Mike Stachura, Senior Equipment Editor at Golf Digest, is currently an authority on sticks and stones, but among his previous responsibilities were courses and resorts. Until last week, Stachura hadn't been to Bandon Dunes in ten years. Based on his blog post below, it's safe to say Stachura was impressed.*
***[#image: /photos/55ad73f5add713143b42549e]|||OldMac_1.jpg|||A friend who knows Bandon Dunes well told me before I left this week for my first return visit in nearly a decade, "Don't forget about the Labyrinth." I didn't exactly ask what he was talking about. I figured maybe it might have been a particularly notorious stretch of holes on the remarkable Old MacDonald, the golf mecca's newest course courtesy Tom Doak and Jim Urbina that wasn't even a twinkle in Bandon Dunes' founder Mike Keiser's always-electric eyes the last time I'd found myself at The Happiest Place on Earth. To me, Old MacDonald (pictured above) stands like a freak of nature, some sort of superhero love child between what the game was at its birth and what it might be post-apocalypse. Here, even the straight holes have angles. Wandering around it in five-alarm wind shear, I quickly reached the conclusion that at worst it's in a first-place tie for best layout on the property.
Or maybe "the labyrinth" was what locals called the drive on Route 42 that takes you from Coos Bay back out to the interstate highway, with bouncy twists and turns that remind you of or prepare you for the journey around the resort's first two courses, Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes. Like an old friend, I recognized the turns on these epic seaside courses, which still move along like a car without a driver, at once avoiding and steering into calamity and majesty at equal measure with a kind of controlled serendipity. A decade ago, I walked and played a handful of the finished holes at Pacific Dunes with Doak and Urbina, and then I was tickled by their abject glee at sneaking in a few extra holes on a chilly early spring evening. This week, I recalled that glee again, walking along with new friend and caddie Don Stocker, who bounded up every tee late on a lonely Tuesday afternoon with fresh excitement as we trekked our way through 30 mile-per-hour gusts, his club selections and his green reads always true and requiring much more sleight of hand than slide rule. In other words, a caddie is as essential to the Bandon Dunes experience as a wind jacket.
(Related: See story on Old Macdonald from May 2010 issue of Golf Digest.)
Or maybe, I also thought at the time, "the labyrinth" was what the Don and the rest of the resort's corps of brilliant and ever-tolerant loopers term the feeling of a day double-bagging for a snap-hooker and push-slicer across what I found to be the most demanding of the four tracks, the Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw imagined Bandon Trails, which also was new to me on my reunion trip. Trails, I was told by the locals, was an either-you-love-it-or-you-hate-it type-of-experience. Really? Isn't that the very definition of golf, I thought as I climbed to the top of the 14th tee box, a walk where, I have heard, men have died (fitting place to go, I suppose). I think Coore and Crenshaw give us the entire symphony of the game, where so often others give us jingles, a chorus or even just a contrived high note. Love-hate? Yes, please.
(Related: See Geoff Russell's blog post about his trip to Bandon Dunes.)
But, of course, the labyrinth wasn't any of these Bandon Dunes traditions. It wasn't even a reference to the resort's latest masterpiece in the making, a 13-hole par-3 course that will be called the Preserve. Owner/founder/chief instigator Mike Keiser told me as we walked the developing course that he thinks the 9th hole here might be the best par-3 on the property, but minutes later Coore showed me three other holes that should be on wall calendars, too. Originally considered in the plans for Bandon Trails, Coore and Crenshaw just couldn't make big holes out of the dramatic dunesland and left it out of the mix for the big course. Five years later, Keiser has been motivated by a local sheep rancher named Terry Wahl to "keep this land the way it is," and so he hit upon the idea of building a par 3 course as a means of raising funds to preserve 1,000 square miles of southern Oregon coastland, as well as to restore an endangered coastal plant, the silvery phacelia. The views here reveal parts of all four big courses and the ocean stretching out together like they've always been here, and the attitude will be typically, inspirational Bandon Dunes with some like Keiser and Coore suggesting there shouldn't even be tee markers, that players could chose distances that vary by as much as 120 yards on some holes. Bandon Dunes always finds new ways to be original, a word we should remember first means "relating to a beginning."
But I was still without the labyrinth until I was walking back to my room at Chrome Lake, lugging my bag over my shoulder on my final night at the resort. The golf had been magical and frustrating, just as it always is, each of those assessments fueling the other as they always do. I was staring at all four scorecards of the week, notations made in the margins, the pencil marks etched in each card as though they were chiseled. Looking up finally, I nearly bumped into a tiny sign with a drawing of a maze on it. The path took me through a forest primeval at dusk, quiet and as removed from titanium and groove technology as I've been in, well, a decade. I came upon a bench next to a maze, what I recognized as a labyrinth, a spiritual, meditative circle.
**Old Macdonald photograph by Stephen Szurlej.