fb pixel

Log In


Reset Password

Forever Linked

The head pro and his golf course have something in common: Each has come full circle. The pro did so after a serendipitous meeting on an island thousands of miles away. The golf course, the focal point of that meeting, did so when it regained status as one of Oregon's finest.

Todd O'Neal grew up playing Emerald Valley Golf Club, a spacious, tree-lined layout south of Eugene in Creswell. An accomplished junior golfer, he won the 1984 high school state championship while a senior at Sheldon High and soon after set out in a profession that is often nomadic in nature. Pros hop from course to course like bees to flowers. They seek better work, better weather, new memberships, new experiences. And why not? Who's more likely to think the grass is greener on the other side than a golfer?

Eventually, O'Neal's travels brought him home, back to Emerald Valley. But the grass wasn't greener.

For a quarter-century after it opened in 1964, the course reigned as the most popular public facility in the area. But hard economic times and mismanagement in the 1990s made it anything but the jewel for which it is named.

"It was probably at its best in the mid-'80s," says O'Neal.

The course was originally owned by a family in the lumber business. When logging flagged, the course was taken over by a bank, then turned over to first one golf management company, then another.

"They really didn't do anything with it," says O'Neal, "and that's when it went upside down and backwards."

O'Neal was well into his career sojourn by then. He worked in Portland, Seattle, on Maui, in Klamath Falls and Vancouver before trying his hand at mini tours.

After two years, he returned to the club-pro gig. "I missed it too much," he says.

He was rehired in 2000 at the renowned Kapalua Resort on Maui, where he'd served as head of instruction nearly a decade earlier. It was there a chance meeting occurred that would send him home.

A man from O'Neal's stomping grounds came in and, during light conversation, asked the pro if he'd ever heard of Emerald Valley.

O'Neal chuckles at the recollection.

"I said, 'Yeah, I played all my high school matches there,' " he says. "I told him it's a great golf course, but the only problem is, nobody ever takes care of it."

The man, Jim Pliska, then said he might buy the course. O'Neal sized up the visitor, wondered about his financial resources and then let his skepticism get the best of him.

"I said, 'I'll tell you what,' " O'Neal recalls, " 'you buy it and I'll run it.' "

Six months later, he got an e-mail from Pliska that said, "Get your butt home, you've got a job," says O'Neal.

Pliska was willing to sink money into the course and restore its luster. Only four months after O'Neal arrived in the summer of 2002, the putting green was plowed under in favor of its immaculate replacement.

"That was the first sign anyone had seen in a long time where someone said they were going to come in and do something and they actually did it," says O'Neal.

Work hasn't stopped on the five-year, $2 million-plus renovation. Roughly half the funds went to install a sweeping irrigation system that increased nightly watering from 300,000 gallons to 900,000. Another major upgrade is an acre-plus practice facility.

Elsewhere, the 11th and 12th holes were overhauled, nearly all the tee boxes have been redone, 30 new bunkers bring the total to 47, a pond was extended and a fountain added around a par-3 green, and the two nines were reversed.

"You don't know until you get into something like this how much work it's going to be," says O'Neal.

The major work is done. Now it's mostly touch-up on a course that again swells with pride. Evidence of its revival is in the plethora of championship events it now hosts. In the past few years, Emerald Valley has had a U.S. Open sectional qualifier, several U.S. Amateur qualifiers and Oregon Stroke Play championships, and last year's Pacific Northwest Golf Association Championship. Further, Emerald Valley has become home of the University of Oregon men's and women's teams.

Among the benefits of the course, says Eric Yaillen, OGA director of communications, are its central location, vast practice area, accommodating staff and outstanding condition, which is seen to by superintendent Scott Larsen.

For Emerald Valley to hold such high-level national qualifiers, it has to have length and difficulty. Check and check. Trees guard most of the fairways and water comes into play often as the 170-acre plot abuts the coast fork of the Willamette River. From the tips, it plays to nearly 7,100 yards, with a rating of 74.0 and a slope of 130. Seven par 4s measure more than 420 yards and three of the four par 5s are 555 yards or longer.

"If you want a true champion, the best player in the field, this course will give you that," says O'Neal. "It exposes the weaknesses of people very fast."

That's from the back tees. Three other sets of tee boxes make the course enjoyable for all levels of golfers, and as word has spread of its re-emergence, there's been a steady stream of players coming back.

Including a club pro whose travels may have finally ended.

Forever Linked