It’s all true.
After a year of planning my first trip to Bandon Dunes and researching the resort and its acclaimed courses to a nearly obsessive degree, I couldn’t help but wonder if the destination would live up to its billing.
As it turns out, Bandon Dunes was a far different experience than I expected, and it was better than I could have imagined.
It’s a place where the focus is on golf, and nothing else. Everything at the resort is designed to optimize the golf experience. While this makes Bandon Dunes not a place for family-oriented vacations with a variety of attractions, it has become a destination where the golfing experience is unrivaled.
Avid golfer Mike Keiser, after making his fortune in the greeting card business, was frustrated with the state of the modern American game and course architecture in the 1980’s. The focus in the industry was making tracks as difficult, perfectly manicured and manufactured as possible with a relentless drive to challenge the most elite players. The problem was that many of these courses were so difficult that they were unplayable for the average golfer, making the game frustrating and inaccessible. To make matters worse, industry development was focused on selling real estate along the courses, further degrading the golf experience.
Following a test of the waters by building his own 9-hole golf course in Michigan, the Dunes Club, Keiser set out to find the right property to build a true links course in the United States. He wanted to provide golfers with the type of experience that hearkened back to the origins of the game and captured the spirits of the first golfers in the British Isles centuries ago. After years of searching, with the help of his business partner and friend, Howard McKee, he finally found the right property in remote, coastal Oregon.
When the original Bandon Dunes course opened in 1999, the resort exploded in popularity. This proved that American golfers were interested in a true links experience void of all fluff and side distractions, and they lapped it up in droves. Following the smashing success of the first course, five more elite tracks have since been built and the resort has grown up to become a vast playground of golfing bliss.
My trip to Bandon Dunes started as a gift to my father for his birthday last year. After playing Whistling Straits, we presented him with a gift card to Bandon Dunes and a promise that a planned golf trip was forthcoming. We hoped to book a trip in early summer of this year, and as I found out, booking a trip “only” 12 months in advance was a very challenging endeavor. More on that later, but suffice to say that I was able to find a window of availability in mid-June.
Our itinerary was as follows:
Day 1 – Arrive and play Old Macdonald
Day 2 – Bandon Trails and Pacific Dunes
Day 3 – Bandon Trails (again), Bandon Dunes (OG) and Bandon Preserve
Day 4 – Sheep Ranch and Depart
Joining my Dad and I were my brother, Dave, and my Dad’s lifelong friend, Pat. It was great bonding time with family, and Pat brought a very light-hearted, witty personality to our group. Rounding out the crew were our fantastic caddies, Jason and Joe. They paired extremely well with our group, with Joe’s sarcastic, dry demeanor matching Pat perfectly while I connected with Jason’s laid-back vibe. Since Bandon assigns the same caddies to groups for the entire duration of a trip, we gelled over the course of the trip and the caddies got to know our games thoroughly which helped them provide sound advice. The next time I go to Bandon, I’ll be requesting Jason and Joe as caddies again.
Bandon Dunes’ five 18-hole courses are presented in order of how I would rank them, but a case could be made for any of them to be ranked highest. All of the tracks are rated in the top 100 in the U.S. in most notable publications, a major feat that you won’t find at any other property on the planet. On top of that is the Preserve, Bandon’s world-class 13-hole short course, which is a great experience in its own right and should not be skipped.
While Bandon’s courses are all outstanding, they are of a different flavor than what is served up at Midwest parkland tracks. This was my first “true” links golf experience (links golf aficionados may disagree on whether Bandon’s courses are true links), and I had to learn to play a little differently on the fly. The turf conditions are very firm, requiring solidly struck approach shots from tight lies. The ball runs out a lot on the firm turf as well, and it is crucial to have a plan for where you’d like the ball to roll after it lands. The ball doesn’t check up nearly as much on links turf, either, and shots like Texas wedges and bump-and-run chip shots are very useful to have in your bag. If you think courses like Erin Hills and Sand Valley play firm and fast, just wait until you get to Bandon.
Bandon’s greens also are slower and bumpier than what one would typically expect at upscale courses in the Midwest. This doesn’t mean the greens at Bandon are poorly conditioned; rather, the conditions reflect the turf type and environment of a links course, and align with the original intentions of the architects.
Even though I like to play the ball low and have developed my Texas wedge to be one of my go-to shots in recent years, I still felt ill-prepared to play a true links-style game that was unfamiliar to me in the opening rounds of the trip. However, I got better at it as the trip went on, and embraced the unique challenge. In your first trip to Bandon, it’s important to have an open mind and to be prepared for golf that is a little different than what is played back in Wisconsin.
The second course built at the resort, Pacific Dunes may be the best golf course sequel of all time, one that turned Bandon Dunes from a single-course curiosity into a top golf destination.
Pacific Dunes is great in every aspect, which is why it is my favorite course at Bandon Dunes, and one of my favorite courses anywhere.
Tom Doak’s stunner weaves through dramatic dunes and groves of shore pines to the oceanside and back several times. The course has tremendous variety in both hole design and aesthetics, and a brilliant hole sequence that captures the optimal level of anticipation and excitement throughout the round.
No conventions were followed at Pacific Dunes, with unusual par sequences like back-to-back par-3’s to start the back nine and atypical features like alternate greens on the 9th hole. The course has the smallest greens at the resort and demands more precision than the other tracks. Despite having just three true oceanside holes, more than half of the course feels like it’s right on the cliffs. The seaside holes are spectacular, but the inland holes are just as strong, fully utilizing undulating topography throughout the property. Pacific Dunes’ greens also rolled the fastest and truest of any of the six courses at Bandon.
In the 1990’s, a brash, unknown, twentysomething David McLay-Kidd unapologetically laid out what would become the original track at Bandon Dunes. This is the course that started it all and proved Mike Keiser’s intuitions correct – that American golfers would embrace true links golf in a remote location. The course itself is outstanding, starting at the main lodge and looping down to the ocean for high drama a few times before ascending back. While the property is not as dramatic as Pacific Dunes, every slope and feature is maximized to produce an extremely memorable 18 holes.
The oceanside holes at Bandon Dunes are nothing short of world-class, and left me in a state of awe.
The exclamation point came at the 16th, which may be the most fun hole I’ve ever played. This short par-4 plays over a sandstone cliff and diagonal cross bunkers to a green nestled against the Pacific. It’s reachable even for shorter hitters, but takes risk-reward to another level with sand and ocean waiting to consume mistakes.
Bandon Trails, the third course built at the resort, is the only one at the resort without any oceanfront. The course jumps out of dunes overlooking the Pacific into a charming meadow, then heads up into a majestic pine forest before returning back the way it came. The track lives up to its moniker, as it looks and feels more like a hike in nature than a golf round at times. Paths between holes are tastefully routed through stirring maritime fauna complete with trail markers to round out the theme.
When it comes to the golf, Coore and Crenshaw delivered 18 very compelling holes that blend seamlessly into the natural environment. Bandon Trails may be the toughest course to walk, and the toughest course to golf on site. The climax comes at at the 14th hole, next to the “Eureka” spot mentioned earlier, with the best view on the course.
Bandon Trails may be the best golf course on the property, but nothing beats the cliffside holes on the original two courses, which is why I have Trails ranked third. That said, I was absolutely blown away at the strength of the layout and the stunning beauty of a diverse natural environment perfected by brilliant golf architecture.
The new kid on the block, Sheep Ranch, has already been part of Bandon Dunes lore for over 20 years. Keiser and his business partner, Phil Friedmann, purchased the property in 2000, but it wasn’t initially part of the resort. Tom Doak built 13 greens on the mostly flat, exposed landscape perched high above the Pacific. Resort guests could gain access to play on the site if they asked the right people and paid a small fee, and were encouraged to create their own cross-country routing. I can’t imagine a better setting for free-form golf than at Sheep Ranch.
Coore and Crenshaw were enlisted to convert this golfing Shangri-La into the resort’s fifth 18-hole course, which opened in 2020. They delivered an ingenious routing over the small property, taking full advantage of its dazzling oceanfront. The course is relatively flat and short and features zero sand bunkers, making it the easiest course on the property if the wind doesn’t blow hard.
While I didn’t find Sheep Ranch to be one of the best courses at the resort, it is impressive that the architects found 18 holes on a tiny property while maximizing the scenery. There’s nothing more fun than taking in amazing views while chasing a low score, and that’s what Sheep Ranch is all about. We ended our trip at Sheep Ranch, and its beautiful clubhouse patio with a sweeping ocean view was the perfect spot to unwind after the round and reflect on a golf trip for the ages.
Designed by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina, Old Macdonald was the fourth course built at Bandon Dunes, opening in 2010 despite the Great Recession bringing most golf development to a halt in that era. The course is a tribute to architect C.B. Macdonald, featuring modern takes on many of his famous “template” holes that borrowed ideas from the classic links of the British Isles. Old Macdonald has massive, undulating greens that call for strategic positioning and a thoughtful approach to each hole.
The property is the least scenic of the six courses on site. However, there are plenty of memorable spots, such as the iconic Ghost Tree on #3 where golfers crest a hill to find a vista of most of the course and the ocean beyond.
Old Macdonald’s undulating greens were a blast to tackle, and the template holes piqued my architectural interest. Even though it was my least favorite 18-hole course at the resort, it would probably be one of my favorite courses played in a typical season, and it absolutely should not be skipped on a Bandon trip.
Two words sum up my experience on Bandon Preserve – pure joy. This magical 13-hole short course starts from near the Bandon Trails clubhouse and loops down towards the ocean and back over some extremely hilly terrain. In fact, the topography was so dramatic that Coore and Crenshaw could not find a way to incorporate it into the Bandon Trails layout.
There is no better way to unwind after a day on the longer courses than with a laid-back round on the Preserve, firing at flags and shooting for birdies. We heard a lot of hooting and hollering from nearby groups having a ball. My dad and I played Preserve as a twosome and found ourselves waiting for large groups ahead (up to eight people in a group are allowed on the Preserve), but we didn’t mind resting our legs and taking in the panoramic Pacific views at sunset.
Unlike some other modern par-3 courses at elite resorts that require no more than wedge, Bandon Preserve features mostly full-length par threes that one would find on a regulation course. Putter through long iron were all required, making it useful practice in addition to a fun experience.
It may be tempting to skip Bandon Preserve to ensure that all five 18-hole courses are on the itinerary, but I would go out of my way to play it, and consider it one of the highlights of the trip.
planning a trip to bandon dunes
While the resort’s reservations staff is extremely helpful, planning a trip to Bandon Dunes is a daunting exercise due to the sheer scale of the resort and the high demand for reservations.
When I set out to plan the trip last year, the resort was booked nearly 100% through the end of 2022, and only small windows of availability existed. I jumped on one in June 2022, but the initial itinerary was far from ideal, including off-site lodging, room switches, and missed courses. After many calls to Bandon’s wonderful reservations department over the past year, I was eventually able to craft a terrific itinerary and secure ideal on-site accommodations.
However, even with all of the effort made to optimize the itinerary, it still wasn’t perfect. Playing 36 holes on consecutive days (with the Preserve tacked on at the end of the second 36-hole day) was a physically taxing experience. Also, walking 18 holes after a long day of travel proved to be challenging.
For those of you looking to plan a trip to Bandon Dunes, here are some tips:
-Book the trip 18 to 24 months in advance, ideally as soon as reservations open up for a given year (typically in December two calendar years in advance). This will ensure that you have your pick of tee times and lodging, and will allow you to plan out an ideal sequence of rounds.
-If possible, space the trip out to encompass more than 4 days. Alternating days of 18 and 36 holes would help save the legs and make those later rounds more playable. Combining the Preserve with an 18-hole round would make for a good lower-key day, as well. Allowing for some time to recharge or even for some non-golf activities would minimize the potential for burnout towards the end of the trip.
-Do your homework. Knowing where to find the courses, lodging, and amenities, and other logistics will pay dividends once you’re there. That said, the excellent resort staff will provide as many pointers as you need to find your way around. The free shuttle service around the resort is very convenient as well.
-If you’re on the fence about taking caddies, you should definitely go for it. The caddies at Bandon are world-class professionals, and are as much tour guides as they are bag-carriers and putt-readers. Links golf is all about understanding how the ball runs out and avoiding terrible spots, and having someone by your side with extensive course knowledge is a huge asset. Many times during the trip, I misread a putt or aimed in the wrong direction, but I had my caddie there to correct my intuition. Bandon also pairs golfers with the same caddies for the entire duration of their trips, and it’s easy to bond with them as members of your group throughout your stay.
-Flying into North Bend (30 minutes form the resort) was a very convenient option, and should be considered if it is available (typically in the summer months only). About 75% of the passengers on our North Bend connection were fellow golf nuts also on their way to Bandon, as evidenced by sunburns, golf-branded apparel, and the high number of golf bags on the baggage carousel!
dining and amenities
The food at Bandon Dunes is varied and exquisite. Five full-service restaurants can be found on the property (and a sixth is under construction near Old Macdonald), each with their own flair. The food prices were very reasonable, which made it easier to splurge on nice dishes.
We frequented Trails End the most, which was conveniently located near our hotel rooms. Trails End features Asian-inspired cuisine and speedy counter service for breakfast and lunch. The adobo chicken bowl and breakfast wrap were my two favorites at this spot.
Pacific Grill is slightly higher-end with a focus on seafood, and is part of the Pacific Dunes clubhouse featuring a sweeping view of Pacific Dunes, The Punchbowl putting course, and the ocean. We dined there after our first 36-hole day, where pasta paired with pinot noir was my favorite meal of the trip.
McKee’s pub proved to be the perfect spot for a casual meal and drink after golf. The Adirondack chairs by the nearby outdoor fireplace were a great place to wait while our table was being prepared. The pub was a boisterous venue, filled with happy golfers sharing stories of fun times on the links.
The main Lodge features The Forge, a higher-end steakhouse. We didn’t get a chance to eat there, but we did dine off its menu in the neighboring lounge. The Lodge has also recently added a spectacular fire pit and patio area overlooking the Bandon Dunes 1st tee and practice area.
Last but not least, the pastrami sandwich at the Sheep Ranch Clubhouse restaurant was amazing and was the perfect last meal to have on the trip.
I stayed in the Round Lake Lodge, Bandon’s newest lodging addition. The rooms were very upscale and comfortable, and featured idyllic views of the forest and Round Lake. The shower was high-tech with great water pressure to aid recovery from all-day golf. While guests will not likely spend much time in their rooms, the comfortable arrangements help ensure that golfers can arrive at their morning tee times well-rested.
Hiking trails are also available to guests around the property. We had one morning free of golf, and while I was exhausted from the prior day of 40,000+ steps, I still took a short hike down to the Labyrinth. This wonderful tribute to the late Howard McKee is located in one of the most peaceful wooded settings I can imagine.
The service at Bandon Dunes was outstanding, from the food and beverage staff, to the golf personnel, to the lodging staff. Everyone I encountered at the resort was extremely helpful, and always willing to lend advice on how best to optimize the experience even if asked about an area or topic outside of their domain. Most of the staff are from the Coos county region, and give the resort a local feel.
Already a massive resort, Bandon Dunes is still growing to meet the demand of the golf boom. It continues to add lodging and restaurants like clockwork, and more courses are on the horizon as well. Tom Doak has already routed a second short course, located in heaving dunes next to Bandon Preserve. Also, David McLay-Kidd has been tapped to design the sixth 18-hole course at the resort, tentatively named New River Dunes and located just south of the city of Bandon.
Keiser’s dream has also extended well beyond Bandon, as developments with a similar spirit have sprouted up around the globe. Golfers in Wisconsin are no more than a few hours away from Sand Valley, another sand-based Keiser property that is exploding in popularity and scope.
While my first trip to Bandon Dunes took a lot of planning and execution, it was worth every minute of effort and lived up to all of the hype I’ve heard about the resort over the years. Four days of non-stop golf on six world-class tracks, with great company and great caddies, was an experience I’ll never forget. Anyone who loves golf owes themselves a trip to this spectacular venue at least once in their lifetime.
For more on Bandon Dunes, check out WiscoGolfAddict’s 2015 content here: