Grant Lucas

For Rob Malone, this golf season has been challenging, to put it mildly.

Winter’s record snowfall led to delayed openings for many Central Oregon courses. There was, as Malone puts it, the “wet in the spring” that was immediately followed by a stretch of scorching days. Then there was last week’s total solar eclipse. Now, it’s the Milli Fire just west of Sisters.

“It’s like, ‘What’s next?’” laughs Malone, the director of golf at Aspen Lakes, just east of Sisters. “Golly, they’re testing us. The travesty is, the course is in fantastic condition this year.”

The 21,100-acre-plus Milli Fire has flooded the air with smoke that can some days be described as a light haze and others as a dense and eerie cloud.

“If you’ve ever been to the beach and there’s a fog, it’s kind of like that,” Malone describes. “Not as thick that you can’t see your hand. But sometimes in the mornings, I can’t see the trees on the back of the (driving) range, which is about 350 yards away.”

Smoke from area wildfires has had varying effects at Central Oregon courses. At Aspen Lakes, for example, Malone says there has been a “significant impact” on tee sheets — even if the smoky clouds that settle nearby in the mornings dissipate by the warm afternoons.

“I think everybody expects that it’s smoky out here, so they just don’t play,” Malone says, observing that, at times, Bend has experienced worse air quality than at Aspen Lakes. “We’ve had a number of players who booked in the morning, came out, saw the smoke and decided not to play. A number of those same players moved to the afternoon and enjoyed their round. Nonetheless, it’s certainly had a negative impact.”

There have certainly been cancellations at Black Butte Ranch, just northwest of Aspen Lakes. For perspective on the Milli Fire’s effect on the two Black Butte courses, the Big Meadow course recently hosted the Oregon Golf Association Oregon Amateur Four-Ball Championship, and one day, in between the morning and afternoon matches, crews had to clear the greens of fallen ash.

Some days, says Jeff Fought, the Black Butte Ranch director of golf, “it is dark. You can’t see the sun. But I’ve been outside a lot. It does not bother me a lot. When you get reports that our air quality is hazardous, what are people thinking? Last week, with all the fires, Sisters was terrible. But then you get 4 miles from the ranch, and it’s beautiful. It’s all about the wind and where it pushes the smoke.”

To the northeast of Black Butte Ranch, Crooked River Ranch has experienced similar smoke-related inconsistencies. Some days, says Crooked River Ranch head pro Pat Huffer, the clouds of smoke will be thicker, though most other days have been rather light. This past Saturday, for example, Huffer says he could see Smith Rock, which sits less than 15 miles away to the southeast, and Gray Butte, which is a tad farther away and to the east of CRR.

“We’ve had one day that (the smoke) was pretty bad,” Huffer says, noting that while cancellations were few, bookings “just weren’t heavy in the afternoon. All in all, it hasn’t been bad. In fact, our numbers are up over last year for the month. It’s not affecting us too much.”

Huffer says wind direction determines if smoke lingers at Crooked River Ranch. If the breeze blows north, he explains, it should be a clearer day at the course. Wind from the north, however, means smoke from the Nena Springs Fire near Warm Springs, which has burned more than 68,000 acres, could make its way to the track. Huffer says some players have canceled rounds because of respiratory issues or concerns. But the majority of players at Crooked River Ranch, he says, have not complained about smoke.

“We’ve had years when it’s been a lot worse than this, and there wasn’t any fires,” Huffer laughs. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like there’s no smoke out here, but the visibility is good.”

In Bend, the density of smoke often has increased as the day wears on. Taylor Giacomini, a Widgi Creek golf instructor and the men’s club director, says the air quality at the course just southwest of town has been “moderate compared to a lot of Central Oregon,” though the smoke settles in as the sun sets. There have been days, Giacomini says, when ash dusted the course, but the residual effects of Central ­Oregon wildfires have not affected play much.

“That’s pretty much right when we’re getting the most smoke, is when it settles in at night, probably an hour before dusk,” Giacomini says. “But during the day, for the most part, it stays pretty clear. … It hasn’t affected us in a great way, which is surprising, because a lot of the smoke settles in at night, and that’s when we have our most frequent play, after 3 p.m. We still have people teeing off between 3 p.m. and 5:30.”

Giacomini suggests that golfers be mindful about playing. He says that if a player is experiencing a scratchy throat while on the course, “it’s probably not the best to be out there playing. Other than that, hit the ball straight and hope you can see it.”

“What we tell people is if you have respiratory problems, do what your doctor would tell you and probably stay indoors,” says Malone, the Aspen Lakes director of golf. “But don’t expect that it’s going to be super smoky all day long. Just kind of remember that as the night comes on and air cools, the smoke finds its way to the ground; but as the heat of the day comes around, it lifts it back up off the ground. … There’s still a smell of it in the air, but visibility’s just fine, and from a respiratory perspective, by the afternoon, it’s a whole lot better.”

Yet there are few negative outlooks on the remainder of the golf season leading into the shoulder season. Fought, the Black Butte Ranch director of golf, says he senses a big trend in golf coming up and is optimistic that Central ­Oregon will enjoy a respite from smoke.

“I just hope that people realize to give us a call (about air conditions); we’ll be honest,” Fought says. “Both courses are in great shape. And there’s some great days left for golf still.”

Malone says business has been relatively slow during the recent smoke, though Aspen Lakes has maintained normal business hours. To offset that decline in tee times, Malone has instituted a smoke-related discount for morning tee times, which varies depending on the air quality of the day. It is an attempt, Malone explains, to increase business and, after months of irregularity, help golfers experience a few days of the true golf season.

“It’s been an interesting year,” Malone says. “I’d like to have what one might consider a ‘normal’ period of time, because we really haven’t had one yet.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0307,