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Diamond in the Dunes

For people living in the Pacific Northwest, enjoying a winter golf getaway traditionally means trading the wet and cold for the comfortable confines of such warm-weather golfing havens as the Central California Coast, Phoenix or even Hawaii. But before you surf your way to Travelocity to book a flight, you may want to consider somewhere a lot closer to home.

Destination: Sandpines Golf Links in Florence on the Central Oregon Coast. Just a few hours' drive from the Rogue Valley, about 60 miles west of Eugene, this breathtaking course offers a distinctive combination of traditional, Scottish-style links, scenic pines and sparkling lakes, evoking comparisons to world-class Monterey Peninsula golf, all topped off by a memorable trio of signature holes. In short, it's Oregon winter golfing at its finest.

A hidden gem set within the Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area, the course is built on a foundation of sand, which makes for superior drainage during the wet weather months that usually bog down other Northwest courses. The 18-hole, 7,190-yard course, given a 4-1/2 star rating for "Best Places to Play in the USA" from Golf Digest, also boasts a mild climate and reduced winter rates, all adding up to an ideal destination during the traditional golfing off-season.

The course was designed by Rees Jones in 1993, earning it the prestigious Golf Digest designation as the "Best New Public Course in America." It's the first West Coast course he's designed. Jones, the son of renowned golf architect Robert Trent Jones, says the course "brings golf back to its very roots and origins."

Its standing as a superior winter golfing getaway starts with the sand, says Bob Rannow, head golf professional at Sandpines since 2000.

"We're built on a sand base, actually on a sand dune, which provides excellent drainage," he says. "It's probably the best surface to build a golf course on. It's firmer with more roll, and that's huge. In winter time, you're amazed at the rolls you're getting. It can easily give you an extra 10 to 15 yards, and our golfers really enjoy that."

"You don't have a lot of standing water," says 66-year-old Jim Epple, a Sandpines season pass holder who plays as many as 130 rounds a year with his wife, Rosemarie. Epple, who's been a golfer since he was 12, lives about 10 minutes from the course and has been playing Sandpines for 15 years.

"In the winter time, we play it a lot because it drains so quickly."

"Winter can mean many things in Florence," says 55-year-old Steve Smolley, another season pass holder. "Occasionally you have nice weeks in January where it's not wet and windy."

Smolley, along with his wife Jayne, plays more than 100 rounds a year at Sandpines. The Florence couple have been playing Sandpines on and off for the past 16 years.

"For the most part in winter, we'll play throughout the season, even in the rain. The course drains so well it doesn't affect us unless it's an absolute deluge, and even then it doesn't take long to dry. The true advantage of Sandpines is the drainage and the mild conditions on the coast. The fairways are firm and seem to be resilient to the moisture."

The course is open year-round, 365 days, and enjoys a sometimes milder climate with warmer air than inland areas. Being close to the ocean makes for shorter frost delays — generally about an hour, according to Rannow — than courses in the Willamette Valley.

"When bad weather does strike, it seems to stay for a shorter period of time," Rannow says. "If it's socked-in further inland, it moves faster here. We get nicer windows of good winter weather. And even when it's cooler, you can still golf here. It can be 60 degrees in December or January or also 40. You can wear anything from short sleeves, to full decked-out rain gear, wool sweater and hat. It's always a good idea to bring an extra layer of clothing to at least have in your bag. A wind sweater seems to be the most popular thing around here."

Smolley suggests dressing warm and bringing rain gear.

"You can still golf in rain gear," he says. "I've actually golfed some of my better golf in the rain. I don't think it's a detriment to the course, because the drainage is so good."

The outward nine holes are characterized by forests, pine trees and lakes, while the inward nine features rolling dunes throughout the genuine links-style holes. With a heritage based in Scotland, links golf is the world's oldest style of course, referring to strips of land in seaside areas featuring sandy soil, dunes and a rolling landscape.

With three lakes and close to 100 bunkers, the course was rated the fourth toughest in Oregon by the Oregon Golf Association. Sandpines offers five different tees, making it playable for all different skill levels. The par 72 course has four par 3s, 10 par 4s, and four par 5s.

"It's a fantastic combination of links golf and a pine valley-type of experience," Rannow says. "On holes three, four, five and six, you see a change from the links experience to a pine0valley or Monterey-Peninsula feel. Then moving back to seven, it's back to the dunes feel with open space, heathery grass, rolling mounds and hills. It's just phenomenal."

"It's the best-kept secret on the Oregon Coast, every bit equal to Bandon (Dunes), just not as famous," says Epple. "The fairways are narrow, which makes it difficult, but at same time the course is open.

"It's never boring to play. It's always constantly changing. It's a very complicated, well-designed golf course, yet it's player friendly. If you're just a weekend golfer, you can go out and enjoy it, or if you're really serious, it's a tremendous challenge. Rarely do you have a flat lie. Usually you're standing with the ball below your feet, above, left or right."

"It's challenging, definitely," says Smolley. "When I grew up playing occasional golf, par 3s were the easy ones, but I don't think there's an easy hole on this course. You've got to be on your game to actually do well on those par 3s. Sandpines has its own personality is the best way I can put it."

Water and sand traps add to the difficulty; every hole has traps, and five holes are bordered by lakes. "You have to hit the ball straight," Epple emphasizes.

If sand-based drainage is what makes Sandpines special in winter, holes 16, 17 and 18 are what make it extraordinary. The signature holes feature a barrage of Scottish-style bunkers, water hazards and both flat and sloping greens, all mitigated by the beauty of a picturesque golf course with stunning views of the nearby dunes.

"Those three holes are some of the favorite finishing holes of many golfers in the Pacific Northwest," says Rannow. "Eighteen is real similar to 18 on Pebble Beach as far as the layout. It's a real risk-reward hole. There are a lot of good stories — and tragedies."

"We always say when we come up to the 16th, 'this is why we're here,' " says Epple. "All three holes are beautiful, all surrounded by water or near water. Sixteen is par 4, but even I can hit far enough that the second shot is a short one. And in extreme wind, you can play very close."

Eighteen is a short par 5, ranging from 393 yards from the front tees to 518 yards from the tournament tees.

"With the wind behind you, you can easily reach the green in two, but you have to go over water to get there," Epple says.

Winter golfing at Sandpines features reduced pricing on an already affordable course. Greens fees are $49, compared with $79 to $89 in the summer months. The course has been recognized as one of "America's 100 Best Courses for $100 or Less" (2002, Travel & Leisure), "Best 100 Bargain Courses in the U.S." (2001, Maximum Golf) and ranked No. 1 in the "Top 75 Affordable Courses in America" (1996-97, Golf Digest).

Other amenities at Sandpines include a 9,000-square-foot clubhouse with Tavolo Restaurant & Lounge, offering great views of the course, a golf shop, practice area with a grass driving range, bunkers and putting greens.

For more information on Sandpines Golf Links, visit the Web site at www.sandpines.com or call 800-917- 4653. The Web site features a "flyover" QuickTime video of each hole, a seven-day forecast and Web specials and package deals combining golf and accommodations at local hotels.

Diamond in the Dunes