Crosswater: A Genuine Firebreather in Central Oregon’s Lava Lands

Born of volcanic eruptions more than 45 million years ago, the eastern flank of Oregon’s Cascade Range has evolved into a lava-built plateau where the game of golf has flourished beneath the snow-capped peaks. In the past 25 years, dozens of public-access layouts have sprung up in and around Bend, gateway to central Oregon and one of the bona fide golf capitals of the Northwest. Courses range from high-desert links routed at 4,000 feet and higher, their fairways framed by lava rock outcrops, twisted junipers and peppery sagebrush; to parkland-style layouts stretched across broad meadows and staked out by mighty ponderosa pines. Lakes and streams do a good job of defending par. Greens throughout the region are notoriously fast.

Though a few courses stay open all year, golf in central Oregon enjoys a six-month season, from May through October. Sunshine is abundant in this semi-arid zone–10,000-foot summits in the Cascades screen the rain. Even jaded campaigners have remarked on the scenery. It is breathtaking. Factor in reasonable costs for meals, accommodations and services relative to top golf destinations in the Rockies, and the greater Bend area sizes up as a premier value destination. Walking is not only permitted, it is encouraged.

The region’s recreational opportunities are in a class of their own. Take a wee break from the links, and you can tackle Class IV white-water rapids in the upper Deschutes River, windsurf in Elk Lake, rock climb at Smith Rock State Park, troll for landlocked salmon in back-country lakes, fly fish for wild rainbows in the Metolius River, ride a bike (or a horse) along a scenic riverside path, or paddle a canoe or pole a raft down a gentle stretch of the Deschutes River.

There’s more. For a few weeks in May, it’s possible to go downhill or cross-country skiing in the morning at Mt. Bachelor–and play golf in the afternoon. Fans of extinct volcanos can visit Lava Lands Visitor Center, where the marked trails and interpretive displays are exceptional, and where a fabulous view of the Cascade Range is the reward for hiking to the top of Lava Butte. At the High Desert Museum, river otters, porcupines, bobcats and birds of prey star in the live animal presentations. For a world-class sidetrip, Crater Lake National Park, its centerpiece the deep blue remnant of an ancient volcano that exploded thousands of years ago, is a 2 ½-hour drive south of Bend.

In the end, all it takes to fully enjoy a vacation in Bend is the ability to relax. Not every golfer can manage it. The tone is set by a fitness-conscious, nuts-‘n-berries citizenry who more often than not choose to walk (or ride a bike) instead of drive, who revel daily in the larger-than-life scenery, and who can identify by name the wildflowers and native critters. These folks take the clean air, superb locally-produced wines and fresher-than-fresh salmon found on every menu for granted. Golf is treated as just another pleasant amenity.

The stark beauty of Lava Lands

There is, however, once exception to that rule. There is, in Bend, a take-no-prisoners test of golf that simply cannot be categorized as a ‘pleasant amenity.’ This is the Crosswater Club at Sunriver Resort, a Bob Cupp-John Fought behemoth that stretches to an ungodly 7,683 yards from the gold tees, its course and slope ratings (76.9/150) among the highest in the state. Opened in 1995, Crosswater anticipated the 21st-century’s equipment advances. The course simply cannot be strong-armed. It’s environmentally sensitive, too. Which means you can jump into a revitalized trout stream after you’ve torn out your hair trying to figure how to hopscotch your ball from one safe landing area to the next.

Framed by distant volcanic peaks, including the snow-frosted cone of 9,060-foot Mt. Bachelor, Crosswater, inspired by Scotland’s grand heathland courses, sprawls across a beautiful desert plateau. The majority of the holes are traced or crossed by the oxbow loops of the gently flowing Deschutes and Little Deschutes rivers. In addition to a smattering of ponderosa and lodge pole pines, the massive layout is framed by alpine meadows and wetlands. The color and texture of plant life in these preserved areas changes with the seasons: lavender irises in June, purple lupine in July, khaki fescues in August, golden willows in the fall.

“The site for Crosswater is one of the most magnificent I have ever seen,” said Cupp, noting that the original plan called for 36 holes on the 600-acre site before the ownership decided to build a championship-caliber 18 with a low-density development at its perimeter. (A semi-private club, Crosswater is open to members and resort guests only).

Multiple sets of forward tees give average players a fighting chance, but the designers challenge experts to a heated scuffle at nearly every hole. “Crosswater strategically challenges good players, not with the old cliche of asking them to ‘hit every club in the bag’ but by requiring them to shape shots and maneuver the ball the way true shotmakers should,” Cupp explained.

Even from the white tees, several forced carries over river branches and soggy meadows are called for. From the back tees (7,273 yards from the silver markers, 6,811 yards from the blues), no fewer than 16 carries over water are required from both tee and fairway.

“There are lots of ‘final hazards’ on Crosswater,” Cupp said, noting that his version of Davy Jones’ Locker is not the type of course he would build were it the resort’s only layout. (Sunriver offers more resort-friendly fare on its Meadows and Woodlands courses. Caldera Links, a sporty 9-holer designed by Cupp, allows kids 11 and under to play for free).

While Crosswater is not intended for casual holidaymakers, serious low-handicappers will be pleased by the layout’s playing conditions. They are flawless. Crosswater was the first course in central Oregon to feature bentgrass fairways. Also, cleverly routed boardwalk-style wood pilings and beamed bridges span ponds and wetlands, bringing golfers close to the elk and otters, eagles and osprey that live here. (Crosswater Club is a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary).

The course gets off to a reasonable start, but the game is on at the fourth, a relatively short par four that bends to the left around an open meadow near the Little Deschutes River. The ideal drive flirts with a series of bunkers dotting the left rough. The perched green is surrounded on three sides by wetlands. It gets better. The fifth, a lengthy par four, is one of many holes that give players fits at the JELD-WEN Tradition, a Champions Tour event held at the club in August. The tee shot here must soar over a bend in the river, while the lengthy approach must carry a horseshoe of wetlands and sit quickly on a diagonal green divided by a long ridge. It is followed by the toughest hole on the course, a double-dogleg par five with a two-tiered fairway that demands a pair of forced carries over water and marshland. Fraught with danger, it stretches to more than 600 yards from the tips. By the time players reach the enormous 17,000-square-foot dance floor on the par-four ninth, they may be in need of oxygen and a massage.

A river runs through it: Crosswater is a lunker

Crosswater’s back nine is more of the same. Flowing river, verdant wetlands, looming peaks. And tons of challenge. At the par-five 12th, listed at 687 yards from the tips (it’s 572 yards from the white tees!), a 22-acre lake engulfs the entire left side of the hole, with Mt. Bachelor peaking above the pines at the far end of the hole. Clever fairway bunkering and a grouping of lakeside pines imperil the second shot, while water and sand defend the miniscule green. Because the hole generally plays into the prevailing wind, six is a decent score on the 12th. The challenge at the par-three 17th, measuring over 200 yards from the white tees, is compounded by tall grasses sprouting along the entire left side of the hole.

Like all great courses, Crosswater’s 18th, a sturdy par four, brilliantly summarizes all that has gone before. After steering clear of the lone bunker up the right side of the fairway, players must reach deep one last time to produce a full-blooded approach shot that carries over the Little Deschutes and comes to rest on a long, angled green backdropped by tall pines. Elation? Weariness? It depends on how you play. It’s no surpirse that Crosswater has become a cult course for advanced players seeking to plumb the depths (so to speak) of their ability.

From the vantage point of the wooden bridge spanning the river at the 18th, players may notice tree branches and rocks near shore. These obstructions were carefully placed by Crosswater superintendent Jim Ramey and his staff in conjunction with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to create riffles, pools and spawning areas for trout. Years of cattle raising had worn down the banks and spoiled the river’s fish habitats. The Little Deschutes River is today better and healthier than ever before. Not that the trout particularly enjoy the sight and sound of splashing golf balls.

After the round, players can repair to Crosswater’s handsome clubhouse, which overlooks the ninth and 18th greens. Patterned after the region’s classic timber lodges (stone base, cedar siding, peeled pine logs, slate roof), the low-rise clubhouse fits its riverside setting beautifully. Inside, distressed hardwood floors lead from a boutique-sized golf shop to The Grille, which serves superb Northwest cuisine, notably game dishes cooked on a wood-burning grill. Outside, airy terraces and porches are set with rocking chairs. Relaxation, it seems, is what golfers require most after repeated river crossings on Crosswater.

Stuck for a refreshment choice? Central Oregon’s microbreweries are among the nation’s best. If you’re serious about the suds, order anything produced by Deschutes Brewery, which produces superb hand-crafted ales and seasonal brews.

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