Conceptually Speaking

Nothing like an eight-hour drive to consider the lengths we’ll go to play something new
Oregon, Silvies Valley Ranch
Photo: Brian Oar

The tumbleweed got me thinking. It was my first bona fide tumbleweed, a wad of dusty blond branches stumbling across the road before me, and a vision I’d only ever seen in atmospheric Westerns and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. It told me I was a long way from home, and it had me wondering why I had ventured so far from any markers of the known world in search of a golf course so few had played.

Oregon didn’t look that large on the map. I had crossed the wide states of Pennsylvania and Ohio plenty of times, so I imagined this drive as a few hours’ worth of podcasts before I arrived for my tee time at Silvies Valley Ranch. Eight hours later, I gained a new respect for the patience and resilience of Oregonians: I had seen precious few of them, with no signs of civilization for 40 minutes at a time. I felt a kinship with the pioneers as I blazed my own Oregon trail, in pursuit not of gold, but of a golf course I was told you could play in both directions.

I had looked for ways to avoid it; I could slice half a week off this odyssey through the Pacific Northwest if I skipped Silvies, but its pull was too strong. It was an anchor on my itinerary, entirely unskippable, because the course was born of a concept—a reversible routing—that I had never sampled before. 

I filled the hours behind the wheel with thoughts about the draw of the concept course—what that label even meant. I settled on the theory that it was a course born of an idea or a challenge—to create shorter or longer, with fewer holes or with more, with a style or a mission that broke architectural molds. Broadly thinking, it was any course built with a purpose larger than selling real estate and/or memberships, which, to me, made them irresistible. So many boilerplate 18s had put good land to sleep, with their mission to reach a par of 72 with enough ponds and flowerbeds to sell housing plots and initiation fees. So any place that said, “Hey, this course is here because golf shouldn’t be here,” or “Golf can be played here in a way you had not considered it before,” I was in.

I have been fortunate to write about a few of these courses in previous issues of this magazine: the 12-hole revelation of Shiskine; the miracle at Machrihanish Dunes, built with shovels on land once considered too fragile for golf; Carne, my favorite links. This issue will feature a few more, from a hand-built backyard course to a completely synthetic layout to a club without par. And I want to play all of them, each of these ideas pulling me away from the safety of a smooth 18, toward the possibility of something different. Maybe I’ve just played too much of the former. Or maybe there is something at the heart of a concept course that appeals to our golf sensibilities on an undeniable, fundamental level.

They are reminders of golf as pastime; I’ll bet your first instinct upon hearing of a course that plays in both directions is that little stir of glee in your guts. It was certainly mine. Rule books and the GHIN system and USGA construction guidelines be damned: These places remind us that we golf for the simple pleasure of sending a projectile skyward. Give us a fresh way in which to do that and we flock—to Sweetens Cove and its cross-country possibilities, or to the reversible routing of Tom Doak’s Loop at Forest Dunes in Michigan. We might think we head there in search of something new, but what we are actually finding is something very old, tapping into golf as it was played before 18 became a standard, before handicaps and slope ratings held any significance, when courses like the Old at St. Andrews were indeed played in alternating directions to manage wear. The modern concepts we are finding for our golf courses aren’t necessarily breaking molds; rather, they are rediscovering golf’s former spirit: Here’s a tee, there’s a hole, let’s go have a romp. 

To me, these layouts seem to thrive for two notions that I’ve come to value over most others: community and open-mindedness. Those of us who buy into Tobacco Road or Gamble Sands or Goat Hill become a band of loyal devotees bonded by exploration, willing to travel and share and compare experiences. And while part of me still balks at the idea of not being able to post a regulation 18-hole score at some of these outliers, they are often a chance to exorcise the dogmatic golfer within me and just play the shot at my feet. They can force us to leave some of our carefully calculated and curated sensibilities behind, expanding our golf imaginations, which is a result certainly worth driving across Oregon for. 

As more of these courses thankfully come to life, each one feels like a sort of penance, like an amends being made for the not-long-ago days of building 18 holes just for the chance to fence them off, or to score a pro tournament, or to sell timeshares along their edge—those dark design days of “harder is better,” when architecture felt more like glorified gardening.

When I finally arrived at Silvies Valley, I got three things: a walkie-talkie, as there were no phones or cell service on property; a golf cart to explore the expanses of the working ranch with three courses (four if you count both directions on the reversible layout); and a dinner reservation with the course designer, Dan Hixson. When I asked Dan why he built a reversible routing, the answer was refreshingly simple: He had located a valley on the property that would make for an extraordinary par 4; he just couldn’t decide which direction would be best. So why not play it both ways?

A seasoned or stubborn golfer might have insisted on a standard routing more likely to sway raters. But all Hixson and owner Scott Campbell wanted was a course guests would enjoy, and reversible sounded like something they would. Unburdened by too many hours spent on the design message boards, this wisdom seems like a humbling reminder for us design wonks and would-be architects that our metrics and preconceptions perhaps too often overlook the concept most essential to our game—one we should practice on the course and in these pages: Go enjoy the romp. 

Tom Coyne is the author of A Course Called Ireland and A Course Called Scotland, both New York Times best sellers, as well as the forthcoming A Course Called America. He is an associate professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.