Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Bandon Dunes: An Invigorating Golf Challenge

When we go on one of our periodic golf boondoggles, we like to give our readers and prospective golf boondogglers a report on the courses we played.

We just returned from Bandon Dunes, a golf resort on the southwest Oregon coast that has justifiably earned a terrific reputation as a destination stop for golfers. Bandon is not easy to get to, even in Oregon. For us East Coasters it was certainly a challenge, but one well worth the trouble.

We flew from Washington to Portland, Oregon, then drove the four and a half hours to Bandon. Other possibilities: fly to Salt Lake City, then to Eugene, Oregon, which is only two and a half hours from Bandon. Or fly the final leg from Portland to North Bend, Oregon, which is still a good 30 minutes from Bandon. (Or fly your personal G-5 to a local airstrip.)

We suggest you consider the drive from Portland. The first 2-2.5 hours is pretty boring, on interstate 5, but the last two hours is a great introduction to Oregon. (Since we arrived at night, we drove the first half, to Eugene, and spent the night, then finished the trip in the morning. We would not recommend the latter half of the trip at night.) About half that final drive is through the fir forested hills of western Oregon, where logging operations are plainly in sight. Much of it parallels the tranquil lower Umqua River with its RV parks and houseboats. Along the way is an elk viewing station, but we didn't see any elk (wrong time of day).

The other half of the final drive is down the southern Oregon coast with its massive dunes and small coastal towns. During the summer this is RV heaven (at least unless gas prices kill the trade) as well as a magnet for ATV'ers running through the dunes. You'll be happy for the periodic passing lanes on the narrow roads as you come up behind the RV's pulling trailers full of ATV's.
The Bandon Dunes resort itself is pretty isolated, about three miles up the road from the tiny coastal town of Bandon. (You'll see "tsunami evacuation route" signs in the lower lying towns--a major fault line lies off the Oregon coast, which could trigger a tidal wave with only a few minutes of warning.)

Bandon Dunes has three golf courses: the original, aptly called Bandon Dunes; the newer Pacific Dunes; and the newest Bandon Trails. A fourth course is almost complete, and plans are on the board for a fifth, along with a world class par three. There is also a little advertised par three next to the ginormous practice area adjacent to Pacific Dunes.

Pacific Dunes (pictured at the top of this post) is currently rated number 14 on Golf Digest's Top 100 courses in the U.S., with Bandon Dunes at number 31. Both are terrific courses, but don't bypass Bandon Trails (pictured below). In some ways Bandon Trails is the more distinctive course, but it lacks the Pacific Ocean vistas (and punishing winds) that are the signatures of the other two tracks.
We played Pacific twice, Bandon Dunes twice and Trails once. If we had it to do over, we'd have done Trails twice and maybe Pacific just once.

A word to the wise: after all that travelling to get there, most golfers will be anxious to conquer the more highly rated Pacific Dunes course as soon as possible. Our advice: hold off, if you can, especially if you are a mid-to-high handicapper. Pacific Dunes is a very difficult course, with lightning fast greens, hard fairways that always seem to lead to impossible bunkers, ball-eating gourse, occasional fog and constant wind. The greens at Pacific Dunes, in particular, take some getting used to, and trying Bandon Dunes first will be an easier introduction to this type of green.
All the courses at Bandon represent true "links" golf. The fairways are hard, with a thin layer of grass packed with sand. A well struck ball will roll for quite a ways, which is nice if it rolls closer to the pin and ends up in a (rare) good lie, but no so nice when it goes into a pot-bunker, or into the heather, or down some huge hill (or over a cliff onto the beach a 100 feet below). It is very difficult to spin a ball off these fairways.

The greens are sometimes difficult to distinguish from the fairways. They are also quite hard--there's really no use for a ball-mark repair tool here because there are no ball marks. Playing these courses gives you a real appreciation for the strategies employed at the British Open. Often, you want to land your ball well in front of the green and let it roll up, instead of landing on the green in what seems like a perfect position, only to watch your ball roll, and roll, and roll some more and then disappear over a 20 foot embankment. That happens a lot, especially on Pacific Dunes.
You can also putt from well off the greens. In effect, every green is about 100 yards deep and 50 yards wide, and you'll find yourself taking some of the wildest putts you've ever attempted, often from the bottom of some hillock that obscures your view of the flag. Unfortunately, judging the speed necessary to get a putt up one of those hills--without rolling back down and past you--without having it then scoot to the other side and down another hill takes considerable practice. Again, the problem is most evident on Pacific Dunes.

[Just to prove a point, two of us tried putting on one hole from 120 yards out after each hitting short irons to the green. Both of us easily got it to the green, the Curmudgeon actually chasing through the green and up a little hill (where his 120 yard pitch had also ended up).]

The bunkers on all three courses are quite fearsome and often in the line of a good shot. The sand in the bunkers on Pacific is pretty thin--it gets blown out--so you have to learn to pick the ball out without sailing it over your objective. Some rather unprintable words were heard emanating from members of our group down in those bunkers.

In the summer it's pretty dry along the Oregon coast, so rain is not a big deal. But wind is. We were fortunate that the wind didn't get much above 15-20 knots during our visit. Our caddies said 25-35 knots would be more typical, especially in the afternoons.

The climate in Oregon is quite cool. During our stay--this is late June, mind you--the highest temperature was probably about 64 degrees. It's not unusual for the high to be in the 50's this time of year, along with all that wind. So bring long pants and windgear. Don't worry if you forget or are just ignorant of conditions, however, as the Bandon pro shops are heavily stocked with the latest in gear to keep you warm in a howling wind.

We should also mention that Bandon--as any true golf resort should--prohibits golf carts and requires walking. The terrain is hilly, so you might not want to play 36 holes your first day there. Since everyone walks, they have a very active caddie program, employing more than 300 caddies during peak season. The four caddies we had for our group of eight over four days were all excellent. If you don't want to spring for a caddy, you can take a "trolley"--a wide-wheeled pull cart that you're allowed to drag right across the greens. We'd STRONGLY recommend caddies, however, unless you've played the courses a few times. Many times our first thought as to where to put a tee ball would have been a disaster but for the correct advice of our caddies.

Accommodations at Bandon are quite nice, but (like most first rate golf resorts) pricey. Not surprisingly, Bandon draws a lot of groups--foursomes, eightsomes, etc.--of mostly male golfers, so much of the lodging is designed to fit those golfers' needs. Four of our group of eight stayed in a suite at the lodge that had four individual bedrooms. The other four of us stayed in some very nice double rooms--two king-size beds, working fireplace, split bathroom, sitting area. (One of our two-somes split up the first night due to alleged snoring.)

Most of the architecture is post and beam using Oregon's timber, with lots of windows and a modern feel.

The dining at Bandon is ok. As with many isolated golf resorts there's really no competition and the fare is somewhat lowest-common-denominator. Don't get us wrong--the food is fine; just maybe not quite so fine as the price! At least we had no trouble getting tables for our large group, without advance reservations, at the various Bandon restaurants and bars.

If you're there for a few days, however, you may want to venture out of the enclave. We did so one night, eating at a charmingly small Italian restaurant in the town of Bandon called Alloro. We heard there are a couple other decent options in the town as well. We wouldn't recommend driving all the way up to Coos Bay/North Bend, unless you have a craving for gambling that might be satisfied by the Indian casino up that way.

Getting around the resort is easy with a shuttle system that is frequent and reliable. The staff is quite friendly. Evidently the area was quite economically depressed before the resort was built, so many of the workers there are thankful for their jobs. We wish there was room for a practice area/range by each golf course, but there's not, so instead there is one massive practice facility adjacent to Pacific Dunes. It's not far to go, but when your tee time is only 20 minutes away it is a bit inconvenient.

If you take the trouble to go to Bandon, then you're going for the golf. And that, we can assure you, is worth the trip. Just don't be surprised if your handicap is a point or two higher when you leave than when you arrived.


Greg said...

First, as one of the group, I prefer “due diligence trip” to boondoggle. There is nothing to gain from a boondoggle, but on a due diligence trip there are many things to discover.

Secondly, I might add that the other one to try the 120-yard putt actually stuck it to 15 feet. Much better than his chip!

Anonymous said...

A few random musings. A properly struck wedge from 120 yards should stop reasonably quickly, no matter how hard the greens. I've played all over Scotland and that is always the case. Further, tighly mowed fairways are easier to spin than lush ones. (They do make it harder to hit cleanly, however.)

So, rank this complex against Kohler, Pinehurst, Nemacolin and other golf or golf-y resorts.

X Curmudgeon said...

Yes, well we didn't say our wedge was "properly" struck from 120 yards. If properly struck, it would've stuck, at least on Bandon Dunes. On Pacific, you need to pick your spot on the green and hit it high.

We've been to Pinehurst and Kiawah amongst the big time golf resorts, and Bandon topped both of them!

Anonymous said...

Nice summary curmudgeon. We're headed out there next week for our 3rd trip. Seems the courses are a bit drier than the last time we were there (2005). Really eager to try Bandon Trails, esp based on your description. As to the prior question on resorts, Bandon is my favorite. Group has gone to Kohler (3X), Pinehurst (1X), RTJ (2X), Gulf Shores and Pine Barrens but not abroad yet. Also played the Pebble courses. Bandon courses are the best IMO.