Reverse Engineered

Published on Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 in Features

Wine Valley architect Dan Hixson reverses course(s) at Silvies Valley Ranch.

by Tom Ferrell

When last we saw Dan Hixson, the golf pro-turned-architect from Portland, it was 2009, and the golf world was falling in love with the massive scale and myriad strategies of Wine Valley.

This summer, Hixson will open Silvies Valley Ranch in remote Burns, Ore. – a sustainable ranch and travel experience with two Dan Hixson courses. Or, you might say, one with a twist — the course is reversible, and will play in opposite directions on alternating days.

It’s been a long time coming. Shortly after Wine Valley opened in 2009, Hixson received a call from Dr. Scott Campbell, an Oregon veterinarian who had transformed the local Banfield Pet Hospital into a national enterprise with more than 800 locations, many of them in PetSmart stores. Campbell had acquired some 140,000 acres in his native Grant County, deep in eastern Oregon, and cultivated a vision for a groundbreaking, sustainable ranching development that would not only function as a working enterprise, but also as a modern tourist destination. Golf was part of his plan.

“I was actually at Wine Valley when the first call came in,” Hixson says. “I knew Scott was ambitious, and I had heard how big the land was.“

The timing, however, could have been better, with the recession entering full swing.

“Needless to say, given the economy, development took place in a number of deliberate stages,” Hixson adds.

Some architects might have gotten restless. Hixson, however, used the time to his advantage. He made countless trips to the property — roughly a seven-hour drive from Seattle, or a two-hour jaunt over from Central Oregon — and walked and walked and walked. Those long strolls made him sure of one thing.

“A good golf course, a normal golf course – that wouldn’t work,” Hixson says. “The land is so vast. There are so many good holes.”

Among the themes at Silvies Valley Ranch are innovation and conservation, which add together to create sustainability. Hixson’s idea for the golf side of the project followed suit.

“It didn’t start out as reversible,” he says. “The idea was to do six fixed holes, then six reversible holes, then six fixed holes to finish. But when I pitched it to Scott, he loved the concept of reversibility and said, ‘Let’s do the whole thing.’”

The result is two completely different 18-hole golf courses – the Hankins and the Craddock. The complex sounds, well, complex. Nine greens play on both courses. Of another 18 individual greens, nine play in the Hankins configuration and the other nine in the Craddock configuration. Golfers who find themselves in a greenside bunker one day may the next day find themselves in the same bunker, but now it plays as a fairway bunker going the opposite way.

“It can be a lot to get your head around on paper,” Hixson confesses, “but I think it all fits together on the ground.”

In fact, it was the fitting together on the ground that created the reversible-ish approach.

“There were no rules other than ‘no bad holes,’” Hixson says of his marching orders. “There are six holes that, in the end, could only play in one direction due to elevation changes. In order to make them go both ways, you would have had to create a bad hole to make a good one.”

For his part, Hixson thinks that golfers who make the trek to this most remote of the new generation of remote golf Meccas will be not only challenged, but engaged and entertained.

“I hope the answer to this whole riddle is going to be golf that captures the imagination and provides a new and different way of enjoying the game,” he says.

‘Hixson did get a chance to visit Tom Doak’s truly reversible layout at Forest Dunes, Mich. – The Loop. He loved it, while noting the differences between his and Doak’s work.

“The Loop is a lot different,” Hixson says. “What Tom did, with 18 greens and tees, is remarkable. This was a different program.”

While Doak worked with a compact piece of property, Hixson faced the challenge of finding a way to communicate intimacy on a massive and complicated canvas.

“This is its own big theater,” he says of Silvies. “We get up to some high points that afford great views of golf. But we also get down into the valleys and into some forested areas. There are four distinct environments, and it adds something to experience those in different ways each day.”

The Hankins and Craddock courses are not the end of golf at Silvies Valley Ranch, either. A nine-hole short course will also open this summer. And next year, the resort will unveil a seven-hole “fun” course, McVeigh’s Gauntlet.

“The Gauntlet is like those old calendars, the fantasy golf holes,” Hixson says. “They wouldn’t really work as part of a serious golf course, but man, are they spectacular. It will be a totally new way to connect with golf and golf shots.”

And so, almost a decade after Hixson’s comet blew past the golf world with Wine Valley (and, previously, with Bandon Crossings), the light returns this summer at Silvies Valley Ranch. It won’t be the last you hear from Dan Hixson. Already, he has another – as yet, unannounced – commission, and once golfers discover what he has been working on these past eight years, the stars might just align to make Dan Hixson the next 25-year-overnight sensation.

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