On the Trail of Greatness
The Magic of Bandon Dunes
By John Dunn

With its first tee overlooking Bandon Dunes, it’s almost as if the new Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw designed Bandon Trails is tipping its hat to its celebrated older sibling before tumbling off over an immense bank of dunes down into the meadow and the forest . . . into the next exciting chapter in the evolution of the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort.

When I stood on the first tee at Bandon Trails, I was overwhelmed by the view,
not just of the hole itself, but of the
entire coastline from the wooded hills above the village of Bandon in the south
to the rocky promontory of Cape Arago in the north. It was one of those cherished Indian summer afternoons on the Oregon coast when the tireless north wind finally, mercifully abates and the dark green tumult of the sea becomes smooth and turns a brilliant arctic blue. I gazed for a while out over the first fairway across the virgin dunescape of Bullard’s Beach State Park, to where I could just make out the distant glint of sunlight reflecting off of the lighthouse at the river mouth. Eventually my attention was drawn back to the north where the entirety of Bandon Dunes was laid out in minute detail. There were golfers playing up and down the mottled green and gold fairways through reefs of thorny gorse and golden beach grass.

With its first tee overlooking Bandon Dunes, it’s almost as if the new Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw designed Bandon Trails is tipping its hat to its celebrated older sibling before tumbling off over an immense bank of dunes down into the meadow and the forest… into the next exciting chapter in the evolution of the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. With over 2,000 acres of land and approval for a total of five courses, owner Mike Keiser had several impressive sites from which to choose including a series of large dunes on the inland side of Pacific Dunes and another dramatic stretch of oceanfront acreage, where the Sheep Ranch lies today. Yet, while these sections of the property are ideally suited to links golf, they do not represent a significant departure from the existing two courses, Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes. Keiser’s decision to build the third course away from the ocean around the largest hill on the property adds an entirely different dimension to the Bandon experience. Even the massive dunes where the two opening holes, the finishing hole and the new clubhouse are situated have their own unique feel—Saharan sized drifts of pristine white sand and panoramic views of the coast. Bandon Trails gives golfers a complete sense of the natural variety of the Oregon coast, and leads them through three distinct environments—dunes, meadow and forest.

At the par-5 3rd the course leaves the dunes and crosses the resort’s main road into the meadow, which is not actually a meadow in the traditional sense but rather a section of low lying sandy terrain cradled between the dunes and the hill. The meadow, which encompasses holes 3-5 and 14-17, is home to a beautiful array of grasses and vegetation that grow in and around scattered stands of trees providing a lovely interplay of shadow and light. Especially beautiful are the thin, snake-like madrone trees whose smooth red bark and waxy leaves shine naturally like they are wet with rain. Local relatives of the madrone include the smaller but similar looking manzanita, a ground creeping shrub called kinnik kinnik and huckleberry whose sweet black berries are made into a delicious jam. This little family grows in such profusion throughout the meadow and the forest that its presence has helped to unify these two distinct environments. Bunker specialist Jeff Bradley expanded on this theme by planting kinnik kinnik around the edges of his swooping, rough-hewn bunkers, making the humble little shrub an unlikely but fitting signature of the course.

Cleverly, these two holes face in opposite directions so under windy conditions only one or the other will be reachable at any given time. The 14th merits special mention because of the thrilling tee shot from the top of the hill down to a tiny, elevated green in the southern corner of the meadow. At just over three hundred yards, 14th is only drivable in the summer months when the prevailing wind blows out of the north. Ironically, this is also when it will be at its most treacherous, presenting a similar conundrum to that of the sixteenth at Pacific.

Those who attempt to drive the green and fall short will be repelled down to the right where they will face an unnerving pitch up over a bunker into the shallow part of the green. Those who opt to lay back to the left will have a full wedge into the length of the green, but with a strong tailwind and firm conditions it will be next to impossible to spin the ball. A collection area behind the green awaits all but the most dexterous pitches. Thus, what on the surface appears to be the last genuine birdie opportunity before the difficult finishing holes may end up being a struggle for par.

At the 15th, the course makes its final turn like a jet preparing for take off and begins the homeward stretch across the meadow into the prevailing summer wind. This bumpy ride culminates with the breathtaking but potentially round breaking par-4 18th which rises up into the dunes overlooking the sea.

With almost half the holes cut through the forest, a large, manmade water hazard and a wooded hill in the center of the course, there is some question as to whether Bandon Trails can legitimately be called a links. However, the course is built entirely on sand, a hallmark of a true links, and Crenshaw, Coore and Keiser are proponents of firm playing conditions so, monikers aside, Bandon Trails will certainly play like one. Even in the forest where many of the holes have a traditional Westchester County feel to them, the greens are surrounded by collection areas and are open in front to receive the bump and run. And the meadow, which appears to be sheltered from the wind by the dunes and scattered trees, is actually quite exposed, so there will be plenty of knock down shots and 150 yard five irons.

The par-4 6th hole leaves the meadow and doglegs to the right around the north side of the hill into the forest. The next seven holes play through the trees behind the hill giving golfers a respite from the salt and the wind and a chance to get an intimate look at Oregon’s coastal woodlands. Sweet smelling conifers like Douglas fir, shore pine and Sitka spruce grow in abundance here along with a sprinkling of cedar and hemlock and splashes of red madrone. The tree line is cut well back from the edge of the fairways and is artfully thinned or feathered so that the understory vegetation is visible and the holes feel like they are routed through a natural clearing rather than cut straight through the heart of the forest.

There is also a pair of ponds or small lakes in this section of the course. The natural Round Lake, visible from the 7th tee, adds a serene counterpoint to the thunderous surf, but does not actually come into play. However, an irrigation lake that runs the length of the right side of the par-4 11th hole looks imposing enough to live up to the pressure of being the resort’s only bona fide water hazard.
Behind the 13th green, a steep path leads golfers up through the trees to the top of the hill and the 14th tee, the highest point on the course.

With the 8th and 14th holes, Crenshaw and Coore have continued the Bandon tradition of great short par-4s like the 16th at Bandon Dunes and the 6th and 16th at Pacific Dunes.

The course has an undeniable links aesthetic to it as well, due to the fact that Crenshaw and Coore moved as little earth as possible during construction, incorporating the many prominent natural features into the design. They also went to great lengths to restore the natural character of the site where it was disturbed by machinery, like selectively thinning the tree lines and adding random contours to the fairways.

Throughout the design process, Crenshaw and Coore always remain conscious of who they are designing the course for. With a public resort like Bandon, the majority of visitors stay for two or three days and play each course once or twice. With this type of clientele their goal is to create a course with somewhat more apparent strategies that is playable for a wide range of abilities. Keiser also gets involved on this level as a representative of the "retail golfer," or twenty-five handicapper.
His input has resulted in several changes, including the downsizing of a green front bunker on the par-four sixth to make more room for a long iron or fairway wood approach and an increase in the size of the 14th green. Instead of building seven tee boxes on every hole. Crenshaw and Coore accommodate golfers of varying skill levels by eliminating forced carries and offering multiple angles of attack. One of the simplest and most effective ways to do this is to position bunkers in the middle of the fairway, forcing a player to choose one side or the other. Obviously, the side with the greater risk offers the greater reward, but a conservative play into the wider portion of the fairway is always an option.

I get the sense with Bandon Trails that they were willing to take a few risks, in part because they wanted to take advantage of the site’s astounding natural gifts, but also because Bandon’s clientele has more golf savvy and experience than you find at most resorts. The result is a course with its own share of eccentricities and more sophisticated strategies. For example, the vertiginous par-3 2nd plunges down through a sea of towering dunes to a green that looks like a life raft adrift in a storm. Those who have played the hole before will know that there is more room short and left of the green than appears from the tee, but this knowledge may not be reassuring enough to combat the psychological intimidation of the encroaching dunes. The par-4 4th requires a blind tee shot over a ridge that cuts diagonally across the fairway and is protected on the short left side by a bunker. Those who play safely away from the bunker face a longer carry and the increased likelihood of falling short of the ridge, leaving a long, blind approach shot from an uneven lie. A tee shot that carries the bunker and the ridge will be rewarded with a flat lie and a clear view of the green.

At the par-3 5th they have incorporated a large, natural swale into the center of the green complex forcing golfers to pay close attention to front and back yardages or risk leaving a putt of gargantuan proportions. Here, architecture buffs may recognize the influence of Charles Blair MacDonald and Seth Raynor who made this "Biarritz" style green famous– most notably, with the par-3 9th hole at the Yale University Golf Course. Crenshaw and Coore are quick to include MacDonald and Raynor among their many influences, but deny attempts to impose any specific design style onto the site. In fact, they pride themselves in working with what the terrain offers them and leaving few fingerprints. Their goal is for golfers to identify the golf course with the place rather than the architect, a concept that is antithetical to most modern golf course development where "signature" courses from a select few architects are as prized for their brand name identity as they are for the actual product.

In this regard, Mike Keiser’s greatest contribution may not be the development of three magnificent golf courses or even giving links golf a celebrated public face here in America, but rather his selection of four like-minded architects who have used the time tested principles of classic golf course architecture to make the most of this extraordinary piece of property. Step by step along the way Mike Keiser has been equal to these ideals always making golf his top priority. That’s why it is possible to play all 54 holes at the resort without seeing a single house and why there are over 200 caddies and less than ten golf carts.

Golfers will obviously be thrilled by the chance to knock off three of the top 100 modern courses in a single weekend, but that’s not what keeps them coming back year after year. They return for the chance to use every club in their bag, play shots they’ve never attempted before, and actually think about how they are going to navigate their way around the course. The addition of Bandon Trails is sure to generate a lot of discussion about whether Bandon Dunes Golf Resort has finally surpassed such places as Pebble Beach, Pinehurst and Whistling Straits as the top golf destination in America.

The short answer is yes, it has.


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