BANDON — It’s time for the rest of Oregon to understand what golfers already know: The Bandon Dunes Golf Resort is one of the best in the world.
Far from population centers, old-fashioned in design (right down to a ban on motorized carts), the original Bandon Dunes course opened in 1999 on a remote Pacific coastline blanketed in thorny gorse. Yet its resemblance to traditional Scottish and Irish courses made it immediately attractive to golf purists, and the resort’s subsequent growth — new 18-hole courses in 2001, 2005 and 2010, plus a par-3 executive course in 2012 — only added to its legend.
There are places on these links where you can stand atop a sandy dune and see nothing in any direction but fairways and greens, save the flinty blue of the Pacific Ocean.
Caddies in their white coveralls tote golfers’ bags past red and yellow flags that flap in the brisk breeze, marking the ultimate goals of every pockmarked ball struck by a wood or an iron or a putter.
While these golf courses have common elements, each has a character of its own. Bandon Dunes, the original, is very open and exposed to wind and obstacles of native vegetation. Pacific Dunes, which bounds it on the north, rolls through undulating hills and protects its greens with a plethora of sandy bunkers.
Old McDonald, the newest of the quartet, has become known for vast, carefully manicured greens amid otherwise unforgiving terrain. Just inland, Bandon Trails begins and ends in the dunes, but in between, forges a path through coastal forest that reveals the resort’s only water hazards.
“Our founder and owner, Mike Keiser, wanted to give people a golf experience similar to that of Scotland and Ireland, where the roots of golf lie,” said Erik Peterson, the resort’s director of communications.
To that end, Peterson said, course architects let the terrain dictate the layout, extending fairways across natural sand hills rather than sculpting preconceived designs within the landscape.
“This place seemed to defy all conventional wisdom,” author Stephen Goodwin wrote in his 2006 book, “Dream Golf: The Making of Bandon Dunes.”
“From the point of view of the golf industry, (Keiser) had done everything backward. He’d built a resort that was nowhere near any kind of ‘market.’ He’d built a golf course that was deliberately and proudly designed not as a contemporary course, but as a ‘throwback.’ He’d ignored advice to hire a name architect and chosen, instead, a young, unknown, inexperienced Scotsman, David (McLay) Kidd.
“He had also decreed that the course would be for walkers only. He kept it free of carts, cart paths and real estate. He was never tempted to make the course private; he wanted it to be open to the public and to be priced so that locals could enjoy it.”
It remains that way today. A sign over the door of the Bandon Dunes clubhouse encapsulates the sentiment: “Golf as it was meant to be.”
Although the resort is privately owned (by Keiser), they are public links — and as such are priced, especially during the winter season, for anyone to enjoy. What’s more, golfers don’t need to stay at the resort to play the courses.
A majority of visitors, however, do choose to immerse themselves in a complete golf experience. Bandon Dunes Golf Resort offers a range of lodging units, four restaurants, two lounges, a spa and massage center, along with practice facilities and pro shops. But it has no swimming pool, no tennis courts, no galleries or boutiques. “We want it to be all about the golf,” Peterson said.
The guest rooms — 186 of them, in several locations around the resort’s 2,400 acres — are designed for relaxation without being overdone. My accommodation in the Lily Pond Cottages had a deck overlooking said coastal pool and an exceptionally spacious bathroom area. The 50-minute massage I received in the spa did wonders in alleviating aches and pains in my shoulders and hips after daily doubles on the golf courses.
The restaurants, each with its own personality, were better than I had expected. In particular, The Gallery, at the main Bandon Dunes Lodge, and the Pacific Grill, at the Pacific Dunes clubhouse, were first-class establishments, serving such entrees as huckleberry duck breast and confit (The Gallery) and spice-rubbed sturgeon on sweet corn (Pacific Grill). Overall credit goes to executive chef Don McCradic, a veteran of such places as the Skamania Lodge in the Columbia Gorge, the Salishan Lodge on the Oregon coast and The Canyons at Park City, Utah. He’s been in Bandon for 10 years.
“We try to keep things familiar and comforting,” McCradic told me. “We get a little more creative with daily specials. We use as many local ingredients as we possibly can, from the farms to the fish market in the town of Bandon.”
As a golfer, I’m not very good. Earthworms tremble when I stand at the tee. I have a talent for the beach — that is, for finding sand traps. The best part of my game is on the greens, where I sink an occasional three-putt.
But that didn’t stop me from appreciating the dramatic beauty of Bandon’s courses by the sea, and the genius that went into their design.
There was a steady northerly wind, and patches of blue sky peeked through a layer of clouds, when Peterson and I played Bandon Dunes. I thought about David McLay Kidd, the course architect who now makes his home at Tetherow in Bend. Kidd was just 26 when he left his Edinburgh home to study this coastline’s potential for a golf resort. Five years later, in 1999, the course achieved immediate international acclaim and launched Kidd’s career.
“Some golfers consider this a bucket-list experience,” Peterson told me as I took a divot from the fairway with a 7-iron. I felt unworthy. But by the time we joined an unconcerned wild porcupine browsing on low foliage beside the 16th tee, I had put a checkmark on my bucket list, as well. The imperturbable creature ignored us as we hit across a gulch to the upper level of a split fairway, avoiding a red-sandstone bluff that fell rapidly to crashing surf on our right.
Deer also are frequent visitors to the Bandon links. As I hacked my way through Pacific Dunes, ranked by Golf Magazine as the No. 1 public golf course in the United States (ahead of Pebble Beach, Calif.), caddy Patrick Fox told me that he often sees them loping between thickets of shore pine.
A veteran career caddy who divides his year between Bandon and courses in Florida and New York’s Hamptons, Fox was a real asset to my game, such as it is. Not only did he carry my golf bag, relieving me of extra weight on a 5-plus-mile hike around each course; he chose my clubs, recommended strategies, complimented my better strokes and withheld judgment when I found the bunkers. “Sand therapy,” he called it.
Only a few years earlier, Fox told me, this land was at the mercy of the highly flammable gorse plant. Introduced to the Bandon area in 1873 by Irish immigrant George Bennett, who considered it as an ornamental shrub, this so-called “Irish hedge” wreaked more havoc than the undeniable beauty of its yellow spring blossoms could justify. It has been responsible for numerous major fires, including a 1936 blaze that destroyed the little harbor town of Bandon, five miles south of the resort.
In 2008, Fox noted, he was caddying on Pacific Dunes when he observed layers of flames and smoke raging through gorse just to the north. Shortly thereafter, Pacific was evacuated for fear that the fire would spread. Instead, it was controlled — and the clearing of the land for the Old McDonald course, which opened in 2010, became much easier.
Fox and I were accompanied on one of our rounds by an area high-school student training to become a caddy — and, the student hopes, to win a Chick Evans Scholarship.
Presented annually by the Western Golf Association, the Evans scholarships provide full college tuition and housing, renewable for up to four years, to deserving high-school students with excellent grades, outstanding character, financial need — and a demonstrated two-year work ethic as a golf caddy.
Bandon Dunes is one of the program’s biggest supporters. Young caddies have the opportunity to join others at the University of Oregon, which this year became one of 15 national universities with a residential house for Evans Scholars.
In all, there are 300 caddies employed by Bandon Dunes, more than 250 of them in summer. The training program is extensive and highly respected through the golf-resort world.
The Bandon Dunes Golf Resort also provides hundreds of other jobs for residents of Oregon’s south coast region — many of them for restaurant workers, housekeepers and gardeners who might never lift a golf club.
And in 2010, resort owner Keiser established a new organization: the Wild Rivers Coast Alliance, which funds grants that prioritize conservation and community, blending ecological initiatives with economic opportunity. Supported by greens fees paid to play the 13-hole, par-3, Bandon Preserve pitch-and-putt course, it has had early success with sustainable agriculture and fisheries projects.
This might suggest a small spiritual element to the golf resort. It’s most evident at the Labyrinth, an oasis on the property’s ¾-mile Woodland Trail. A maze for walking meditation — at a slow pace, you can make it to the center in about 6 minutes — it is a memorial to Keiser’s close friend Howard McKee, who helped him to establish Bandon Dunes. The Labyrinth replicates a 13th-century maze on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France.
Around the resort grounds are another 10 miles of trails — beach, dune, woodland and creek-side trails. For the less-than-fully-committed golfer, they make a great way to explore the resort precincts.
And then there’s the town of Bandon itself: Bandon-by-the-Sea, as the chamber of commerce would like you to know it. A port town at the broad mouth of the Coquille River, which flows from the Oregon Coast Range, it was once the busiest center of commerce and shipbuilding between Portland and San Francisco. Lumber, gold and seafood were shipped from here well into the 20th century.
After the devastating 1936 fire (only 16 of Bandon’s 500 buildings survived), the town struggled along as a tent city until it could rebuild. Now the quaint blocks of Old Town are imbued with a flavor that speaks to the 1800s, complete with a harbor boardwalk along the riverfront and several blocks of galleries and gift shops along Second Street.
Until Bandon Dunes was built, Bandon remained a sleepy if picturesque coastal town of about 3,000 people. It retains many elements of that.
A harbor-side observation area offers views across the Coquille River mouth to a historic lighthouse, which for more than 40 years guided vessels through the treacherous tides and into the calm bay where the docks of Old Town still stand. We reached it by driving north across Bullards Bridge, turning left into serene Bullards Beach State Park, then following the road another couple of miles to the river’s north jetty.
Built in 1896, the white-brick lighthouse shone its beacon from a 40-foot tower for scores of ships and boats until 1939, when improvements to the river channel and installation of an automated light hastened its decommissioning. It then sat abandoned until 1975, when it was restored. The gift shop inside is open every day from April to October.
More readily reached from the town of Bandon is Coquille Point, a rocky outcropping at the west end of 11th Street off Beach Loop Road. This is perhaps the best place from which to view the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. From a trail along the headland, interpretive signs describe the rich birdlife on offshore Table and Elephant Rocks — home to tufted puffins, common murres, Brandt’s cormorants and western gulls. And at most times of year, there are harbor seals aplenty.
These birds, as well as brown pelicans, can often be seen soaring past the pitches of the Bandon Dunes courses. But they have enough sense to stay clear of the little white balls flying off the tees of what many say is one of the best golf resorts in the world.
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