Emerald Isle, American style: Whether you're playing Bandon Dunes or Sandpines Golf Links, Oregon casts a powerful spell.
Whenever I dream of playing a perfect round of golf, which I rarely do more than a dozen times a day, I picture myself on one of my favorite British Open-style links, and in particular the great courses of the west of Ireland, whose holes flow through naturally bunkered dunesland never far from the sight or sound of surf.
Alas, North America has few true linksland layouts, and the term "links" itself is widely misused to describe a condo-lined sod farm in a pricey resort where, after 5® hours of slow-motion golf in a mandatory cart with a global positioning device, you're greeted by a bagpiper playing "Mull of Kintyre.
But I'd heard that there is one place on this side of the Atlantic where the combination of meteorology and geography closely mimics the Emerald Isle. And it's there, along Oregon's coast, where the celebrated Lewis and Clark twosome first set eyes on the world's largest water hazard, that I treated myself to a $2,000 golf vacation.
My ultimate destination, and the real focus of my trip, was Bandon Dunes, the newish but already legendary resort where two authentic links-style courses sit side by side in the middle of 23 miles of remote, unspoiled coastland. On the way I planned to play a couple of warm-up rounds at two other promising-sounding seaside venues.
My trip began with a flight from New York to Portland, with a frequent-flier mileage upgrade from Lower Primate to Hominid Class. Most would change planes there for the short flight to North Bend, whose airport is 20 miles from Bandon. Since I'm terrified of small planes, and I really think dream vacations should include as few nightmarish elements as possible, I decided to drive.
The trip from Portland to Florence, Ore., is a par-4-hour dogleg to the right, with a 103-mile drive down Interstate 5 to Eugene, followed by a winding, hilly approach to the coast along Route 126. I did it in three hours flat. My first birdie!
On the outskirts of Florence I saw the sign for Ocean Dunes Golf Links, the first course on my list, and I drove up as the annual club championship was ending. I was able to play alone, on an almost empty course, without interruption for $35. Ocean Dunes is short (6,000 yards from the tips), unpretentious (the divot mix is stored in Clout laundry detergent buckets) and easily walkable, but it makes up in stealth what it lacks in length. Its narrow, sloping, slightly ragged fairways are hemmed in by dwarf pine-studded, ball-eating mounds that pretty much take the place of bunkers, and there are blind shots to tricky, beautifully maintained Poa greens on nearly every hole.
After a night at Florence's comfortable Driftwood Shores Hotel, I went over to Sandpines Golf Links, a spectacular and justifiably well-regarded Rees Jones design, near but not right on the shore. It's a big course (7,252 from the tippy-tips, 6,542 from the human tees) and unlike at Ocean Dunes, where I used every club in the bag, here I used every wood in the bag, and I hit the driver on 17 of the 18 holes. Considering the beautiful condition of the course, it was a great value: $55 green fee, $35 for the replay. For another $5, I could have played the Wee Links Putting Course, but the wise golfer knows his limits.
Bandon Dunes is 75 miles south of Florence—my sporty Toyota did it in 90 minutes in the only rain of the trip—on a scenic highway. Once you get there the setting is breathtaking, the staff is friendly and professional, the rooms are simple but elegant, and the whole place makes you feel as if, through some mistake, you've been admitted to a fancy, tasteful, superexclusive golf club.
And then there's the golf. I played Bandon Dunes that afternoon with a nice couple from Santa Cruz, Calif. From the moment we teed off, I found it hard to believe I wasn't in Ireland. The routing leads out to the edge of the spectacular oceanfront bluffs (the 16th rivals anything at Pebble Beach) then back again on each nine, and the constant wind shifts and twists and turns in the terrain present an endless series of challenges. No two holes were alike, but the variation seemed entirely natural, and even though it's barely four years old, the place looks ancient.
Bandon has a first-rate restaurant where I cheerfully blew $150 on a phenomenal meal consisting of crab cakes and a filet of wild salmon, accompanied by a duo of killer Oregon wines, the WillaKenzie 2002 Pinot Gris and the 2000 Domaine Drouhin Willamette Pinot Noir. I think I ate in the Tufted Puffin Room. Or maybe the Pufted Tuffin. Fluffled Fuppin? Check, please.
The next morning I played the adjoining Pacific Dunes, paired with another pleasant couple, from New Jersey. Pacific Dunes is craftier, shorter and more austere than Bandon, with a traditional out-and-in layout, and the holes meander unpredictably through a phenomenal panorama of otherworldly real estate that looks as if it belongs in a Star Trek episode about a planet populated entirely by golfers. I didn't sink a solitary putt. I didn't have a single par. I had a wonderful time.
Bandon casts a powerful spell, and it was hard to leave, but I figured I'd better hit the road before my car turned into a rent-a-pumpkin. I headed north, back to the real world of Highway 101, with its nautical-themed motels, net-festooned seafood shacks and knickknack stores selling shelf debris and strange candy.
And now, whenever I dream of that perfect round of golf, I'm not entirely sure if I'm in Ireland, or Oreland. Or is it Iregon? Oh well, no one said this was an easy game.