Over 100 years ago, some prominent figures in the developing city of Eugene set out with a plan. These businessmen and university professors recognized a blooming interest in golf in the U.S., especially along the West Coast.
In 1899, these entrepreneurs purchased the land that would become the South Willamette Golf Club, later to be the Eugene Country Club. At the time, it was one of two official golf courses in Oregon, the other being the Waverley Country Club in Portland.
The South Willamette Club was incorporated and started down a century-long path the founders could never have predicted.
The latest chapter in ECC history is now around the corner. The club is getting ready to host the NCAA Golf Championships for the first time in 40 years. For two weeks in May and into June, the top men’s and women’s amateurs in the U.S. will duke it out for the title of the country’s best team and individual.
The women’s tournament will run from May 20-25, and the men’s will start on May 27 and run until June 1 at 255 Country Club Rd.
‘On my holes, par is tough, but a bogey is easy’
Before history could be told, before Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer strode the ECC fairways, the club had to grow.
In the ECC’s early days, the game was simpler. Golfers teed off on bare dirt. Instead of tees, they hit their balls off small mounds of wet sand. Members took maintenance into their own hands.
By 1923, membership had reached 200 people. Club members recognized the need for an 18-hole course.
They hired Pebble Beach designer Chandler Egan for the expansion. Despite having to modify his original design due to monetary constraints, the back nine was completed in 13 months and the front nine followed less than a year later. In 1926, it reopened as Eugene Country Club.
Word spread of its towering Douglas firs and natural setting, and the club’s notoriety grew. It began to host major competitions and tournaments, including the LPGA tour and Pacific Coast Amateur Championship. In 1959, it hosted its first NCAA Championship.
For 40 years, Egan’s design remained unchanged. But in the late ‘60s, the Club decided to update the course. This time, it commissioned legendary golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. He believed a difficult course made golf better.
“On my holes, par is tough, but a bogey is easy,” Jones liked to say, according to the book Breaking 100, a detailed history of ECC’s first 100 years.
Jones’ designs, which catered to proficient and conservative players, have changed little over the past 50 years.
‘I know [the course] will be good to go’
ECC head groundskeeper Chris Gaughan remembers almost everything since he started working the course 40 years ago. Golf legends Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson all tried their hands at the course, as did Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota and former Nike CEO Phil Knight.
“Tiger Woods never broke par here,” he said. “[He] four-putted the seventh green.”
Gaughan, who has spent the last 23 years as superintendent of ECC, was a caddy the last time the club hosted the NCAAs in 1978. He remembers who played, on which holes golfers struggled and the general buzz of the clubhouse.
But mainly, he remembers the rain.
“It just kind of got wet that week,” Gaughan said. “But it had a lot of excitement going into it.”
He said weather is the only thing he’s concerned about as the Club prepares to host its first NCAA Championship since that “wet and ugly” week.
“The weather is my main pressure,” Gaughan said. “I know [the course] will be good to go … but if it gets wet, all that time and effort you put in goes down the drain.”
Rich Spurlin, the nine-year general manager of ECC, explained that with an event like this there’s more to worry about than the golf.
“We’ve covered [what we’re doing for Thursday lunch] about 15 times,” Spurlin said with a chuckle. “It’s taking care of all those little things so that when [the NCAA officials] get here, they’re not bothered by any of that.”
‘This is home for me’
UO senior Caroline Inglis, a Eugene native, said this “couldn’t be a better ending” to her collegiate career.
“I am just so excited that my team has this opportunity,” Inglis said. “Being a senior just makes it that much sweeter that I can end my college career with all of my friends and family surrounding me.”
Oregon women’s golf head coach Ria Scott feels that “being comfortable with the massive trees that line the holes” gives her team a mental edge.
“We’ve played all around the country and the look of Eugene Country Club is not like anything you get anywhere else,” Scott said.
Casey Martin, head coach of the men’s golf team and another Eugene native, has been playing on this course since adolescence. It was Martin who had the idea to submit a bid for this year’s championship.
For him, it’s been about showcasing the course he calls home.
“This is home for me,” Martin said at a press conference last month. “That’s been a big reason why we’re able to get the championship here; the staff here at ECC I think feels the same way.”
The national championship is the largest stage in collegiate golf, but will be even larger due to one huge factor: television.
The Golf Channel will be broadcasting the last three days of the tournament, and will feature over 100 hours of coverage, replays and analysis.
‘It’s how you finish’
Oregon women’s golf team members have said while there is pressure on them to perform well, they are approaching this like any other tournament.
“Just because someone put a banner up that says ‘Nationals’ doesn’t mean we should change our game plan or do anything different,” Inglis said.
Gaughan said while this is not the first time ECC has hosted an event like this, it does still create excitement for him and his staff.
“You get pumped up a little bit,” Gaughan said. “Kind of like playing a championship game or something — you’ve got to have your A game”.
But this stage is nothing new for Gaughan. He’s been here before and knows what it takes for his staff to be successful.
“You just can’t go those first couple days and call it good. “I always tell [the ECC staff], ‘It’s how you finish,’ ” Gaughan said. “You’ve got to finish like a champ.”
Follow Gus Morris on Twitter @JustGusMorris