GEARHART, Ore. - It was about the fifth hole that I began to wish Gearhart Golf Links still had a mule-pulled refreshment cart. How did it suddenly get so sunny and warm, when the drive down from Seattle had been so cloudy?
But surprises are typical of the Oregon coast, as any native Oregonian like me should know, I reminded myself as I pulled my clubs up and down and around, wondering why the course's founders had to make the links so reminiscent of their native Scotland. (Think uneven fairways, thick vegetation in the rough and exposure to the wind, which is seemingly always working against you).
Four more holes, like all things, passed, and I made a rather spectacular shot out of a sand trap along the way. (Another surprise!) As I trudged, sweating, from the ninth hole toward the pro shop, I was happy to see a sign-painted on a piece of driftwood-informing me that the 10th hole was thataway, a place I was never going, and the pub was thisaway.
Gearhart Hotel and Sand Trap Pub perches at the edge of the 18-hole Gearhart Golf Links in its namesake little town on the Oregon coast. It's the latest in the string of hotels, pubs, craft breweries, music and movie venues operated by Portlanders Mike and Brian McMenamin.
They'd operated The Sand Trap Pub in what is known as the Kelly House for about four years; they stacked another floor on the building last year and opened the hotel in May.
Just two miles north of Seaside, Gearhart couldn't be more different from its neighbor. Founded in 1890, Gearhart quickly became a resort community, ornamented with grand beachfront hotels and quaint cottages where Portland's well-heeled liked to summer.
The town of about 1,100 people has grown a little but retained that genteel feel, thanks to its shingled homes with picket fences and English-style gardens. It's the type of town where a Sunday morning means walking the dog, hailing neighbors, stopping at the grocery - all on one street. It has the lovely, contemplative quiet that regular visitors to the north end of the Oregon coast value, the serenity that folks who like to drink Dead Guy Ale at trivia night in Newport might find boring.
It's a nice spot to settle for an overnight, if you're interested in a scenic game of golf and don't have the wherewithal for the pricier Salishan resort and golf course in Lincoln City, 95 miles south.
The stunning Haystack Rock, and the companion quaint galleries and shops of Cannon Beach, are 10 miles south of Gearhart and are always worth a trip when wandering the northern Oregon coast. I've been visiting there for more than 30 years, following in the footsteps of my great-grandparents, who cracked a few crabs in the vicinity starting shortly after the 20th century was born.
A golf course with history
The Gearhart golf course has a more colorful history than the quiet, 1 percent-steeped Gearhart. According to McMenamins and other historical sources, the golf course was created by homesick Scots in 1891, making it the oldest course in Oregon.
But the founders and their followers have never taken golfing as seriously as those Scots at St. Andrews, according to local legend. Gearhart is where night golfing was invented, it is said, in 1914, when arguing players decided to settle things by driving their cars, lights on, onto the course. Angora goats kept the grass trimmed.
A lighthearted tournament held in the 1960s included a "refreshment cart" pulled by a mule (color me green).
The course was designed to settle naturally amid the coastal landscape, which it does, winding among wind-stunted trees and gentle hills. It has a cluster of devilish sand traps, or pot bunkers, and a water hazard that seemed to challenge other, more experienced golfers (that'd be everyone except me).
After the ninth hole, where I refrained from shouting "hallelujah," the Golfing Spouse and I trundled our carts up to the pro shop and popped in to the next-door Pot Bunker Grill. The first barstool in the narrow bar has a lovely view, framed by the doorway, of the golf course, making it a restful spot to sip a McMenamins-crafted hard cider and watch the late-day sun burn off the clouds.
The small space also meant we were an audience for the horoscope readings being done for the staff by a bartender on break. "What's your sign?" she asked us.
Such friendliness was rampant across the property. Three eager young women were at the Gearhart Hotel front desk when we arrived, and they seemed overjoyed to see us. Disclaimer: One staffer's happiness was the result of my pointing out they'd erroneously given us two rooms, meaning that she could call a potential visitor who had been earlier turned away. The good-naturedness carried over into the pub, the restaurant and the room cleaners.
Another happy surprise: At the Gearhart Hotel, unlike other McMenamins properties, every room has its own bathroom. No trooping to the communal loo!
The Gearhart Hotel still has some of the oughta-be-trademarked funkiness factor, with clever murals integrating local history (a handout helps you take a self-guided tour) and an eclectic collection of hanging lamps from a wide range of eras and tastes. But these are nestled amid burnished wood paneling, plenty of historical photos, a nice view of the links from the restaurant/bar, a comfortable terrace and plush carpeting.
The hotel is not right on the beach; the ocean is a block away. Going to the (non-golfing) sand means crossing the street, walking a block or so and following a pathway to the shore.
It's also one of the few places in Oregon where driving right on the beach is allowed, so mind how you walk.
Along with its bathroom, each room has a name on its beautifully varnished door, most taken from a book called "The Mystery of Golf" by Arnold Haultain, a prolific 19th-century author who wrote essays as well as 36 books. Which is a wonder, considering "Mystery of Golf" is subtitled "A Brief Account of the Game: its Origin, Antiquity, & Romance; its Uniqueness, its Curiousness, & its Difficulty; its anatomical, philosophical, and moral Properties; together with diverse Concepts on other Matters to it Appertaining." Surely writing that took the better part of a day.
My room was called "the body politic," which sent me straight to my smartphone. The name is apt; it came from Haultain's statement "the whole body politic is thrown, every time it sets out on a round (of golf), into the throes of a constitutional crisis."
My feet and my lower back were definitely thinking about seceding. Folks down the hall had the no-research-necessary rooms labeled "play" and "temptation."
In the temptation department, the restaurant was offering oyster stew as a dinner special, which the Golfing Spouse ordered. "Slightly watery," he declared, but ate it all nonetheless
On the breakfast menu was a plate of blueberry-almond pancakes, which Golfing Spouse sawed into. I was less adventurous and for that, my usual-porridge-was lumpy and chewy, as if it had been left behind when the Three Bears went for their walk. (And yes, it is really called porridge, and no, I couldn't order it without snickering. You try it.)
Yet another surprise: McMenamins, already a brewer/winemaker/distiller, now makes its own bloody mary mix, and the guys reading their newspapers at the bar in the Sand Trap gave it a silent thumbs up without looking away from their sports pages when polled by other patrons.
Maybe a little of that rogue golf-links spirit lives on.
IF YOU GO
Gearhart Hotel and Sand Trap Pub
The Gearhart is an 18-room hotel with two pubs/restaurant and an 18-hole golf course. Hotel rates vary seasonally, $130-$195 for a queen room, pets allowed in some rooms.
The public golf course is a par 72; greens fees are $35-$65 weekdays, $45-$75 weekends.
The hotel is on the northern Oregon coast at 1157 N. Marion Ave., Gearhart; 503-717-8150 or mcmenamins.com. Golf course, 503-738-3538.
Gearhart is about 200 miles from Seattle or 80 miles from Portland, Ore.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun