell’s way of getting back at golfers.”) As a gesture of goodwill, staff stock a beer cooler near McVeigh’s highest point.

 Thirty miles south of the town of John Day—about halfway between Bend and Boise—Silvies eschews normal resort trappings. No big lawns, no decorative fountains, just 234 square miles of rolling ranchland surrounded by the Malheur National Forest, a plot bigger than the entirety of Whidbey Island. 

Campbell and wife, Sandy, Eastern Oregon locals who grew and later sold the Banfield Pet Hospital chain, purchased the giant ranch in 2007. Once a series of homesteads, the acreage had cycled through failed stints as an exotic wildlife hunting preserve and a City Slickers–inspired dude ranch. The Campbells’ twin missions: prove the profitability of sustainable ranching and provide employment for the economically depressed counties the property straddles. Golf was less a particular passion than a means to those ends.

Silvies’ two main courses unfold in the traditional 18-hole links style, stretching west from the hilltop clubhouse, but they have their own twist. Called Hankins and Craddock, only one exists at a time—on alternate days it is played in one direction, then switches the following day. It’s not that the tees become greens and vice versa at Hankins/Craddock, rather that completely novel holes use the same fescue grass fairways. The reversible concept isn’t exactly a new trick; the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, the famed first golf course in the world, was originally designed to flip this way. 

Beyond golf, the isolated resort includes ranges at which you can shoot a black powder pistol and a spa whose locker room hot tubs alone set it above most Seattle joints. They employ more than a hundred and contract with local companies whenever possible. For all the amenities, the guest experience takes up little of the giant property; most of it is used to raise 4,500 cattle and 3,000 specially bred goats. Peruvian ranchers—the rare nonlocal employees, in Oregon on specialized three-year work visas—herd goats on foot throughout the ranch, guiding livestock that also function as sustainable weed killers. Guests can ramble along, or even pitch in during kidding season by bottle-feeding baby goats.

Signs of eco-friendly operations dot the property, none more numerous than the 5,000-plus bird houses. Stand in the middle of the ranch’s cabin accommodations and quite literally every single tree trunk sports a simple wooden shelter; they invite Silvies’ flock of avian mosquito killers (another 1,000 are constructed specifically for bats), a
pesticide-free solution. The guest ranch won’t grow much beyond its current 42 cabins, but the 200 homes under construction for individual sale will all run completely on solar power.

This spring the ranch will launch its final golf offering, a reversible 18-hole putting course that circles a pond outside the lodge where guests eat their meals. Not even St. Andrews has putting holes that go both ways. Of Silvies’ whole out-of-the-box program, Tygh Campbell describes how their remote location inspired untraditional versions of a famously conventional game: “We needed something completely unique for people to come all the way out here in the middle of nowhere to play golf, no matter how pretty it is.”

Gamble’s Little Bet

A famous designer has a bit of fun in Central Washington.

What do you give serious golfers who travel to a remote expanse of the Columbia Plateau for an intense golf vacation? Easy, says Brian Benitz, director of sales and marketing at Gamble Sands golf club in Brewster: more golf.

And if you thought that paragraph included the word “golf” too much, well, you’re probably not Gamble Sands’ target demo. Located on the Columbia River about 45 minutes northeast of Chelan, the resort has a single-minded simplicity.

“The focus was always going to be on golf,” says Benitz. Gamble Sands’ signature course was designed by David McLay Kidd, who can boast a Scottish pedigree and a resume that includes Bandon Dunes and one of the courses at St. Andrews.

Though the resort racked up notoriety since its 2014 opening, last year it debuted QuickSands, also a McLay Kidd build. Fourteen par-three holes wind over 25 acres of sand dunes; as on the main course, there are no trees. But it feels decidedly different.

“It’s almost like a carnival out there,” says Benitz of the fun the designer had with sloping banks and creative green shapes. A dozen speakers in the ground pump pop country and classic rock into the air. Beers: allowed. Shoes: technically required but not always present.

The resort plans to add a second course in coming years on the sandy, firm soil, but QuickSands will remain a way to tack on extra holes to a full day on the links. And thanks to an 18-hole putting course just off the side of Gamble Sands’ 37 hotel rooms, the round of golf never actually has to end.