It is the Mecca of the American golf world, and the formula that has inspired remote golf destination resorts across the globe.
It is the brainchild of Chicago businessman Mike Keiser, and the home of our nation’s number two, seven, twelve and fourteenth rated public golf courses and three of Golf.com’s top 100 courses in the world.
It is the only natural habitat of St. Andrews-like gorse bushes in the country, and the most true-to-form Scottish golf experience in the United States… And it is so much more.
It is Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, and it has been a bucket list trip of mine for years until it was green-lit to coincide with a business trip out to Portland this past month.
To say I was excited to finally check out Bandon Dunes is an overwhelming understatement. During the months leading up to my trip I thought about it on a daily, no hourly basis, and prayed that the actual experience would live up to my lofty expectations.
I had a two queen bed standard room booked in the Lily Pond Cottages on-site, and my friend Greg figured he’d throw out the possibility of joining in on the fun as he had a free flight available and vacation days from work – an epic buddies’ golf trip came together well.
Greg flew in to Portland on Saturday night, and we left the busy city on Sunday morning. Trip advisers say to take the long route to Bandon from Portland for the scenery, but we were not about to add more time to our already four-plus hour drive and risk getting there without time enough to settle in before our afternoon round at the country’s number two rated public golf course, Pacific Dunes.
It was 106 degrees when my flight landed in Portland the Friday before, and upper 90’s when we left on Sunday morning. The closer we got to Bandon, and to the southwest Oregon coast, the more the temperature dropped, until finally we arrived in Bandon around one in the afternoon with temperatures in the upper fifties. We drove with the windows down, anyways, and were happy to breathe in the crisp ocean air.
For at least an hour, it felt like we were on the verge of pulling in to the resort. It took a bit longer than expected, but we made it to Bandon Dunes and had enough time to both check in to our room and get to the course at Pacific Dunes with enough time to grab a drink and play a quick eighteen on the Punchbowl.
The lodging at Bandon Dunes is famous for being “Spartan” – there is no need to have lavish amenities that will keep visitors in their rooms when the entire resort is built around bringing people together outside, as well as to the many restaurants and bars located throughout the sprawling property.
The beauty of Bandon Dunes is out of doors, and while the lodging is everything visitors need, it does not promote them staying inside rather than enjoying the beauty of the resort and its courses.
That being said, our room was perfect. My bed was extremely comfortable – I melted in to it each night and literally fell asleep in seconds. Our room was spacious, the TV worked great and there was even a fireplace in the corner. The high ceilings are great, as was the view from the back balcony and the bathroom and large tiled shower (kind of dorm room like, but I liked it).
I even spent fifteen minutes watching a beaver swimming around the lily pond outside the balcony during our first day there:
Pacific Dunes (Sunday afternoon, Monday afternoon):
Pacific Dunes is the quintessential coastal links golf course, with fast running fairways that tower over the beaches and Pacific Ocean below. The winds can be extreme on the Oregon coast, and players are told to come prepared with clothing for all possible weather conditions.
We both wore long pants for our first round of the trip, and regretted it for the most part as the light winds – “This is a one in a thousand day,” we were told – and abundance of sunshine for the majority of our round would have kept us plenty warm and comfortable in shorts.
While the weather never turned bad on us during our stay, we did encounter something very characteristic to the Bandon Dunes golf complex during this round: Fog.
When the fog drifts in off the ocean from the north, it literally engulfs the courses. It crept in like a living entity during our back nine at Pacific Dunes, and eventually left us with an eerie environment where visibility left us virtually no landmarks to aim shots towards.
“Hit over this divot with a draw,” our caddie Charlie would tell us. “Sure, I don’t see what else I’m going to aim at so I might as well aim three feet in front of my ball.”
“This is like bowling,” Greg said, “Just aim over a certain plank and trust it’ll end up in the right place.”
It was so foggy toward the end of our first round on Pacific Dunes that we could only tell when the seventeenth hole’s green was vacated because of the ghost-like outline of their caddies’ white outfits:
Following a long day of travel and a walk of more than eight miles around Pacific Dunes, we were both exhausted on Sunday night but were motivated to experience as much as possible at Bandon Dunes.
Pacific Dunes’ clubhouse is home to the Pacific Grill, which is the resort’s fresh seafood and steaks restaurant. Without a reservation, we were not able to get a table so instead enjoyed a drink and perhaps the most magnificent sunset I have ever seen before heading back to the Lily Pond cottages:
Hunger had set in, and we called a free shuttle to bring us to McKee’s Pub, located just outside of the Bandon Dunes clubhouse and main lodge.
Famished, we started with a pepperoni pizza (Greg was ticked about that – I am an incredibly boring eater and there were certainly more interesting pizzas on the menu), which was served quickly while we waited for our main entrees. I got the cod fish fry, and Greg got Uncle Larry’s Burger, which consists of ground wagyu beef, bacon, grilled tomato, provolone, onion rings and fried egg.
McKee’s hit the spot, and was reasonably priced. They also have an excellent selection of whiskeys, bourbons and scotches, which we would find to be a trend around the property.
After dinner, we made our way next door to the Bunker Bar, located in the main lodge at Bandon Dunes. The Bunker Bar is a cigar-friendly pub in the basement with a hardcore ventilation system that makes it seem like it’s not. A free pool table is in the back of the room, and I took the opportunity to chat with some people from the East Coast about their trip while trying to “Hustle” them in games of 3-ball. Only problem is that I haven’t played in years, and lost every game. Gonna have to work on that.
The Bunker Bar also has card tables, a great bar with high-end booze, a ton of televisions, and small lounge areas for enjoying a Bandon Dunes branded cigar (or others) and a drink. I give this spot an easy A for ambiance and entertainment.
Earlier than expected, it was time to try getting caught up on sleep before Monday morning’s 7:40 round at Bandon Dunes.
Bandon Dunes (Monday morning):
Our second round of the trip was on Monday morning at Bandon Dunes. The charter course for the resort was opened in 1999 to rave reviews, and the success of David McLay Kidd’s destination track led to the future openings of the rest of the courses and amenities onsite.
McLay Kidd’s track features some of the most exciting real estate on the entire property, both on the coast and inland including one of the world’s most acclaimed golf holes: The par four fourth, as well as the spectacular stretch from fifteen to seventeen.
The sixteenth on Bandon Dunes may be the most beautiful golf hole I have ever seen, as a drivable par four along the cliffs as shown below:
Coming back inland, the par four seventeenth manages to somehow be just as scenic:
We made reservations for the Pacific Grill on Monday night, which was probably my favorite meal of the entire trip.
The Punchbowl (Monday afternoon):
Bandon Dunes is home to one of the most unique golfing experiences in North America: The Punchbowl. The Punchbowl is a 2.3-acre, 100,000 square foot putting surface set up differently on a daily basis.
Designed by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina, the “Course” features 18 white holes and 18 red holes. Each “Teeing area” has a tandem drink holder, and there are scorecards to promote competition.
Waitresses keep a keen eye on the Punchbowl area, and will bring drinks out to the course for players to enjoy. My favorite hole of the day during our round on the white course was a simple five-footer. Located on a plateau that had maybe six inches of level space on it, it was do or die. Greg and I were tied at the time, and he drained his first putt. Mine slipped by the left side, fell off the hill and rolled about 40 feet away. My next two tries did not get to the top of the hill, but my fourth went straight in.
Game. Set. Match.
The Punchbowl is a free amenity at Bandon Dunes, and for sure one not to be missed!
Old Macdonald (Tuesday morning):
When Doak and Urbina were awarded the bid for the Old Macdonald course design, the question was: “What would Charles Blair Macdonald have designed if he had this glorious Oregon canvas to work with?”
Similarly to the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, New York, Old Macdonald was developed as an homage to the greatest golf designs of probably the most legendary golf course design team in the history of the world: CB Macdonald and Seth Raynor.
While there are no true replica holes, a majority of them are based on the greatest features of some of Europe’s best golf courses. There is the “Road Hole,” for example, from St. Andrews Golf Links, “Sahara” (Royal St. Georges), “Hell Bunker” (St. Andrews) protecting the fairway on the sixth, a beautiful “Principle’s Nose” bunker fronting the first hole green, the “Strath Bunker” on the second/”Eden” hole, “Alps” (Prestwick), and of course fantastic redan, biarritz and punch bowl greens.
For having the largest average green complexes in the world, the putting surfaces at Old Macdonald are some of the hardest to hit! Huge swales, contours, false fronts and depressed collection areas, and of course intense winds make precision on approach shots key, and these greens that average nearly 15,000 square feet each are no virgin to three-, four- and more-putts.
Bandon Trails (Tuesday afternoon):
The final round of our trip was played at Bandon Trails. Inland from the Pacific Ocean, Bandon Trails is the perfect complement to the coastal and links courses onsite, and a terrific way to find a little shelter from the harsh coastal winds that gush across the property.
Our morning round at Old Macdonald was played in extreme winds, and they only picked up as the day wore on. Our scheduling was perfect, as the mature forests that surround the Trails made playing this mature, eight year old gem a pleasure without gale force winds.
When asking fellow golf writers about their “Rankings” of the four championship courses at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, Bandon Trails collected the most number ones, by far. It is easy to see why, too: It is what it is… Flawlessly.
Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw designed this course to provide a world-class inland golf experience, and delivered it exceptionally.
Bandon Trails stands in stark contrast to the coastal links courses at Bandon Dunes, and stands alongside them in quality and playability.
Following our round at Bandon Trails on Tuesday afternoon, we had one more piece of property at the resort to check out: It’s world-class par three course, Bandon Preserve.
Bandon Preserve uses some of the most prime real estate on the entire property in a 13-hole executive layout like nothing I’d ever seen before.
Coore/Crenshaw designed this course that opened in 2012 to have massive greens, and to provide a variety of one-shot challenges for settling bets and enjoying a leisurely walk with just a few clubs in hand. The views are breathtaking, and the quality of the golf on Bandon Preserve is wonderful.
This par three course has probably the best conditioned putting surfaces on the property, as I assume they are used less than the others and are well within ten years of the time they were laid down.
As Bandon Dunes’ Director of Communications, Michael Chupka, told us over lunch, at around ten years fescue greens start becoming more and more susceptible to attack by the poa annua that thrives so well in this type of coastal environment.
Evidence of this war against poa annua infestation can be seen a little on the other courses, and the staff works hard to stave it off and keep the wonderful fine fescue conditions that Bandon Dunes is so well known for.
The greens on Bandon Preserve roll magnificently, and the sand blowouts and visual lines were developed with great care.
The Preserve also plays a significant roll in the local economy and environment, as all of the course’s profits go to the Wild Rivers Coast Alliance to support conservation, the community and economy of the southern Oregon Coast.
I will admit that I expected the par three holes on the Preserve to be a little more varied in length – specifically, I was expecting there to be 175-225 yard holes. While this parcel of land does not allow for that kind of length, players can tee off from virtually anywhere (sans the greens, themselves), and can therefore make holes as short or long as they desire.
As a side note, make sure to get to each course a little early to check out the pro shops. All pro shops have different clothing manufacturers, so while one course will carry Adidas and Peter Millar, another will carry Ashworth and Nike, another Cutter & Buck and Oakley, etc. The logoed merchandise at all of them is great.
Golf enthusiasts the world over know Bandon Dunes as “The remote golf destination that is tough to get to but well worth the travel.” While that is true, significant measures have been taken recently to start cutting down on travel time, and in particular the amount of driving necessary after flying in.
United Airlines now offers direct flights from Denver International Airport to nearby Southwest Oregon Regional Airport (OTH in North Bend), which is just an easy 30-minute shuttle to the Bandon Dunes complex.
This new flight service (started in July, 2015) operates on Sundays and Wednesdays between July 1 and October 18, with arrival times in North Bend that allow for same-day golfing.
Along with world-class golf, the customer service at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort is tremendous. Every single person I spoke with onsite was a golfer, from the caddies to the bartenders, waitresses and shuttle drivers.
“What do you like best about working at Bandon Dunes?” I would ask them. “I get to play as much free golf as I want,” was a consistent answer, and also that Mike Keiser is a tremendous person to work for.
Unassuming and kind, he is well known to show up at the resort and sit at a table in one of the many restaurants while reading the paper and chatting with anyone who engages him. That’s a great kind of boss to work for, and I am sure a key element that has played in to the success of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort and the happiness of his employees there.
A trip to Bandon Dunes is not cheap, as I am sure all golf enthusiasts already know, but it is a true bucket list golfing destination that does not disappoint.
One more present for you all: A surprise video journal of sorts that showed up on my computer when I got home and loaded everything to my laptop from my camera’s memory cards – this hodge podge of photos/videos works nicely to walk viewers through the Bandon experience: