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Big Meadow Still A Classic

Big Meadow wasn't so big anymore. The august golf course at a serene Central Oregon resort had succumbed to the paradoxes of aging. As it got older, it got shorter. Long in the tooth meant it lost some of its bite. Once a king of the golfing community, the pride of Black Butte Ranch was finding it increasingly difficult to keep up.

So it did what one might expect. It got a face lift.

Three-and-half years and some $2 million later, the nearly 40-year-old course near Sisters is like a kid again, able to stretch its legs and give the best of players a run for their money.

"Golf has changed," says Jeff Fought, the director of golf for Big Meadow and the resort's other 18-hole course, Glaze Meadow. "Over the last 10, 20 years, the equipment and the ball have changed the game. Most golf courses that are 40 or 50 years old will have to be remodeled. We're never going back to the old days, when people were driving the ball 225 yards. Everybody's driving it 250 yards now. Golf has changed, so your facility has to change. It has to. Otherwise, the characteristics of your golf course change."

Until all the tee boxes and bunkers were redone, Big Meadow was defenseless against golf's evolution. But with the help of original designer Robert Muir Graves, the nip-and-tuck procedure did what it was supposed to without compromising the character and ambience of what is truly a unique setting at the eastern edge of the Cascade Range.

The course winds through meadowlands, up into hills smothered in robust Ponderosa pines and breezy aspens, then back to flatlands. Fairways and greens are immaculate, and there's plenty of variety: unique par 3s, short and long par 4s, doglegs sharp enough to entice one to carve the corner and penal on those who fail.

Those attributes were always there.

Now, tee boxes have been moved back to gain yardage wherever possible and sand traps have sprouted in once easy-to-find landing areas. There are four sets of tees instead of three, lengthening the course to more than 7,000 yards. And bunkers have been reshaped in the "cape and bay" style reminiscent of the New England shoreline, says Fought. A refurbished driving range and an updated irrigation system add to the package.

Fought was asked which hole among Big Meadow's 18 is his favorite. It proved a tough call.

"Now that we've done the remodel, I would have to say, gosh, there's a bunch of favorite holes," says Fought, who is the brother of noted course architect John Fought.

The Foughts grew up in Portland and, like so many families from within Oregon's borders, made annual vacation treks to Central Oregon to enjoy its endless assortment of outdoor activities. Jeff Fought found his way back seven years ago to take over the golf operation.

Big Meadow, the lower of the two resort tracks, is the second-oldest course in the region after Bend Country Club, according to the Central Oregon Visitors Association. Since the Black Butte entity opened in 1972, no fewer than 25 other courses have popped up in Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties. Four more courses are in the planning stages, says Alana Audette of the Visitors Association.

Clearly, there was a method to the Big Meadow remodel.

"Look at what Central Oregon has become," Fought marvels. "We had to do these things to make sure people would still come back to Black Butte."

Black Butte sought the services of a handful of designers for the makeover but was diligent in getting input from Graves. Graves passed away a couple years ago, but before that he helped with the master plan and was pleased with the alterations.

"Before he passed," says Fought, "he got to feel good about us putting his golf course back to the way it should have been. We were very fortunate to have the original architect talk to us about what he did here and why he designed it like he did."

The latest edition of "Golfing in Oregon," a comprehensive guide book, gives the course it's highest rating, calling the course an "excellent facility that is well worth a special trip."

Clearly, Big Meadow has reversed the aging process.

There's little wonder why No. 14 at Big Meadow is the course's signature hole and the most photographed hole at Black Butte Ranch. Majestic Ponderosa pines line each side of the fairway, sneaking up on a green enveloped by waving, white-trunked aspens. Clearly visible in the distance is the jagged countenance of Three-Fingered Jack. During the autumn color show the scenery looks as if an awkward angel spilled her palette, raining bright yellows, blazing oranges and fire reds on the abundant, welcoming aspen leaves.(see correction note below), Black Butte Ranch director of golf.Correction: The original version of this story included an incorrect name for the director of golf. This version has been corrected.

"That's always been the most gorgeous view," says Jeff Fought

It may be beautiful to look at, but playing the hole is no picnic. Three bunkers down the left side of the 382-yard par 4 steer hitters to safe passage on the right. There are sand traps in that direction, too, but it takes about a 270-yard drive to reach them. Big hitters can attempt a 245-yard carry of the left bunkers, but knowing there is out of bounds left and right tempers risk taking. A strong tee shot leaves a short iron to a relatively benign green abutted by four more bunkers.

"It's a short, straight par 4," says Fought, "and there are different ways you can play it. But you can take a 6 pretty easy. Those bunkers are intimidating, that's for sure."

One of Fought's favorite holes is the par-4 fifth hole, which was lengthened to nearly 400 yards and toughened with addition of a fairway bunker.

"We took a kind of blah hole and made it really eye appealing," he says.

Right after that is another par 4 regarded as the most difficult, according to the resort's Web site, even though it's the fifth handicap hole. The narrow par 4 is 400 yards and leaves little margin for tee shots that leak right - the most common affliction among golfers. Here, the afflicted find themselves in the Ponderosas.

The No. 1 handicap hole is next up, a 553-yard par 5, making that particular string of holes something of a gauntlet.

A similar run of memorable holes can be found on the back nine: No. 12, a short uphill par 4, presents the most difficult putting challenge because of the severity of the back-to-front slope; No. 13 is an uphill par 3 with a similarly difficult green.

The signature hole - and the most photographed - at Big Meadow is No. 14, a 382-yard par 4 that is both beautiful and tough. - Black Butte Ranch