When Oregon's oldest golf course fell upon desolate and desperate times, Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle stepped in to transform the course into a cult classic
For Gearhart Golf Links, Superman didn’t arrive with a cape. He was more likely wearing a fleece jacket or a fishing vest. When Oregon’s oldest golf course (1892) hit its lowest ebb in 2000, Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle stepped in with a team of 15 partners and staunched the wound.
Still, even while bandaged, the bleeding continued. So in 2010, Boyle bought out the rest of the group. He would fix things himself. Today, thanks to Boyle, Gearhart has been transformed from an uninspiring money-loser surviving on nostalgia to a hidden jewel, with status bordering on cult favorite.
The tiny town of Gearhart (population 1,732) and its neighboring burgs of Astoria, Cannon Beach and Seaside have been fashionable summer retreats for Portland people for more than a century. It’s accessible by an easy 90-minute drive north on Highway 26 from Portland International Airport. During the journey, eye candy includes huge Douglas fir trees, the surrounding Coast Range mountains and eventually miles of beautiful beaches and the Pacific Ocean.
Gearhart’s golf course is a bit of an architectural mongrel, with many additions, relocations and redesigns over its 129-year life span. Located on the northwest Oregon coast, less than 20 miles from the Washington border, it’s a genuine seaside links, just 600 yards from the Pacific. Though you can’t see the ocean from the course, you know it’s there, from the steady breezes, beachy on-course vegetation and slivers of exposed sand. Yet, for all of its noble history and handsome setting, no one outside of Oregon would have heard of Gearhart Golf Links without the efforts of Boyle and some select friends.
IT'S NOT BUSINESS, IT'S PERSONAL
Gearhart could not have found a more ideal benefactor. Boyle was smitten with Gearhart for sentimental reasons. He was also a master at reclamation projects. It was a perfect marriage.
Now 71, Boyle joined the family business, Columbia Sportswear in the early 1970s, at a time when it was limping toward bankruptcy. Following the death of his father, Boyle and his mother placed increased emphasis on outdoor wear, introducing the Gore-Tex parka in 1975. Subsequent product launches propelled massive growth through the 1980s and 1990s, with sales climbing from $18.8 million in 1987 to $353 million in 1997. Columbia Sportswear went public in 1998; by 2013, Boyle’s share of the company was worth more than $1 billion.
So why would a business whiz like Boyle dump money into a modest golf course in a remote location in 2010, during a dreadful downturn in the golf market?
“I wanted the golf course to be a proper reflection of the history and quality the original founders intended,” Boyle told The First Call. “I wasn’t concerned about the financial results, but rather I wanted to make sure it was high-quality and a fun experience for golfers of all levels.”
Boyle had even more personal reasons to wade into the Gearhart waters.
“The family grew up playing here,” Boyle said. “When the (Gearhart) business got into trouble, this was like an institution that needed to be saved. Both of my kids played golf in college, and they really have an affinity for the game. So it was really a family investment.”
Boyle didn’t play golf as a kid, waiting until 1990 to take up the game. He got his start at Gearhart. So did another famous figure from Portland, Peter Jacobsen, who listed Gearhart as the first course he ever played. “My family would vacation in Gearhart and we would play this incredible hidden gem on the Oregon coast,” said Jacobsen in 2020. Jacobsen made his first hole-in-one at age 14 — at Gearhart.
Yet, over time, overly aggressive tree planting and overwatering the fairways changed this seaside spread into unmemorable parkland. By 2013, it was turnaround time. Boyle assembled an all-star team to help resurrect the linksy flavor and also to elevate the facility to unprecedented levels, all while retaining its small-town charm.
Boyle enticed Jason Bangild from the prestigious and ultra-exclusive Nanea Golf Club on the Big Island of Hawaii to run the golf operation. He hired superintendent Forrest Goodling from venerable Portland Golf Club to bring back the Old World bouncy conditions and shore up the greens. He solicited advice from Bandon Dunes domo Mike Keiser, who suggested that he get architect Jim Urbina to come take a look. He enlisted Jacobsen’s brother David, a superb player and administrator in his own right, to consult on both the design and the club culture. Finally, he brought aboard Portland’s John Strawn, who had directed activities for two major architects, Arthur Hills and Robert Trent Jones II, to assist with implementing Urbina’s suggestions, plus other tweaks. It all worked brilliantly.
“When Tim and his family took over in 2010, one of his first ideas was to remove trees to get the course closer to its original design,” Bangild said. “John Strawn concurred and together we created new fairway lines, new tees for added length and a new fourth green. The results were spectacular. The course seemed to double in size.”
Even after adding 300 yards, Gearhart hardly terrorizes with length, tipping out at 6,551 yards, par 72. Yet, its small, quick greens, funky fairway contours, a concealed bunker or two and steady sea breezes serve as honest challenges for every handicap. Its firm-and-fast conditions and open green entrances make it a delight for old fashioned proponents of the ground game. Thus, it’s no surprise that Gearhart will host this month’s U.S. Hickory Open, a competition that requires players to use equipment from 1930 or earlier.
ENHANCING THE EXPERIENCE
To assist in elevating the facility even further, Boyle turned to an old schoolmate, Mike McMenamin, to help with food, beverage and lodging. Mike and his brother Brian are Oregon’s most celebrated brewers/restauranteurs/hoteliers and their makeover at Gearhart is worth the journey even if you arrive without your sticks.
The fun can begin early in the day, at a new facility tucked in the dunes between the first green and ninth tee. It’s composed of the Clam Bed (named for the region’s legendary razor clams) and the Sand Bar. The former is a 20,000-square-foot putting green, the latter a small McMenamins bar, complete with patio.
“It was a hit from day one,” Strawn said. “You don’t have to pay or check in—just show up with the grandkids and start putting. There are putters and balls available, also for free. It’s Tim (Boyle’s) gift to Gearhart, and as wonderful a public monument as any in golf.”
Gearhart’s 19th hole, called McMenamins Sand Trap Pub, serves up exactly what you’re looking for after the round in edibles, potables and ambience. When it’s time to turn in, the 34 on-site rooms that comprise the cedar-shingled Gearhart Inn are cozy and comfortable with a touch of McMenamins'-style quirk. Look for doors and hallway walls that pay homage to vintage rock music, with surrealistic pop art posters, blended with Gearhart historical pieces.
By 2015, Boyle had put in roughly $5 million — but the course was now profitable. People had noticed. In 2020, architect David McLay Kidd, a native Scot who has resettled in central Oregon, listed Gearhart as one of his top 10 unknown courses in the world. It wouldn’t be unknown for long. Word was getting out. Nearly every major golf media outlet has descended on the course in the past two years. Gearhart Golf Links is now approaching must-play status among course connoisseurs.
As New York Times best-selling author Tom Coyne put it in his new book, “A Course Called America,” “Bandon was the can’t-miss trip (to Oregon), but Gearhart felt like the jaunt for budget-minded buddy trips, or as a Bandon add-on for golfers in the know.”
None of this remarkable turnaround is a surprise to Strawn, given Boyle’s acumen and passion. “The challenge Gearhart Golf Links presented is one that Tim has confronted in his other business life, as head of Columbia Sportswear,” he said. “In 2000, Columbia bought the Sorel footwear brand out of bankruptcy for $8M. Sorel was, so to speak, a failed brand, or a brand that had lost its luster, just as GGL had lost its allure for Oregon golfers. But in 2021, Sorel was a powerhouse brand again, with sales in the first quarter approaching $50 million. It’s not easy to turn around public perception of a brand, but Tim clearly knows how to do it — although if you were to ask him about it, he would give the credit to someone else.”
Amid all of Boyle’s remarkable success stories, the rejuvenation of Gearhart Golf Links has indeed struck a chord. And indeed, he showers credit elsewhere.
“The turnaround at Gearhart has been especially gratifying,” said Boyle, who remains a frequent visitor with a weekend home a few hundred yards from the first tee. “All the credit is due to the significant efforts of Jason Bangild and his team. They took the initiative to ‘polish the gem,’ and make Gearhart one of the best courses on the West Coast. That’s great company, seeing as how Bandon is rated globally. The turnaround at Gearhart has been a financial success as well, and proves that hard work and vision will be rewarded.”