This is the first of a four part series on a recent golf trip to Bandon Dunes
A Most Memorable Trip
I have been playing golf for most of my 58 years on the planet. I started as a tyke swinging a sawed off seven iron and learned for real from Reno’s legendary “Old Pro” Pete Marich at the county run 18-hole track in town. Starting then and since my swing has always been some variation of the “reverse C”. A swing, by the way, many players including long time and well known touring professionals Johnny Miller, Tom Kite, David Graham, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and even the great Jack Nicklaus put to good use. They all finished with the hips forward and the back bent in a shape that gives the swing its moniker. I am told by top 50 instructor and 2012 PGA of America teacher of the year, Michael Breed that golf swings started to change significantly in the 1980’s with the rise in popularity of perimeter weighted clubs. According to Breed those clubs allowed players to more easily hit high shots because they expanded the sweet spot on the face of every club in the bag. “Players no longer had to work to get the ball in the air quickly,” Breed told me.
So swings changed and the way pros taught the swing changed, at least most did. Because I like how I hit the ball but mostly because I’m stubborn I proudly stayed with my “reverse C”. It got me through junior golf, high school tournaments, a couple years of college golf and more than my share of Nassau wins as a recreational player. Right now I believe I can post a score that starts with an 8 on any course in the country, from reasonable tees (approximately 6,500 yards). I have always hit the ball high and as a result “windy” is my least favorite condition in which to play golf. The preferred route for me was over trees not under them and once upon a time I could hit a five iron as high as a wedge. That part of my game has changed with age and diminishing talent but what hasn’t changed a bit is my dislike of playing in the wind.
So what did I do? I jumped on a plane with my wife and a good friend, then flew all the way across the country and met a few other friends to spend the weekend playing golf at the Bandon Dunes Resort (www.bandondunesgolf.com). My plan for these pages is to give you a day to day, course by course, description of the trip one windswept, ultimately wonderful layout at a time.
Opened with one course, Bandon Dunes, in May of 1999 the complex now features six golf courses with a seventh under construction. These include a 13-hole par three course, The Preserve, and a 100,000 plus square foot putting course, The Punchbowl. The four championship courses, Bandon Dunes designed by David McLay Kidd, the Tom Doak designed Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and the newest Old MacDonald done by Doak and Jim Urbina are either along or close enough to see, smell and hear the Pacific Ocean and the Oregon Coast. To say that about Bandon Trails, which spends a lot of time in the forest, is a bit of a stretch but allow me some poetic license please. Golf at Bandon Dunes is breathtaking, beautiful, challenging and windy, very, VERY windy. It’s not a rustle the leaves, kick up then lay back down again, throw some grass in the air to see exactly which way it’s blowing type of wind. This is Pacific Coast wind. This is change the shape of pine trees wind.
During our long weekend it blew between 20 and 40 miles an hour every day. Sometimes it was a two club wind, others four or even five and with the possible exception of the morning round we played at Bandon Trails you felt it every minute, on every swing. I know what you’re thinking – high ball hitter plus a 30 mph wind in your face is a recipe for disaster, but in this case nothing could be further from the truth. In fact this recipe cooked up something rather delightful. My bride, who carries a 25.3 handicap index, our travel companion and friend KB who plays to a 17 and can pound it, landed in Portland, spent the night and headed off to Bandon the next morning.
The drive is half mundane (interstate 5 south to Eugene) and half magnificent (highway 126 west to 101 south) winding through the Siuslaw National Forest and into the Oregon Dunes Recreational Area. It was a beautiful drive under a brilliant blue sky and waiting for us at the end was one of America’s best golf destinations. “Golf the way it was meant to be played” is what they say at Bandon Dunes. We arrived and checked in to our four bedroom cottage and met up with two of our friends BP and KM the two best players in our group. The cottage was nice, roomy and well-appointed but according to both women, “it smelled like a locker room”. That’s not surprising since by all appearances over the weekend the vast majority of visitors to this golf-centric resort were guys. There were several women in our group so the folks at Bandon might want to consider an extra air freshener or two in the rooms. I didn’t notice and for the record neither did the other men in our group.
BP and KM were champing at the bit to play so after saying hello they headed out for an afternoon at the Bandon Dunes course. Our weekend rounds were scheduled for Pacific Dunes on Saturday afternoon, Bandon Dunes on Sunday afternoon and Old MacDonald on Monday morning before hopping in the car for the four and a half hour drive back to Portland and the red eye home. We were ready to take a few swings too and decided the best place to start was at the 13-hole par three course, The Preserve. You don’t need a tee time there, it’s first come first served so we unpacked and headed to the main lodge to look around first. We stopped in to say hello (a few people in our group have industry connections) and were immediately met and treated to a guided tour of the property. At first glance it seems spread out but upon further review you could see how relatively close everything is to everything else. You can easily drive, catch one of the ever present shuttles, or even walk to every course, restaurant or practice facility. Speaking of walking, when you go to Bandon be prepared to do a ton of it. There are only a few golf carts on the property and those are exclusively reserved for players with a documented need or disability. We saw three carts in four days. When you play, you walk and those options include carrying your own bag, renting a pull/push cart (called Rickshaws at Bandon), or request a caddie for somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 a round. This was the option three of us chose (my wife, me and our friend KB) and it was worth every penny. After our tour we hailed a shuttle and headed for The Preserve. We had a blast.
A variety of teeing grounds ensure you don’t need more than a club you can hit 150 yards. For me that’s an 8 iron so I grabbed it, my 9 iron, three wedges and my Scotty Cameron putter and put them in a resort provided, slightly smaller carry bag. The gentleman at the starter shack welcomed us, pointed out tees, ball markers and scorecards and told us we would only need two golf balls, “one to play with and one to hit in the ocean if you are so inclined.” This statement proved to be untrue for one of the three of us (KB, who hits it higher than I do, blasted one that the wind carried into a gorse bush on the seventh hole) but I managed to get it around using only one pellet.
We went from The Preserve to The Punchbowl as the sun began its descent in the western sky. The 100,000 square foot putting green is set up with 18 different holes a day and is clearly meant for amusement, imbibing and, if the spirit moves you, a wager or two. Think of real green grass mini golf on steroids complete with a roving cocktail waitress and cup holders at the beginning of each diabolical distance. A good time was had by all even though it was on Punchbowl that very first evening that I uttered the word, “fore” for the only time during our trip. The first “hole” was twenty feet straight in front of us but between us and it was a hump roughly the size of Joba Chamberlain curled up in the fetal position. I plopped my ball down, placed the putter head behind it and made my stroke. It was a woeful wandering effort that barely made it halfway up the climb before careening hard left in the direction of the group of guys drinking, laughing and playing the next hole. My brain, as quickly as it could, weighed the options which included run, laugh, look and point at KB, or man up. My mother helped me learn responsibility and both she and the aforementioned “old pro” taught me to be courteous on the golf course so, “fore” it was.
The next day we were scheduled to begin our golf vacation in earnest. The plan was to play just 18 holes that afternoon at Pacific Dunes. The course was just named America’s top public course according to Golf Digest (www.golfdigest.com) but our buds were dialed in for 36 starting with a morning round at Bandon Trails. Several people, whose opinion about golf and golf courses we trust, said architecturally Trails is the best of the bunch and not to be missed. Well heck we were there to play golf weren’t we and what else were we going to do? So we called, found out we could tee it up in front of our friends on Saturday morning, said yes and the golf shop told us our caddies would meet us on the first tee shortly before 8 AM for an additional 18 holes.
After a good night’s sleep, no warm up and a cup of coffee from the restaurant we arrived at the starter’s shack at Bandon Trails. (An aside here, we had a wonderful time but if I could make one request before a return trip to this part of the world it would be that the resort invite a Starbucks or a local espresso store to set up a kiosk on the property). Anyway, waiting in the starter’s shack dressed in caddie white coveralls were Eric “Rack” Rackley and James “Jake” Muldowney our caddies for the morning and, as it turned out, much to our eventual delight, the entire trip. It’s a nice touch by the resort to assign you the same caddie for the length of your stay. I imagined there were some people who complained for whatever reason about that and got a different caddie as well as some caddies who complained but remained stuck with the same less than desirable player. We didn’t have either problem. The seven of us (five players and two caddies, BP and KM elected to carry their own clubs all weekend) headed to the first tee and split up into a threesome (me, my wife and KB) and a twosome. On the way Rack had informed us he was the first caddie hired at Bandon and had been there since day one. He carried my wife’s and KB’s bags while Jake, a one time member of the UNLV golf team, on which he played with PGA TOUR players Andres Gonzales and Derek Ernst, had my clubs. Jake asked me how far I hit my “stock” 7 iron to which I replied “160 – 165 yards,” adding quickly, “but not every time.” He chuckled, handed me my driver and pointed me to the green tees (6,260 yards). The ladies would play the orange tees (5,064 yards) and away we went.
The course was lovely, mostly sheltered from the wind, at least for fourteen holes, and as it turned out the perfect way to start our championship golf course Rota. The greens were big but, as we would learn, nowhere near as massive as the ones at sister course Old MacDonald. They were expansive enough to boost your ego if you feel compelled to boast about your greens in regulation stats. Then again if your ego is bruised by three putts then you are going to leave any of the great courses at Bandon Dunes black and blue. The holes were good and scenic, the caddies good at their jobs and good company.
It took Jake just a handful of holes to simply pull the right club, tell me where to aim and, when I performed as instructed, watch with me as my Titleist Pro V1x ended up on the green. My wife and KB enjoyed the same service and satisfaction with Rack but unlike me they were much better about taking instruction on the massive, undulating, speedy putting surfaces, especially my wife. I didn’t make a putt longer than five feet while KB made a few and my talented wife rolled in several bombs! I’m talking 60 to 100 foot double, triple, and quadruple breaking snakes like she had AimPoint technology embedded in her brain. She didn’t but she did have a good caddie and the talent to follow orders. We were all enjoying ourselves and going along nicely until we reached the last five holes.
The fourteenth at Bandon Trails is a driveable par 4, they say, but it has the smallest green on the course, a table top design that features no more than 20 feet of flat surface area. Everything on the hole slopes severely from left to right. For me it was a layup with a hybrid or long iron or a swipe with a driver to try and get it on the green. Jake handed me driver and we waited for the group in front of us to finish putting. We hadn’t seen much of BP and KM behind us but suddenly they appeared on the tee to join in on the fun. The green cleared and with my wife, three friends and two caddies as a gallery I pegged it, took one practice swing and settled in over the ball. In a flash my reverse C produced a screaming snap hook into the forest that was met with a giggle and polite applause. “Dang”, I said, or something like that and turned to find Jake reaching into my bag to pull out another ball. If only my third shot would have been my first, beautifully struck it flew like a bullet down the right side of the fairway. “That’s putting,” said Jake. “That’s awesome,” said KM. “That’s three,” said my wife as she walked off toward the orange tees. When we all finally reached the green we did find my ball a mere fifteen feet left of the hole leaving me a straight putt for a par that I left hanging on the high side lip. Then we made our way to the 15th tee where the wind smacked us square in the face.
On the card it’s two four pars, a par five and a par three adding up to 1,383 yards, that’s an average of less than 350 yards per hole but they play uphill into the wind, uphill into the wind, level with the wind howling right to left and uphill into the wind. “Hope you enjoyed the first 14,” Rack said after we had all teed off.
Tee shots struck well earlier in the round were going 240-250 yards, now they fought the wind and struggled to stretch 200. The 7 iron I was hitting 160 stayed in the bag when I had that yardage replaced by a hybrid that I hoped would cover the same distance. Heaven forbid you landed in a fairway or green side bunker because you came away with a face full of Oregon dunes for your effort, “golf the way it was meant to be played,” fair, tough and, I’m sure because we were on vacation, surprisingly a hoot.
The best score I made on any one of the last four holes was 5 and that was on the par 3 17th. My playing companions suffered similar fates and after the round we all remarked how Bandon Trails, a favorite among the four courses for many who visit, sure showed a disagreeable side after being so congenial for so long. For me the final numbers added up to 89 (with 25 of them coming on the last 4 holes) better than 90 so I was happy. By the way we played in 3 hours and 25 minutes, golf the way it was meant to be played! We shook hands with Rack and Jake, who my wife had suddenly started calling “Rake”, and they both said if we thought the last four at Trails was a kick in the teeth, “just wait until we get to Pacific Dunes.” We said we were looking forward to it (actually my wife and KB said that). Our tee time was 2:00 PM so we headed back to the main lodge for lunch.
Next post… Pacific Dunes.