Aspen Lakes Golf Course
Sisters course is a gem among Central Oregon golf courses

SISTERS —

Turning from the third green to the fourth tee at Aspen Lakes Golf Course last week, something struck me.

I had just walked off a green that was bordered by three massive red-cinder bunkers, Aspen Lakes’ unique signature features that are located throughout the course.

As I approached the par-3 fourth hole, I saw dark-green reeds rising in front of a shallow green and two more of those blood-red bunkers that contrast so beautifully with the emerald green of the turf.

At that moment, under gray afternoon skies, I was overcome with a singular thought.

“Man,” I told my friend Dustin, my playing partner for the day, “I almost forgot how gorgeous this place is.”

Aspen Lakes ­— with all its views of snowcapped peaks — is indeed breathtaking.

Good thing, too.

The scenery helps take your mind off that “9” you just made on a 600-yard par 5. (For once it was my partner, and not me, who blew up on the 606-yard third hole.)

The course, which was designed in 1997 by Pacific Northwest architect Bill Overdorf, also happens to be unmistakably challenging.

At 7,302 yards from the back tees, Aspen Lakes is the second-longest daily fee course in Central Oregon. Half of its holes bring water into play, and the layout twists and turns with eight doglegs.

Some of those doglegs — including nearly 90-degree turns on the 378-yard, par-4 first hole and the signature 450-yard, par-4 11th hole — force golfers to play from uncomfortable angles.

The course demands much of a player. Sometimes Aspen Lakes begs for a big drive, and at other times it forces a golfer into precise shots to play around water. And at still other times, the course challenges a player to decide between precision and distance.

For instance, a ridge bisects the 479-yard, par-4 14th hole some 260 yards down the fairway. A layup with a fairway wood leaves a monstrous 200-yard approach into a tough green, which is a challenging shot for any amateur. But as tempting as bombing a drive may be, anything less than a perfectly squared blast will meet almost certain trouble.

Aspen Lakes also serves up four exceptional par 5s, ranging in distance from 547 to 606 yards. And its difficult set of par 3s is highlighted by the 222-yard, par-4 15th hole, which is easily among the best-designed short holes in Central Oregon.

Such an array of quality holes and the interesting shots they produce should appeal to any golfer who wants to test the limits of his or her game.

“The landing zones are generous, but you have to hit to them,” says Rob Malone, Aspen Lakes’ director of golf, “and there is a tree that follows you around the whole course, it seems sometimes.

“It’s a fair course, but it’s not an easy course.”

Malone is right.

On this day, Aspen Lakes would get the best of both members of our twosome during certain stretches. For me, I managed the front nine well, avoiding trouble throughout. That changed on the back nine, when my game gave way to Aspen Lakes’ challenges.

Yet, we were undeterred by our struggles.

After a three-putt bogey on the picturesque par-5 10th hole, we headed to the signature par-4 11th.

“I’m not even close to playing my best out here and I am still enjoying it,” Dustin said casually.

And what higher compliment could be paid to a golf course?

Difficulty of course

At 7,302 yards from the back tees — second only to Pronghorn Club’s Nicklaus Course as the longest daily fee course in Central Oregon — Aspen Lakes has the ability to challenge every golfer.

More than just long, the ponderosa pine-lined layout forces golfers to be accurate, too. Water is present on nine holes, and Aspen Lakes’ unique red-cinder bunkers and slick, undulating greens make approach shots particularly difficult.

However, Aspen Lakes offers five sets of tees, including a forward tee at a relatively manageable 5,594 yards. And novices should find comfort in the fact that there are few real forced carries over water, and that the fairways are relatively generous.

Favorite hole

The par 5s are the strength of Aspen Lakes.

All four are quality holes that offer a wide variety of distances. And each par 5 has its own character, which makes picking a favorite a tough task.

The 554-yard 10th hole, though, sticks out because of its risk-reward nature.

To reach the green in two shots, the tee shot should be played on the left side of the fairway. From there, a golfer will have two choices. Going for the shallow green means negotiating around bunkers set in the front and rear of the green and a small pond that guards the front-right portion of the putting surface.

The safer play is to lay up left of the pond. That angle opens up the green on approach and takes most of the water out of play.

How to approach the course

The length of Aspen Lakes forces golfers to rely on a driver frequently. But on holes where a driver is mandatory for a reasonable approach shot — such as the 606-yard, par-5 third hole, the 469-yard, par-4 fifth, the 462-yard, par-4 ninth, and the 443-yard, par-4 16th — the fairways are typically generous to aid an aggressive shot off the tee.

There is a learning curve with Aspen Lakes’ bunkers, which are filled with red cinder that is much heavier and far more coarse than conventional sand.

If a ball does find its way into a bunker, consider using a putter or playing the shot more like a chip rather than a more standard bunker shot. The cinder does not grab a ball like lighter sand, and an imaginative golfer can use that to his or her advantage.

Once on the greens, golfers will discover surfaces with often subtle breaks that can make even short putts a challenge.

Off the course

Aspen Lakes is loaded with extras, including GPS in every golf cart.

The practice facilities include an average-sized driving range and roomy putting green, both within a short walk of the first tee.

The course’s short-game practice area is set across Aspen Lakes Drive from the clubhouse, which is a significant distance. But the short-game area is massive.

The Aspen Lakes clubhouse — which houses a relatively well-stocked pro shop, a snack bar, a full bar and Brand 33 restaurant — is among the nicest such facilities in the region.

Verdict

Aspen Lakes is among the top public facilities in the area, and one that will test every level of golfer.

With $75 green fees during primetime, Aspen Lakes is roughly on par with Central Oregon’s other high-caliber daily fee courses. The course does offer an early-bird rate each morning and twilight rates, and it reduces its rates after noon on Mondays for seniors ($39 with cart) and on Tuesdays for any local ($49 with cart). In addition, families receive a discount (twosomes, $35 with cart; foursomes, $45 with cart) after 5 p.m. every day.

In the end, if playing a tough course in a gorgeous setting is appealing, Aspen Lakes is awfully difficult to beat.

— Reporter: 541-617-7868, zhall@bendbulletin.com.

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