Teeing off at Bandon Dunes, the best US golf course
BANDON — It was an unreasonable request: Party of 16, reserving an early dinner on a weekend night at McKee's Pub, the go-to hangout for comfort food at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort.
Here's the thing about Bandon Dunes, though, and one of a thousand reasons it has separated itself from every worthy challenger to become the best golf destination in the United States: Rarely, if ever, is a request met with "no." Nobody in our group recalled hearing the word even once during our four-day visit in late April.
Customer service is crucial, and it's but one of the many things they've perfected at Bandon Dunes, a place that, considering national golf trends, shouldn't be nearly as successful or popular as it's become. Fewer people are playing fewer rounds of golf, and courses are closing by the dozens across the country every year.
So why is a desolate, difficult-to-reach, scruffy property along the Oregon coast expanding every few years (opened in 1999, the resort now has four 18-hole courses and two par-3 tracks) despite the absence of golf carts? Why are so many people placing Bandon Dunes at the top of their wish lists, then rearranging their favorite courses and top trips when they return home?
Easy. It's the golf.
Bandon Dunes offers an experience unlike anything you'll find anywhere else in the country. From the look and playability of the links courses to the (optional, but excellent) caddies, to the attention to detail at every turn, there's little that those behind the resort haven't thought of when it comes to creating and adding to their guests' enjoyment from the minute they arrive.
The resort's schmaltzy slogan — "Golf as it was meant to be" — couldn't suit the place better.
A trip to Bandon Dunes becomes memorable because it's golf as it so rarely is these days. According to "True Links," the 2010 book by George Peper and Malcolm Campbell, only four courses in the country accurately fit the strict criteria to be called links: Highland Links, a 9-holer in North Truro; and three of the four courses at Bandon Dunes, which are its namesake, opened in 1999, followed by Pacific Dunes (2001) and Old Macdonald (2010). The only 18-hole course at Bandon not included is Bandon Trails, which opened in 2005 and, despite a few glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, features plenty of trees and no holes along the water. Of the four, it offers the most inland feel. Thus, not a links course.
Don't hold that against Trails, though. There were some in our group who ranked it second-best, behind the near-unanimous winner, Pacific Dunes.
Even the experts agree on the quartet's strength: In the most recent Golf Digest rankings of the top 100 courses in the country — public and private — all four Bandon courses placed 74th or better: Pacific Dunes was 18th (one spot ahead of The Country Club in Brookline), followed by Bandon Dunes (No. 37), Old Macdonald (No. 55), and Bandon Trails (No. 74, one spot in front of Boston Golf Club). In the magazine's listing of the top 100 public US courses, all four Bandon courses were inside the top 15, with Pacific Dunes No. 2, trailing only Pebble Beach.
Building a golf mecca that the masses could enjoy was Mike Keiser's driving ambition. As the cofounder of Recycled Paper Greetings Inc., Keiser had earned the means to pursue his passions, and golf was a high priority. He built a 9-hole private club in Michigan in the mid-1980s, but had grander dreams, and began scouring the country for the ideal location to create what he wanted: Something similar to the classic courses he was falling in love with, such as Pine Valley, Merion, and the seaside links gems in Scotland and Ireland. Keiser preferred the minimalistic look, had no interest in adding homesites or providing golf carts, and wanted to spoil his guests with a place that valued and emphasized golf's history and traditions.
Unexpectedly, that place wound up being in Oregon. When Howard McKee described the undeveloped land to Keiser, the trusted scout (who didn't play golf) told his boss that two problems made the site unappealing: Too much gorse, and too much wind. Those were the words Keiser most wanted to hear. He bought that first 1,200-acre parcel in 1991.
Instead of going with a big-name course designer, Keiser went with an unknown Scot (David McLay Kidd, who designed Bandon Dunes), an up-and-comer in Tom Doak (Pacific Dunes, then Old Macdonald with Jim Urbina), and the less-is-more team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore (Bandon Trails, and the 13-hole par-3 course called the Preserve). Like many of the world's best courses, the land at Bandon seemed to be waiting patiently for someone to come along, clear some trees, dig a few holes, add flagsticks, and start playing golf. Holes are discovered, not built. Hardly any dirt was moved, the property's enormous dunes serving as a dramatic gateway to the coast, and framing some of the best holes at Bandon Dunes.
Unlike many of its US peers, a trip to Bandon Dunes Golf Resort won't break the bank. It's not inexpensive, but the price of golf and lodging depends on what time of year you go: green fees for resort guests range from $75-$265, and single rooms go from $100-$300 (you can reserve a double room for as little as $80 per person, per night, or spend as much as $1,900 per night for a four-bedroom cottage; private housing is also available, but you won't receive the reduced golf rates of a resort guest). Weather can be surprisingly good for much of the winter — the only quiet month at Bandon Dunes, locals say, is December — and some of us played in shorts in late April, when the temperature climbed into the mid 60s.
Give yourself time to get there, however. United Airlines began twice-weekly service on July 1 from Denver to North Bend, Ore., located only 30 minutes from the resort, which offers transportation both ways. We didn't have that option, and flew instead into Eugene, Ore., then rented cars for the 2½-hour drive (west on Highway 126, then south on Highway 101). What the route lacked in commerce it made up for with coastal beauty. But by the time we arrived at Bandon Dunes, with a layover of less than an hour in Salt Lake City, it had been 15 hours since the alarm went off for my 6 a.m. flight. That's a full day.
For those interested in tapping out after 18 holes, there are options besides golf. The resort has a massage center, walking trails are nearby, and kite surfing is common, though we didn't see anyone flying high over the chilly Pacific. Away from the resort, deep-sea fishing expeditions are available.
Or you can kick back at the Punchbowl, the Bandon Dunes version of a college kegger. The massive putting green, which opened last year, includes an 18-hole "course" that's free of charge and perfect for contests and wagers, complete with double drink holders at each tee (beverage service is on site, but not in-your-face). If you're looking for something different on a golf trip — it can get plenty loud there — the Punchbowl's fun factor is off the charts.
Dining at the resort consists of six restaurants, all entirely adequate. We had a daily breakfast buffet at the Gallery, fish tacos at Trails End, grandma's meatloaf at McKee's Pub, and beers and cigars at the downstairs Bunker Bar. Nothing fancy — dress is casual — just hearty portions of culinary favorites, cold drinks, and exemplary customer service.
Ah yes . . . about our party of 16 for dinner that weekend night at McKee's. It ended up being a table for nine, and they gave us an upstairs room that allowed for a breathtaking view of Bandon Dunes and, if you listened close enough, the sound of waves crashing into the nearby beach. Splendid.
As for the other seven members of our group? Two hours of daylight remained, and even after a 36-hole day, there was still time to squeeze in a little more golf.