Next stop is Bandon Dunes Resort, the official halfway house of the 10,000-mile Little Red Corvette American Golf Road Trip. And while this trip is all about golf – golf travel is about much more than tees and greens. The pine tree canopy road stretch from Sacramento to Bandon, Oregon is by all accounts the best drive in America. Escorted by a top-of-the-line Valentine One radar detector, the “Golf Vette” roars through the Giant Sequoias of Northern California on Highway 101. It ain’t too shabby to the south near Pebble Beach, but it’s better in “No Cal” where the Redwoods are. In the shade of the world’s largest trees with some reaching more than 300-feet, the road swerves and curves through the thick forest with a fern-covered floor.
This hydrated wilderness is a rich, healthy hue of green and the region is a rare ocean, mountain and jungle trinity. On average, this area gets twice the rainfall as the rest of America which keeps the foliage quenched. The colossal awe of the forest is matched by scenic roadways perched high above the Pacific Ocean. There are lookout points every few miles where road tripping Winnebagos park to snap photos of sunbathing sea lions.
About 20 miles south of the Oregon state line, Crescent City, California is a cozy little coastal town. We arrive in the afternoon on Independence Day and while the Pandemic weighs on the party, there’s a patriotic buzz in the air and occasional bottle rocket pop. Locals and drive-in tourists eat crab sandwiches, drink hot cocoa and swig local brews at the Chart Room Seafood Restaurant. A bit chilly, it’s in the 50’s F and body-suited surfers ride the beach break not far from the marina and restaurant’s open-air deck. The deep v-hull center console boats coming back to dock look tough. They’re seafaring vessels built for wrestling salmon and halibut on cold, rough Pacific days.
From Crescent City to Bandon is about two hours up the coast. Out of the Redwood Forest, the drive veers for the mellow vibes of Southwest Oregon. We pass fifty or so drive-thru coffee stands and “coughy shops” in small towns such as Brookings, Pistol River and the eloquently named Dew Valley. Many people know this maritime region from watching the 1985 classic “The Goonies,” which was filmed up the coast in Astoria. Into Bandon, it’s a cozy place with a population of about 4,000 friendly Oregonians. There are a few supermarkets, bakeries, restaurants, pubs and full-service gas stations. Along with New Jersey, Oregon is one of two American states where self-service gas isn’t allowed.
Bandon’s annual Fourth of July parade, fireworks show and general patriotism are Covid-cancelled so we cruise through town without stopping. On-brand with the entire Bandon Dunes Resort experience, the minimalist entrance on the northern outskirts is no-frills and functional. The Tufted Puffin bird resort logo with an all caps classic font reading “Bandon Dunes” marks the entry. There are a few hours of daylight left and we have 103 holes of golf to play in 66 hours, so we toss our luggage in the room and beeline for the resort’s 13-hole short course.
Like a fine piece of gruyere with a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, the Coore and Crenshaw-designed Bandon Preserve par three course is the perfect golf resort complement. It’s a proper links tune-up for what’s to come on Bandon’s five championship layouts designed by A-list architects David MacClay Kidd, Tom Doak, Jim Urbina and two were etched by the duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. The Preserve serves notice – this golf course is different from typical American parkland layouts. Bandon links golf with its bumps isn’t fair and bad bounces are certain. Pin-seeking irons will land on downslopes and slingshot past the hole far beyond your wildest dreams – this happens to everyone — hammer the driver and paint the approach. Greens-in-regulation are half the battle because the humongous, firm greens with moon craters are prime for three-putts. But always there like a consoling friend – infinite Pacific Ocean views ease the pain. Preserve is also a lot of fun and ideal for evening wagers, strolling cocktails and a good playlist. The shortest hole plays 40 yards, the longest stretches to 150. Like everything at Bandon – the lies are tight, it’s bumpy and firm and the rough is a hay farmer’s dream.
It’s tradition to smash a putter off the tee on the downhill 100-yard 13th finishing hole which is fun. And it’s the short course for a good cause – net proceeds from green fees go to the Wild Rivers Coast Alliance, an organization that supports Oregon Coast conservation and community. But perhaps its most redeeming quality is that it’s the only golf course void of controversy. It’s the one golf course at Bandon Dunes Resort without critics. Everyone loves the Preserve – which oddly isn’t the case for the others.
The heroes at Bandon Dunes Resort are the Pacific Ocean and the land which blankets about five square miles of Oregon shoreline and coastal forest. Many a resort developer would’ve ruined this perfect landscape with high-rises and themed neighborhoods, but owner Mike Keiser let it be. Aside from gorse shrub management, Bandon’s credo is minimalism. Not indigenous, the gorse was brought over from Ireland in the 1870’s. It’s a gnarly, thorny, thick shrub with yellow flowers that thrives in the area. Also called “Irish Fence”, it’s so dense it can set a perimeter like a stone wall. Some might wonder why Bandon Dunes Resort didn’t open until 1999 – it was the gorse that deterred developers for years. It’s occasionally in-play on Bandon’s golf courses — hellacious scruff is essential to an authentic links and the gorse delivers. South of Dublin along the Irish Sea, The European Club and its cragged cabbage along comes to mind.
Aside from the Preserve short course, Bandon-goers don’t agree on much. The resort’s five championship links courses are debated, berated and argued like politics. For reasons I don’t understand, Old Macdonald AKA “Old Mac” is the most polarizing. An ode to 19th century American golf pioneer C.B. MacDonald – if still around he’d be honored by the design work of Tom Doak and Jim Urbina. Nothing impacts a golf course more than its topography. How different can these five golf courses be when they’re all on the same five-square mile piece of land? And Old Mac is a next-door neighbor to the beloved Sheep Ranch and Pacific Dunes – they’re literally a wedge from one another. The “Old Mac antagonist” is such an odd creature because like the others, there are many special moments on the walk.
On the first tee, a welcoming par four, it’s a massive vast space and sincere sense of isolation. It’s the Oregon wilderness feeling that people come for. The third hole with its “Ghost Tree” is true to Bandon’s theme where a dead, baron tree is left to serve as an aiming point and golf course hood ornament. The eighth hole’s tee is on the ocean and plays downhill to one of the most exciting roller coaster greens in all of golf. And the 12th hole, a par three playing over 200 yards isn’t particularly fair with its perched, narrow green, but that’s golf. A par can be equally rewarding as a birdie and 12 is a prime example. And 17 and 18 work back into the pine forest and complete a hike through the area’s entire ecosystem: baron sand dunes, gorse, ocean, tall fescue, up-and-down terrain and woodlands.
The golf courses are similar in that they’re all groomed the perfection by the 500-plus good souls on the turf maintenance crew. For the most part, they have large, wavy fairways with firm, sloping Poa Annua grass greens. They’re unique however in their design and routing. But they all have distinctive moments that burn to memory. Bandon Trails is the only golf course that doesn’t play next to the ocean but takes a backseat to no track on visuals. The wood chip trails that connect tees and greens make the Coore and Crenshaw design feel like a hike in a Disney forest. The 5th is a delightful par three and natural amphitheater perfect for a Modest Mouse concert. Artistic Manzanita and Madrone deadwoods are placed in the right places like trinkets at grandma’s house.
The Pacific Ocean is framed and revealed on Bandon’s three seaside links: Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes and Sheep Ranch. The ocean is the keynote of the resort and its designers: Kidd, Doak, Coore and Crenshaw present it in unique ways. The infinity ocean fairway on of the first of the Sheep Ranch where the fairway merges with the Pacific is world-class. And the par four 6th, a dogleg right that plays on the western edge of America is an unforgettable walk.
It all started with the Bandon Dunes Course by Scotsman turned Oregonian David McClay Kidd. Nearly half the holes cozy right up next to the ocean and nearby breaching Humpback Whales. Kidd’s design is much like those marine mammals – wide in the middle with knobby heads. The resort’s namesake course is fair off the tee, but good luck from there because Bandon bounces are wacky and wild. The ocean views get all the photos, but don’t sleep on the tee-to-green stroll on the par three second hole. Kidd has mapped an adorable walking trail through a fescue valley — it brilliantly captures the charm of an Oregon wander.
Tom Doak’s masterpiece Pacific Dunes, is the sixth and final round of golf on my 66-hour Bandon sprint. The reasonable golfer may suggest a leisurely pace – perhaps 18 a day with a nightcap on the short course would be comfy. I however encourage a ravenous pace and whether it’s two days and one night or three days and two nights – play every damn hole at Bandon minus restraint. And here’s a pro tip incentive to hustle because replay rounds are half price and third rounds are free.
Nearing the 30th mile on foot, crawling down the stretch and searching for reasons to care – Doak gives plenty with Bandon’s most challenging golf course. This course’s fairways aren’t as whale-ish and you’ll wish the Irish had left the gorse in Ireland. Its nontypical back side has three par 3’s, three par 5’s and two 4’s – a welcomed break from the game’s traditions. I feel like I’m disrespecting Doak’s magnificent creation and I feel like I’m disappointing the overhead circling Tufted Puffins with my exhausted effort, but I promise to finish with more bounce next time. I kick-in for another bogey on 18, my 103rd hole which feels like the finish line of an endurance race. I understand my feat isn’t anything spectacular as many a speed golfer has broken 80 here at Bandon in less than 40 minutes. Several players have walked four golf courses in one day as part of Bandon’s annual Bandon Dunes Summer Solstice tournament, but none of them three-putted as many times as me. And none of them got the bad bounces I did, right?
Like aspiring golf course raters, conversations at McKee’s Pub swirl about the strengths and weaknesses of the six courses. Truth be told, golfer’s opinions are generally biased and rooted in their performance. It typically rides on whether they catch a few breaks – I got none and can’t wait to return. Above all else, Bandon is a wondrous display of biodiversity. Anyone would be fortunate to have a picnic there, go for a walk or camp in the forest, but to play golf, it’s a privilege.
Info + Tips:
- Getting there: the Southwest Oregon Regional Airport (OTH) in North Bend is about 30 minutes away — direct flights from Denver and San Francisco are available. Better flight fares are available to Eugene, Oregon which is about 2.5 hours away, Portland is about four hours away and Sacramento is about an eight hour drive.
- Stay: onsite options range from single rooms to four bedroom suites and start at around $100 per person per night
- Comfortable shoes are an obvious must and bring a few different pairs to mix it up — especially on dry days, a lot of people wear running or walking shoes instead of golf shoes
- Sunscreen is always a must on the golf course, but also protect your lips while at Bandon — especially if you’re coming from another part of the country and aren’t used to Oregon’s lip-chapping wind and sun