by Steve Mims
One month after Tokatee Golf Club was threatened by the Holiday Farm Fire in the early days of September 2020, the picturesque course along the McKenzie Highway in McKenzie Bridge, Ore. was able to reopen.
Soon after the fire began on Sept. 7, concern spread quickly throughout social media that Tokatee could be in danger. The course was shut down the following day as the fire that eventually spread to nearly 175,000 acres was estimated to have reached to within a quarter mile to the northwest of the property, just outside the second green and third tee box.
“There were far too many sleepless nights,” said Mark Giustina, the operating manager for the course.
As the fire headed west and forced evacuations along the highway all the way into Springfield, nearly 120 firefighters and other emergency personnel began using the golf course as a staging area.
Once the course was spared, concern spread to the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest that provides some of the unique views from the course.
After power was lost at Tokatee, Superintendent Ty Patton was able to get a generator to keep the irrigation system going so the greens, fairways and tee boxes were not damaged. He was also able to aerate the course during its four-week shutdown.
There was still no phone service when the course reopened on Oct. 3, but the structures on site were not damaged. However, more than 400 residences in and around the nearby town of Blue River were destroyed in the fire, along with 24 commercial buildings, including the local post office.
Dan King, who has been the PGA Professional at Tokatee for 25 years, lives in a home just east of the golf course. He had to evacuate to the town of Sisters, about an hour away, in the middle of the night when the fire got close to his property.
“I knew quite early that Tokatee was fine, but what I didn’t know was how my staff fared,” King said. “Seven of my staff members lost their homes and the whole community has been devastated. My initial feeling was that of survivors’ guilt and ‘How can I help the far less fortunate?’”
Tokatee is in a remote location along a highway that connects the Eugene/Springfield area to Central Oregon. The nearby town of Blue River was essentially wiped out by the fire.
“It was just unsettling and gut-wrenching,” Giustina said. “The fire moved so quickly and we had employees who lost their homes. Our hearts were going out to our neighbors, friends and employees while hoping they could get a line around the fire so there was no more devastation.
“It was a rush of emotions from ‘How did we get so lucky?’ on one side of it to agony for all those people who lost everything. It is such a tight community up there. We are close with different lodging outfits that lost so much. You had people who went from playing golf every day to waking up in the middle of the night evacuated and then when they came back, their house was gone.”
Giustina was one of the first people allowed to drive along the highway to the golf course to visit the Spike Camp set up for first responders.
“It was overwhelming because there was so much destruction,” he said. “The smoke was so thick and there was ash and no rain. The sky was a charcoal grey color.”
Once the highway was reopened to the public, Tokatee was ready to welcome golfers back with online tee times being required. Employees were able to return to work, including those in the restaurant that is serving a limited menu including sandwiches and hamburgers.
“The most difficult experience of opening was the look on the faces and expressions from my customers who just drove up the highway for the first time since the fire,” King said.
Tokatee, which opened in 1966, has been named as one of the “Best Courses You Can Play” by Golfweek magazine and “One of America’s Top 25 Public Golf Courses” at times throughout its history. It traditionally closes for the winter in November, but could get an extended run this year.
“It seems like every year we close in mid-November and then we have great weather into December and we wish we were open,” Giustina said. “I think we will try to push it a bit into early December this year.”
That would be welcome news for area golfers as well as staff members at the course.
“This whole year, with COVID and now this fire, we’ve been ready to turn the page like the majority of people,” Giustina said.
(This article previously appeared in the November 2020 issue of Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine.)
Steve Mims spent the past 21 years as a sportswriter at The Eugene Register-Guard. He was a finalist for Oregon Sportswriter of the Year in 2017 and was honored by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association for Best Sports Story in 2012.