Early Thoughts From A Too Early Visit To Thornburgh Resort
Growing up in Alberta, the thought of a desert environment being anywhere in the Northwest was hard to fathom for me. I just assumed it was either the rainy Pacific Northwest, or the snowy Mountain West climates. That was, until I moved to Kelowna at the ripe age of 16, where I experienced desert-adjacent layouts at Sagebrush and Tobiano in central British Columbia. I had been to Arizona before, numerous times, but seeing the sagebrush and desert foliage scattered throughout the interior of British Columbia, close to home, was an eye-opening experience of microclimates and different styles of golf courses, even in Canada.
Somewhat nearby, Bend, Oregon was always a place I had heard about, but never went to. It was too far from Kelowna for a sixteen-year-old and, truthfully, my travels generally revolved around tournaments. While friends visited Bend or Central Oregon to hike or just take in the scenery, I went to Willamette Country Club or Eugene Country Club for tournaments if I ever found my way to Oregon. No complaints, I’m happy to have seen those two, but I love the mountains, and the combination of a high desert, mountain mix appealed to me in every way.
That high desert that defines Bend runs north from Arizona, through Central Oregon to the most northern tip in Canada’s Okanagan/Thompson area, and as architect Keith Cutten says on-site, that gave them the same soils at We-Ko-Pa’s Saguaro course, a very good Coore & Crenshaw design that could reasonably be argued as the best in the state of Arizona. In fact, The Tribute Club at Thornburgh originally had a Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw routing, but scheduling issues meant it was not in the cards for them to take it to the finish line. That’s where Rod Whitman, Dave Axland, and Keith Cutten come in, who took a stick routing from Bill Coore and ran with it. The golf course is now entirely roughed in, ready for finishing and grass for a 2024 opening date.
Central Oregon is quite beautiful, and in a lot of ways, reminds me of Montana or parts of the Nicola Valley, where Sagebrush, a Rod Whitman design ranked ninth in Canada, resides. Sagebrush (the plant) and beautiful juniper trees dot the landscape at Thornburgh, while peaks paint the generally cloudless skies. There’s not much, if any, signs of civilization standing on any of the eighteen fairways at The Tribute, and that will not change much. There is a real estate and resort component to the development, but they will sit above the golf course, into the butte towering above the golf course, hidden from the holes. The golf is, and always will be, a priority, but so is sustainability and blending into the landscape. After all, Whitman, Axland, and Cutten’s philosophy is very much the minimalistic way: less land moved, the better; it should blend in with the surrounding landscape and not overpower what Mother Nature already created. The resort and development will tap into that philosophy also, with Tesla solar tile roofs and the objective of being net-zero energy.
The golf and the development aspect match each other quite nicely, something I thought I would never write after the colossal waste of housing & golf combinations built post-World War Two. In some odd way, the vision reminded me of the Olmstead Brothers working with architects to achieve a similar goal. Like Yeamans Hall in Charleston, an Olmstead Brothers and Seth Raynor housing development and golf course combination, Whitman, Axland, and Cutten’s golf course is never impeded by housing or similar features. They co-exist, but never crossing boundaries. Instead, the golf course works its way in a bowtie fashion down the mountain from the real estate component. As Keith Cutten says, the bowtie takes golfers out to the two notable sides of the property: the high mountainside following the 4th and the dramatic 5th tee shot following, and the long views off the long par 3, 13th immediately followed by the drivable par 4, 14th up the hill directly at the Three Sisters mountains.
The outward side climbs up the mountainside, though it hardly feels like a mountain golf course. Sure, dramatic tee shots await and the views in the Mountain West speak for themselves, but this is still a highly walkable, compact routing. The land is never overly harsh; instead, it is traded in for a gently rolling, ideally suitable land for golf at the base of the mountains similarly to Cabot Revelstoke, another upcoming design from Rod Whitman, Dave Axland, and Keith Cutten (though that is much hillier in a more mountainous region). The 5th, one of the more dramatic tee shots plunging down into the valley below, will appease the mountain golf lovers who enjoy the drama that ensues in such regions, though the climb up to the 4th and subsequently 6th feels like a worthwhile trade.
The standout on the front, however, is not the eye-popping opening two holes (one doglegging right, one left), nor the two par 3s juxtaposition’ing at 230+ and less than 160. Instead, it’s the 8th hole, a long par 4 back up the hillside with two knolls blocking the green if one doesn’t find the middle of the fairway. Not unlike Jasper Park Lodge’s 8th, or the more famous, but less interesting version at Tobacco Road’s opener, splitting the uprights is the key coming home. This obstacle, rather than the two examples listed above, comes on the second shot and reminds me of some of Donald Ross’ funky work at Glens Falls, the now-celebrated layout in sleepy upstate New York. You may still hit the fairway, but you might be visually obstructed; hit the middle of the fairway and reap the benefits of a clear view into a beautiful green site.
Perhaps the most exciting feature at Thornburgh is the use of width, or lack thereof, which has become somewhat of an issue in recent years (in my opinion). Golf courses have continued to get wider and wider in the vision of width, playability, and angles. All that is wonderful, and I love big, bold golf courses. But a golf course that works its way between expansive and intimate, that doesn’t feel like it is a dime-a-dozen golf course, is my preference. At Thornburgh, there is width without a doubt, but the variety in how wide is a plus in my view. Some holes, like the 2nd, are expansive and wide, matching the scale of the mountain ranges and long views in the surrounding areas. Others, like the 8th and perhaps the 10th, 11th, and 17th, are more intimate, matching the strategies of the hole. Left or right still matters, but not so much that you would have to work to miss the fairway. I hate the term “shot values” because of Golf Digest’s definition, but the value of swings, especially in how they relate to the next stroke after that, is very high at Thornburgh because of this.
As previously mentioned, the bowtie is the main feature of the routing, which transports golfers to the outskirts of the property, capitalizing on the dramatic portions of the golf course that help the holes on the outside edges thrive. With all that said, the middle part of the bowtie—the tie to the bow, you might say—is the heart of the golf course… literally. The gathering point finds the opening holes to both nines and the matching finishing holes, plus the 17th, working directly uphill at Cline Butte, and the 16th green, sitting just above the 10th.
That 10th hole, a split fairway on paper but in principle, the lower right fairway is the trio holding their hand out in grace for those who hit the wipe fade or lefty hook, is one of the more dynamic tee shots on the entire golf course. Three massive bunkers eat in from the right side in a way that echoes Stanley Thompson’s conceptual approach at Banff Springs, where the upper fairway is preferred, and the bottom right fairway is simply the saving grace. This hole, playing back up to a gathering spot between the 10th, 11th, 16th, and 17th is a more communal spot than the rest of the golf course: a wonderful ebb to the flow of seclusion, where holes simply play out and back to the far west and east sides of the property.
In contrast to the high side at the 4th and 5th tee, the 13th and 14th sit lower and closer towards the valley. The golf course sits on a bench above the low surrounding area still, but the 13th, a monstrous par 3 at 256 yards on the card, tumbles down to a somewhat infinity-ish green, only partially obstructed by a single juniper tree. There are elements of a reverse redan here: the right side, lower than the left, has bunkers flanking the green and the fairway short, while the slopes seem to suggest a kicker slope, even if WAC did not intentionally build a redan. For my money, templates are an overused gimmick: somewhat of a crutch against creativity of finding (and designing) original concepts. A variation of a redan can be found on almost every golf course: a green, angled at 45 degrees off the line of play, perhaps with a slope feeding it towards the bunkers, is extremely common; my beef is more with traditional copy and paste versions. Here, a natural, low-key redan-esque hole awaits. In my eyes, that is the perfect way to properly utilize Macdonald’s Ideal Holes of Golf.
If there is one criticism of Thornburgh, it is the use of long par 5’s, which is a general criticism against Rod Whitman’s work in general. Generally speaking, they have ended up pretty solid: Cabot Links 11th, diving and rising like the seaside waves on the shore nearby, is dramatic and widely celebrated; Sagebrush’s 7th and 14th, only slightly hindered by the 16th, are wonderful long holes, where options await, though it is hardly an easy birdie; Blackhawk’s 11th is likely the best hole on the course, at least in the eyes of the general population, and the 15th, feeling similar to that of Macdonald’s Bottle hole, is a thinking person’s hole. At Thornburgh, long 5’s are the name of the game, with the 4th, 7th, and 16th measuring 631, 586, 658 from the back deck, respectively. While I do love a good three-shot hole, one shorter par 5 might be preferred, although the land dictates everything. If the sacrifice to get the other holes is these long 5’s, so be it.
With all that said, Thornburgh brings a much-needed style of golf to Central Oregon robbed of such layouts that Bandon Dunes and Cabot Cape Breton have capitalized on. In the area, golf courses like Wicked Pony (Tom Doak) have failed, and the idea of a very lay-of-the-land, second-renaissance golf course is appealing from a pure tourist, destination standout. Sure, you have Tetherow, an acid trip from McLay Kidd that, by his own admission, was built during his divorce and when he was “going through a rough time” and wanted to “make sure everyone else went through a rough time”; Pronghorn’s two courses are popular, though more of the early 2000s architecture style versus today’s low-key nature; the surrounding cast, as well, but nothing quite like Thornburgh, which brings that Dream Golf style of architecture to Bend’s popular budding town. Whitman, Axland, Cutten’s golf course will see high handicappers be able to putt the golf ball from start to finish if they so choose, while low handicappers will have to battle it out with the various hazards and green surrounds as seen from the eyes of the three architects. It will provide the perfect balance between the two demographics, and something the region does not have yet.
Furthermore, Thornburgh will be the first golf course we see Rod Whitman, Dave Axland, and Keith Cutten contribute to a project as equals and partners. They all have their own individual style or flavour: Rod is generally more rambunctious and free-spirited with his shapes, slopes, and decisions, Keith loves his subtle, tricky flavours that unravel like a novel’s plot over the course of the round, while Dave swings between the two extremes to tie them together. All this over the course of eighteen holes is not obvious for those who will enjoy the golf course when they play—it is clear they have an agreed upon vision for the property—but it does bring a new, refreshing outlook on three already successful careers. In a similar way that Beyoncé solo career is not the same sound, style or aesthetic as Destiny Child’s Beyoncé, Rod Whitman, Dave Axland, and Keith Cutten essentially have a second debut project yet again; a rebirth, of sorts, as they navigate the partnership. At Thornburgh, they have continued to reinvent themselves to adapt to their new style and structure.