Two goats are on the lawn just outside the Great Hall at Sunriver Resort.
They are not running. They are not showing signs of stress. They are chomping away on some feed, gazing out at the gathering crowd that has circled the two four-legged 4-year-olds.
Strapped to each goat is a backpack filled with only the essentials for those who may need the services of quadrupeds such as these: golf clubs, a few balls, some tees, a few sleeves to hold canned refreshments.
To the awestruck group of folks here taking a break from the International Association of Golf Tour Operators conference — and to the world, really — this was the introduction of what are believed to be the first caddie-trained goats.
And at Silvies Valley Ranch, are they ever happy to find a new vocation.
“It was the goat caddies that came up with it,” Colby Marshall, the vice president of livestock and guest services at Silvies, says while relaxing between events at the IAGTO conference. “They’ve worked for years in a dead-end job at a restaurant. They were looking for something better than that. When you’re working in a restaurant as a meat goat, that’s not a great long-term career opportunity. So they presented some ideas, and we, as responsible employers, we listened. Hence, goat caddies.”
That, of course, is the story Marshall likes to tell (and surprisingly, with a straight face). It makes sense. After all, at Silvies, located some 40 miles north of Burns on a remote tract of Grant County, livestock — cattle and goats — are born and raised on site for culinary masterpieces at the ranch. In total, Marshall estimates, Silvies is home to 3,000 head of goats and 4,500 head of cows.
“The largest concentration of vegetarians in the Pacific Northwest,” Marshall jokes.
As heartwarming as Marshall’s story is — the Disney-esque take of goats finding their true calling in life — the truth is more historical.
To hear Marshall tell it, goats have been used as pack animals by Peruvian herdsmen for thousands of years. Even at Silvies there are Peruvian herdsmen, and over the years, Marshall says, they have taken goats out for walks with lunches and water and snacks — for the herdsmen and for the goats.
Dan Hixson, designer of the famous reversible 18-hole courses at the ranch, was finalizing touches on a seven-hole course on the property. McVeigh’s Gauntlet, as the course came to be, was to be played, essentially, on a hillside with inclines and declines. Golf carts would not be allowed on McVeigh’s. Collectively, a group of Silvies higher-ups looking to work around the cart ban had a brainstorm: the livestock.
“Ultimately, it was someone just asking, ‘What about using the goats?’” Marshall recalls. “It was really kind of that simple. Then it was like, ‘Yeah, why couldn’t we do that?’”
An industry was born. And at the forefront are these two four-legged 4-year-olds: caddie master Bruce LeGoat and his nephew Mike LeChevon, the caddie captain.
Six goats will help kick off the McVeigh’s opening, which is scheduled for Tuesday. Each goat will be saddled with custom-made backpacks from Seamus Golf. Each will have gone through training, which largely entails getting used to walking with golfers and having them reach in the bag for a new club or a hard-earned beer or a well-deserved peanut for the caddie.
Marshall says the goat caddies are selected much like how a family finds a pet, determining friendliness levels and comfort around people. Frankly, Marshall says, the majority of his herd might qualify to caddie.
Yet only a select few have been called up. And it is a family affair, Marshall notes: Two-year-old Peanut LeGoat — like LeChevon, a nephew of Bruce LeGoat — is finishing up caddie training.
“I haven’t played a full round with them yet, but they’re pretty decent at reading greens,” Marshall begins before erupting in laughter. They are not as good, he adds, at club selection.
Of course, Marshall is enjoying himself. He concedes it is difficult not to have a good time. Growing up around Burns, Marshall is part of a family that has been in the cattle-ranching business for six generations. Now he gets to usher in a new variation and never-before-seen kind of ranching.
More important, however, is that all the amenities of Silvies Valley Ranch are a perfect reflection of Silvies as a destination.
“It really reflects the character of Silvies,” Hixson says, referring to the unorthodox reversible courses and, naturally, to the short course with goat caddies. “I certainly recognized how it filled our mission of being different and doing stuff that nobody else has done. It’s great.”
Certainly, though, Hixson, a renowned golf course designer, would cringe at seeing goats trudge up and down a newly opened course, right?
“Not on this one,” Hixson says. “Maybe under different circumstances on a different course I would. Normally I might be a little opposed to having livestock on the golf course. But this course is really about the environment that it sits in. … This course is so wild, it’s kind of like prairie golf. So for a course like this, it’s just fine for the goats.”
And the goats are just fine for the course. Marshall points out that the ecology of Silvies Valley Ranch is a more integral part of the story than goat caddies. He says that cows graze on the grass and that goats graze on the brush and shrubbery and other forage that cows “would never touch.” As a result, there is more room for grass growth in the area, and, Marshall says, “it reduces the overall fire risk that we have on the ranch.”
“We’re having fun with this and it’s an amazing program,” Marshall continues. “But the real story is we should be using goats on the landscape in a much broader way, all across the Pacific Northwest, because they’re a fantastic animal on the landscape.”
They are certainly fantastic at Silvies, Marshall praises, and they should be fantastic for golf — at Silvies Valley Ranch and wherever goat caddies may be available in the future.
“The whole point of golf at Silvies is we want to make golf fun,” Marshall says. “We want to make it interesting. We want to think outside the box. We can’t be stuffy about it. We have to be unique and creative. That’s going to attract more people to the game and bring more people to frontier Oregon. That’s our mission.
“We want it to be a wide-open golf experience like golf was intended to be played.”