Walking up the 18th fairway of Bandon Trails, I cannot shake the phrase “fair dreich” from my head, a Scots idiom I’d first heard some 20 years ago in a pub near the Old Course at St. Andrews. Sheets of rain are falling as I make my way between towering sand dunes festooned with waving fescue grass. Somewhere to my left, the surf crashes on the Oregon coast, its fury muffled by the mist. Fair
dreich roughly translates as “really dismal weather,” and though it’s rained for 35 of the 36 holes that we’ve played this day, my spirits are barely dampened.
I reach my ball — in the fairway, for a change — grab a 6-iron and drop the ball on the green, 20 feet to the right of the flag. I bound up the steep hill ahead of the other members of my foursome, anticipating one of the day’s few birdie putts. When my first putt dribbles past the cup and my second comes up short, I shrug my shoulders, tap in for bogey and turn around. Looking back across the dunes, I take in a slice of the Coast Range mountains to the south and a sliver of the Pacific to the west, and I can’t be too upset. The day’s score will be largely forgotten by the first pint of Alphadelic IPA at McKee’s Pub; the rain will make a good story. And no missed putt (or three) can take away the sense that I’ve just partaken of a very pure golf experience, the kind once only available on the shores of Scotland and Ireland.
Back in the late ’90s, more than a few people thought that Mike Keiser, co-founder of Recycled Paper Greetings, a card company, was crazy when he broke ground on Bandon Dunes on a tract of windswept, sandy bluffs above the Pacific, roughly 100 miles north of the California border. It was too isolated, not on the way to much of anything. The architect who was commissioned to design the resort’s eponymous first course, a then-29-year-old Scotsman named David McLay Kidd, had never designed a golf course before. The course would be a links-style layout, rambling over dunes and ungroomed terrain that would be barely recognizable as a golf course to the casual American player. And there would be no golf carts; instead, players would be required to walk the rolling terrain and encouraged to hire caddies, many of whom had been displaced from their livelihoods by declines in the region’s timber and fishing industries.
As it sometimes transpires when mad adventures in art and science are allowed to run their course, something truly wonderful emerged. From its opening, Bandon Dunes was hailed as a links wonder, an honest importation of Scottish links golf to the Pacific, some 5,000 miles west of the game’s homeland. The resort’s rather presumptuous slogan, “Golf as it was meant to be,” left those yet to visit snickering. But after a round or two, most were converted. One wag even quipped that Bandon Dunes was destined to one day host an open — the British Open!
Bandon Dunes has significantly expanded since its opening in 1999. There are four 18-hole courses (Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails and Old Macdonald); two shorter courses with nothing but par-3 holes (the Preserve and Shorty’s); and a 100,000-square-foot putting course (Punchbowl). The resort boasts five lodging complexes (ranging from four-bedroom cottages to inn accommodations) totaling 372 beds and six restaurants (ranging from high-quality pub grub to regionally inspired haute cuisine). There are some walking trails interspersed among the courses and a few massage tables and a hot tub buried deep in the main lodge.
But what people come here to do is play golf. Most play rain or shine. And even out-of-shape 50-somethings like myself will haul themselves 11 or 12 miles in a day to play 36 holes, so every inch of Bandon’s offerings can be explored over a long weekend.
For non-golfers, one course is pretty much like the next one. Parkland style? Mountain style? Inland links? True links? What’s the difference . . . and who cares? For people who really like golf, however, every hole on every course is brimming with nuance and intrigue. These are the sort of people who are drawn to Bandon Dunes. (This being said, I’ve brought casual golfers here who could barely distinguish a pit bunker from a putter and they’ve enjoyed the courses for their beauty and serenity.) Though all the courses blend seamlessly into their surroundings — one has the sense that each hole was found instead of built — each has its own personality. Bandon Dunes may be the truest links course of the four.
Many holes are set along the coastline, the fairways play firm and fast, there are many natural undulations in both the fairways and the greens, and there are few trees on the field of play. There is, however, quite a bit of gorse, a spiny evergreen shrub that was originally introduced to Oregon from Scotland by settlers to help stem erosion. It blooms yellow in the springtime and is to be avoided at all costs. (The gorse at Bandon has claimed many a ball; a story that circulates among the caddies goes that one slightly inebriated golfer went into the gorse after an errant shot, became lost, and was finally found bleeding a half-hour later by a team of caddies, his clothes and ego in tatters.) The wind can blow with gusto in the summer, and players will do well to keep their shots low to keep them on course.
Pacific Dunes, designed by Tom Doak, is many golfers’ favorite of the four 18-holers. “When I first learned to scuba dive, my instructor advised me to not look for whales, but to focus on the small but remarkable facets of the reef,” golf writer Brian McCallen told me. “I think that applies to Pacific Dunes. Look at the undulations around the green, how the bunkers fit into the land. Pacific Dunes is a masterpiece. Pacific is not geared toward pencil-and-scorecard approach. It’s about enjoying each hole for what it is. You’re never unhappy, even when you’re fluffing the ball around. It’s just a fun course to play. And you can’t say that about many of the courses that make it on the ‘must-play’ lists.”
This intangible “playability” aspect extends to all the courses at Bandon. The fairways are wide and the hazards benign enough that even a 90s player will part with only a handful of golf balls over several rounds.
The two other 18-hole layouts are a departure from the Dunes courses, in part because they are removed from the Pacific. Bandon Trails, which opened in 2005 and was designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, moves through a host of environments on its epic journey. It begins on dunes land, moves into a rambling meadow, continues through a forest of Douglas firs and spruces, and concludes back in the dunes. The scenery on Bandon Trails is every bit as inspired as its seaside brethren — the contrast of gaping waste bunkers with towering conifers on this rolling terrain is both startling and exciting. Old Mac, created by Doak and Jim Urbina, will especially appeal to golf insiders, as each hole is loosely based on a hole that was originally laid out by Charles Blair Macdonald, who’s considered the father of American golf course design. (Macdonald, incidentally, borrowed many of his designs from the great links courses of Scotland.) Old Mac features some the biggest greens you’ll ever play, and a few blind shots where you have to trust your caddie or yardage book, swing away and hope for the best.
It’s hard to choose favorite holes at Bandon as there are simply so many that combine pleasing vistas and challenging shotmaking, and they play so differently depending on the wind. But here are a few: On Bandon Dunes, the par-4 fourth, a dogleg that opens up to a green at the edge of the Pacific; on Pacific Dunes, the par-4 13th, which plays uphill along bluffs 100 feet above the beach to the left and past huge dunes and waste bunkers on the right; on Bandon Trails, the diminutive par-3 fifth, a wedge or 9-iron for most players, but with zero room for error, and a green where four- or five-putts are not unheard of; and on Old Mac, the par-4 seventh, a short dogleg with a steep uphill approach to a green that rests perfectly atop the dunes. Land your shot on the low end of the green and there’s a decent chance the ball will roll back to your feet — if not behind you!
The par-3 Preserve course (also designed by Coore and Crenshaw) is short but every bit as sweet as the regulation courses. Only 13 holes, it was built as an afternoon alternative for golfers who can’t quite pull off walking 36 holes in a day but who still want a first-rate golf experience after their morning 18.
My foursome didn’t use caddies during our most recent trip, because we know the courses fairly well — and we need the exercise of pulling our bags. But when I’ve used them in the past, I’ve found that their knowledge of the courses’ idiosyncratic fairways and greens — and their positive attitude — have added to the round, rather than making me self-conscious.
The spectacular coastal setting and compelling course designs are reason enough to visit Bandon Dunes. But the resort’s laid-back, understated atmosphere makes it especially inviting. The rooms and restaurants are sparsely decorated, as if to encourage the visitor to take in the beauty of the greater surroundings; but the accoutrements that are present are tasteful, made with the highest-quality materials. Most guests stay on the property once they arrive, and the restaurants could charge whatever they wished and experience little backlash. Yet most dishes are priced as reasonably as the grill at your local course.
The staff at Bandon adds a special extra dimension. At some prestigious resorts, the employees seem as though they’ve been reduced to serfdom; wherever I turn, there’s someone eager to carry my bag, clean my clubs, polish my shoes . . . perhaps even hit my shot, if I asked. At Bandon, people are certainly available to serve, but they’re very relaxed, and allowed to smile, joke and be themselves.
It’s pleasing to see them having almost as much fun as me.
Santella, the author of both “Fifty Places to Play Golf Before You Die” and “Fifty More Places to Play Golf Before You Die,” lives in Portland, Ore.
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Bandon Dunes Golf
57744 Round Lake Dr., Bandon
During high season (June to September), double rooms begin at $360 per night for two. Green fees for the 18-hole courses at this time are $265 for the first 18, $135 for a second 18 the same day; fees are $100 for the Preserve. Pro shops on premises, including club rentals. Menus at the resort’s half-dozen restaurants rely on locally sourced ingredients and range from reasonably priced pub grub (chicken panini $9; Bandon cheeseburger $10) to elaborate dinner entrees (Northwest steelhead $29, pork cheeks $26).