Bandon Trails: Golf’s Greatest Hike

When Michael Keiser first visited what is now known as Bandon Dunes as a prospective buyer, he hiked away from the ocean to a wooded spot in the southeast corner of the property and emerged upon an expansive view of towering dunes and the roaring Pacific in the distance.

The sight was so surreal, he immediately knew that he had found the spot to go all-in on his vision for the first true American links golf destination.

This plaque at the overlook near the 14th at Bandon Trails commemorates a watershed moment in modern American golf development

The “great reveal” is a feeling familiar to all hikers and golfers alike, a journey building in anticipation before emerging upon a spectacular vista.

This inland portion of the Bandon Dunes resort property could certainly be mistaken for a nature preserve featuring a hiking trail that peaks in such awesome fashion. It’s a diverse environment filled with wildlife and varied fauna, complete with views of mountains and the ocean.

The natural setting of this property is as impressive as any National Park I’ve ever visited, and it’s only fitting that it eventually became home to the third course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, now aptly known as “Bandon Trails.”

My second “hike” at Bandon Trails this past June was filled with sunshine and little wind, an ideal setting to take in the property’s stunning hilltop views

In the early 2000’s, after the wild success of the first two seaside links courses at Bandon Dunes, pressure was high to continue expanding the resort. Keiser chose the inland site of his “eureka” moment for a third course, even though the property did not have oceanfront.

However, it was difficult to conceive of an inland course that could measure up to the original two breathtaking, cliff-hugging layouts. Indeed, this project easily could have been a letdown – think of other golf resorts in America where a second or third course was added on less desirable land. How many of those add-on layouts are now considered top 100 courses in the country?

Fortunately, Keiser found the architects that were perfectly suited for the task at hand, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. This pair is famous for their style of routing, one that emphasizes long stays on site filled with walking the property, rather than extensive study of topography maps from an office. They strive to route courses based on natural walking corridors, often using animal tracks as guides to find the optimal path.

The 7th at Bandon Trails kicks off the dazzling seven-hole stretch through the property’s secluded forest

In the case of Bandon Trails, a unique and innovative approach was necessary to route 18 memorable holes over some unusual, spectacular terrain and through multiple, distinct environments. The property features a rolling meadow, a giant ridge in the middle, and dense pine forest to the east of the ridge. To the west, the starting and ending point of the track lies in the dunes.

Melding together all three environments – forest, meadow and dunes – while still maintaining a cohesive experience was a perplexing task. Other multi-environment courses, such as Spyglass Hill, have often been cited for their disjoint nature and lack of a cohesive feel.

To ease the transition between environments, Coore and Crenshaw opted to focus heavily on the “hiking” theme. In between holes, groomed trails lead golfers to the next tee, literally resembling a hike. Signs adorned with information on native animal species and vegetation are also set up between holes, consistent with this central theme.

At times the experience felt more like a hike with some golf happening on the side, not the other way around. Having been on many hikes in national or state parks that traverse multiple environments, it felt natural to do so at Bandon Trails because of the attention to detail on the hiking-themed elements of the experience.

The view of Round Lake between the 6th green and 7th tee is a sight one would expect to find on a hike, but not so much on a golf course

Bandon Trails had the unique position in my 2022 trip of being the only replay round. In both cases, we tackled Trails on clear, calm mornings to kick off multi-round days. Despite the lack of wind, I found Trails to be the toughest course at the resort due to its extreme contours and penal bunkering. Both of my rounds started out decent enough, but went to die in brutal bunkers on the back nine.

The other challenge I encountered at Bandon Trails was the variety of its greens. The types of undulations vary considerably from hole-to-hole, with some greens repelling significantly, some that tend to collect shots towards the hole, and some that are just out-of-this-world such as the Biarritz-like 5th. The wide array of contours creates an engaging, challenging experience that will keep all golfers on their toes.

The wild Biarritz-inspired 5th green is just one of many green types golfers will encounter at Bandon Trails

This multi-environment setting makes Trails feel like several courses in one. Let’s take a dive into each of these sections of the layout.

The Dunes, Part I

The original property that Keiser bestowed upon Coore and Crenshaw solely occupied meadow and forest. Despite having many strong features, this land could have housed a course completely unrecognizable from the others at the resort, a disorienting change-of-venue from the overall Bandon experience.

Coore and Crenshaw recognized this, and had their eyes set on a plot of heaving dunes located just west of the original Bandon Trails land to alleviate the issue. If the course started and ended in the dunes, just like the resort’s other layouts, it would better fit the Bandon Dunes profile and leave guests feeling more connected to the overall experience.

The view from the area just east of the original Bandon Trails land features dramatic views of dunes and ocean

The two architects were eventually able to talk Keiser and his business partner, Howard McKee, into using the dunes land for Bandon Trails. Ultimately, only part of the dunes property was deemed suitable for a regulation course, forming holes 1, 2 and 18, while an area with more extreme topography was discarded but later used for the resort’s epic par 3 course, Bandon Preserve.

The first hole starts atop a tall dune with a view of the ocean in the distance. The short distance of this downhill par 4 may tempt longer hitters to try to drive near the green, but the fairway narrows to a sliver with tall grass and sand on both sides just shy of the putting surface, making this an unwise play. An iron off the tee (3-wood for me) is a smarter move, which will collect at the base of the fairway for an uphill short iron to a receptive green. Staying below the hole is paramount on this heavily back-to-front sloping surface, which is easiest to achieve with a wedge from the fairway.

The view from the 1st tee at Bandon Trails looks a lot like the opening shots at the other Bandon courses. It appears as though another adventure in the dunes is in store, but what lies ahead is far different yet equally interesting.

The second is a downhill par 3 playing alongside a massive dune to the right. The green features several distinct sections with a handful of potential pin positions that can alter the strategy of the shot. A sneaky bunker lies just right of the green and is partially concealed from view on the tee. Its steep lip shouldn’t be messed with, but that’s exactly what I did in my first Trails round, with the slightest of right misses finding a cozy spot near the lip of the trap. However, this bunker proved not to be a round-killer like a couple others I’d encounter at Trails, as I was able to hit a delicate flop near the hole to secure a sand save.

The marvelous par 3 second is the last encounter with dunes until the final hole

The Meadow, Part I

Bandon Trails’ meadow holes stood out to me as the architecturally best stretch on the layout, occupying a truly unique setting of maritime grasses, brush and groves of pines. The use of contours on the rolling land, the placement of the bunkers and the slopes of the greens make the meadow holes very strategic with multiple options available to most players.

The dramatic entrance to the meadow on the third

Hole 3 is a slightly downhill par 5 that dives into the meadow with a tee shot over the main entry road. Three centerline bunkers dictate the strategy of the hole, with the first in play for longer hitters off the tee. The second and third of these traps lie within wedge distance of the green, prompting a layup either to the left or right with the pin position dictating the optimal angle. A large swale over the green should be avoided and adds to the risk of attempting to reach the green in two.

The second and third shots on the par 5 third meander through a minefield of nasty fairway traps

The mid-length par 4 fourth uses a dramatic fairway contour to add strategic interest. A steep ridge runs diagonally across the fairway, creating a choice between aiming left off the tee to set up a longer approach or veering right for a shorter but potentially blind shot. The front section of the green is decidedly easier to attack than the well-defended back portion, but in either case short-right is the best place to miss.

Pat walks ahead to the 4th green with his caddy, Joe, to size up a birdie chance

There are great greens, and then there are otherworldly greens. Much like 12 at Whistling Straits or 4 at The Club at Lac La Belle, the fifth at Bandon Trails belongs to the latter group. This short par 3 plays to a massive green with a huge swale in the middle. While not a pure Biarritz, this hole presents a similar number of options as one with the pin position dictating the hole’s difficulty. Birdies are in ample supply here, but so are three-putts.

The view from the tee on the 5th is fabulous, but the extreme undulations of the green are partially concealed from this angle

The sixth is another par 4 that makes terrific use of the meadow’s topography to create strategic options. The aggressive line off the tee is up the right side, where a speed slot can propel a strong drive to a tame spot in the fairway just a short wedge away. However, two centerline traps and large blowout bunkers to the right await errant tee shots, making this a risky strategy.

This giant bunker lines the 6th fairway, waiting to punish an aggressive player’s mishit

The Forest

After a short walk around the north end of the ridge and past idyllic Round Lake (pictured earlier), the layout enters the forest, one of the most secluded settings I’ve ever experienced in the game. Filled with towering pine trees and wildlife sightings, I felt transplanted to a totally different time and place each time I entered the forest.

I found 7 through 9 to be the strongest holes in Bandon Trails’ forest stretch (tee shot on 8 shown here), with fairways and greens that seem to blend in perfectly with the surroundings

Following a sizeable challenge at the long, uphill 7th, the eighth provides a slight reprieve. This short par 4 (sub-300 from the green tees) bends ever so slightly to the left with several bunkers flanking the putting surface. Long drives can ride a right-to-left slope onto or near the green, making the reward of this route outweigh the risk in most cases.

After missing the fairway with hybrids in both of my rounds, the first lost to brush to the right, I was left wondering why I didn’t approach #8 more aggressively.

My angle of approach on the 8th during my second round at Trails – fortunately not a lost ball this time, and I was able to save par

My favorite spot in the woods came at the ninth, a straightaway par 5 that weaves through humongous pines. The trees are so staggeringly tall that the fairway seems far tighter and more demanding than it really is. Even so, three quality shots are required to ensure a par, which I was only able to achieve once in two tries.

The long 9th plays through a claustrophobic corridor of 100+ foot evergreens

In both of my rounds at Bandon Trails, I reached the turn in respectable fashion with hopes for a 79 alive and well. What awaited, however, was a perilous back nine that got the best of me twice, arguably the toughest nine at the whole resort. It’s also perhaps the most dramatic stretch at Bandon (an impressive claim), particularly the final five holes.

The tenth is a mid-length par 4 snaking around two waste bunkers to an elevated green

The 11th is a tough dogleg right with a severe left-to-right slope in play off the tee that will propel all but the best drives toward waste bunkers. My natural cut shot, combined with shorter distance off the tee, made this shot virtually unplayable for my game. In both cases, I hit average drives that caught the slope and tumbled into awkward lies in the waste area, and I was happy to escape each time with a bogey. The only water hazard at the whole resort is in play on the approach, a manmade pond just to the right of the green.

The flat 11th green is flanked by the resort’s only water hazard, making approaches from the right side tricky

After the long par 3 twelfth, #13 takes golfers back towards the ridge with the final hole in the forest. It was here that my second Trails round went to die in a hellish front-right bunker. My final score was ruthlessly inflated by a Big Number here, thanks to rediscovering a knack for shanking and skulling sand shots that used to plague me in my earlier golfing life.

The 13th occupies a serene setting, but anyone too enchanted by the scenery will fall victim to a deceivingly demanding approach shot

The return to the meadow is achieved by going directly over the southern end of the central ridge in dramatic fashion. The path from 13 to 14 ascends a steep slope, and the resort staffs a shuttle to provide a ride up the hill, the only place on property where walking is optional. My advice – if you’re playing 36, graciously accept the ride to save your legs. If Trails is your only round of the day, embrace the challenge and take the hike to fully experience the great reveal that lies ahead.

The Meadow, Part II

The 14th is home to the most dramatic shot on Bandon Trails, yet it is also the most controversial hole on the property. Its extreme downhill tee shot can be played towards the green, especially for longer hitters, but drives should favor the left side to set up a reasonable angle into an infamously tough green. This tiny crowned surface will only accept the most precise approaches, mercilessly rejecting anything else down steep slopes or into deep bunkers. My second time through, after a well-struck lob wedge trickled off the back edge into tall grass, I decidedly joined the camp of enthusiasts who believe the 14th is overly punitive.

The signature view on Bandon Trails is from the 14th tee, perched atop the property’s central ridge

The 15th is a lovely par 4 that bends slightly to the right. While it may be tempting to unleash a big swing off the tee after a possibly frustrating experience on the previous hole, caution should be exercised to avoid a cross bunker at the corner that will catch longer drives. A short iron should be all that’s needed on the approach to a well-guarded green perched on a side slope.

The approach to 15 looks inviting, but ample trouble exists on three sides of the green

On the uphill par 5 16th, the second shot is crucial as it must find a narrow sliver of fairway while avoiding large blowout traps to the right. Even though it plays into the prevailing Summer wind, this is still the last decent scoring opportunity with two tough holes to close out the round.

The tee shot on 16 is easier than it appears, and it’s advisable to grip it and rip it up the right side to minimize the perils of the second shot

I love a penultimate par 3, as a short hole can heighten the drama of a match nearing its conclusion. The 17th at Bandon Trails is a terrific one, beautifully sculpted out of undulating meadow terrain.

Unfortunately, it claimed me as a victim in my first Trails round. My cut tendency was ill-suited for the shape of this hole, as my drive couldn’t quite skirt past the giant front-right bunker, setting up a brutally difficult sand shot. Just like the disaster on the 13th hole the following day, I forgot how to hit a bunker shot at the worst possible moment here, and four hacks later I was doomed to a scorecard-crushing 7.

The 17th plays downhill to a well-defended green with views of dunes and ocean in the distance

The Dunes, Part II

If Bandon Trails were a novel, the 18th would be its epilogue. This one-hole return to the dunes is also one of the layout’s stiffest challenges, playing uphill and into the Summer wind. The intimidating tee shot straddles a massive dune to the left. Missed drives in both of my rounds left me behind the eight ball on this closing hole, the first being a duck hook that led to a virtually unplayable sidehill shot from the sand. The approach plays to a green nestled in the dunes, with golfers once again immersed in the familiar seaside setting of the resort.

The 18th caps off the toughest closing stretch at the whole resort, with only a sliver of fairway visible from the tee shot back into the dunes

Closing Thoughts

While I loved having Trails as the only replay round of my Bandon trip, the sequence of the rounds was a slight negative. We played Bandon Trails on two perfect mornings with little wind, which produced a zen-like experience in a secluded setting, but it didn’t provide tremendous variety. As a result, both of my Trails rounds tend to blend together in my memory. The fact that I played the front nine well and got beat up on the more penal back side in both rounds didn’t help distinguish the two rounds from each other, either. Trails is also the hilliest of the resort’s five 18-hole tracks, and I was physically spent getting to the 36 plus-hole finish line of each of those two days as a result.

With all that said, I think the ideal way to slot Trails into a Bandon trip would be near the halfway point as the only 18-hole round in a day. This would provide a breather from the challenges and (blissful) monotony of oceanside links golf and allow for some recharging before going all-out to finish the trip on the other courses. It is a tough walk, so it would be wise to make it the only full round in a day. Combining it with the Preserve or Punchbowl in the evening would also be a savvy play.

Be sure to check out Trails End (background) on a Bandon trip, an Asian-inspired restaurant with a sweeping view of the dunes

Bandon Trails is a great change-of-pace from the other tracks at the resort, which are all seaside links exposed to the elements. The trees and elevation provide some shelter from the region’s notorious coastal winds, making it a better afternoon venue. I was lucky enough to have benign wind and near-perfect weather for most of my Bandon trip, but I can imagine that a round in the secluded setting of Bandon Trails would be a welcomed respite in more typical weather.

While I ranked Trails third best at the resort, slightly behind the original Bandon Dunes course and Pacific Dunes, two of my tripmates found it to be their favorite track on site, an opinion that is rather popular among Bandon enthusiasts. Bandon Trails resembles a parkland course the most of any of the resort’s layouts, so it tends to be a favorite of those who have yet to find a love for links golf. It certainly stacks up well among the buffet of elite courses on site, and it is a must-play on a Bandon golf trip.

For more on Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, check out Brian’s full destination review:

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