Oregonian: Kinzua Hills golf

FOSSIL — Carol Allen comes from Texas and now calls Vancouver home, but she’s got her sights set on a 40-acre patch of rolling grass about 11 miles east of Fossil.

“I love to play golf, and they’ve got a six-hole golf course out there,” says Allen, spokesman for CenturyTel. “They say you play it three times to get 18 holes.”

You do. Or one-and-a-half times for nine. Or you play the Kinzua Hills Golf Club all day and all summer long, for the simple, funky charm of it.

Which many people do, “from dawn to dark,” says Susan Wimer, treasurer of the volunteer group that keeps it going.

Part of the draw is what the course offers. The other part is what it doesn’t — like the 12 additional holes of a regulation course.

“It’s the only one in Oregon with six holes,” says Nancy Holmes, director of course rating for the Oregon Golf Association.

A retired postmaster, Ione Marler has been president of the Golf Club for about 20 years. “People tell us we should put in three more holes,” Marler says. “But that’s what brings people here.”

Marler says about 250 non-locals a year find their way east from Fossil on Highway 19 about 3.5 miles to Kinzua Lane, then six miles north to Hoover Creek Lane and another mile or so to the course.

Hollis Owens of Woodburn lives six months a year in his motorhome camped next to the course. Lyle Pound of Yerrington, Nevada, has been coming up for 33 years. Jim Nolan leaves the heat of Phoenix, Ariz., each summer for the Kinzua Hills.

“It’s just a neat little course,” Nolan says. “You see wildlife. One time we saw a little cougar walk right across the Number 3 green.”

The club has about 250 dues-paying members. Wheeler County residents pay a $100 annual membership fee per person, or $200 for a family. Non-locals pay $100 for a family. Drop-in play, as a sign on the clubhouse wall explains, runs $5 for each six holes.

Payment goes in “the Honor Box.” “You sign in, put your money in an envelope, and put it in the steel box,” Marler says.

The system works. Wimer says some people a few years ago found the course, but didn’t have any cash. So they played, went home, and mailed her a check.

“It restored my faith in human honesty,” she says.

Club members volunteer to improve the clubhouse, work on the fairways, keep things running. Fred Dunn, vice president of the club, is building a barbecue area and was trimming the rough with a weed whacker two days before the 4th of July.

“People keep telling me to leave it longer so their balls don’t roll in the creek or cut it shorter so they can find their ball,” Dunn says.

Marler’s brother-in-law, Pat Bunyard, 83, is the only employee. He works as greenskeeper six months a year.

“I always thought I’d inherit something,” Marler says. “I had money in mind. I didn’t think it would be my brother-in-law.”

Holmes was impressed with Bunyard’s work. “I really liked it,” she says. “It was in fairly good shape.”

She oversees 24 volunteers who rate courses around Oregon. She was on the team that evaluated Kinzua Hills in 1996.

“We kept seeing this foursome of men, and they’d go by and say ‘Hi’ and we’d say ‘Hi’ and they’d go by and say ‘Hi’ and we’d say ‘Hi,’ and afterwards, I realized that because it’s only six holes and they play it three times, that’s why I kept seeing these guys.”

Carved originally by the defunct Kinzua Corp. from land next to a log pond, the 4,164-yard course sports several distinctive features. It has two sets of tees. Golfers play the long tees the first and third rounds of an 18-hole circuit.

People teeing off at the first hole — which is also the seventh and 13th — whistle shots right past people putting on the sixth — and 12th and 18th — green.

And the third, fourth and fifth fairways all intersect, creating a sort of golfing “no man’s land.”

“Nowadays, I doubt you could get permits to do that, because that could be pretty dangerous,” Holmes says. “But since it was on private land, they could pretty much do what they wanted.”

Bob Owens, an Oregon City building contractor, pointed to the fiberglass roof on the golf cart he and his wife, Jeanie, were driving. “It’s saved us a few times,” he said, laughing.

The couple parks a trailer along Hoover Creek for a couple of months each summer, and drive over as often as they can.

“There’s no pressure, not a lot of golfers, people putz around, it’s pretty easygoing,” Owens says.

After the Kinzua Corp. shut down in 1978 and sold its lands, the Golf Club leased the course property for $1 a year. Two years ago, the club bought the property for $80,000.

“It’s challenging,” says Sharon Sample, down from Boardman with her husband Larry. “It’s not as easy as it looks.”

Holmes says the course is a little short, and not as tough as some. It rates a 60.8 for men — meaning a scratch or par golfer should take that many strokes to complete it — and 62.9 for women. That’s about four strokes less than par.

Surveying the 262-yard fourth hole, Marler says, “this one’s a booger.” The green sits at the end of a tight dogleg bend to the right. Trees flank it on three sides.

“If you hit too far to the left, you get out in what we call the puckerbrush,” she says. “It’s pretty hard to hit out of there.”

Bruce Manclark and his wife, Cory Eberhart, live in Harrisburg but love to travel Oregon in search of rustic golf courses for their PastureGolf.com web site.

Devoted to “the game of rural people, played simply on the fells and fields where sheep and cattle grazed,” the site encourages people to play the Northwest Highland Tour 2001.

The tour involves four courses: Bear Valley Meadows in Seneca, Christmas Valley Golf Course, the Condon Golf Course, and Kinzua Hills.

“If you’re bombing down the road through eastern Oregon and hit Kinzua Hills, it’s like it fell to Earth,” Manclark says. “The mill is gone, the town is gone.”

But the course remains.

“It’s one of those very unique things in Oregon,” Holmes says. “Everyone should experience it.”