Remote is not how Colby Marshall describes the Retreat & Links at Silvies Valley Ranch in eastern Oregon. “We use the term `Frontier,’” says Marshall, the general manager who oversees multiple golf courses at the Western-style retreat, including a reversible layout. “It elicits a different kind of feeling about making the journey.”
Golf on the 140,000-acre property, a working cattle, goat and hay ranch located 320 miles southeast of Portland and 220 miles west of Boise, Idaho, is the latest example of the Field of Dreams philosophy – “Build It and They Will Come” – that renowned developer Mike Keiser introduced to resort golf with Bandon Dunes starting in the late 1990s.
According to the NGF’s recent Golf Travel Report, 8.2 million golfers played 57.6 million rounds of golf while traveling for leisure or business. While established golf destinations such as Phoenix/Scottsdale, Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach, Southern California and Orlando remain the most popular spots for buddies’ trips and golf getaways, other places a bit further afield have earned a piece of the $20.5 billion golf travel industry in the United States.
Almost half of the new 18-hole courses that have opened over the past five years were built more than 50 miles from a major city (population 50,000+), according to the NGF’s facility database. In addition to Silvies Valley, this group of destination locations includes places like the Sand Valley Resort in central Wisconsin, Gamble Sands in western Washington, The Loop at Forest Dunes in Michigan, Mossy Oak in Mississippi, Shepherd’s Rock at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in western Pennsylvania, and Tatanka, which is part of an Indian reservation and casino in Nebraska.
Here’s a closer look at how a handful of properties have found success off the beaten path.
Big Cedar Lodge – Missouri
Fishing, not golf, was the original draw to Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains in the late 1980s.
Founded by Johnny Morris for customers of his Bass Pro Shops, the resort is located an hour south of Springfield and a day’s drive from 50 percent of the U.S. population. It’s become a golf-centric destination in recent years with courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Tom Fazio, and it’s still growing. Ozark National, by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, opens next month, while Payne’s Valley by Tiger Woods debuts in 2019. The big names certainly help, but so does the setting.
“You’re out in nature,” said Stephen Friedlander, vice president of golf. “The Ozark Mountains are in a rural area. You don’t have planes flying overhead or hear the city sounds you may deal with every day. Golf is a great escape. You can really relax and enjoy a lot of different activities with your family or your buddies. I think that’s what’s really attractive about these types of locations.”
Friedlander believes that remote golf destinations won’t ever become run of the mill.
“The challenge when there becomes more of them is market share and the number of golfers who will travel,” he said. “Having multiple courses helps. Until we grow the number of golfers playing, we’re all trying to share golfers. Discretionary spending is always an issue. We believe we’re in a location where the value for what you get is phenomenal.”
Bandon Dunes/Sand Valley/Cabot Links
For Michael Keiser Jr. and his family – owners of golf resorts in remote destinations in Oregon (Bandon Dunes), Wisconsin (Sand Valley) and Nova Scotia (Cabot Links) – everything starts with the golf.
“Once guests leave the golf course, the other details are extremely important,” he said. “What makes Bandon successful, and those places who have followed Bandon, is that every decision starts with, ‘Is this going to lead to the best golf possible?’”
He points to the example of Dick Youngscap, who built the private Sand Hills Golf Club in a remote part of Nebraska. When affluent members asked him to build a private airstrip on the course so they wouldn’t have to drive the extra distance to get there, he declined. “He felt that was part of the journey,” said Keiser Jr. “You start to unwind, slow down. He didn’t want people to just jump off their planes and play golf. The life that you leave behind temporarily tends to melt away. So when do you get to these places, you’re in this new sort of realm, which adds value to the experience.”
Will this trend of remote locations continue?
“We have other projects on the burner and I know of other developers who do too,” said Keiser Jr. “It is continuing and we will evolve and improve our products. Those who listen to the guests will survive. Those who don’t probably won’t be around 100 years from now.”
Streamsong – Florida
Part of a 16,000-acre central Florida property owned by the Mosaic Company, Streamsong Resort was built on a former phosphate mining site that sat fallow since the late 1970s. With massive piles of sand, deep cuts in the land and a rolling topography, it was perfect for golf courses.
Located 90 miles south of Orlando and 60 miles southeast of Tampa, Streamsong’s Red and Blue courses, designed by Coore/Crenshaw and Tom Doak respectively, debuted in 2012. The Gil Hanse-designed Black Course opened in 2017.
Bandon Dunes provided a valuable template for Streamsong, says Ben Pratt, Mosaic’s Vice President of Public Affairs. “The Keiser family had proven the concept and was very helpful,” he said. “They had the benefit of the ocean, which we don’t, but otherwise had demonstrated that people will go through a lot of travel to get there. Bandon also demonstrated that you really do need spectacular golf. You can’t have just good courses in places like these. That’s what motivated the Mosaic team to go after the architects that we used.”
Could ‘off the beaten path’ become the new norm? Pratt doesn’t necessarily think so.
“I think these are all such different sites at this point that they’re fine,” he said. “But it is a finite market. The golf business isn’t growing in leaps and bounds, and most guys who make these kinds of golf trips will make one or two a year. I think the supply will keep pace with the demand. Golf got so overbuilt in a lot of places in the 1990s, it’s hard to see that happening again, especially with these kinds of places.”
Silvies Valley Ranch – Oregon
Golf became part of the existing operation at Silvies Valley Ranch last year in order to help develop a new economy for the area. Agriculture and timber long fueled the region, but the two industries have changed dramatically over the last 30 years.
“Golf was brought into the mix because there needed to be a magnet, something that would bring people here,” said Marshall, the property’s GM.
Oregon native Dan Hixson built the reversible course at Silvies Valley with its Craddock and Hankins layouts. There is also the 9-hole, par-3 Chief Egan Course and a testing 7-hole course called McVeigh’s Gauntlet that is carved into a ridgeline and features goat caddies.
— Silvies Goat Caddies (@GoatCaddies) October 3, 2018
“A third of our visitors are architecture purists who want to experience the reversible course,” said Marshall. “Another third involves buddy golf trips who want to try something new. They’ve been to Bandon a number of times and have been to other destinations in the region, now they want a new opportunity. The final third are destination tourists who enjoy golf but want the other amenities (like ranch tours and clay shooting).”
A variety of amenities help create a tailored experience for visitors, according to Marshall. “If we grow to 60-70 rounds a day, that allows us to maintain 15-minute tee intervals, so people won’t feel rushed out on the course and they can have a unique time while here.”
Because ‘getting away’ has become a trend in golf travel.
Tom is an Arizona-based freelance writer and former Senior Editor at GOLF Magazine. He is a frequent contributor to multiple golf publications, including Troon Golf & Travel, The Met Golfer, Golf Monthly UK and the USGA’s website.