Bandon Dunes – not only for the guys
It’s hard to argue with the proposition that Bandon Dunes is the best golf resort in the world. Mike Keiser’s dream of developing a world class golf destination at an obscure location on the Oregon coast has become the home of four courses ranked in the top 50 in the USA, with Pacific Dunes rivaling Pebble Beach as the best public golf course in the USA. In addition, the resort has a unique 13-hole par 3 course that will challenge any level of golfer. However, it has always seemed to me that Bandon was the location for the ultimate “guys’ trip” and I wondered how the resort would appeal to female golfers. My wife Ruth has courageously taken up the game at age 60 and has worked herself down to a 34 handicap. Would she be able to enjoy the beauty of the setting and enjoy playing “golf as it was meant to be,” as the resort web site touts?
I have wanted to play at Bandon for a long time and I was able to convince Ruth that she would enjoy a trip out to Oregon. After looking at the monthly average weather forecast, we decided to head out this past August. We always try to incorporate some other activities into our golf trips so this time we started out with a tour of the magnificent Oregon wine country south of Portland in the Willamette Valley. We ended our wine tour in Eugene and headed to Bandon the next morning. The drive to Bandon from Eugene is around two and a half hours but it goes through some magnificent river valleys and scenery before winding up at the resort.
Once inside the gates, the resort is remarkably compact. Each of the four major courses (and the Preserve par 3 course) is literally side by side and all of them have views of the other courses on the property. There are several lodging options at the resort which are all in close proximity to the courses. We booked a room at the Inn which is between the Bandon Trails and Bandon Dunes courses. Our room had a great view of the 18th green on the Bandon Dunes course and was a short walk to the Lodge. There are rooms at the lodge as well as The Gallery Restaurant which is the main restaurant on the property.
We arrived in plenty of time to find that our clubs had arrived safely via Ship Sticks so we gathered them up and headed to the practice area. A single huge practice complex serves all the courses and sits between Pacific Dunes and Old Macdonald courses. There are two large teeing areas, a massive putting green, and an excellent short game area available. The practice area is also the home to Shorty’s, a fun short par 3 course that can be played for free and is a great diversion after a round on one of the main courses. A shuttle runs throughout the property but there are also plenty of parking spaces if you have brought your own car.
Our first course was Bandon Dunes. There we met Staci Kingery, our caddy for the trip. Staci had been recommended by a caddy we had at the Streamsong resort in Florida and she turned out to be a highlight of the trip for us. Staci has been caddying almost since the resort opened and had a thorough knowledge of the subtleties of all of the courses. Most importantly, she made Ruth comfortable throughout the entire trip and helped guide and encourage her around. Bandon is a walking only resort and I would submit that it is almost impossible to play these courses without a caddy, at least the first few times around, since the driving lines and approaches are not always obvious at first glance. The greens are generally huge but also very subtle and the slopes are usually not so obvious on your initial read which makes the help and advice of your caddy critical. There are over three hundred caddies working at Bandon and the ones that we met caddying for our playing partners were all excellent.
Bandon Dunes turned out to be a tremendous course. I have been highly critical of David McLay Kidd on this site before, but this is a tremendous design that deserves all the high praise and accolades that have been accorded to it. Top 100 Golf Courses rates this as #32 in the USA and #70 in the world and I would consider that spot on. The beauty of the course lies in its natural flow and use of the terrain to create great green complexes. The first hole is a subtle dog leg right to an elevated green followed by a great short uphill par three with an undulating green and sharp slope short and right.
The course really picks up at holes 4 and 5 which are two of the best par fours on the property. I loved the way Kidd uses the bunkers to frame the tee shots. The approaches to the green are well suited to the severity of the holes. There is always an opening to the green to one side or the other, and several greens such as the par four 7th are protected only by steep slopes without any bunkers. It is the variety of looks and challenges that really make this course great.
As good as the front nine is the back nine may be the best nine holes on the property. Hole 10 is a great short par four. The drive is defined by bunkers which can actually be easily carried. The approach to the green is blind. The right side is shorter but the left opens up the hole. Again, no bunkering is used or needed on this green which is protected by swales off all sides and a huge grass bunker to the right. Hole 11 is a par three with a reverse, L-shaped green protected by a deep pot bunker on the left and a significant grass bunker right.
The highlight of the back nine has to be the amazing back to back par fours at the 16th and 17th. Hole 16 is one of the most photographed holes on the property. The Pacific Ocean is hard to the right and a split fairway allows all sorts of strategic options off the tee. A sharp drop off in the back of the green prevents aggressive plays to back pin placements. Hole 17 is defined by a massive ravine to the right that runs right up to the green and comes into play with any pin placement on the front half or right of the green.
I found Bandon Dunes a blast to play. There are so many beautiful holes with strategic options on almost every shot. The holes run in almost every conceivable direction that allows the wind to come into play from almost every direction. Ruth enjoyed the natural beauty and the fact there were almost no forced carries for her to negotiate. This allowed her to get around without being scared or intimidated. She played from the Orange tees to a yardage of 5072 yards. However, Bandon Dunes (like all the courses) has a more forward set of Royal Blue tees playing to 3945 yards that we used for the par fives and longer par fours. This composite set of tees made the course very fair and playable for her.
Our second round was at the newest course on the property, Old Macdonald. The goal of the course was to try and recreate what storied US golf architect C.B. Macdonald would have designed on this land. Tom Doak, designer of Pacific Dunes, and Jim Urbina were hired to complete the task and they created a masterpiece. The first two holes consist of a straightforward par four with a severely sloped green with a double plateau that is a forerunner of what is to come. Hole 2 is a nice par three and then the fun really begins. Hole 3 is a tough par four with a blind drive over a ridge and only a lone old Port Orford Cedar tree on the horizon to guide the shot. We were playing as a bank of fog was rolling in and this was one of the most eerie golf shots I have ever hit. Once across the ridge, there lies a true links course that is incredibly reminiscent of great links courses across Great Britain and Ireland.
The course plays around and up to a ridge that faces the ocean. Hole 7 is a great par four which plays up the ridge to a well-protected green. The drive is dominated by a deep bunker to the left and the player is then left with a sharp uphill second. Behind the green, the full view of the Pacific Ocean and the rest of the golf course awaits. You then turn down the hill to the par three 8th, which plays to a natural Biarritz green with great slopes in the putting surface. The course is an interesting tale of two nines. The front nine is rated as par 34, the back 37 and the back nine plays a full 700 yards longer than the front.
There are so many great holes but the 12th hole (Redan) may be the best. The design has the classic Redan left to right slope but short left is guarded by a severe slope and deep bunker. The green really sits on a plateau and long and right are guarded by severe slopes as well. I thought this might be the most difficult par 3 on the property. The drive on 14 was uphill and beautifully shaped by bunkers left and right off the tee. The 18th is a fascinating hole with a huge mound in the center of the approach and a severe bowl-like green which requires quite a bit of imagination to approach.
There was something about this course that reminded be of two different links courses. The approach to the ridge was reminiscent of the early back nine at Prestwick, and the flatter holes reminded me of the great links at Baltray in Ireland. The drives are framed by bunkers but the course is wide and allows for many angles of approach. The greens are huge so that pin placements will dominate the strategy not only on the approach but off the tee as well. Approach shots can be very difficult, such as when the pin is placed just behind the deep pot bunker to the left front of the 11th, designed after the famous Road Hole at St. Andrews.
Ruth had a blast. Two pars to start the day sent her fun factor way up. The greens almost universally had openings in the front and there were never any forced carries. This allowed her to enjoy the links character of the course and let her adapt to using the ground and the roll out to plan and shape her shots. The greens can be difficult to putt on but a well played approach to the proper area would usually reward the player with a reasonable chance to have a chance of holing their putt.
After our round on Old Macdonald Ruth was getting a little tired so I made my way to play the par 3 Preserve course alone. I jumped at an opening to play the 13-hole course with a delightful couple from Atlanta. The Preserve was designed by Coore and Crenshaw when they built Bandon Trails and it is a collection of outstanding par threes. These are real golf holes with a lot of variety and length. There are semi-blind shots, uphill and downhill plays, mounds to negotiate, and really just about anything you could want in a course like this. On the short downhill 13th, all three of us played the hole with a putter! I enjoyed the Preserve and it should not be missed on a trip to Bandon. I think you could play this course multiple times because the tees and greens allow for an endless combination and variety of challenges.
Our next round took us to Pacific Dunes, generally regarded as the premier course at the resort. This is Tom Doak’s masterpiece and deservedly so. A glance at the scorecard doesn’t seem too impressive, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that there is something special here. Our first two days had been relatively calm, but the wind started coming up here and it gave us a taste of the challenge of the course. This is a rolling, tumultuous piece of land that rarely allows a flat stance, especially on the more inland holes.
The first three holes are all great challenges, but the Pacific Ocean begins to make its presence felt on the 4th hole. This long par four plays downwind but the entire hole is dominated by the ocean running down the right side. Lest the player get too careful a diabolical bunker complex pinches in on the left in the preferred landing area for most players. The large green is approachable, guarded by some bunkers into the slope left of the green. This is an outstanding and memorable hole. The short par four 6th is absolutely dominated by a massive greenside bunker left and a steep slope to the right. The green is narrow and difficult to hit even when approaching from the preferred right side. This hole is an absolute gem of a 315-yard par four. The 9th is a fascinating hole with two separate green complexes.
The back nine starts with back to back par threes, which head towards and around the ocean. The first four holes of the back nine play straight into the prevailing wind and this is a brutal stretch. Hole 16 is another great short par four with a sloped and undulating fairway. There are no bunkers on this green but none are needed as this hole is amply defended by the slopes on and around the green.
I found Pacific Dunes to be much harder than I imagined. The brisk wind probably had a lot to do with that but the course was tighter and tougher than I had imagined when I was looking at the course before the trip. Hazards such as the central bunkers in the driving area at the par five 3rd hole add to the complexity of decision making and execution that is need to play this course well. As for Ruth, this course was difficult for her but in keeping with the theme of the other courses she was never faced with forced carries and every green allowed a running approach up to the putting surface. Pacific Dunes has a great look and the mixture of seaside and more inland holes make the course both memorable and beautiful.
After playing Pacific Dunes, we decided to head over to the practice area and play Shorty’s, the short 9-hole par 3 course. The wind was really starting to howl that afternoon and Shorty’s was quite the test. Shorty’s was laid out by David McLay Kidd when he built Bandon Dunes and it’s a neat mixture of short pitches and demanding full shots. The holes range from 86 to 177 yards, with a number of holes in the 110 to 125-yard range. It seemed like all the pitch shots were straight down wind and the long holes into the wind, so the course was quite a challenge. The nine was easy to walk and Ruth had a great time as I did too. I wouldn’t pass up playing here for an enjoyable relaxing nine after one of the other courses.
Our last day led us to Bandon Trails, a Coore/Crenshaw design that is distinctly different from the rest of the courses on the property. Bandon Trails is set away from the Ocean and, after starting in the dunes, the course heads up and around a beautiful tree-lined ridge. I am a big fan of the Coore/Crenshaw team and I love the way they use the natural terrain to frame beautiful and challenging holes. Despite the fact that we had an early morning tee time the wind was blowing hard at the onset and proceeded to blow harder as the morning progressed.
After a fairly gentle opening hole through the dunes, the action starts at the long par three 2nd, which was playing over 215 yards to a beautiful green surround by sand and waste areas. The short par three 5th has one of the most natural and beautiful green sites I have ever played. The green is protected by three deep bunkers in front and a large plateau on the green itself. The green is set at the base of the ridge that runs through the course and is stunningly beautiful. It seems that one challenging par four after another follows and the holes flow up and down the landscape, with each hole presenting a unique challenge both off the tee and on to the green.
Perhaps no hole was as challenging as the long par four 11th. The hole plays 445 yards downhill and was downwind, but the approach is guarded by a pond adjacent to the right side of the green. One of the caddies described the hole as “#11 at Augusta in reverse” and it’s easy to see how that description fits. The pin was so tight on the right side that it appeared it would be easy to putt or chip your approach right into the pond. It takes a lot of skill to make par here.
Hole 14 is a short downhill par four that may be the most photographed hole on the course. The tee sits high atop the ridge and the green is set on a plateau with a severe slope behind the putting surface, as well as cavernous bunkers to the right. I hit a great drive here and actually putted my approach from about 40 yards. The last two holes return to the dunes with a beautiful par three at 17 and a nice uphill par four finishing hole. After playing the course, you feel like you have started on the Ocean Course at Kiawah, entered pine tree heaven like the sand hills of North Carolina, then returned to Kiawah to end your round.
The idea to build a course as unique and different as Bandon Trails was a brilliant move by the resort. This course presents a totally different feel and experience from the other courses but is still an incredible challenge and more importantly fun to play. Due to the severity of a four-club wind, this was our most difficult day but I had a blast trying to negotiate the wind, bunkers and hazards that challenged every shot.
Ruth played great here, but this was probably the most difficult course for her. I have found at the other Coore/Crenshaw courses that they tend to have more forced carries that make the course more difficult for the beginner golfer and I found the same situation here. Nevertheless, Ruth enjoyed the course because of the stunning beauty and reasonably wide fairways. After a nice lunch at the Bandon Trails clubhouse, we packed our bags, shipped our clubs, and set out for our late night flight back to Knoxville.
Ruth and I have now taken a number of golf trips together but Bandon is really in a class by itself. The food is outstanding, both in quality and value at all of the restaurants on property. The courses and practice area are all located close together and a shuttle service runs constantly, making all of the courses and facilities easy to get to. The variety of golf holes on the courses is amazing and I don’t think you could ever get tired of playing here.
Although these courses are difficult, Ruth had a wonderful time. The whole experience is very immersive and, as a great vacation should do, you feel like you have left the world and entered into an asylum of beauty and relaxation. As we were finishing our last round, I told the caddy of our playing partners: “I don’t think Bandon is just a guys’ trip anymore.” He replied: “This hasn’t been a guys’ trip for 10 years.” Golfers of all levels can enjoy these magnificent golf courses, and the quality and service of the resort are of the highest level. My biggest problem now is to try and figure out when to go back!