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The Ultimate Golfer's Getaway

A trio of courses on the Oregon coast— Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes and Bandon Trails—are a golfer's paradise in the middle of nowhere
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005

The little Horizon Air commuter plane, the third plane of the day on a trip that began in New York, begins its descent into the southern Oregon town of North Bend. In the final minutes of the flight down from Portland, the tiny passenger window frames the massive dune range of the Pacific Coast, a sight awe-inspiring even to those who were expecting it. It is enough to give a golfer the shivers. The linksland is calling, even from 10,000 feet.

At the tiny luggage bay of the tiny North Bend Airport, there are a disproportionate number of golf bags. Golfers from across the nation have been called to southern Oregon because America's linksland has called them. From Boston and Philadelphia and Dallas and Phoenix, from nearby Seattle and faraway Toronto, golfers with a love of the game in its most elemental and elegant form are finding their way to Bandon Dunes. It's a guy thing, mostly.

"I've made 11 trips in five years and I'll keep coming back," says Marty Weill, who works for a beer distribution company in Portland, Oregon. "It's a great place for guys, a great place to come with your friends, play golf, eat good, drink beer, smoke cigars. Most everybody who comes here is male. Nothing against the women. There are good women players who come here. But I look at it as a guy place. And I love playing links golf."

Playing links golf, real American links golf, is why tens of thousands of golfers a year are making the long journey to Bandon Dunes. With two courses playing across the truest of linksland and a newly opened third course that combines the links experience with Northwest-style parkland holes, Bandon Dunes has emerged as the destination de rigeur for the game's devotees.

"Who knew?" says Mike Keiser, the owner of the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, sitting in its Tufted Puffin Lounge on a day he was playing host to 50 fellow Chicagoans who made the pilgrimage that morning on a chartered Airbus.

Oh, Keiser knew all right. The former Amherst College English major and Navy ordinance disposal officer found a niche in the greeting card market in 1971 when he, his wife, Lindy, and his college roommate Phil Friedmann founded Recycled Paper Greetings. The privately held company now sells more than 100 million greeting cards a year on recycled paper, which has cycled an awful lot of cash into Keiser's pocket and provided the means for him to fulfill his passion for golf.

In 1986, Keiser bought 60 acres of land in New Buffalo, Michigan, next to his summer retreat, to keep a developer from building houses on the tract. He then turned the Lake Michigan waterfront land into a nine-hole private club designed by Dick Nugent, certainly among the best nine-hole layouts ever built. His travels to Scotland and Ireland instilled in Keiser a deep desire to create a links-style course. Links golf is defined by its sandy soil and its proximity to the sea. A links course doesn't need to be smack up against the ocean, but its soil and topography have to be the product of it.

Keiser found that type of land in 1991 in southern Oregon just north of the artsy-craftsy town of Bandon-by-the-Sea. The rolling sandy terrain had a number of huge dunes and a vista of the Pacific. It had an overabundance of gorse, that evil, prickly, bushy shrub that is found on the great links in Europe, though never in this quantity. (Gorse caused fires that twice destroyed the town in the early twentieth century.) The land called out to Keiser, and he answered by buying it, eventually cobbling together about 3,000 acres.

Today, three courses lure visitors. Bandon Dunes, the original course, opened in 1999; Pacific Dunes opened in 2001; and Bandon Trails opened this past June. (And there's Keiser's own little private course, The Sheep Ranch.)

"This was Capitalism 101," says Keiser. "Build one; if they come and play it, then build another. I would have been happy with 10,000 rounds a year on Bandon Dunes. Now I've got 80,000 rounds a year on the first two courses and we have 20,000 reservations for the new course."

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