July 8, 2008

2 Seasons of Bandon Dunes

Oregon's leading golf getaway is open year-round—and as one recent return visitor learned, the 'winter' months might be the best time for a trip

Bandon Dunes / The gorse is pretty but penal at Bandon Dunes, ranked No. 31 among America's 100 Greatest and No. 7 on the 100 Greatest Public list.

Bandon Dunes / The gorse is pretty but penal at Bandon Dunes, ranked No. 31 among America's 100 Greatest and No. 7 on the 100 Greatest Public list.

Sensible people who live in cold climates tend to make their winter golf trips to certified warm-weather locations: to Myrtle Beach, say, or Amelia Island—the kinds of places where the airports swarm with pale, middle-age guys wearing TaylorMade hats. But on a whim two years ago, my brother Tom, who is famous for playing guerrilla golf on frozen New England fairways, and I headed instead to the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon. Our families thought we had lost our minds.

The conventional wisdom says you should fly to Portland and drive five hours south or catch a connecting flight into the tiny North Bend airport. We landed in Eugene, where standard headgear is the logging cap, and drove west for a bit through Ken Kesey country, a rainforest of towering, moss-draped pines, and then south for a couple of hours along the Umpqua River, where all the fishing docks were empty. I cracked the window while passing through North Bend, where giant mounds of sawdust heaped the wharf, waiting to be loaded onto freighters; the whiff of cedar was so strong it was like driving through a pencil sharpener.

This was in mid-February. We left home in the snow, or the blackened, crusty aftermath of snow, traveled west and north for a day and found ourselves—miraculously—in golf weather: bright-blue sky, deep-blue ocean, just the hint of a breeze. We had brought sweaters, turtlenecks and rainsuits but wound up using none of them. There was a brief frost delay our first morning but none the second, and we ended both our rounds in shirtsleeves. After finishing up at Pacific Dunes—which is to say, messing up on the par-3 17th, where the wind carried our tee shots perilously right, and then achieving partial redemption with bogeys on the par-5 18th—we ate beef-barbecue sandwiches outside the clubhouse and then just sat there on the Belgian-block patio with our beers, soaking up the late-afternoon sun and congratulating ourselves on our good luck. My brother said: "This is the best experience I've ever had—except at nighttime." (He was perhaps still basking in the afterglow of the day before, when he had blown my doors off at Bandon Dunes.)

"February is our little secret here," the bartender at McKee's Pub, one of the resort's three watering holes, explained. "You have this little window when the days get a little longer and warmer, but before the spring rains." Though February typically sees more than 7½ inches of rain along the Oregon coast, not many days are total washouts; most bring no more than a trace of precipitation. Even in the evenings, we discovered, it was warm enough to sit on the stone benches in front of the giant outdoor fireplace next to McKee's and smoke a cigar under the starry sky. One night there we ran into a guy who had driven up from California with his wife (back in their motel in town) and father-in-law because the rates were lower at this time of year, and was now drinking a toast to all the money he had saved. (In prime time, which lasts from May to October, the resort is roughly twice as expensive as in the off-season.)

For three days we had the resort practically to ourselves and saw only a couple of other golf groups. The range was deserted. The parking lot at the Lily Pond Rooms, where we stayed, was empty except for one other car, and at night when I stood out on our little balcony I saw scarcely another light on. By 8 or 9 o'clock, McKee's was empty.

My brother and I were never lonely, though. The staff at Bandon Dunes is so numerous, so helpful and so friendly that it's a little startling at first—until you realize that these people aren't drugged, they're just genuinely nice. In the early days of Bandon Dunes it was sometimes said there weren't enough trained caddies to go around. One heard stories of clueless mother-son pairs, of guys right off the salmon boat. But that's no longer true, if it ever was. We had Allison and Keith, who between them covered the whole spectrum of coaching philosophy, from attitude adjustment to X's and O's. Allison, though she didn't look it, was the single mother of a high school-age son. A better than average golfer, she had a keen sense of how to work around your swing's limitations and was a boundless source of optimism and encouragement. Keith was a little more taciturn and businesslike; though a nonplayer, he had an uncanny knowledge of the terrain and could read greens like a psychic. Who was better? It depended on what you needed at the moment: morale-boosting or some serious focus on the task at hand.

A SUMMER SAMPLING

All in all, our Bandon experience was so positive that my brother and I went back last June, when in theory at least the place would be hopping. We booked in April, when there seemed to be plenty of rooms still available, but even so, the reservations clerk had to juggle a little to get us the tee times we wanted. The parking lots were fuller, there were vans hauling bags around and shuttling golfers out to the range, and at breakfast time especially the whole place thrummed with a certain urgency, with people lining up to chow down and get on the course. My brother and I were supposed to be paired with other twosomes, but, surprisingly, wound up going out on our own, though we had to share a caddie this time: a young guy named Vegas, who rolled all the virtues of Allison and Keith into a single package. Vegas, who used to work guess where, knows every inch of all three Bandon layouts, can spot and gently fix a swing flaw, and is also so immensely cool that you long to win his approval. "My man!" he would say, giving a little fist bump after a good shot, and it made you forget most of the bad ones.

Somehow, despite all the additional guests, there seemed to be one ever-smiling employee per visitor. And though it was busy, the place never felt crowded. Bandon runs so efficiently that there are no backups at the tee, and because there are no carts, there are seldom any holdups on the course. You rarely see other golfers, let alone have to wait for them. We were surprised, though, that there didn't seem to be much night life of the sort you find at, say, Pinehurst, where at the end of the day golfers instinctively head for the bar to trade war stories. In our experience Bandon was an early-to-bed kind of place, and life there had its own sweet rhythm—not unlike a good round of golf, in fact: deliberate, unhurried, sometimes surprising, but also reassuringly the same.

So when is the best time to go? It's probably dangerous to draw too many conclusions, but our June weather was, if anything, a little less good than it had been in February: grayer and cooler, though not so much to discourage a lot of guys from wearing shorts. The days were much longer, on the other hand, which meant that it was easy to get in 36 holes, and even for the die-hards to take advantage of Bandon's policy of offering a third daily round for free. (In February we might have managed 27 holes but didn't try.) The flowers were out (at Bandon Trails especially) and instead of being dramatic and foreboding the beach below the cliffside fairways was bustling. Dune buggies zipped along, outraced by guys who were para-surfing—bounding from wave to wave at the end of giant kites.

The biggest difference, of course, was the presence of an additional golf course. Bandon Trails was still being worked on by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw during our first visit, and my brother and I were, frankly, a little skeptical. How could it possibly equal the two others, Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes? But amazingly it does. The first hole, over scrub and through a saddle of sand dunes, is arguably the best opener on the premises, and the uphill stretch of 16, 17, 18, is easily the best finishing sequence. Between, there are meadows, inland dunes and woods so imposing they're like cathedrals. Bandon Trails is in a league of its own, clearly related to the others but in a landscape that at times seems utterly different: vaster, more expansive, and with more wildlife (including the occasional cougar) and more changes in elevation.

(Golf Digest ranks Tom Doak's Pacific Dunes 14th and David McLay Kidd's Bandon Dunes 31st among America's 100 Greatest Courses. Bandon Trails doesn't become eligible until 2009. On the list of 100 Greatest Public Courses, Pacific Dunes is No. 2, Bandon Dunes No. 7 and Bandon Trails No. 21.)

The additional course argues for a summertime visit, when there is more daylight and when, despite our experience, the weather is usually more reliable. In time there will be another draw: a fourth course, Old Macdonald. Doak and Jim Urbina's tribute to architect C.B. Macdonald is scheduled to open in July 2010. There's just so much more golf you need to get in—unless you can spend an extra day or two in the off-season and explore the place more leisurely. That would be my vote. I'd hate to be there in the rain, but Bandon in February was magical, an unexpected gift, and the relative quietness and stillness of the resort made it seem private and exclusive—a place you could play forever without growing bored or weary. We felt like the luckiest (and smartest) golfers who ever lived, to have this perfect little world all to ourselves.

EXPLORING THE AREA, AND THE FOOD

Though Bandon Dunes is sufficient unto itself, the little town of Bandon, just down the road, is worth a visit. It burned down twice, in 1914 and 1936, when the local gorse (imported by the town's founder, a homesick Irishman) had grown so abundantly that it was a conflagration-in-readiness. Now it's a pleasingly time-warped tourist and fishing town. There is a funky little museum that includes, among many, many other things, a 1947 Maytag washer and a collection of platform heels from the '60s, and a number of better-than-average bars and restaurants, including the Wheelhouse (first-rate seafood) and Lloyd's ($2 beers in ice-cold glasses).

The food at the resort is excellent but far from elaborate. The best dish is probably the meatloaf at McKee's. And though the more formal Gallery restaurant offers a scrapbook-size wine list, with bottles soaring above the $1,000 mark, most guests drink humbler stuff. You don't go to Bandon to eat. You eat to replenish yourself for more golf.

The same is true of the accommodations. At Lily Pond, the rooms are comfortable but functional, with spruce woodwork and cement-floor bathrooms. There are tiny balconies and gas fireplaces in a corner, but who is going to linger here? Lily Pond is a place to crash, to dream of the next day, and maybe to regress a little. On both trips my brother and I shared a room, for the first time in almost 50 years, and we found ourselves instantly reverting to our pre-pubescent selves, farting, joking, tossing pillows. The only difference was that back in the old days we didn't have TV in the room, or a little bottle of sipping whiskey to pass back and forth, and we didn't even know about golf yet.