Excuse Us While We’re Playing Through: The Golf Tourney Up Pilot Butte

Published in the Deschutes Historical Society Newsletter “Homesteader” – July 2010

The two golfers approached Pilot Butte from the west, along Greenwood Avenue. Photo: Tor Hanson

Today Pilot Butte is a beloved place for Bend’s many “butte walkers.” And every Fourth of July, spectators wager how much of the butte will catch on fire from fireworks gone astray. But in April 1927, Pilot Butte was the setting for serious game of golf.

The backdrop for the Pilot Butte golf challenge was a bet between Frank R. Prince, the editor of Brooks-Scanlon’s company newspaper, “Deschutes Pine Echoes” and Carl A. Johnson, the manager of the Bend-Silver Lake Stage Company.

The wager: Play from where the pavement ended at Greenwood Avenue to the foot of Pilot Butte, literally “roughing it” up to the top of the butte, the long drive from the top, and back towards the halfway point between Pilot Butte and the paved Greenwood Avenue. At stake: The settlement of a fair golf handicap for the two men.

The April 7, 1927 Bend Bulletin reported the challenge with the headline: “Pilot Butte Top Goal of Golfers In Unique Match.”

A demanding game of golf was no news for the citizens of Bend. Two years earlier, Bend Golf Club was organized and in May 1925 golfers teed off at Bend’s first golf course.

Amateur golfer Bobby Jones was headlining sport news around the same time the Prince-Johnson game was taking place.  Jones had been the first to win the “double,” both the U.S. Open and the British Open in 1926. In 1927 he would successfully defend his British Open title. With the national stage set, the Prince-Johnson game promised to be a local high-stakes golf tourney.

The upcoming tournament was front-page news in the Bend Bulletin in the days leading up to the game. Finally, on Saturday April 16, 1927 at one o’clock in the afternoon, the two golfers teed off at the end of the pavement on Greenwood Avenue, heading east towards Pilot Butte.

“Frank Prince got away with a beauty, low and straight down the middle of the road for 90 yards,” reads the article. Johnson had a tougher start. His drive was short; “due to the shrill outcries of partisans who shouted in concert as Johnson’s club swayed back.”

Following the unpaved Greenwood Avenue, sometimes on course and sometimes in the rough beside the roadway, the two players made their way toward the butte. The spectators trailed along in their cars.

“Both golfers played in the rough for the last 250 yards and the score was 17 for Johnson to Prince’s 13 at the base of the butte,” notes the reporter. From there on, the two golfers slogged their way to the top of the butte through the brush and trees. “…The seconds, caddies and hangers-on took to the brush, while some of the less agile bystanders drove to the top of the hill in autos.”

At the crowning of the butte, the game was a tie. Prince and Johnson both overshot the top of the butte at 26 strokes – not far off from Johnson’s pre-game estimate. Only days prior to the game, he confidently declared that he could reach the top in 25 strokes.

The game was tied again when both players teed off for the ultimate drive off of Pilot Butte, back towards the “eighteenth” hole, imagined midway between the butte and the paved part of Greenwood Avenue. The article does not mention how far each player made it off the butte, but the sight at the tee-off point must have been spectacular.

Prince won the game with 33 strokes, with Johnson closing up at 41. The Bulletin article makes no mention how Prince and Johnson settled the bet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a dinner party at Pilot Butte Inn later that day.