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."
What Keiser has clearly done is touch the soul of American golf by connecting it to its Scottish heritage. He hired a 27-year-old Scotsman, David Macklay Kidd, as the architect of Bandon Dunes. He wanted as authentic a Scottish course as he could get. He contracted Tom Doak, the famed American minimalist architect, to build the Pacific Dunes course, which has more of an Irish links feel to it. He brought in Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, whose classical work has received accolades, to design the Bandon Trails course. The courses were built using small machinery and a lot of handwork by local laborers and the architects themselves. Mike Keiser found Bandon Dunes, and his architects, with Keiser as the angel (or the devil) on their shoulders, found America's truest links experience.
It's also one of America's purest guy experiences, outside of more unusual pursuits such as cattle driving, monster-truck racing and alligator wrestling. "We certainly don't discourage women at all," says golf operations director and assistant general manager Matt Allen. "About 91 percent of our play is men, nine percent women. This is a golf resort. We don't have a pool, we don't have a spa, no tennis courts. You come here to play golf and then meet with friends in our restaurants and bars for the camaraderie. The men who play are rabid about the game. Those women who do come are very serious about it, too. And while we don't have a spa, we have two massage rooms that are kept pretty busy. It's mostly deep-tissue, golf-specific massage that keeps players going. In the better weather months we get a lot of players wanting to go 36 holes a day, and the availability of massage helps them with that."
Peter Smola and his sons Neil, 20, and Greg, 23, made the trek to Bandon Dunes from South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. They had been talking about a golf trip, one that was different from the previous family vacations. "We had been to Hilton Head, Myrtle Beach, and were looking for something different," says Peter Smola. "I was very intrigued by what I had been reading about Bandon Dunes. I saw it as a real golfer's thing, and it was a great experience. I was taken aback a bit by the rural-ness of it. The boys loved it, loved having the three of us together playing this kind of golf. I'm a sort of traditionalist anyway. We belong to the Plymouth Country Club, which is a Donald Ross course. I could play these courses over and over again."
You play the Bandon Dunes courses walking, either with a caddie, a trolley or the bag slung over your shoulder. There are no carts, but there is likely the biggest caddie pool in the country and possibly the world, more than 300 of them now that the new course is open. Most of the caddies come from the surrounding area and some migrate from out of state. At about $75 per bag and two loops a day, there is some decent money to be made. "When you go to Scotland or Ireland, where the old links courses really don't have carts, you realize how much walking is part of the whole experience," says Keiser. "I personally think the experience of playing with a caddie is a great one and is so much a part of the traditional game."
There's no question, from the starter's orders on the first tee, that you are playing the traditional game.
"We'd like to maintain a pace of play at four hours and ten minutes," he'll say.
"We'd like you to play ready golf. Two balls in the air at the same time is OK," he'll say.
"You might see a player ahead of you rolling his trolley across the green or a tee. That's OK," he'll say.
The first course you should play is Bandon Dunes. Kidd, its designer, is the son of the greenskeeper at the Gleneagles Golf Club in Scotland. If you have any experience playing links golf in the old country, then you will immediately feel at home. It has the look, the shape and the feel of links golf, and is the kind of course that is found rather than created. Its Scottish look is enhanced by the use of stacked sod bunker faces. There is very little exposed sand on the course.
After an inland opening three holes, the course dives for the ocean on the par-4 fourth hole, perfectly routed through low dune ridges to a green that's a balcony to the Pacific. The long par-4 fifth plays along the cliff line to the north, the tee shot needing to negotiate a series of bunkers that pock the fairway. The second shot is to a narrow green in an amphitheater created by surrounding dunes with thickets of gorse menacing the wayward shot. With the wind fresh off the Pacific, there's a sense of arrival on the fifth hole, that while there is still a lot of golf to be played, the long journey to get to Bandon has been worth every minute.
If the course hasn't captivated you by the time you've completed the 15th hole, the 16th should give you a goose bump or two. From the back tee this hole is only 363 yards, yet it demands the most exacting tee shot on the course, a carry across a weedy, sandy wall to an angled fairway seemingly the width of a paper airplane. Once that shot has been executed, the second is a pitch to a green high above the Pacific. With the usual winds influencing the shot, it's anything but easy, even from less than 100 yards. All the best attributes of links golf are wound into this one small, dramatic par 4. It's rather disappointing that the course finishes on two holes that carry you away from the sea. The par-4 17th is challenging, but the par-5 18th is rather routine and appears to be only a means to get you back to the clubhouse.
Doak's Pacific Dunes course has a different look and somewhat more dramatic dunes and elevation changes, along with a quirkier routing. The bunkering at Pacific Dunes is flashed and dished, exposing a lot of sand, and there is plenty of exposed sand in waste areas and dunes. The front nine has one par 3 and one par 5, while the back nine has four par 3s and three par 5s. Pacific Dunes is a shorter course than Bandon, but tends to be more penal and the greenside bunkering downright devilish. The back-to-back par-3 10th and 11th holes are a stern test in the wind, and the par-4 13th running north along the ocean holds great beauty and great challenge. Unlike Bandon Dunes, the par-5 18th at Pacific holds considerably more interest, with a huge dune bunker on the left threatening the tee shot. The approach to the green, be it from long distance with a fairway wood or pitching distance, is classically links. The green slopes away from the player and chances are anything that lands on the green will roll off the back. A shot that finds the belt-width-wide right greenside bunker may not yield a shot that can be played onto the green.
The new Bandon Trails course begins with three superb holes: a par 4 into dune land, a par 3 that starts the journey into the parkland, and a par 5 that completes the transition into forested and meadow areas. You won't likely forget the tee shot on the par-3 17th to a green pinched on either side by gnarly bunkering. This is one scary shot in heavy crosswinds.
"Bandon is certainly a different sort of golf than we are used to playing," says Peter Smola. "My expectation was for it to be beautiful, and it was. While it's called a resort, it's definitely not resort golf. It's not that we didn't enjoy walking and playing either, but I thought maybe it was just a little pretentious in that regard, that somehow the only real golf experience is a walking one. But the bottom line is that we enjoyed it both from the playing perspective and the fact we could have this father-son trip together. It's a very good place in that regard."
Bandon also appeals to golfers who are already familiar with links courses. Jack Makoujy, a clothing importer in New York, has played a lot of golf in a lot of places, including Scotland and Ireland. Makoujy played at Bandon Dunes in April, and soon after made a reservation for June 2006 for himself and seven golf buddies. They will play their own tournament for four days, with the possibility that a few dollars will change hands. He's sure that everyone will have a good time. "If you love golf, good food and a soft bed, and don't feel like taking out a mortgage to be there, Bandon is just a heck of a place," says Makoujy.
The gathering of the clan does not stop after a 19th-hole layover for a few adult beverages. Most of the golfers stay in one of Bandon's accommodations, either in the main lodge or in luxe cabin-style housing. The Chrome Lake, Lily Pond Rooms and brand-new Grove Cottage accommodations are cabin-style and decidedly masculine in decor, though they should not be off-putting to female guests. Chrome Lake even features dual bathrooms, even for the one-bedrooms, on the theory that two golfers can get ready in a hurry for their morning round and get ready for dinner later.
There are a number of dining and gathering options. The Gallery Restaurant and Tufted Puffin Lounge are in the main lodge, as is the Bunker Bar in the basement. A 50-yard walk away is McKee's Pub, meant to evoke the sense of an old-world pub, with Guinness on tap and plenty of sports on television. Excellent cigar smoking areas are also available. The patio outside of McKee's Pub has tables and chairs and an ever-aflame wood-burning fireplace. The Bunker Bar, since it serves only alcohol, allows smoking. It has a small selection of cigars (Macanudo, Partagas, Cohiba), single-malt Scotches, microbrewery beers and a pool table. It's where Marty Weill and his buddies like to hang out. "Now this is a guy kind of place," says Weill, holding a freshly drawn glass of Widmer's, a microbrewery beer that he also happens to distribute.
Weill has also just had one of his favorite Bandon Dunes meals at McKee's Pub—Grandma Thayer's Meatloaf. Meatloaf, being a guy kind of food, is very popular. It's on all the menus at the resort, along with the usual assortment of steaks, lamb and salmon. The resort's wine expert, Phil Sabol, has put together a substantial list, heavy on reds, that includes some of Oregon's dynamite Pinot Noir. Under "Phil's Special Selections" you can find Domaine Serene "Grace" Pinot Noir, Plumpjack Reserve Cabernet and enough Opus One to sate any appetite. "It wouldn't be unusual here to see someone having a bottle of Opus One with Grandma's Meatloaf," says resort manager Hank Hichox.
The open-pit fireplace at the new Bandon Trails resort should become a favorite gathering place, and soon. Set away from the clubhouse restaurant, the covered deck has clear plastic glass to protect it from the winds and a great view out across the course to the ocean. Plenty of microbrews and cigars will be consumed at this precious spot.
For those who just can't get enough of the game, who genuinely want to work on it from dusk until dawn, Bandon Dunes has a 32-acre practice facility where you get a bucket of balls or two or three by striping your room card through a slot on the ball machine. Target greens exist for every length of shot and a one-acre practice green mimics the humps and bumps of the greens on the courses, but runs much slower than them. It can also be tough practicing in the early morning, as the range faces east and the sun tends to burn right into your eyes.
Grant Rogers heads the instruction staff. After a couple of lessons, you might ask Rogers if he would take you fly-fishing. He's got a lot of tales to tell about that sport, too. Rogers' wife, Janet, is the resort's naturalist, and you might be able to arrange a very worthwhile nature walk with her through the dunes, meadows and forests. She's spotted a bobcat in the area, and there are loads of deer, some that wander the fairways.
If you have been in the game for any length of time, you will be struck by an eerie familiarity about Bandon Dunes. Every person you see you think you've seen before or think you know. A lot of logos are on parade, the occasional Augusta National yellow America popping out of a sweater or shirt. But more likely, the logos reflect a player's home club or home area or special destination. Ballybunion and St Andrews logos are seen here and there, along with Portrush and Dornoch, Portmarnock and Troon, Lahinch and Muirfield. Though you may be surrounded entirely by strangers at Bandon Dunes, that's only because you don't know their names. You do know their purpose, because they are there for the same reason that you are: to get to the heart of the game. You learn very quickly that regardless of handicap, these are real players at Bandon Dunes. A scratch player knows how to play in four hours and ten minutes, and so does a 20-handicapper.
Pebble Beach once was that kind of golf mecca. Real golfers made the journey to Pebble not only because it was a special seaside course, but because other real golfers played it. But as a U.S. Open venue and PGA Tour stop, Pebble Beach has evolved into more of a glamour destination, a real resort rather than merely a golf resort. There is the story of a convention of corn growers at the Lodge at Pebble Beach with 40 reserved tee times and 40 sets of rental clubs. Think about that.
Bandon Dunes is unlikely to have a corn growers convention or an auto dealers convention, or any convention, for that matter. It won't host a U.S. Open or a PGA Tour event. It will host the 2005 Pacific Coast Amateur, the 2006 Curtis Cup matches and the 2007 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. These are smaller tournaments for the connoisseurs of the game and so very appropriate to what Bandon Dunes is. Bandon Dunes is for golfers.
"There are far more avid golfers than I thought there were," says Keiser. "I assumed that it would be just about all men. I'm glad to see that we have women players here and they seem just as avid. We have built a facility for players, and despite the difficulty of getting here, they are coming. It's something to be very proud of." v
Jeff Williams is the golf columnist for Cigar Aficionado.