How a Chicago Socialite's serendipitous whistle stop train tour inspired championship golf in Oregon
This piece authored by Portland's own John Strawn was first published by the USGA’s monthly magazine, Golf Journal, in May, 1993. John served as CEO of the Robert Trent Jones II from 2000-2008 and President of Hills + Forrest, Golf Course architects until 2014. He is currently a Dirctor of Global Golf Advisors.
When Mrs. Potter Palmer of Chicago, on a sojourn of the west, left Portland, Oregon’s Union Station for San Francisco at the turn of the last century, she could not have imagined that a delay several hundred miles later would contribute, in a curiously roundabout way, to the building of Portland’s first municipal golf course on a nondescript piece of land adjacent to the tracks her coach had passed by on its way south. Mrs. Palmer was held up for a day in Medford, a small town near the Rogue River, and was so taken with the scenic beauty of the Klamath Mountains and the economic prospects of the Rogue River Valley’s orchard industry that she inspired a migration of wealthy young Chicagoans to southwestern Oregon. Among them was H. Chandler Egan.
The satirist Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley captured the Palmers’ place in Chicago’s social world with his fanciful explanation of the rules of golf, written in 1898. “If ye ‘er necktie is not on sthraight, that counts ye’er opponent wan •••• Ye have a little boy followin’ ye, carryin’ ye’er clubs. Th’ man that has th’ smallest little boy it counts him two •••• Thin ye’er man that ye’re goin’ aginst comes up, an’ he asks ye, ‘Do you know Potther Pammer?’ Well, if ye don’t know Potther Pammer, it’s all up with ye: ye lose two points.”
Chan Egan, playing Dooley’s rules, started life up two. Herbert Warren Wind described him as a “strapping, clean-cut young man” who was extremely long off the tee, and if that weren’t enough, he had money. Egan moved to Medford in 1910, one of ten Harvard graduates to settle in the Rogue Valley. Before their arrival, Jackson County was known more for the rough manners of its miners, drawn by the county’s gold, than for its gentility.
The Rogue country produced wonderful fruit, especially pears, and its tidy orchards created an agreeable counterpoint to the mountains and rivers of Jackson County. The well-off transplanted midwesterners like Chan Egan were known among the locals as “remittance men”–they lived, at least until their orchards matured, on regular checks from home.
There weren’t many golf courses in Oregon when Egan arrived in Medford. Not much more than a drive and a wedge from his own orchard, Egan designed a course for the Rogue Valley Country Club. He was hired to layout a course for the Tualatin Country Club in suburban Portland. Soon after, he was called upon to remodel Waverley Country Club, the oldest of the city’s trio of pioneer courses, creating a set of famously treacherous greens. Portland Golf Club, site of the 1983 Senior Open, was the only early Portland course Egan’s hand didn’t touch.
In the fall of 1913, the great British professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, recently dispatched by Francis Ouimet in a playoff at the US Open, played against Egan and C. Harry Davis in a thirty-six hole match at Waverley. According to Waverley’s club history, Egan and Davis “were four up after the morning round and continued to play well, until Egan’s final putt failed to drop. Over 1,000 people watched the afternoon match. It was the closest match” on Vardon and Ray’s western tour.
On the eve of World War I, a shrewd land development company in Portland offered the city 148 acres at a very good price as a site for a municipal golf course, stipulating only that the course take as its name that of the neighborhood under development– Eastmoreland. A committee of prominent golfers recruited from the city’s three private clubs supervised the development of Eastmoreland Golf Course, recommending their old friend, Chandler Egan, to design it. Aside from performing their civic duty, the committee members hoped a public course would eventually supply a pool of potential recruits to their clubs. The committee raised three thousand dollars to build the golf course, on treeless ground previously used for pasture and truck gardens.
Eastmoreland Golf Course was adjacent to the Southern Pacific’s right of way, so it was not only an amenity for the neighborhood, it provided a visual and sonic buffer between the train tracks and the houses. Eastmoreland was an instant success. The first nine opened for play in 1918, the second in 1920. By 1923, according to the annual reports of the city’s park commissioner, 75,000 rounds were played annually. Season passes were available for $12.00, while a daily pass was thirty cents. Two years after it opened, players were complaining about “weekend congestion.” “Last Saturday,” one writer griped, “it required four hours and twenty minutes to play eighteen holes, as compared with two hours and twenty-five minutes on Sunday morning.”
Demand was so great that two more city courses were soon added, and one of them, which no longer exists, was also designed by Egan. In the city archives is a copy of his invoice, dated May 18, 1922. “For designing the first nine holes of Canyon Road Golf Links, and submitting map of the same, including expenses $350.00.” As a resident of Portland, I’m proud to report that the city paid up in three weeks.
Egan was then a member of the USGA executive committee, playing out of Waverley, where he had set the course record with a 67. He was the best golfer in the Northwest, as well as its leading architect.
Ed Francis, Waverley’s historian, recalled Egan’s preference for playing his practice rounds with good players. “He was serious on the golf course,” Francis remembered, “and didn’t have much patience with duffers.” He smoked a pipe as he played.
Portlanders so took to golf that by the time the USGA selected Eastmoreland as the site of the 1933 National Public Links Championship, the city’s boosters were calling it “The Golf Capital of the United States.” Golf was a popular game in Portland, played, as in Scotland, by ordinary folk. The city made the game cheap and accessible, and with Egan’s help, created in Eastmoreland one of the country’s very best municipal golf courses.
Egan also laid out the Oswego Lake course, and added nine holes to Riverside, a country club built along the old flood plain of the Columbia River, not far from Portland International Airport. Today, four courses in all skirt the perimeter of PDX, built on the drained wetlands of the Columbia slough–two private clubs and two privately-owned daily-fee courses.
PDX was constructed on bottom land reclaimed by earthen levees to hold back the Columbia, a once great river that now glides like a dowager through lakes and dams on its way to the sea. But before commercial jets came along, this ground was covered not by runways but by fairways.
Planes arriving in Portland touch down on what was once the Alderwood Country Club, a course so highly regarded that it hosted The US Amateur in 1937. Egan won the Pacific Northwest Amateur there the year before he died, his last important championship.Though originally designed by the Canadian architect A. V. Macan, Alderwood had been remodeled by Egan, who brought to the task his special skills at shaping greens. Alderwood offered wonderful views of Mt. Hood, its perpetually white peak framed by the high dark walls of the Columbia Gorge. Streams bisected the airways. Photos of Alderwood evoke the feeling one has looking at the portrait of a long-departed ancestor. Alderwood is a course that you can visit only in imagination, and for a golfer there’s a kind of sorrow in its loss.
Portland’s golfers also nearly lost Eastmoreland. Play dropped precipitously as hard times hit after the 1933 Public Links Championship. In desperation, the city offered lifetime passes–good not just at Eastmoreland, but on any municipal course–for one hundred dollars. About 200 players managed to come up with the cash.
Ted Westling, formerly an assistant professional at Eastmoreland,says his father played so many rounds at Eastmoreland on his pass that his lifetime best ball–the total of his lowest scores on each hole–was 36. “He played often enough” Westling says, “to have eagled every hole.” The city tried occasionally to buy the passes back, but there were never any takers, and a dozen or so were still in use in 1993.An even more serious threat arose at Eastmoreland in 1940, when the Women’s Game Protective Association proposed turning the back nine, no longer crowded with golfers, into a wildlife refuge for migratory water fowl, threatening, in the words of one horrified golfer, to destroy “the finest muni golf course in anybody’s city.”
The back nine surrounds a spring-fed lagoon, and thousands of ducks and geese touch down on its waters. Today there’s a peaceful coexistence between golf and the birds, though the ground is occasionally thick with goose droppings. The birds and a famous rhododendron garden tucked around the impounded water give a peaceful air to the back nine. Players standing on the eleventh tee or the seventeenth green can see children feeding the ducks and citizens strolling among the large and colorful rhododendrons.The Ladd Estate Company’s decision to cede land to the city for the Eastmoreland Golf Course may have been shaped by the dictates of commerce, but it made Portland a mecca for public golf, as it remains today. Chandler Egan’s design of Portland’s first municipal course was of such an enduringly high quality that the USGA chose Eastmoreland for the Public Links Championship again in 1990. Chandler Egan’s legacy endures in the Pacific Northwest. He designed the Bend Country Club in central Oregon and Indian Canyon n Spokane, Washington, site of the 1941 Public Links Championship. In all, five courses Egan either designed or remodeled hosted USGA championships, an achievement any architect would take pride in.
Egan was working on a course in Everett, Washington when he was taken ill with pneumonia and died suddenly in 1935. Bobby Jones, no longer playing competitively, and the writer Grantland Rice were among the guests who came to honor the memory of the Northwest’s finest golfer when the Rogue Valley Country Club erected a monument in his honor. No one had done more to stamp his character on the golf courses of the Northwest than H. Chandler Egan.