PORT ORFORD, Ore. -- Even hidden under a winter blanket, the vision of Pacific Gales is clear.
This 1,100-acre ranch land could easily become Oregon's next great links golf course. To my left is a 100-foot cliff dropping straight to a beach on the Pacific Ocean. To my right are dunes that would make any links lover's heart sing. I'm staring across a coastal chasm to a makeshift green with a flag that overlooks the Elk River Valley. If the sky weren't so gray, the jaw-dropping views would stretch to Cape Blanco Lighthouse, Humbug Mountain and the Port Orford Reef Islands.
Under my feet is, um, two inches of fresh powder. I'd learn later that the land owner, the Knapp family, hasn't seen a snowstorm like this on the coast in decades. It was a surreal scene visiting Pacific Gales on such a freaky cold, snowy day in March. I had to use my imagination to picture real grass cut into fairways, greens and tees with yellow gorse blooming and fescue on the dunes swaying in the breeze.
That's the vision Pacific Gales co-founders Jim Haley and Dave Esler, along with their man on the ground, Troy Russell, have been holding onto while trying to get the project off (or shall we say into) the ground. With a little luck, a few more regulatory details to wrap up and a cash infusion by new investors, groundbreaking could start later this year. By joining the Pacific Gales Founders Club, any golfer can join the team that ultimately makes the course a reality.
"There is a great golf course sitting there," says Haley, a former shaper for David McLay Kidd who owns Highland Golf Services, a golf construction company based in Nebraska. "I've had 20 years to walk the property. It will be right there with the golf courses at Bandon Dunes (resort)."
The background: Two decades in the making
Haley first laid eyes on the ranch at a crab feed in 1997, while helping Kidd shape Bandon Dunes, the original course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort 30 miles north. Eventually, Jeff Knapp, one of the ranch owners, went to work for Haley, shaping golf projects from Hawaii to London. "In 2005, we started talking seriously (about building a course)," Haley recalls. "That ranch is owned by a whole bunch of family members. We had to get them all on board."
Both Herb Kohler, the owner of The American Club in Wisconsin, and Mike Keiser, the owner of Bandon Dunes resort, have been on property to explore its potential, but Haley's relationship with the family eventually secured a deal. In 2010, he and Esler signed a 30-year lease (including four additional 25-year extensions) for use of 350-plus acres, much of it on the cliffs and an inland section on the other side of the dune line.
The chase to get government approval launched in 2011, continuing to this day. Russell, the original superintendent at Bandon Dunes, has trudged to years of meetings at the city, county and state level. Haley says he and Esler have spent $500,000 of their own money to fund studies and provide facts to dispute anybody who raises concerns about Pacific Gales. They've had to fend off environmentalist groups and random residents who oppose golf or development in general.
"The land use process in Oregon is involved," Haley says. "Anybody who wants to object to a project can by sending in an email. They can make stuff up. During the first county process, someone said that we were going to pollute the Elk River. Well, it is half a mile away and the land drains the other way."
Pacific Gales team members have worked tirelessly to prove they're out to enhance the community and local economy, not destroy the environment. Port Orford is a small fishing village in a rural area. Some fear another megaresort like Bandon Dunes, although Pacific Gales plans to remain a more intimate golf destination. Long-term plans call for a smaller clubhouse (10,000 square feet) built into a dune so it doesn't intrude upon the setting. Per state law, only 21 four-bedroom, 4 ½-bath bedroom villas can be built as accommodations.
"It is a hard process," Haley says of obtaining approval to build. "This could be last course built on the Oregon coast. It's so hard to get permitting, and there is no land left. Most of it is owned by the government."
As for the routing itself, the inland holes on flatter ground are still being tweaked, but both nines will finish with dramatic stretches along the cliffs.
"I think Dave's done a great job on the routing," Haley says. "He's done a great job in getting us around the dunes. We didn't want to have situation like number 14 on Bandon Trails (where golfers ride a shuttle up a steep hill). There is a par 5 up that south end, where you have 600 yards to pick up 60 feet of elevation change. You wind up finishing on that (oceanfront) peninsula for holes 9 and 18. From my standpoint, we've got the best finishing holes in golf, potentially. It is just a cool site."
During an interview on SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio, Esler, a Chicago-based architect, joked that the key to the whole project is to "not screw it up."
"I don't know if it will be the best golf course on the coast, but I can tell you it will be the most fun and arguably the most beautiful. It is the real deal," Esler says. " … The holes away from the ocean and away from the dunes, or in the created dunes, need to be every bit as good and fun as what's out on the ocean."
Fundraising for the future
With the end to the regulatory process in sight, fundraising began last fall. Haley said $6 million needs to be raised through its Founders Club to get construction going.
Pacific Gales is working toward closing Tier 1 of the Founders Club fundraising program this summer. According to marketing materials, a limited number of initial founderships are priced at $50,000, each structured as a loan. Founders receive a lifetime of links golf without dues or assessments, plus a host of other benefits and VIP treatments such as preferred tee times and concierge booking; complimentary golf for immediate family members playing with a founder; discounted green fees for accompanied guests; the ability to transfer the foundership one time to another individual; and special rates on Pacific Gales-owned overnight accommodations. Small and full corporate founderships are also available.
Under the current timeline (weather-permitting), founders would have exclusive preview-play access beginning in late 2018, and the first 120 would receive invites to the Founders Club Grand Opening Event. All founders will have full site access during the design and construction process. (For more information, visit www.PacificGales.com.)
"It (the Founders Club) is a great way to finance a project," Haley says. "It gets a whole bunch of people involved. When building a course, it is fun to be involved through construction. It is amazing watching it come to life."
After nearly 20 years of dreaming, Haley is resting easier about the future of Pacific Gales.
"The worry isn't there anymore. The sleepless nights two or three years ago aren't there anymore," Haley says. "It's nice to be poised for ground breaking. Everybody is excited. It will be fun to get in the ground."