I’ll be honest ... he was pretty clear. “No matter how accurate the description may be,” my editor specified, “do not compare Silvies to remote getaways like The Prairie Club, Sand Valley, Streamsong, Gamble Sands and Forest Dunes.” Don’t compare it to the other best “destination” resorts in America? “Why not?” I had to ask. I couldn’t fathom how such distinguishable mutual flattery could be anything less than appreciated. “Just ... listen,” he insisted. “Even if Silvies does have many — or even all — of the best attributes those others have, do me a favor and don’t compare them to each other. Do. Not. Do. It.”
So … I won’t.
I’ve learned plenty from Darin Bunch at GolfGetaways Magazine and GolfTripX over the past 10 years. He’d tell you “not nearly enough” — and he’s probably right. But I’m still young (a lot younger than he is) and learning. One of his “beat-me-over-the-head” lessons in (travel) journalism has been: “Don’t compare places by name in stories if you can avoid it. That’s what lists and rankings are for. As helpful as it might be to readers who are wondering how one destination compares to another, many resorts don’t want to be compared to other resorts.”
Let places be identified by, and recognized for, their own merits, he often says.
Fortunately (for me), comparisons wouldn’t do justice to The Retreat, Links & Spa at Silvies Valley Ranch. Day and night, Silvies is a most unique, surreal and special place. When I describe it as “in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains and trees, with lakes,” you’re apt to be somewhat befuddled, and almost certainly not associating that description with Eastern Oregon. And yet, that’s exactly where Dr. Scott Campbell (and his wife, Sandy) built this visionary retreat.
The Four-Course Man
I was told the guy “isn’t really a golfer.” How do you build a resort with 52 golf holes and not “be a golfer?” “He’d tell you he sucks,” the bartender stated bluntly, sliding a signature “Horseshoe Nail” across the counter (whiskey, Drambuie and crabapple). “Scott’s modest like that, though. He’s a dog and Scotch lover, and a guy his wife describes as a great husband.” All of those qualities are admirable in a man, but they don’t necessarily reveal why an “animal doctor” built not just one golf course, but two, three and FOUR! courses here.
“He had the land,” the bartender continued. I’d just arrived, and still hadn’t seen the property, so I wasn’t completely clear on the scope of that understatement. “For four golf courses?” I asked. The bartender smirked at my naivety. “For FORTY courses,” he replied. “I’m serious.”
Turns out Silvies Valley Ranch, in its entirety, is spread across more than 140,000 acres (200 square miles). That’s huge. A good portion of the property is used for goat and cattle ranching. There are bears out there, hundreds of elk, a wide variety of deer, mountain lions, one crabapple tree, at least one really angry squirrel, and … yes … 52 golf holes. Suffice it to say, HUGE is no embellishment.
I’d done extensive research before this trip and thought I knew what I was getting into. Hardly.
I knew Dr. Campbell had brought in Pacific Northwest-based golf designer Dan Hixson (Bandon Crossings, Wine Valley) to build his courses. Brilliant is a descriptor I’m typically quite cautious with, but I knew I was safe this time. “There’s no simpler way to describe Dan’s work at Silvies than the word brilliant,” Darin had told me after his initial visit.
“Can I quote you on that?” I ask.
“Never quote me — I’m your editor, not a source,” he replied.
As the story goes, Dan Hixson sat down with Scott Campbell and pitched his idea of a reversible golf course. “No way,” Scott replied. Dan had already tried to sell a reversible golf design a couple hundred miles north of Silvies (many years earlier) before anyone else in the United States had built one. “Nope” then. “Nope” now. But, as I heard it told, Hixson didn’t give up and Scott didn’t need much convincing. Literally only a few minutes (and perhaps a couple of drinks) later — after reminding Scott that the world-famous Old Course at St. Andrews was built as a reversible experience — Dr. Campbell went from curious to catalyst. “Why not?” he said. “Let’s do it.”
“Seriously?” Dan asked.
“Being able to have two courses for slightly more than the price of one is brilliant,” Campbell thought. It really is. But you have to have the mind to pull it off — and not just the mind, but the ability. And flexibility. And adaptability. You have to have lots of ’bilitys.
Campbell told Hixson there was no rush — and it’s a good thing he insisted on that. It took Dan eight full construction years to build the course(s). Eight years. “They were long years,” Dan said, “and longer winters.” (Being from Minnesota, I can relate to the “longer winters” part.) But ... eight years? Imagine working on a single project for that long. Imagine the patience that would take. Imagine being such a perfectionist.
Hixson is an admirer of Tom Doak, widely accepted as one of golf’s top-tier architects. And Dan was well aware of Doak’s reversible work at Forest Dunes in Michigan (opened a year earlier in 2016). “The Loop is a great course … a remarkable architectural achievement,” Hixson said. “But this project was so completely different than his.” For one thing, while The Loop is relatively “flat” and “close to sea level,” Hixson’s work at Silvies navigated 240 feet of elevation changes at roughly 4,700 feet above sea level. And another thing: The Silvies Valley Ranch courses covered more than 600 acres of land — three times the size of The Loop — with 120 acres of mowed grass alone. The concept might be similar, but the execution couldn’t be more different.
Having played The Loop, both ways (several times), I’ve marveled at how Doak got those 18 greens to work both ways. There are critics of his results, of course, but such people generally dislike creativity (and probably hate puppies) and have little respect for how difficult it is to make two golf courses fit on one same piece of land. Dan understood that going in, and had zero intention of forcing anything — no desire to make 36 holes connect to just 18 greens. “I laid out 18 holes. Then I set another 18 holes on top of it, and used as much of the same land as I could without forcing anything,” Hixson said in Episode 153 of the “Talking GolfGetaways” podcast. Then he added nine other greens to make it all work. That’s right, the reversible, 18-hole Hankins and Craddock courses at Silvies Valley Ranch share 27 greens.
The biggest challenge in building a reversible course has to be making each routing of similar quality. After playing both the Hankins and Craddock courses, my son and I returned to The Hideout — the club’s hilltop 19th hole, boasting remarkable panoramic views — to track down our unfiltered bartender friend. We asked if he had a preference. “For sure,” he said. “Hankins, 200 percent.”
My son started laughing immediately.
I joined him a surprised second later. “Seriously?”
Dylan and I were both hooked on Craddock … and it wasn’t really close, either. The bartender didn’t actually find that surprising. “The superintendent is with you,” he said. “And it’s almost an even 50-50 split among guests. Tells you Hixson did a (colorful adjective) brilliant job.” There’s that “brilliant” word again. (And, again, my editor is unlikely to challenge it.)
In Tom Coyne’s soon-to-be-released narrative odyssey – A Course Called America – the wayfaring golf-laureate introduces readers to a man named Jimmy who settles personal course rankings by lining up coin-toss comparables head-to-head and breaking them down hole-by-hole (better 1st hole, better 2nd hole, and so forth — totaling points for a winner). Incidentally, that’s something I’ve also done for every course I’ve played since 2009. That detail-oriented exercise requires a certain level of photogenic retention (and insanity), but also provides a particularly useful measuring stick for The Loops at Forest Dunes and the Silvies Valley Ranch courses. After playing The Loops at Forest Dunes, I compared both routings and determined which of each numbered hole I preferred. The Red Loop “won” for me, 11 holes to Black Loop’s 7. I conducted the same head-to-head exercise at Silvies with the Hankins and Craddock courses — and the Craddock course also “won” 11 to 7. That settles it for me. My son just shakes his head. “Why not just ask yourself which of the two you’d play if you could only play one?”
Never occurred to me.
These Caddies are the G.O.A.T.
Silvies Valley Ranch has two “other” golf courses. The Chief Egan course is a par-3 layout next to the driving range, an idyllic little practice course that loops around a pretty pond. My son would’ve outlasted the Energizer Bunny on that course. “Some of those holes are so much fun, ” Dylan said, beaming from ear to ear. (Take into consideration he’s 17, and in that never smile for anything phase.)
The other course? McVeigh’s Gauntlet is a literal “goat trek” — a turbulent, seven-hole, hillbilly hike that wreaks havoc on both scorecards and hamstrings. We had a caddie named Bruce for that round, but he didn’t speak — after all, he was a goat. The golf professional, and expert goat herder, who accompanied us did speak human, and he equated playing McVeigh’s Gauntlet to “playing golf in the city, hitting from one rooftop to the next, and trying to get your ball to stay on each roof.”
I complimented the analogy. He nodded. “Borrowed it from someone else — it fits so perfectly. Par is essentially unattainable on the Gauntlet.” Undaunted, Dylan was even par through five holes. I’m not allowed to tell you about the last two holes. Suffice it to say, when McVeigh’s was done with us, we were physically and mentally done with it, too, but wished we could take Bruce with us for every other round. He was truly The Goat.
Goat Caddies are awesome and anything but a marketing gimmick. In fact — I kid you not — there were more than 300 goats vying for just seven Silvies caddie positions this year. They’re better listeners than human caddies, don’t smoke, don’t give bad reads then blame you for missing the putt and, best of all, they don’t pretend they know everything. They just eat grass and peanuts. We’ve come across more than a few caddies who could learn a thing or two from Bruce.
A Real (Re)Treat
I told you Dr. Campbell isn’t really a golfer, but that he built a 52-hole golf resort anyway. That’s dramatically oversimplifying his endeavors at Silvies Valley Ranch. In both name and essence, this is a complete “retreat” — a getaway from it all “camp” with luxurious accommodations (including cabins on the water), Adirondack-lined paths around lakes shared by humans and animals, the Rocking Hearts Spa, activities galore (shooting, fishing, wagon and ATV rides, cave tours, wine tasting), fantastic chef-prepared food, all the Scotch you can drink (more than 100 offerings, plus 50 more whiskeys) and amazing sourdough pancakes. And that’s just in summer.
Silvies Valley Ranch is a year-round retreat with no cell reception but strong WiFi, where you trade phone for a radio, your car for a golf cart, charge everything to your room and never need your wallet or purse. And it’s a place where the “under the stars experience” at the end of every day is so profoundly impactful you might never want to leave.
Bandon Dunes gets nearly all of the Oregon golf love. And don’t get me wrong, it deserves every bit of acclaim. But circle The Retreat and Spa at Silvies Valley Ranch on your travel map and seriously plan to fit it into your trip somehow. While in the planning stages of our own trip, I asked my editor: “Is it really worth driving eight hours out of my way to visit Silvies?”
Dan Hixson’s response: “Eight hours is nothing.”
Darin’s response: “You’re dumb if you don’t.”
As advertised, the unique experience was worth the insane detour and is well worth the drive from anywhere. Throughout your stay, and after you leave, you’ll be marveling not just at how Dan Hixson pulled off the reversible genius but how a supposed “non-golf guy” developed a backyard playground we all wish we had at our house.
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Hixson is Building MORE Golf at Silvies?
Speaking of a playground ... in Summer 2021, Silvies Valley Ranch plans to debut Dan Hixson’s new 18-hole putting course, and it will also be (you guessed it) reversible. About to begin construction on it, Hixson says, “The design for this special putting course has to measure up to the Silvies Valley standard. That’s something players from all over have come to expect at the Ranch.” Hixson a busy man in Oregon these days, currently working on the Untitled Roseburg Project (called @NameOurCourse until they decide on a permanent name). Fortunately he’s got a wealth of talent to spread around.
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[Editor’s Note] No golf-travel writers were injured or maimed for breaking the rules during the making of this story.
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Want to play more Dan Hixson golf? GolfTripX is taking a group to Wine Valley Golf Club in Walla Walla, Washington for 36 holes on Sept. 1. Reach out to Darin @golfgetaways on Twitter or Instagram for more details and pricing.
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MORE: Link to the 40-minute “Talking GolfGetaways” interview with architect Dan Hixson: “Building Silvies Valley”
MORE: Hear how Hixson’s golf design career began and more about Bandon Crossings on Episode 141 of “Talking GolfGetaways”
MORE: Link to golf-course photographer Brian Oar’s complete gallery: Silvies Valley Ranch
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Notable Golf Connections
Bend, Oregon: Only 170 miles west, this “outdoor Mecca” is one of America’s most vibrant little cities and home to three excellent golf resorts (Tetherow, Sunriver and Pronghorn) and golf architect David McLay Kidd (who designed Tetherow).
Roseburg, Oregon: 335 miles south and west of Silvies Valley Ranch, Dan Hixson is working hard on his currently unnamed project. Course With No Name debuts a 10-hole loop for Preview Play this summer (2021). Soon there will be two great reasons to stop in Roseburg — current home to the only Booster Juice smoothie stop in America.
Bandon Dunes Resort: It’s 416 miles from Bandon at Silvies. 9 hours is also nothing for that unparalleled experience.
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Bend Municipal Airport, Oregon: 167 miles west
Boise Airport, Idaho: 192 miles east
Portland, Oregon: 307 miles northwest
Spokane, Washington: 350 miles north