September 11, 2011 was the first day of my first trip to Bandon Dunes and despite the difficulty getting there from New York, it won’t be my last. Bandon is all about golf. You don’t go to Bandon for the spa, nightlife, sun or other activities. Not only did the golf courses make me feel as though I had returned to Scotland, but the wind, mist and overcast made me feel as if I had just landed in Prestwick. With the opening of Old Macdonald, the Tom Doak/Jim Urbina homage to C.B. Macdonald in 2010 there are now four amazing courses at Bandon Dunes resort. Although there is a familial consistency among the four courses in that they all are grassed with fescue with a sandy base, play firm and fast over wide rumpled fairways, have interesting greens, some blind shots and are roughly hewn, I was surprised how distinctive each was from the others, like four relatives that bear a family resemblance, while each maintains its own style and personality. I’d say that Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes are siblings while Bandon Trails and Old Mac are cousins. If you polled any 100 visitors I think you'd get a wide range of answers as to their order of preference. However, the general consensus typically follows the magazine rankings of Pacific and Bandon Dunes at the top followed closely by Trails and Old Mac. However, any ranking is splitting hairs. My group could not think of another place outside the Kingdom of Fife that has four courses of this caliber in such a close proximity and that includes Monterrey, Pinehurst, Kohler and every other place this side of the Atlantic that we knew in reaching that conclusion. While Pebble Beach itself may be the equal of the courses at Bandon, the supporting cast of public courses in Monterrey doesn’t match the other courses at Bandon and, while not cheap, two rounds at Bandon cost less than a single round at Pebble.
Despite the weak economy, according to our excellent caddie “Mankato” Andy, (more about caddies later) the resort was fully booked on the weekend we arrived and about 85% booked on the following week days. Bandon is a completely walking venue. There are no motor carts available unless you have a medical reason. There aren’t even any paved paths. You carry your bag, take a caddie or use a pull cart. I strongly recommend the use of a caddie. There are many huge and undulating greens at all four courses. The greens at Old Mac are bigger than any I’ve played anywhere and a caddie will reduce the number of three putts (or four putts, LOL) that you’ll take. If you are physically able, there is no reason not to play 36 holes a day. The first round per day is expensive ($225 during peak season) but the second round of the day is discounted ($110 in peak season.) Although the courses are hilly they aren’t a difficult walk. Most tees are located close to the prior green so there aren’t a lot of wasted steps unless you roam the course to absorb the views and take pictures as I did. There are a couple of holes though (one on Trails and one on Bandon Dunes) where it is a chore to get a pull cart up some railroad tie steps. We played 36 a day for three days and seemed to get less exhausted each day because after the rounds it was dinner at McKee’s Pub at Bandon and off to bed at the comfortable Lilly Pond rooms. I think the long trip the preceding day and our opening round at Pumpkin Ridge near Portland (which has hosted USGA and pro events) was a mistake as it made us start the trip low on energy (albeit high on adrenaline, particularly since I had my first ace ever on the third hole at Pumpkin.) Hole-in-one aside, I’d suggest getting to Bandon early the night before you start playing and get a good night’s rest as opposed to our arrival after 1 am (4 am by our internal clocks which were still on Eastern Time.) It's a 4.5 hour drive from Portland to Bandon. With the 5 hour flight, round at Pumkin Ridge and the drive to Bandon, it was an exhausting first day. Fly to Eugene if you can, it cuts the drive in half. Better yet (f you can afford it) there are flights from Portland or San Francisco to the little airport in North Bend about half an hour from Bandon.
Our stay at Bandon Dunes was three days. In retrospect, I would have made it four days so we could play each of the four courses twice. My recollection of the courses we played twice is much clearer than the other two and you gain a better sense of the course the second time around. In planning the trip I had wanted to play Pacific twice just because it is so highly rated. However, since we booked our tee times “only” 90 days in advance, Pacific was already so full that we could only find one open tee time that worked for us that would enable us to play two rounds every day. Booking late also forced us to reserve tee times that were only 5 hours apart which made us have to rush through lunch after our morning rounds in order to timely be on the tee at the afternoon course. I’d suggest leaving at least five and a half hours between am and pm tee times. At our afternoon round at Pacific I was eating my bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato sandwich as I walked up the first fairway. We ended up playing Trails and Old Mac twice each and Bandon Dunes and Pacific once each.
Our first day we were just a two ball as we were waiting to meet up with the other two guys who were arriving that evening, one of whom was coming from England. We were introduced to our caddie, Andy on the practice green of BandonTrails. Andy, originally from Mankato, MN has been caddying at Bandon for seven years following a stint at a private club in AZ for several years. He knows all four courses very well. The deal at Bandon is that you keep the same caddie for your entire stay at the resort unless you are unhappy with the service and request someone different. The recommended caddie fee is $80 to $100 per bag for good service. It’s expensive but worth it. Bandon has the biggest caddie corps in the world, most of whom have been looping there for several years. A few have been there since it opened. You can request a particular caddie but there is no guaranty that you will get the person you request. When we booked our tee times we gave them a list of four names based on recommendations we had received and got Andy from that list. There are a few female caddies that are among the most requested. Andy knew our games before the end of the first round and was very helpful in clubbing us and reading the complex greens. It is a good idea to have a discussion with your caddie before you start to come to a meeting of the minds about how much advice you want. Andy had a great attitude and would be good for all types of golfers from high cappers to scratch.
Standing on the first tee at Bandon Trails you can see the new par three course designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw (scheduled to open in 2012), the Bandon Dunes course and the Pacific Ocean behind you in the horizon.
Bandon Trails #1 from tee
In front of you is a linksy par 4 that requires a drive over the dunes and
Bandon Trails #1 approach
a field goal approach to a green between two large mounds.
The second is a downhill par three surrounded by the sand dunes covered in high grass.
Bandon Trails #3 from the tee. Here's where the course starts to transform from seaside links to a meadow and forest setting.
The character of the course changes after the second hole as you leave the linksland behind and head away from the ocean through forests and meadows until the final hole which returns to the clubhouse and the linksy feel.
Bandon Trails is brawny with wide often sloping fairways. It is very peaceful and secluded with a Carolina forest feel. The par threes are quite good and varied.
Bandon Trails #5 - Par 3
Number 5 is a short par 3 over a ravine to a very deep Biarritz green. Short of the green in the ravine is dead, while above the hole is a difficult two putt on a fast downhill green through the Biarritz swale.
approach shot to #11 at Bandon Trails
I particularly liked the stretch from number 11 to 13. Number 11 is a slight dogleg right with a fairway that slopes downhill toward the green. A fade that starts down the left center will get roll down the hill. There’s a big bunker front left and a pond on the right of the green, one of only two water hazards on all four Bandon courses (unless you count the Pacific Ocean.) If you fly your appraoch over the bunker, the ball will feed toward the center of the green. Just don't be short.
Bandon Trails # 12 - 245 yrd par 3
Number 12 is a 245 yard par 3 with a large green and entry that feeds balls from right to left that I used driver both times and ended up on the green both times.
Bandon Trails #13 - view back to fairway from false fronted plateau green with danger on both sides
Number thirteen is a cool hole with a downhill tee shot to a steep plateau green with trouble on both sides. Trails is not too punishing through the 13th hole. However, the last five holes are where the course really shows its teeth.
Number 14 is the most controversial hole on the course. It’s a par 4 from a teeing ground located on the highest point at Bandon down into a valley that slopes steeply left to right (above). It is difficult to keep the tee shot from rolling down far to the right leaving a difficult uphill second shot to the tough green where the flag likely will not be visible. I was lucky to leave my tee shot on the high side of the fairway on the left and put my approach pin high but about 20 feet left of the green in a swale. It took me four more strokes to hole out.
Bandon Trails #16 is a tough uphill par 5
Bandon Trails Number 18 has a blind tee shot over an elevated fairway.
A good tee shot funnels down the far side of the hill and leaves a short uphill approach to a green near the clubhouse.
We grabbed a quick lunch at the grille and high tailed it over to Old Mac for the afternoon round.
It should be noted that there is a shuttle service that runs every few minutes to each of the four courses and the various on site lodging. Although there is no need to use your car while on site. However, we opted to drive due to the short time frames we left ourselves between rounds.
Old Mac #7 ("Ocean') Green
Our afternoon tee time at Old Mac was 3:10. They told us when we booked that in September they don’t guaranty that you’ll finish 18 holes unless you tee off by 2:30. The starter pressed us pretty hard to plan on stopping play after 14 because 14 green is fairly close to the “clubhouse” (which at present is a temporary double wide structure) and number 15 heads away from civilization. However, we were determined to get in a full 18 and reached the 18th punchbowl green just before dark. It would have been a shame to stop at 14 since 15 and 16 are two of the best holes on the course!
As mentioned above, Old Mac is an homage to C.B. Macdonald, the “father of American golf course architecture.” Macdonald studied the famous links of Great Britain and brought to the U.S. features that made the greatest holes of Great Britain so great. The “template” holes and features that Macdonald brought to National Golf Links in Long Island and other U.S courses early in the twentieth century (such as a redan, a cape, a long. short, Sahara and alps) are the concepts and design features that Doak and Urbina included at Old Mac. The course will not be everyone’ cup of tea, but if you go into it with an open mind and can get used to using a putter or chipping from 50, 75 or more yards out in the fairway (and perhaps a 50 yard putt or two on the green) you will enjoy the course. Urbina and Doak did not slavishly copy famous holes. Instead they included features that are reminiscent of the originals (or subesquent holes where those features have been incorporated.) Each hole is named after the key feature and/or the hole that inspired it.
The features that will most amaze you about Old Mac is the width of the fairways and the size of the greens. It is difficult to lose a ball at Old Mac, especially when the wind is benign as it was our first time around. But even when the wind was strong two days later when we played Old Mac a second time, we did not lose a ball (we are 15 handicaps). In fact we each brought four dozen balls based on the reputation of the place. I lost a total of six balls in six rounds and three of those were in a two hole stretch on Bandon Dunes when the wheels fell off my game and I hit two into the gorse.
If you are familiar with pin placement sheets that divide a green into sections to help you determine where to hit your appraoch shot, on Old Mac think of each of those sections as being a separate green. At Old Mac rather than losing a tee shot in a pond or hitting into a bunker, your inaccurate approaches end up a mile away on the green. So rather than having to take a penalty or get up and down from a trap or deep rough, you are often trying to two-putt from a very long distance. It was a skill that I need to practice. Another helpful shot on all four Bandon courses is the bump and run from far off the green. I found that I was much more accurate chipping long-distnace with an iron than I was putting from the fairway, particularly in the case of the not infrequent shot up a slope as there are numerous sloped and false fronted greens at the resort. My favorite holes at Old Mac are 3, 7, 8, 14, 15 and 16.
Number 3 (“Sahara”) requires a blind tee shot over a high dune that is the home of the “ghost tree.” The tee shot has a hint of of #18 at Trails and # 9 at Pacific in that it requires you to put blind faith in your caddie's advice that there is a fairway on the other side. Note the ranger on the far left who is there to guide you to your tee shot and keep the pace of play under 4.5 hours.
A good tee shot over the dune slopes down to the bottom of the valley on the other side leaving a short approach.
Number 7 (called “Ocean”) is a fantastic hole, uphill all the way to a green at the crest of the hill where you get your first ocean view at Old Mac.
This is just the back right corner of (what else?) a big green on #7
Number 8 par 3 - (“Biarritz”) is a steep downhill par three with a huge Biarritz green.
Old Mac #8 "Biarritz" - view from back of green toward tee. The swale that bisects this huge green is the feature after which this hole was named
Number 14 (“Maiden”) is deceptively uphill
and has a very tough green if you don’t place your approach in the right
sector and below the hole.
Old Mac Number 15 (“Westward Ho”) is a great par 5 that heads straight west to the Pacific and in our case the setting sun.
Despite the wide fairway I hit my second shot into a steep bunker (above) at the base of the hill below the steeply elevated green. I am not a good sand player but I hit my wedge to about 8 feet and made the birdie putt. Andy rakes the scene of the crime.
Old Mac Number 16 is the “Alps”. I have played the original “Alps”hole at Prestwick (the venue of the first dozen British Opens.) Coincidentally, my caddie at Prestwick was also an Andy. "Mankato" Andy at Bandon was a little more cheery than "Prestwick" Andy though.
The original Alps at Prestwick (Old) with Prestwick Andy as my aim line (probably the safest place to be) The sky and turf were more similar to Bandon than was the dune at the inspirational hole.
Unlike Prestwick, the Alps at Old Mac allows a player to sneak around the right side of the namesake dune.
If you opt to fly the dune, there is a guidepost to line you up to the hidden green. Keep it left and a short shot will trickle down to the green. Push it right and you end up in a huge deep sleeper faced bunker. The sleepers look decades old rather than the one year they’ve actually been there.
Moon rise to the left of the 18th Fairway. We finished 18 in the nick of time
We ate dinner each night at McKee’s pub, located next to the lodge near the Bandon Dunes course and named after the late Howard McKee one of Mike Kiser’s friends and an advisor who was instrumental in helping Keiser get the resort off the ground. Although I’ve been told that there are a variety of good
meal options in the village of Bandon, we didn’t have the energy or desire to drive off site to eat. There is a restaurant at the Lodge which is a little more upscale than McKee’s but we opted for McKee’s each night which is a step above typical pub food. McKee’s is also an option for lunch before or after a round at Bandon Dunes. The roast chicken, pork chops and meat loaf were the three favorites among our group. We had the breakfast buffet at the lodge which was excellent. There are small grill rooms at Bandon Trails and Pacific Dunes. We tried each and they were solid, but not extraordinary, golf course fare. The BLAT sandwich at Pacific was very tasty although the bar tender there was the one guy we came across on the entire trip that had an “attitude”. The only course that doesn’t have a decent food option was Old Mac where your only choice is the snack bar that has a very short selection of mediocre cold food like Tuna wraps and turkey sandwiches. I’m sure that will change when they build the clubhouse.
After a second morning round at Bandon Trails, we played our next afternoon round at Pacific Dunes. I started out on fire with four pars and a birdie on the first five holes. Boy is this game easy. Unfortunately, as water finds its own level, so did my gane for the rest of the round, not having another par until late on the back 9. Pacific has a quirky routing with 5 par threes, four of which are on the back 9, including two great ones back to back (# 10 and #11.) The five ocean holes (#4, 10, 11, 12 and 13) at Pacific that run along the cliffs overlooking the Pacific are breathtaking even with the fog and mist in the air limiting visibility. The opening hole is a short par 4 with a partially blind tee shot over a crest in what appears to be a tight fairway. A good shot flies the hill and rolls down the humpy fairway amid the mounds and bunkers.
Pacific Dune Number two has a bunker dead center of the landing area off the tee. You can go left and have a better angle to approach the green but risk a left side bunker or you may opt for the safer route to the right of the center bunker and have a more difficult approach. I took the third (un-intended) option by flying my tee shot right into the center bunker with my best drive in two days. However, a great iron shot from the bunker got me on to the green and two putts later I had my second par of the day.
You get your first shots of the day on the Ocean on the tee at number 4 (above) where you say to yourself “Don’t slice.” After that the course turns back inland for the rest of the front nine.
Number 6 is an extremely tough hole if you don’t come into the green from the right side. From the tee the left side looks pretty inviting as there is a fairway bunker on the right that you definitely want to avoid. The best tee shot is just left of the right fairway bunker or even better, over it.
However, an approach from the left side requires a deft shot over a monster greenside bunker to one of the narrowest elevated green on the course which slopes to the right down a steep hill. Of course I pulled my tee shot, left myself the dangerous pitch which I didn’t want to leave short in the big bunker, so hit it a little long, hit the back right corner of the green, bounced once and shot down the hill on the other side, leaving me further from the hole than I started and looking at another tricky uphill shot. My triple there was the end of what had started as a great scoring round.
The front nine ends with a par 4 over a hill to a blind fairway. The ninth hole has two greens. The sign on the tee said the upper green was in play this day. However, when we got over the hill we found it was supposed to be the lower green, oh well another triple for me.
The back nine at Pacific is among the best nine holes anywhere, even with the funky layout of four par 3’s, three par 5’s and two par 4’s. Rather than force the land to the golf course “norms”, they found the holes as nature created them. When the wind blows you need a caddie to club you. Ten through 14 are all beautiful holes on the ocean.
Pacific Dunes #10 - Par 3
On 10 and 11 (the back to back par 3’s) be happy to land your tee shot somewhere on the green. The bunkers are tough and the ocean is worse. After the stretch along the ocean that ends on # 13, the golf holes remain equally good even if the views are not as spectacular.
If you get the feeling that you're in Scotland, you're not crazy. Here is a photo of the par 3 seventh hole at Western Gailes, one of my favorite courses in Scotland. It has a similar feel to #10 at Pacififc above and of several holes at the Bandon Dunes course (discussed below)
Pacific Dunes #11 Par 3
Pacific Dunes Number 13 is another cool hole on the ocean
Number 14 is the next par three. It requires a mid iron to a tough green. I started to pull my irons which left me in a very difficult greenside bunker.
Number 17 is the last and longest par three at Pacific. It is a beautiful hole with a green that slopes to the left. A good shot is to the right side of the green that will funnel the ball left. There is a big bunker fronting the left half of the green making it even more important to come in from the right. Of course I pulled my shot right into the bunker.
Number 18, a long uphill par 5 with a big bunker in front of the green is a great finishing hole. There is also sand on the left side of the fairway (above) that was hidden from the tees that we used. I was the only one of our foursome to miss the sand with a great tee shot
and my three buddies all had a tough time escaping the first bunker (above). My solid second shot left me an 8 iron to the green in regulation. My approach landed in the huge bunker but I got out fine and won the hole for five skins. The first hole I won since number 5 and a great way (for me at least) to end the round. However the shot of the day belonged to my friend Tony who after having a horrible stance in a bunker on his second shot (above right) had an even worse one in the green front bunker when his approach buried in the top wall of the bunker (below). He hit an amazing miracle shot to 8” for a tap in eight;-)
Bandon Dunes: Click on a photo to enlarge it and see a description of the hole. Then click on the "next" button in the upper right of the enlarged photo, or the "previous" button in the upper left corner