by Bill Collins and Greg Collins, with Arnold Lytle
If you have yet to visit Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the southern Oregon Coast and play some or all of its five 18-hole courses, you may wonder why a Bandon veteran’s eyes take on a dreamy look when the resort comes up in conversation.
Nine of the Bandon Brothers confronted the “what makes” question as the sun was setting at the close of three sunny rounds at Bandon in late February of 2021.
The Brothers are a loose group of around 25 golfers who have been going, on and off, to Bandon almost every February since 2001, two years after the resort opened in 1999.
Some have visited only once, others nearly every year. The 2021 group ranged in age from late 40s to late 70s, and brought well over 100 Bandon rounds of experience to the discussion.
At first no one spoke, then someone paraphrased the question, “So, what makes it special?”
A retired doctor who still carries his clubs and who brings considerable international golfing experience with him finally jumped in. “I can tell you what makes it special,” he slowly began. “Bandon is the closest attainable thing in the U.S. comparable to playing in Ireland or Scotland, at a fraction of the cost.”
One Brother who had played Scottish courses remembered his first impression of Bandon. “It’s just like Scotland, except the ocean is on the wrong side.”
Some may say Bandon is too far off the beaten track, but, turning that complaint on its head, the doctor argued that Bandon’s remoteness is a virtue, because it is distraction free. You play golf, eat, and drink with your friends.
Heads nodded in affirmance. “It’s all golf.”
Conversations at Bandon are about golf and not, for example, politics.
The doctor also observed that Bandon has golf year-round, unlike destination courses that may be unappealing or even closed during parts of the year. But what about the Pacific Northwest’s reputation for rainy winter weather? (More on weather later, but weather is something that helps make Bandon Bandon.)
Someone brought up pretentiousness or, more correctly, the lack thereof. Pretentiousness may be a hallmark of some high-end golf resorts, but not Bandon. The buildings don’t overpower the landscape, they blend quietly into it. Food options range from hearty (Grandma’s meatloaf at McKee’s Pub) to elegant (the Cajun spiced steelhead at the Gallery), all reasonably priced and served in casual settings.
Over dinner, anticipation builds for the next day’s adventure, each Brother certain that tomorrow’s round will be the one where he tames (insert name of tomorrow’s course).
The rooms are large and comfortable, with lots of wood trim, large showers, and big comfy leather chairs that invite you to collapse into them. Most have a fireplace. Ending a winter round with a long, hot shower and sitting by the fire with your comrades and favorite beverage is the ideal close to a day, with stories retold from that day’s round or a Bandon memory from the deep past, such as the superb round a Brother once shot at Pacific while nursing a hangover from the night before spent in the Bunker Bar.
The non-pretentious adjective also applies to the staff. Many have been there for years, waiting like old friends to greet you. Staff want to help you, and look for ways to make your stay better. From the voices helping with reservations to the staff you meet face to face throughout the resort, the attitude is “Please, let me help you with that; how can I help you.”
Shuttles move folks around the grounds and come quickly when called. Shuttle drivers greet you with a smile, hopping out to load or unload clubs. And all this without hands reaching for tips.
In short, the staff definitely are part of what makes Bandon Bandon.
For those who return year after year, all these factors – the setting, the architecture, the food and drink, the lodging, the staff – all combine to impart a sense of ownership, of belonging, of returning to see old friends one more time.
Challenges are part of what makes Bandon Bandon.
Getting there ain’t easy. The nearest major airport is in Portland, a five-hour drive; Seattle is over seven hours; San Francisco nine-plus. There is a smaller airport in Eugene and a very small one in North Bend, about 30 minutes north of the resort.
Between November and March, the storm gods are never far away but the oceanside layout of the courses at least lets you see the next squall approaching well before it arrives. Any visit during the storm season may include gale force winds, sideways rain, hail and sleet. Rain and wind are not uncommon in the summer; and a warm, sunny summer day on the Oregon Coast virtually guarantees strong afternoon winds.
The weather is not always bad. Sunny shirt-sleeve days have greeted the Brothers in late February more often over the years than one might expect, including three such days in February 2021.
True Bandon golfers rise to the weather challenge. Paraphrasing the Postal Service motto, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these (golfers) from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Okay, gloom of night can be a problem. But part of the Bandon experience is to climb into your foul-weather gear and head for the first tee on days when, were you at home, you would never think about golf. “We didn’t come all this way to sit around and watch it rain. Suit up and let’s go!”
You won’t regret challenging the weather. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Henry V: “…gentlemen at home now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap, whiles any speaks that golfed with us, upon this stormy day.”
Finishing a wind/rain/sleet/hail round bestows a “we survived” sense of pride that can be taken to the Puffin Lounge for a post-round toast.
Remember when golfers walked courses and only old guys or rich guys took carts? Walking remains the rule at Bandon and adds to the Bandon challenge, especially when you get to the third or fourth day of walking. (That is age speaking. Many younger golfers, and a couple of the Brothers, will try to get in 36 holes a day.)
Today’s cart-addicted golfer may be challenged in the latter holes of a round. Bandon is not the place to break in a new pair of shoes.
Walking the courses presents a physical challenge but also adds to the mystique. It makes you respect the game more, connects you with the “feng shui” of the courses, and to the history of golf. You are often alone coming down a fairway, free to contemplate your shot, the setting, the momentary solitude. You can see other golfers and caddies, but they are not near you. More often than not, there is not a building in sight. (Did we mention there are no homes lining the fairways?)
Striding over the courses’ undulations brings the golfer close to the course and adds respect for the game in a way that scooting around in a cart cannot do.
We haven’t even talked about the courses. How good are the courses? The five 18s at Bandon all ranked in Golf Magazine’s 2021 “Top 100 Courses You Can Play” survey.
The fairways are typically wide but when they end, it is often in sand or dune grass or gorse banks or a cliff leading to the beach, nearly 100 feet below. The greens are big and fast with near-invisible breaks. Having a caddie can be a putt-saver. And when the wind is up, club selection becomes a guessing game. (“Let’s see….normally I’d play a 7-iron here, but today…probably need a 3-wood.”)
But there is something more. The whole of Bandon is greater than the sum of its parts. Something you can’t see or touch. One Brother put his finger on this intangible quality: “It’s mystical.”
Whichever road one takes from Interstate 5 to the Oregon coast leads into nature, winding past small farms in bucolic mountain valleys, following wild rivers, through forests, past herds of elk, and into towns with names like Drain and Elkton.
Finally, coming along Highway 101, the understated sign to the resort appears. A sense of serenity takes over as soon as you turn off the highway, leaving the background noise of everyday life behind to enter golf’s cone of silence. “The journey is nearly over – golf nirvana is almost here.”
The long and narrow two-lane entry road emerges from the woods, not to glitz and glamour and shiny new buildings, but to an open natural setting, a pond to the right, native Evergreens scattered to the left. The Lodge, the oldest building on the property, sits on a hill a few hundred yards away. There is no sight of a golf course yet, let alone the ocean.
Those who designed Bandon shaped some of the land, but its untamed nature is never far away, from the occasional huge sand waste areas, to gorse-covered banks, wild canyons, forest on three sides, and the Pacific Ocean on the fourth. Deer and wild turkeys roam the courses. Are those soaring vultures looking for a wayward turkey, or a downed golfer?
If you haven’t met a gorse plant, be warned. Gorse may be best described as the product of crossbreeding Scotch broom with razor wire. It presents a solid and forbidding barrier with its dense growth and sturdy, inch-long thorns. Fishing for golf balls in a gorse bush may be hazardous to your health. There may be skeletons of golfers who became permanently ensnared in a gorse thicket while trying to retrieve a brand new Pro V1.
A hint of the Ancients greets you as you walk into the lodge to register. Four seven-foot Scottish standing stones sit in the middle of the lobby. Scotland’s standing stones date back as much as 5,000 years. Some think they were early astrological aids, but the TV series Outlander suggests they may have a different function. Who knows? Does standing in the middle of Bandon’s four standing stones allow today’s golfer to channel powers and wisdom from Old Tom Morris?
And the courses, of course, the courses. A testament to the resort’s unique appeal is that the Brothers’ discussion covered so many topics before it got to the exceptional courses. Some golf courses seem artificial, as though they were manufactured somewhere, then airlifted to and laid down on the land.
Not so with the Bandon courses.
Mist-covered in the early morning, glowing in the sunset’s rays at day’s end, they spread over the land as though they were there forever, waiting for an enlightened architect who could discover where to the put the holes. The wild canyon bordering the 18th hole on the Bandon Dunes course could well hide the Oregon Coast’s version of Shivas Irons in its depths.
No vegetation on the Bandon courses came from a nursery. No beds of flowering shrubs surround a green. There are no meticulously manicured fairways edged by a first cut which is edged by a second cut. Indeed, it is often hard to decide where the fescue changes from fairway to green.
One of Bandon’s unique qualities is that you can often putt from as far away as you can hit your putter, should you so choose to attack a green that way. Tight fairway lies and the firm fescue greens will bedevil the golfer who is used to stopping shots dead on the green. And so the reason for considering putting from a distance.
The Bandon Brothers have watched Bandon grow from one 18 to five (ask a couple of us about the “original” Sheep Ranch), but five 18-hole courses don’t fully describe the golf.
Take a couple of hours and five clubs to savor the Bandon Preserve, a par-3 gem of 13 up-and-down holes, each with four or five tee boxes. Why 13 holes? Because architects Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore couldn’t fit any more holes in the space available. Be nice and the Preserve starter may allow more than four players in your group.
Shorty’s Practice Center is huge and includes driving ranges, a one-acre putting green and a nine-hole par-3 course.
And finally, there’s the Punch Bowl, a 2.3-acre putting course where money changes hands with Las Vegas-like frequency. Bandon invites you to spend even more time with a club in your hands without worrying about added costs, so Shorty’s, its par-3 layout, and the Punch Bowl are complimentary.
Need a break from golf and some solitude? Go for a walk – there are over five miles of trails, into the woods (find the labyrinth), along a ridge, down to the beach.
For the Bandon Brothers, the final evening of a stay is bittersweet, the contrast between joy and wonder of three-plus days of golf and camaraderie weighing against the reality that we must wait nearly a year to do it again.
As challenging as the courses may be, when your visit ends, you are left with an “I want to play here again” desire. While the journey back to this remote spot in southwest Oregon involves a long and winding road, once you’re back at Bandon everything is once again at ease.
We remember that there is delight in anticipation.