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  • 19 Aug 2014

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My visit to golf's mecca, Bandon Dunes

by: COURTESY OF BANDON DUNES - The 16th hole at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort.BANDON — For years, friends who were avid golfers told me I had to visit the “mecca.”

Last week, I did.

My two-day trip to Bandon Resort gave me a new appreciation for the Wonderful World of Golf.

I played Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes, the two oldest courses. I eyeballed Bandon Trails and Bandon Preserve, the latter the par-3 course that opened in May. I didn’t get to see Old MacDonald, the latest of the four full-scale courses that have made Bandon the target of golf aficionados throughout the world. Next time.

Full disclosure: My greens fees were complimentary, provided along with lodging at “The Inn” by B.R. Koehnemann, Bandon’s director of communications, who doesn’t have to worry about buying “positive” media coverage. The entire experience sells itself.

I’m not a fan of “links” courses, the station-to-station tracks designed along the lines of the Scottish and Irish courses revered by so many in the golfing game. The shaved fairways make it nice for a player who likes to putt from 50 feet off the green, but very difficult to hit an iron shot off a surface as hard as Ray Lewis’ forearms.

In August, I played a links course, Chambers Bay near Tacoma, the already famed course that is set to play host to the 2015 U.S. Open. Didn’t much care for it, and panned it in my Tribune review. The fairways were mostly brown and rock-hard and, in some cases, just rock and dirt. I didn’t think it was in very good shape. There was a nice view of the bay, but no holes directly on the water, far too many bunkers, and the rest of the scenery didn’t move me. What to expect, I guess, from a course built atop what was once a quarry.

Bandon was much a different story. But first, some history on how Bandon Dunes Golf Resort came to be.

Mike Keiser, the owner and developer, is a Chicago resident who made his fortune as co-founder of Recycled Paper Greetings, a greeting cards company. Keiser, now in his late 60s, had played college golf at Amherst and loves the game. Sometime in the 1980s, he made it a goal to build a public course that could be the next Pebble Beach, or the Pinehurst of the West.

Keiser’s pal, Howard McKee, was an architect and land planner, though not a golfer. Keiser sent McKee, who had lived for a short time in Portland, on a mission to find a suitable plot of land — hopefully near the ocean in California or Oregon. Keiser, incidentally, had never been to Oregon.

The initial piece of land, 1,215 acres, was purchased for $2.4 million in 1991. Keiser soon bought 400 more acres northward for an additional $2.3 million. Ironically, the land was covered with gorse, a thorn, prickly plant indigenous to the United Kingdom that had been introduced to Bandon many years earlier by an Irishman.

Bandon Dunes opened in 1999. Pacific Dunes joined the ranks in 2001, followed by Bandon Trails in 2005 and Old MacDonald — named for C.B. MacDonald, a Chicago native and the first American who called himself a golf course architect — in 2010.

My drive to Bandon, along Interstate-5 before cutting over to Highway 38 through Reedsport and Coos Bay, covered four hours and five minutes with little traffic on a Wednesday morning. It’s a pleasant drive on a sunny day through forest and farm land along the Coquille River before arriving on the Bandon Resort property north of the coastal town.

The final mile takes you on a wooded path to the secluded spot along the ocean chosen by McKee. There are no homes bordering any of the courses and, I am told, there never will be.

There are also no carts to be used by golfers, or cart paths, on the premises. It would spoil the purity of the round as enjoyed by those who initially played the game.

As Keiser noted in the testimonial book, “Dream Golf,” written by Stephen Goodwin, “I wasn’t interested in commercial golf. I was interested in dream golf.”

Even so, the Bandon Resort is profitable, with greens fees from $75 to $275 for each of its courses and revenue flowing freely at the on-site lodging quarters, restaurants and lounges. (Oregonians get a special golf rate during the “shoulder” season from November to April.)

“Business is good,” Koehnemann tells me. “We’re in the right kind of marketplace right now. We fit nicely into the national golf scene.”

A shuttle bus takes you from the lodge or your living quarters to all the courses and the practice center, where I stop to hit a few balls. Most of my 20 or so practice balls are well-struck and straight. Funny how that happens.

My first round is at Pacific Dunes on a sunny afternoon. I’m told the Bandon golf experience isn’t complete unless the wind is blowing. It comes into play, for sure, on this day, though a caddy tells me the wind today is only “moderate. You should have seen it yesterday.”

The winds are gusting to maybe 25 miles per hour, meaning if it’s in your face, you’re adding two or three clubs. And if it’s blowing sideways, a ball you directed at the left side winds up way over there on the right.

I join partners Dennis, an examiner for the Securities and Exchange Commission from Washington D.C., and Lawrence, a lawyer out of Houston, with caddies Larry and Brian. Dennis has gone for the full Monty during his week in Oregon, playing Pumpkin Ridge, Salishan and all four Bandon courses.

Dennis, a 12-handicapper, chooses to play from the green, or middle, tees. Lawrence does, too. Thinking I’ll wade into the shallow water first, I hit from the gold, or front, tees. The game is hard enough for a 20-handicapper. (Memo to Lawrence: play from the golds next time.)

Even with the winds, Pacific Dunes is a joy to play. There are plenty of deep bunkers and the omnipresent gorse are a problem whenever you stray off the fairway. I’m off course a lot but manage to play my trouble shots well enough to have only two blow-ups holes.

The greens are fast and, on this day, being sanded, an adventure I could have done without. Virtually every hole is a test that requires concentration. Some of the holes are forgiving, and you can usually play out of the rough, but stay out of there if you can.

The scenery is spectacular as advertised, with four holes along the water, including Nos. 10 and 11 — back-to-back 3s that provide breath-taking ocean views. The looping route, unlike on most courses, never takes you back to the clubhouse until the final hole.

Pacific Dunes, a little shorter than Bandon Dunes, is a par-71 with seven par-4s on the front side and only two par-4s on the back side. Pacific is more hilly than Bandon, with plenty of up and down and some great views from the clifftops of the entire course.

I manage five pars during my round, lose only two balls and finish at 47-47—94 — glad to break 100. Steady Dennis shoots 83. Lawrence, a smile on his face throughout the day, is more concerned with taking photos of the scene than keeping score. We get around in four hours on a day when traffic is only medium busy.

I wake to bright sun on Thursday morning, but by the time I tee off at 11:40 a.m., heavy fog has rolled in. Our threesome has one caddy, Josh, a 20-year-old West Linn native, who ably serves as a seeing-eye dog until the fog lightens midway through the round.

My partners are both from Vermont — John, a financial analyst, and Brian, a dentist. They are excellent players and choose the black tees. I muster up some courage and hit from the greens.

The Vermonters are deeply disappointed the fog is robbing them of an ocean view. Over the first few holes, we can hear the ocean roar, but can’t see clearly beyond 50 yards or so. Midway through the round, when the fog eases, they delight at holes wrapping the water and spend time soaking in the experience.

There are a half-dozen holes oceanside, with the par-3 15th probably my favorite. Nos. 4, 5 and 6 are all located along cliffs that provide a dazzling look downward. What a chunk of land on which to place a golf course, I find myself thinking.

More of the greens here seem hard and more spotty than at Pacific. With the wind and the weather conditions, they must be a bear to maintain. Part of the problem, Koehnemann explains, is the desire to have fescue grass. Over a period of time, poa works its way into the system.

“We’re fighting the poa grass battle,” he says. “We want our greens to be pure fescue. It’s something we’re constantly up against. We’ve made some changes in our agronomy practices over the last couple of years that have allowed us to focus on making sure the greens are void of poa and all fescue.”

On both courses — especially Bandon — fairways are well-maintained and not cut quite as short as at Chambers Bay. A good player can get his iron through the ball. I’m on and off with that, but manage to hit some true iron and hybrid shots through my round.

I shoot another 47 on the front side but get it together on the back side as I finally begin to figure out the fast greens, finishing at 41 for 88 on the par-72 layout. The round is slower — 4 1/2 hours, in part due to the fog — but we are slowed by the group ahead of us only a couple of times.

I like Pacific Dunes better than Bandon Dunes, but Bandon doesn’t get a fair shake because of the foggy conditions. I ask a dozen players for their preference and get a 6-6 split, which doesn’t surprise me. They’re both rather splendid.

Golf Magazine currently rates all four Bandon courses among its top 15 for public courses in the U.S. — Pacific Dunes No. 1, Bandon Dunes No. 8, Old MacDonald No. 9 and Bandon Trails No. 15.

Golf Digest has it Pacific Dunes No. 2 (behind Pebble Beach), Bandon Dunes No. 5 and Bandon Trails No. 14. Koehnemann says Old MacDonald, open for only two years, won’t be eligible for Golf Digest’s top 100 until 2014.

Bandon seems a men’s retreat. Over two days, I see only a handful of women players. Caddies are all over the place. During the peak season, 360 caddies are registered, a higher number than at any public course other than Pinehurst, Koehnemann tells me.

The Preserve is 13 holes of par-3 golf that looks like a miniature version of the other courses. It’s a non-profit venture, with net proceeds going to the Wild Rivers Coast Lines, which fund environmental organizations. It is expected to generate $750,000 in proceeds this year alone.

“To play 36 holes (of regular golf) in a day is too much for a lot of people,” Koehnemann says. “Now, you can play 18 in the morning, take a break, eat lunch and then go play the Preserve.”

Keiser’s next project is “Bandon Muni,” a 27-hole project on property south of the town of Bandon. It’s contingent on a land-swap deal that between Keiser and the State Parks Department. Oregon natives would pay nominal greens fees — somewhere between $20 to $25 to start — while out-of-staters would pay the full resort fees.

“We have a robust junior caddie and golf program,” Koehnemann says. “That would be the hub of our junior golf.”

Bandon has played host to a number of major national public events, including the 2005 Curtis Cup, the 2006 Mid-Amateur and the 2011 Men’s and Women’s Amateur Publinks Championships. I suggest to Koehnemann it would be a more fitting spot for the Ryder Cup or U.S. Open than would Chambers Bay. He says it’s not going to happen.

“Mr. Keiser is committed to growing the amateur game,” Koehneman says. “We would jump at the opportunity to host a higher-profile event such as the U.S. Amateur or the Walker Cup, but we have no bids to announce at this time.”

Fair enough. Leave the courses for the public to enjoy for now. Bandon is a treasure, even for those of us who play the game as it was never meant to be played.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers