April 22, 2008

Endless summer

Bandon Dunes Golf Resort: Second on our list of America's 100 Greatest Public Courses.

Bandon Dunes Golf Resort: Second on our list of America's 100 Greatest Public Courses.

You could argue that to be truly great, a golf destination must be hard to reach. To play it, you've got to want it -- not just show up on the way to somewhere else.

Bandon Dunes is undeniably remote and its credentials are unmatched. The first course opened in 1999, and its three layouts are among the top 25 in America's 100 Greatest Public Courses. If propeller planes make you skittish, it's a 10-hour drive from San Francisco.

But this is no ordinary drive.

For 530 miles, California Route 1 careens around mountain hairpins, edges along 1,000-foot oceanside cliffs, then angles through old-growth redwood forests before returning to the seaside at the Oregon border. And it's golf season 12 months of the year. Sign me up.

I needed all-wheel drive, luggage space and enough legroom for the long trip, so I requisitioned an Infiniti EX35 crossover -- a surprisingly elegant mash of a G35 sport sedan and an FX35 SUV.

Grandiose technological pronouncements for new cars are almost routine these days, but the EX is stuffed with so much cutting-edge gadgetry that Jim Lovell could have piloted it home from orbit with no help from Houston. The standout is a how-did-they-do-that camera system that shows the entire perimeter of the car on the navigation screen when you shift into reverse. If you back up over the neighbor kid's Big Wheel, it's not the EX's fault.

Equally flashy is the lane-departure warning system, which gives a "friendly" beep when it notices you crossing a lane line. Which is fantastic if you're, say, dozing off at 75 miles per hour, putting on mascara, or attempting to tap out a text message, but migraine-inducing when you're carving deserted switchback curves. The system works like an invisible dog fence; you start driving between the lines just to avoid the penalty for straying.

That's a shame, because the EX easily qualifies for membership in the tiny band of SUVs that you can actually drive instead of just aim. At least the wicked exhaust note drowns out the warning chime when you're blasting by a rusted VW Microbus in the passing lane.

Even if you couldn't pass, the first 300 miles on Route 1 out of San Francisco, hugging the coast, is the best drive in North America. You cross the Golden Gate Bridge in the mist, then climb a series of switch-backs before shooting out into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. There, you can gape at the ocean on your left while plastering your passenger's face against his window with hairpin-induced centrifugal force.

Cruising through coastal Sonoma County, the route cuts inland on 101 north of Mendocino, into the last remaining group of redwood forests in the world. The 31-mile Avenue of Giants byway runs parallel to the main road and weaves through columns of trees so tall they look pretend -- and you're playing with a Matchbox car.

About an hour into southern Oregon, Bandon is an old lumber town that used to be the place where people asked for directions back to the interstate. Now, hundreds of private jets buzz in and out of the Bend airport 20 miles away, and the resort does more than 120,000 rounds a year.

Everything here is designed around the golf -- there's no spa or even a swimming pool -- and shuttles carry you between the courses, restaurants and the Lodge, which is pure golf-guy nirvana. It has 17 single rooms, three four-bedroom suites, a bar and a restaurant -- all of which are a stumble from the original Bandon Dunes course's first tee.

The only stress on the trip comes when trying to pick which course to play. Pacific Dunes is second on our list of America's 100 Greatest Public Courses, the original Bandon Dunes course is seventh, and the new, inland Bandon Trails is No. 21.

I love Turnberry, so I picked the wind-swept Bandon Dunes links. Four hours later, grinning and wind-whipped, I pulled my birdie putt out of the cup at 18 and high-fived my caddie. It felt like Scotland. Until I got to McKee's Pub and there was ice in my glass.

Sometimes you can improve on the original.