6/29/22

Smashing Pumpkin

Internal angst, and some resignations, roil a Portland club owned by Escalante Golf, the firm in bed with LIV Golf

by

Tom Etzel heard about it the modern way—via text message. On the afternoon of March 16, a friend sent him a screen shot of a tweet by John Canzano, a sports reporter based in Portland, Oregon. The tweet said that Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, a 36-hole facility about 20 miles northwest of Powell’s City of Books, was set to host a LIV Golf event in early July. This was news to Etzel, who had belonged to Pumpkin Ridge for 15 years.

Etzel is the CEO of an “experience agency” that has helped run golf tournaments, so he was familiar with LIV, the insurgent tour backed by the Saudi Arabian government’s Public Investment Fund. And he wasn’t happy that his club had partnered up with human-rights abusers. “I was surprised,” he says. “Definitely shocked. And more than anything, just purely disappointed.”

He wasn’t alone. Most Pumpkin Ridge members learned of their club’s new hosting gig through texts, DMs, and emails that arrived after the story had broken publicly. The membership had not been polled or asked for input. Not even the club’s advisory board had been given a say. Instead, the firm that owns Pumpkin Ridge, Escalante Golf, had brokered the agreement with LIV Golf on its own and under a veil of secrecy. Another Escalante property, The International in Bolton, Massachusetts, was slated for LIV’s fourth event in September.

“I never met one member who was happy about it,” a Pumpkin Ridge member says of Escalante’s unilateral decision-making. “We were pissed. Pissed and powerless.”

There was more than just the LIV revelation to be angry about. Attached to John Canzano’s March 16 tweet was a letter from the club to its members. The letter announced increases in both initiation fees and member dues, explaining that there was “strong interest in the market” for Pumpkin Ridge memberships and that “unprecedented inflation… will ultimately put constraints on the operation.” Oil money can only go so far.

Members began to resign, and rumors spread about a potential Pumpkin Ridge revolt. At the time, few institutions in golf had proven capable of resisting the Saudi royal family’s incursions into the game. Even the PGA Tour appeared vulnerable. But during that week in March, the membership of a mid-tier Portland-area golf club seemed ready to make a stand.

The adjective “mid-tier” may rankle some Portland-area golfers. Pumpkin Ridge has always had lofty aspirations, and shortly after it opened in 1992, it appeared to be on track to meet them. The club had two 18-hole courses designed by Bob Cupp and John Fought: Ghost Creek, which was open to the public, and Witch Hollow, which was for members only. Initially the courses received high praise. Ghost Creek won Golf Digest‘s Best New Public Course award, and Witch Hollow came second in the magazine’s Best New Private Course ranking. The logical next step, the club’s owners hoped, was to become a U.S. Open or PGA Championship venue.

A year after opening, Pumpkin Ridge hosted the inaugural Nike Tour Championship, now known as the Korn Ferry Tour Championship, which future world No. 1 David Duval won at seven under. In 1996, the club found itself in an even brighter spotlight when a 20-year-old Tiger Woods out-dueled Steve Scott in the final match of the U.S. Amateur at Witch Hollow. Woods launched his professional career three days later with his “Hello, World” press conference in Milwaukee.

Tiger Woods celebrates at Pumpkin Ridge during the 1996 U.S. Amateur. Photo: USGA/Robert Walker

At that point, it seemed obvious that Pumpkin Ridge would secure a men’s major championship soon. But the years went by, and the call didn’t come. While the club hosted two U.S. Women’s Opens and a handful of other amateur championships in the late 90s and early 00s, it never got a U.S. Open or PGA Championship.

There are a number of plausible reasons for this. For one, June in Portland—when a U.S. Open would be held—is not known for predictable weather. For another, Pumpkin Ridge is not as demanding as most courses that have hosted major championships in the past two decades. It was built in the early 90s, a time when some of the best golfers in the world still used persimmon-headed drivers. Within 15 years, 460cc titanium drivers and solid-core golf balls had infiltrated the pro game, giving players almost 30 extra yards off the tee on average. Lacking the funds to make wholesale course changes, Pumpkin Ridge couldn’t keep up.

Gradually, the club’s reputation declined. By the turn of the 21st century, its course architecture had begun to feel passé. A four-hour drive south of Portland, Mike Keiser’s Bandon Dunes resort debuted three 18-hole courses between 1999 and 2005. Set on spectacular coastal sites, these courses were bold, rugged, and artfully designed by a new generation of neoclassical architects. Pumpkin Ridge, with its artificial mounding and smooth-edged bunkers, looked dinky in comparison. After 2000, neither Ghost Creek nor Witch Hollow cracked the top 100 of Golf Digest’s U.S. course ranking again.

“The 90s were [Pumpkin Ridge’s] absolute heyday,” says a longtime member, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to avoid repercussions within the club. “But unless you have a continued national interest in [the courses], eventually their series is run and then they just sort of melt back into the annals of history.”

In the late 00s and early 10s, as the world economy slumped, so did Pumpkin Ridge, though in subtle ways that outsiders may not have caught. “I think one of the keywords that I would use to describe that timeframe would be ‘deferred maintenance,’” the member says. “The clubhouse needed a new roof. It needed new paint. The decks were getting worn. There were just things that you would see that weren’t being done. For instance, the Champion’s Grille—the grill at Ghost Creek—those chairs had been there since the day it opened. I mean, you’d sit in them and you would almost fall through.”

Members started to speculate that Pumpkin Ridge’s founding owners were on their way out. “A lot of us were wondering if they were planning to sell it and just trying to suck as much out of it as they could,” the member says. “Either that or they had no money.”

In 2015, the owners sold the club to Escalante Golf, a firm that operates out of Fort Worth, Texas. Escalante’s partners are David McDonald, Elcio Silva, Robert Silva, and David Matheson, all of whom attended the University of Oklahoma and belonged to the same fraternity. McDonald and the Silvas founded the company in 1991, and for years their portfolio consisted of just a few courses. But when the recession threw the golf industry into disarray, Escalante went on a shopping spree, acquiring several high-end clubs and resorts that had fallen on hard times. Pumpkin Ridge was one of those.

Soon after the sale, Escalante’s partners introduced themselves to the membership. “I distinctly remember them saying these words,” the member says. “They said, ‘Our keyword is excellence. We want to bring excellence back to Pumpkin Ridge.’”

Escalante has been cagey—both off the record and on—about how much its deal with LIV Golf was worth. But here’s a reference point: a source told The Fried Egg that Rich Harvest Farms was paid approximately $3 million to host September’s LIV Chicago event.

A very large ball at LIV Portland. Photo: LIV/Steve Dykes via Getty

A few days after LIV Portland was announced, representatives from Escalante met with members at Pumpkin Ridge. According to reports in the Washington Post and Willamette Week, Escalante’s main message was that LIV’s offer was too good to turn down. “[Escalante] didn’t indicate they were thinking about the morals at all,” said Andy McNiece, who sits on Pumpkin Ridge’s advisory board, to the Post. “All I heard is, ‘We got a lot of money.’”

Neither Escalante Golf nor Pumpkin Ridge’s general manager Jeff Muller responded to The Fried Egg’s requests for comment.

Tom Etzel couldn’t make it to the March meeting because it was scheduled in the middle of the day on a weekday. (“That’s a pretty tough time for people that work,” he says. “So, you know, it was like—was that intentional?”) So he reached out to an Escalante partner he knew from golf-industry circles, and the partner referred him to Ryan McDonald, Escalante’s director of organizational development and the daughter of co-founder David McDonald.

Etzel set up a phone call with her. “I felt it was important to have that conversation and to voice my displeasure with what I felt was going to be not a great decision,” he says. “You know, her response was—you could call it ‘corporate speak.’ I mean, she definitely had pre-drafted answers to my points.” McDonald stressed that Escalante’s leaders felt they were partnering with LIV, not the Saudi Arabian government, and that the intent was not to “sportswash” but to help change golf.

At one point during the conversation, Etzel brought up the name of Fallon Smart. In August 2016, 15-year-old Smart was killed in Portland by a gold Lexus traveling at nearly 60 mph on a city street. The driver fled the scene but was soon identified as Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah, a student at Portland Community College and a Saudi national. The next month, the Saudi Arabian consulate posted his $100,000 bail, and in June 2017, two weeks before Noorah was supposed to stand trial, a black SUV picked him up at his home in Southeast Portland. A year later, U.S. officials learned that he was back in Saudi Arabia. Federal authorities are all but certain that the Saudi government orchestrated the escape.

“I asked [Ryan McDonald], ‘If Fallon Smart’s parents show up at the gates that week, what are you going to say to them?’” Etzel says. “And she made it very clear, again, this was not about [Pumpkin Ridge] getting involved in the human-rights side of the story. It was purely about golf. They’re a golf course, and they’re hosting a golf tournament.”

Etzel’s next calls were to the membership director and the general manager. “The next time I came on property,” he says, “I cleaned my locker out and I never even played the golf course again.”

Debates between Escalante officials and Pumpkin Ridge members continued. The longtime member who spoke anonymously with The Fried Egg described an encounter at the club with a man who introduced himself as a project manager affiliated with the LIV tournament. “He asked my opinion,” the member says. “And I said, ‘I’m not a fan of the culture, I’m not a fan of the way it was announced, I’m not a fan of the event itself.’ And he launched, very politely, into the often-used analogy of, ‘Do you wear Nike clothes? Do you drive a car? Have you ever shipped anything via FedEx? Have you ever bought anything made in China?’”

His implication, as the member took it, was that anyone who participates in the global economy while criticizing those who associate with Saudi Arabia is guilty of hypocrisy. “He used the word ‘hypocrite,’” the member recalls. “He was trying to make it sound a bit third-party-ish—you know, ‘Well, one might think it’s hypocritical when one….’ But I was a little taken aback.”

In the weeks leading up to LIV Portland, members saw a flurry of upgrades being made to Pumpkin Ridge’s facilities. New roofs were installed, along with new carpets and decks. The Ghost Creek and Witch Hollow clubhouses received fresh coats of white paint. The long-tenured chairs in the Champion’s Grille were replaced. In communications with members, Escalante has maintained that these improvements were budgeted prior to the LIV deal and were simply accelerated as the tournament approached.

A cryptic monolith on the front lawn of Witch Hollow's clubhouse. Photo: Garrett Morrison

Exactly how many members left Pumpkin Ridge in the wake of the LIV news has been the subject of rumor and debate. “I’ve heard as high as 36 and as low as 20 or something,” Tom Etzel says. But according to a well-placed source in the club, the real number is closer to 16. Meanwhile, in a statement to the Washington Post, Escalante’s Ryan McDonald made sure to mention that Pumpkin Ridge had added 34 members since the LIV announcement.

“I think we tried to accomplish two things,” Etzel says of the group of Pumpkin Ridge members that resigned. “We stood up for human rights, and we hopefully were going to have [Escalante] feel it. But the unfortunate thing is it sounds like they’ve added a bunch of members. So from a financial standpoint, they’re probably not feeling that impact.”