Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Top 10 Best Experiences at Bandon Dunes

It has been ten years since my first visit to Bandon and I finally made it back; I had forgotten how good it is. I played both Pacific Dunes and Bandon Dunes early in my quest without my camera, so I am updating the course profiles and including an overview of the entire resort. To be honest, it took me a decade to return because I don’t like to play golf in high winds and I thought the courses get loads of wind all the time. As I am often, I was wrong. Although there are times when the wind can howl, there are an equal number of days when it is calm. In general, the wind picks up throughout the day, so morning rounds tend to be more placid.

I came home from my June visit with a sun tan; we had only one round where there was a two club wind, otherwise it was in the mid-seventies with brilliant sunshine and minimal winds.

  bd stiff flag
Woe betide the golfer at Bandon Dunes when the pin flags are standing upright in a stiff wind

Before looking at each course individually, I’ll start off with some do’s and don’ts at Bandon:

Top recommendations while at Bandon Dunes

1. Play Bandon Dunes in the morning when the winds are lower
2. Play Pacific Dunes in the morning when the winds are lower
3. Play the 13-hole par three Bandon Reserve course to rediscover that golf doesn’t have to be a full eighteen-hole round in order to be immensely enjoyable
4. Play Old Macdonald in the afternoon as the sun is setting
5. Putt on the Punchbowl course, drink in hand, at twilight
6. Sit in front of the roaring oversized fire pit outside McGee’s pub and enjoy a cocktail or a cigar
7. Order the ultimate comfort food (Reuben fritters and Grandma’s Meatloaf) at McGee’s pub
8. Go for an early morning or late afternoon walk on any of the courses and listen to the sounds of nature and absorb the isolated surroundings
9. Have a card game or play pool in the Bunker Bar in the Lodge
10. Have dinner at the Pacific Grill; the food is inventive and delicious
11. Take a caddie
12. Play Bandon Trails in the afternoon, it gets less wind than the other courses

Top things to avoid while at Bandon Dunes

1. Walking Bandon Trails as your second round of the day. The walk is very difficult.
2. The bunkers left of the par three 17th "Redan" hole at Pacific Dunes. Yikes!
3. Using your lob wedge around the greens. Putt or chip with a less lofted club since the lies are so tight.
4. Acting like a complete wanker by playing music on the course. *

The Bandon Experience

Is it just me, or do you fantasize while traveling that you could see yourself permanently relocating to the location you are visiting? I have fantasized about living in Scotland, Rome, Florence, Queenstown, New Zealand, the Caribbean, Charleston, and many more locations. My latest fantasy is to move to the Oregon Coast. What do you think? Play some world-class golf courses, ride my 4 x 4 along the broad beaches along the coast (even though I don’t own a 4 x 4), take up fly fishing, take some day trips to the Willamette Valley wine country? Life would be good.

The Bandon Dunes resort, located in Southern Oregon, five hours from Portland, represents the best that golf has to offer. The resort, conceived and built by entrepreneur Mike Keiser, was developed with an ethos that I find refreshing in our age of rampant commercialism. The resort was built with the philosophy "Golf as it was meant to be." All the courses are walking only and were designed in the traditional style you find in the British Isles. This is links golf with no cement cart paths, no formalities, and an abundance of caddies. In this regard (the overall philosophy), Bandon Dunes is superior to other resorts in the U.S., many of which were built with the intention of hosting large crowds and major championships.

Bandon Dunes is closest to golf's founding philosophy: it is public and was designed to put great golf above all else. When he conceived of the resort, Keiser also selected relatively unknown (at the time) architects: the Scotsman David McLay Kidd for Bandon Dunes and Tom Doak for Pacific Dunes, which turned out to be brilliant moves. Rather than imposing pre-conceived notions on this special stretch of sand dunes, each developed the courses in a minimalist philosophy and achieved great results.

I saw Mike Keiser interviewed on The Golf Channel when Bandon Dunes hosted the 2006 Curtis Cup and they asked him what he was most proud of. His answer was that the courses at Bandon were packed in the winter, often times while it was raining, and that group after group continued to tee off nonetheless. It is a testament to how good it is. You have to like love Keiser’s philosophy. His vision is that the Bandon Dunes Resort becomes a great venue for amateur golf and that they would play host to amateur, not professional, events. His basic philosophy is to run the resort to break even, not to gouge golfers. I personally find this philosophy to be a breath of fresh air in a golf world increasingly obsessed with housing developments and courses built to host major championships (and with escalating fees.) I was continually surprised at how reasonable the golf, food, and drinks were the entire time I was on property. There are more than enough shuttles on the property that it seems like they appear instantly when you call for one,

The Bandon Dunes Resort has one of the largest caddie programs in the United States and I give credit to Keiser for emphasizing this and supporting the profession. Playing at the Bandon Resort reminds me of playing in Scotland, Ireland, and England; the lies are tight and most of the courses are links style. The courses are enhanced by the fact that the location is pristine. In this remote stretch of Oregon the air is clearer, there is no pollution or large industry nearby and the colors of nature are made sharper by the simple, bright elements. It is not unusual to turn around while playing and be astounded with the beauty of a brilliant blue sky offset by puffy white clouds and the verdant landscape. Building courses along an ocean-side precipice and allowing golfers to promenade along the towering cliff tops with a 360-degree panoramic view was a stroke of genius.

Bandon Dunes

David McLay Kidd is on record as saying he never put anything down on paper while building Bandon Dunes. He just built it. The man is a clear genius being able to do this. I have (obviously) played a great deal of golf in Scotland and Bandon Dunes truly feels like you are playing golf in the British Isles: the tight feel of the turf is the same, as is the gorse and sand dunes. Little things, like the way the walking paths are routed are genuine, as are the unkempt but authentic and aesthetically pleasing views on the course. For those that haven’t played golf on the other side of the Atlantic, Bandon Dunes is as good an approximation of playing there as can be.

One of the areas where Kidd excelled in the design of Bandon Dunes is in the framing of holes and shots. To a degree I can’t remember on other courses, he gives interesting targets and aiming points on each shot. Greens and fairways are framed by sand dunes, the ocean, pot bunkers, and gorse. His course routing is so natural it looks like it has been there for a century and is part of the natural landscape. In Kidd’s own words, “it’s natural, unabashed, simple, honest, uncontrived, beautiful, adventurous and a thousand other things that man cannot dictate, design or affect.”

There are so many holes to like at Bandon, but I single out a few below. The third hole, a par five, shows off the way Kidd has framed holes beautifully:

Bandon Dunes 5th hole

A picture is truly worth a thousand words as shown on the par three sixth, which is breathtaking. It's a jaw dropper and as pretty as any hole in the world:

  BD 6 green
Bandon Dunes par three 6th hole

The 12th is another stunning par three set against the backdrop of the Pacific:

  bd12 (2)
Bandon Dunes 12th hole

I am also a big fan of the bunkerless par five 13th hole that tests you with uneven lies and links-style unpredictable bounces. I liked the short 14th hole, an inland 359-yard par four that has a true feel of links golf. The hole's green is set among large gorse bushes surrounded by sand dunes, and depending upon the wind the green may be driveable on any given day. I had the feeling walking up to the green that I was in a place like Cruden Bay or Royal Dornoch.

Bandon Dunes 14th hole

The 17th hole has one of the best views in golf from the tee box. The view of the large dunes and broad beach below, set against a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean prove quite a distraction to golf. The hole itself plays away from the ocean, but has very good risk/reward options and plays to an elevated green.

The finishing hole at Bandon plays back to the clubhouse and is inevitably a letdown as it doesn't have the dunes and scenery of the first seventeen holes, although it is otherwise a brilliant golf course.

Pacific Dunes

Designed by the now famous architect Tom Doak, Pacific Dunes is a worthy companion to Bandon Dunes. One of the signatures of Pacific Dunes are the rippling fairways, which Doak says are the original contours of the land. It was a strong decision on his part to leave them the way they are. Another feature of Pacific Dunes is that a lot of the approach shots play to elevated greens.

The par four 4th hole is a spectacular hole that plays along the Pacific Ocean. If you find yourself at Pacific Dunes with a slice (as a right hander) the likelihood is a lost ball at the 4th, probably more than one, since the ocean hugs the hole the entire way to the green. Not that it matters. The dreamy view is so spectacular that it is difficult to concentrate on the golf. The hole is set along a high bluff with land that tumbles down to the broad beach along the rugged Pacific Coast. This is simply one of the best golf holes you will play anywhere in the world on one of the best golf courses in the world.

  pd4 green
Pacific Dunes 4th hole

The par three eleventh is another favorite hole. Since Pacific Dunes was one of Doak's early courses I tend to like it more than some of his more recent designs. He has increasingly gone crazy on the greens with too many breaks, humps, hollows, and tricks. His early works like Pacific Dunes are challenging without being over the top.

  pd 11 green
Pacific Dunes 11th green

The 17th hole at Pacific Dunes is a "Redan" replica, and one of the hardest holes on the property, if not in the continental United States. The effective landing area to place a good shot is about 10-15 square feet. Too far left leaves you in penal and steep bunkers. Too far right leaves you in hidden bunkers. Too long leaves an impossible chip. Adding to the perverse pleasure is the predominant wind which blows left to right, asking the golfer, if they are brave enough, to take dead aim at the penal bunkers, so that your ball will blow into the best position. The Redan replica on Pacific Dunes is a better version than the one at Old Macdonald and second only to the Redan at the National Golf Links in America.

Bandon Trails

I am not going to write much about Bandon Trails out of my respect for Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. I absolutely adore their design work. I have played many of their courses, including Sand Hills, Friars Head, Chechessee Creek, Hidden Creek, Cuscowilla, and Streamsong. And I have walked Lost Farm in Tasmania. I really like their design philosophy, which I find to be pleasing and not too taxing: wide fairways and an intelligent use of  bunkers, but not an overabundance of them, and challenging greens with shaved areas around them to penalize you if you don’t hit a good shot.

I found Bandon Trails didn’t follow their usual design philosophy. To me the course was overly penal. The fairways were not as wide as they usually are on a Coore-Crenshaw course. More importantly the design is such that shots anywhere near the bunkers are drawn into them like metal to a magnet, even well struck shots in a good position on the fairway. I also found the hilly location extremely difficult to walk. The course also didn’t have the same stunning visual appeal that I find on their other courses. Maybe it was because the course was crispy and baked out and because the greens were sanded? Lest you think I’m just an irritable old fool with a crappy golf game (and you wouldn’t be wrong), I played with three others golfers whose handicaps range from two through twelve, and we were unanimous in our opinion.

I did like the opening hole and the second hole at Bandon Trails, the latter a downhill par three set among sand dunes pictured below. Note the course environment seen in the picture is starkly different than Pacific Dunes and Bandon dunes: it is hilly and in a coastal forest away from the ocean.

  BT 2-1
Bandon Trails 2nd hole par three

The 300-yard downhill 14th hole is an excellent risk-reward hole that plays to a tiny and challenging green. I don't know the amount of elevation change from the tee to the green, but it has to be over 100 yards. The picture below doesn't fully show the elevation, but from where the golfers are back to the tree line is as severe a drop as Augusta's 10th fairway.

BT 14-001
Bandon Trails great 14th hole

Employees at the resort like the course quite a bit, which you can understand. If the wind is blowing and you don’t want to play near the ocean, the course provides a good respite.

Old Macdonald

If I understand the intent correctly, Old Macdonald is meant to be patterned after the National Golf Links of America in New York, Mike Keiser’s favorite course (and among my personal top five courses in the world). I’m not trying to be a jackass, but I have played the National Golf Links of America more than a half dozen times and I didn’t immediately equate Old Macdonald with the National. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Prestwick in Scotland with its wide open expanses and the location close to—but not directly on—the ocean. The style of golf was also reminiscent of Scotland in general.

I liked Old Macdonald, but I didn’t love it. The opening three holes and very good and I thought the eleventh hole, a replica of the Road Hole at St. Andrews was as good a replica as can be created without putting a hotel in the way on the tee shot. Strategically, it is a near perfect emulation of this classic hole. And the sixteenth hole, an Alps replica, is also excellent, and offers a blind shot to the green.

  OM11 Road Hole
Old Macdonald 11th Road Hole

The course was built with only one type of grass, so the tees, fairways, and greens are all the same; it has tight lies and plays fast and firm. If you don’t land your ball at least ten yards short of your intended target it will fly past where you intended it to. Adjusting to fast and firm conditions takes some getting used to and I actually like being able to use a putter from far off the green as a test of creativity.

The reason I didn’t love the course is that there is not enough variety. The course has giant sized greens, collectively the largest of any course in the country. And the greens are unrestrained in their breaks and contours. Occasional holes interspersed throughout your round with wild and undulating greens are fun. A course with eighteen holes of them risks becoming tedious. Personally, I think the design went too far and that some holes with smaller greens or with flatter surfaces sprinkled in would have made for a better result.

Let’s say you hit a good shot to the first green but it hits a knob and bounds off the back. You putt back up toward the hole but you miss your line by two inches, and a ridge takes the ball and shoots it back off the green. You then take two more putts to get up and down. On the second hole it is the same thing. And then on the third rinse and repeat. Get my point? It’s the repetition that becomes frustrating.

Definitely play Old Macdonald, but expect over-sized, taxing greens. I may be a golf snob (may be?) and my standards are very high and I tend to over-analyze things, particularly because my mindset was to compare the course to the National Golf Links. Many people fall in love with the course, although an equal number don’t. I only got a chance to play it once and I imagine it grows on you after you figure it out, or if you play it with a white hot putter and hit every ridge line perfectly.

The Punchbowl

What is the Punchbowl? A 100,000-square-foot putting green with thirty-six holes routed as a course, each with a cup holder to hold your cocktail; with ocean views and waitress service; and it's free.

Sign me up! What a treat it was to play the Punchbowl course, which is located adjacent to the clubhouse at Pacific Dunes. Play it at least one night when the sun is setting. What a blast.

The Punchbowl putting green

Bandon Preserve

Coore & Crenshaw’s best work at the resort is the Bandon Preserve, their 13-hole par three course. This is classic Coore-Crenshaw: fun, challenging, visually appealing, and not overly penal. What a pleasure to play on either your arrival or departure day, or as a warm-up or second round on any day.

The holes range from an 85-yard blind par three to a challenging uphill 150-yard tester. You have an ocean view and broad vistas from virtually everywhere on the course.

Bandon Preserve 6th hole

My favorite hole on the Preserve was the sixth hole, which is nestled between a sand dune and a precipice that cascades down the hillside into large gorse bushes. To the left of the gorse is the unspoiled Oregon coastline and the Pacific Ocean. It is truly an idyllic spot. When I die, I would like to have my ashes spread around the sixth hole of Bandon Preserve.

Bandon Preserve 6th hole, my final resting place

Not that you need another reason to play the course, but proceeds of the greens fees from playing at the Preserve go to a conservation organization that supports the Oregon Coast.

This is a special place to tee it up. Bandon Preserve is better than the par 3 course at Augusta!

Bandon Preserve 9th hole


As with other links courses, one of the things that makes the overall resort so interesting is the varying wind conditions. The courses play substantially different depending upon how the wind is blowing. The prevailing wind in the summer is different that the prevailing wind in the winter (from the north in the summer and the south in the winter) and the winds can even shift throughout the day. Although there are times that the wind howls, there are also times when it is calm.

I recently completed reading the book The Making of Bandon Dunes by Steve Goodwin, which is partly a biography of Mike Keiser. I highly recommend it. His philosophy is just so good and his iconoclastic style so unique that the more I learn about him the more I really like him. Keiser is quoted in the book regarding why many new courses aren't as good as those he had built here: "Most golfers are average golfers, but the new courses are being designed for pros, or for the 1 percent of the golfing population that can hit a drive three hundred yards. For the rest of us, these courses are just too hard. There's nothing fun about being asked hole after hole to do things that you can't do."

Goodwin also captures the essence of Bandon well, referencing Mike Keiser he says, "...he had perfectly expressed the feeling that he had about what a round of golf ought to be, the feeling of expectation and adventure. They'd captured the flow and rhythm of the game, presenting a sequence of surprising holes, stirring holes, each one different from its predecessors but all of them forming a single, harmonious whole."

Beyond the amazing golf, the overall resort is world class - the cabins and lodges are very nice with a fireplace in each one, and the food is very good. In the same way Augusta does a good job at everything in terms of the Masters, Bandon likewise does so for the recreational golfer. It’s the little things that make a big difference; they anticipate your needs. Your golf bag is ready before you ask for it. Shuttles to the courses run like clockwork. And how great is it that they provide cup holders on every hole on the Punchbowl course? And poker chips in the Bunker Bar? They also follow the Masters formula on reasonable prices, which surprised me every time I got a bill. The place is cigar friendly and the remote location is one that allows you to slow your life down. It is a location to immerse yourself in and to appreciate. The game needs a little less commercial emphasis and a little more of the approach Keiser advocates. Plus, the out-of-the-box things he has done like the Punchbowl and the par-3 course are commendable.

The tranquility of the location is relaxing. While there, aside from an occasional Coast Guard helicopter flying offshore there were no planes flying overhead. The predominant sound you hear is that of the surf crashing; there is no distant highway noise and they don’t have lawnmowers or leaf blowers running while you play since they do all the maintenance in the early morning so as not to disturb your peace during the round.

What course is best?

One of the inevitable consequences of playing the world's best courses is the debates about which courses you like better, particularly those located next to each other. Do you prefer Shinnecock or the National Golf Links? Wentworth of Sunningdale? Well, in my case, I give a slight edge to Bandon Dunes over Pacific Dunes as my favorites, although both are fabulous. I thought Bandon Dunes had better vistas, great golf holes, and a more imaginative routing than Pacific Dunes, although it is also a world class golf course. In my own personal world rankings. I would put Bandon Dunes much higher than its current ranking. The locals tell me that when the wind is up Pacific Dunes is better to play because Bandon Dunes has more holes into the prevailing wind than Pacific does. I would rank the par three course as my next favorite, followed by Old Macdonald and Bandon Trails. 

Which resort is best?

With regard to the best golf resort in the United States, the contenders would be Bandon, the courses of the Monterey Peninsula, Pinehurst, and Streamsong. Bandon and the Pebble Beach area gain an edge because they have tremendous water views and I’m splitting hairs; to some degree it’s like trying to choose between a Chateau Mouton Rothschild and a Chateau Lafite Rotschild. Neither one of them is going to suck. My personal leaning goes toward Bandon for three reasons: 1) Pebble can be either a debilitating six-hour round or a rushed four-hour round with a marshal at every hole pushing you along. Bandon has  pace of play down perfectly; 2) You get more value for your money at Bandon; the prices are more reasonable and the service is as good as it gets; 3) Bandon’s philosophy embodies the true spirit of the game more. The resort transports you splendidly to an isolated cocoon away from civilization and you don’t have to leave the property and can really connect with nature.

The entire vibe at the Bandon Dunes resort is outstanding. Keiser and his team have obviously put a lot of time and energy into cultivating a storied culture, and into making sure the resort has the right feeling. It is one of the most service oriented places I have ever visited, golf related or not. The employees there refer to the owner as Mr. Keiser and speak of him in reverent tones. They should. He made the Herculean task of building such a complex in such a remote area look effortless. His approach is so good I nominate Keiser to be the next president of the U.S.G.A. Hell, he seems to have such good sense and judgement I would vote for him if he ran for President of the United States.

If you've never been on a golf trip to Bandon Dunes, you should go as soon as you can. Bandon Dunes doesn't play second fiddle to anyone. As they used to say, it is nulli secundus

* Music on Golf Courses

Apologies upfront for my little polemic.

What hath god wrought? What is this new pestilence invading golf courses?

I played in a charity outing a couple of weeks before visiting Bandon and the group behind us had loud music playing out of their golf cart. I chalked it up to the usual numb-skulls you find in New Jersey and brushed it off as a one off. 

While at Bandon we played through a group that had music blaring from their golf bag. Are you kidding me? I know some people think that technology is cool and it's a wonder that you can now carry around all kinds of music on your phone and there are portable speakers that sound great. What they are missing is that MUSIC HAS NO PLACE ON A GOLF COURSE. Why isn’t this blindingly obvious to anyone with a brain larger than a pea? Should you play rock music loudly when you are at church? How about when you are in a court room? Or in a hospital intensive care unit? The answer is obvious. You know that you shouldn't, even though no one has ever told you not to do it. It's common sense. Should you play rock music loudly when you are playing at Bandon Dunes? The answer is also obvious. 

It is quite a selfish act. Golfers that play loud music on golf courses are without question those same fools that scream "mashed potatoes" while at tour events. They have no place in our game. Don't ruin the ambiance for everyone else. Put in ear plugs if you have a disorder that requires you to listen to rock 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Or wait until you get home and play it as loud as you want in your den. If you turned off the music, you would experience one of the great joys of the game. Why not take advantage of one of the most remote golf experiences you will ever have? Being alone with nature and hearing the sounds of chirping birds, the rhythmic din of the ocean waves crashing in the distance, and the sound the wind makes blowing through long grass is priceless. The silence at Bandon is bliss. Enjoy it!