Q/A with Renowned Tetherow Course Designer

Fescue is not unfamiliar to American golfers. But traditionally, the faded greenish-brown turf was most commonly experienced by American through TV — once a year while watching the British Open.

But then Scotsman David McLay Kidd designed the first course at Bandon Dunes in the late 1990s, bringing coastal links golf to Oregon and much attention to the young golf course architect. A decade later, Kidd, now 54, did something even more uncommon when he designed Tetherow: he brought faded fescue to Central Oregon’s High Desert.

The result was something truly unique.

Since opening in 2008, Tetherow has enjoyed an onslaught of national acclaim, becoming one of three Central Oregon courses to be ranked in Golf Digest’s Top 100 Courses You Can Play. But despite that, Tetherow remains a rarity as one of the few desert courses in the U.S. to use fescue.

We asked Kidd, who has lived in Bend since 2006, about that decision. This is what he said:

Fescue is not a grass commonly found on golf courses in a high desert environment. Obviously, it has worked out well with Tetherow and nearly 15 years later, you have proof of concept. But in 2005 and 2006, when you were designing Tetherow, that wasn’t the case. What made you think that it would work the way it did?

Fescue is a grass that is commonly thought of as something that would grow in sand near the beach, and the reason that it grows in sand near the beach is because it’s very resilient to salt. And when it dries out, even on the Oregon Coast, which it does, fescue is the last grass to die. So it is extremely drought tolerant. And it’s growing in sand, so there is very little nutrient fertilizer for the grass to grow in.

So if you think of all that and you come to Central Oregon, the desert silt is super-dry and doesn’t have a whole lot of nutrients in it. If you look at the blue bunch grasses that grow all over the desert, they are in fact blue fescue. So it’s not a grass that is uncommon here. It’s just not thick and lush and wet, and when people think of playing golf in the desert it’s almost like the last thing they want to experience is the desert. They want to be standing on lush, green grass, hitting golf shots of soft, lush, green grass, all completely juxtaposed to where they actually are.

So Tetherow, instead of having the desert as its frame and yet being a somewhat conventional golf course, I was trying to find ways of making Tetherow much more in balance with its environment. So fescue was the first and probably single most important step in all that, which nobody has tried to replicate 15 years later.

How did that initial decision affect your other choices at Tetherow?

The minute you use fescue, then golf becomes an entirely different game. The ball is not two-dimensional. The game is not trajectory, land, and stop. The ball is going to do lots of things after it lands. Some you might like, some you might hate. A good golfer is going to learn the nuance of the contours, the wind, and all these factors. Even if you’re not an elite player, if you are willing to learn some tricks about what the golf ball is going to do when it rolls, you can take a relatively modest golfing ability and be able to use the roll of the ball and the ground to your advantage to figure out Tetherow.

Because it takes less water, is so hardy, and generally easier to maintain, is fescue actually more appealing and more sustainable in a desert environment?

It’s all those things. But you’ve got to be willing to accept that it is not going to be bright green, which for a lot of owners it’s kind of a deal-breaker from the start. Fescue will only grow in certain places, and there are only certain owners that would allow that to occur.

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