Bandon Dunes Confidential: Reliving three golf-packed days at the Oregon mega-resort  

October 24, 2018

Early last week GOLF.com writers Josh Sens, Alan Bastable and Josh Berhow descended upon Bandon Dunes, the sprawling golf resort on the southern Oregon coast, for a three-day, 86-hole golfapalooza. For the uninitiated, Bandon has five courses: Bandon Dunes (David McLay Kidd), Pacific Dunes (Tom Doak), Bandon Trails (Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw), Old Macdonald (Doak and Jim Urbina), and a 13-hole par-3 course, The Preserve (Coore & Crenshaw). There’s also a putting course called the Punchbowl. All tracks are walking-only; caddies are optional. Upon arrival Sunday evening the GOLF.com squad squeezed in a hole and a half on Bandon Dunes before darkness set in. The rest of the itinerary looked like this: Monday — Bandon and Pac Dunes. Tuesday — Bandon Trails and Old Mac. Wednesday morning — The Preserve. Here’s the skinny on their trip, with the intent of informing you for your own Bandon adventure.   

Getting to Bandon — a four-plus-hour drive south of Portland — is part of the adventure. Any travel tips for golfers making the pilgrimage from far or near?

Sens: Another option is to fly to Eugene, Ore., and drive about two-and-half hours. And if you’re up for the alternate adventure of a connecting flight on a small plane to a small airport, you can fly to North Bend, Ore., which is only about 35 minutes from the resort. Renting a car from there is easy enough, but there are also private shuttle services that will take you to and from the airport. We paid $65 round-trip (not including tip) this last time around. Since Bandon itself runs an efficient shuttle service on the property, you don’t really need a car once you’re there — unless you’re bent on getting off the grounds to see the local sights and aren’t too tired or tipsy to do so. And there really are local sights: beaches, time-capsule seafood shacks, a cool chocolate shop, and plenty of bars. (If you go to the Arcade in downtown Bandon, there’s a good chance you’ll find your caddie knocking back a few). One last word to the wise: if you’re taking a connecting flight into North Bend, consider shipping your clubs in advance.  Small planes and tight connections are a bad combo if you want a guarantee that your clubs are going to make the flight with you. ShipSticks has jacked its prices since its early days and now costs significantly more than airline baggage fees, but at least they get your clubs there. Do you really want to make a bucket-list trip and risk not having your own sticks?

Berhow: Bastable and I drove from Portland. Sure, I had to small talk with my boss for like four hours, but it’s a nice, scenic drive and, like anything good in life, isn’t the anticipation the best part? As long as East Coasters know the juice is worth the squeeze, the long day of travel is worth it. Plus, with a direct flight from NYC to Portland, we didn’t have to worry about our clubs not finding their way (well, except for Alan’s putter, which of course he forgot in his living room). Pro tip: Don’t do that, although Bandon has some loaners if you are in a bind.

The drive to Bandon Dunes.
The drive to Bandon from Portland is a long one, but it might be one of your best options.

Bastable: Yeah, that was a drag but turned out not to be that big a deal. When you have the near-yips (full yips?) from 3-6 feet, it doesn’t matter what you putt with. I’ve done the trip a few times, flying into Portland on a couple of occasions and North Bend once. From the East Coast, I’d recommend a direct flight into Portland (this time of year United has $300 round-trip fares out of Newark), which minimizes your chances for travel woes (missed connections, misplaced clubs, etc). Also, the drive south, while long, is a nice build up to the splendor of Bandon, especially the second half of the route which winds through pine tree-lined hills, babbling rivers and towering dunes. Bonus: We scored the “manager’s special” at the Dollar Car Rental at PDX. For $77 all in, we found ourselves cruising down the 101 in a sweet Toyota Corolla. Best deal of the week, excluding the cool $25 Berhow and I would take off Sens and his buddy Hayes in our dominant two-day run. Easy pickings.

Sens: Philosophical question: Can a run really be called “dominant” when your team is getting a highly questionable five strokes a side?

Bastable: Semantics.

A hole and a half when you arrived? How’d that come about?

Sens: Two words: Flight delay. OK, a few more words. North Bend is a small airport, which is good if you like easy-to-navigate hubs on the ground but bad if you get stressed out and annoyed by frequent snarls. The United flight from San Francisco to North Bend is what I usually take, and clearly, I haven’t learned my lesson, because it has let me down about 50 percent of the time. This last trip was your typically maddening airport delay. First, they said it would be 15 minutes. Which became half an hour. Which became an hour. FIVE HOURS later, we finally left. We got to Bandon with just enough light to read a menu. But who wants to read a menu when you can get a few hacks in?

Josh Sens sleeping
Delays happen. Just ask Josh Sens.

Berhow: Sens literally went from shuttle to slugging driver off the 1st tee at Bandon Dunes in 90 seconds. We played the 1st hole then walked over to the 9th fairway, a par 5, and played in from 230 yards. Dinner was on the line.

Sens: Indeed it was. Josh neglects to mention who won that dinner. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t him.

Bastable: Or me, sadly. That’s part of the beauty of Bandon, the low-key vibe. I’m not sure other top-shelf resorts would have been wild about us hopping in for a sneaky hole-and-a-half at dusk, but the attendant could see in our eyes how badly we were aching to get some swings in and let us on our way.

You must have been hungry after the long travel day. How’s the grub?

Berhow: Sens is a food critic (seriously), so he’s kind of snobby, but it’s exactly what you want after a long day of travel or golf. McKee’s Pub has hearty dishes with big portions that will knock you out. The other restaurant I ate at, Pacific Dunes, had a strong lunch menu highlighted by burgers, brats, grilled cheese and wraps, but you’ll get a fancier meal there at dinner. I made a lot of use out of the small turnstand inside Bandon where you can get coffee, muffins, etc., on the go, because let’s face it I need more time working on my putting stroke than sitting down for lunch. Oh, and lastly, I’ll have dreams about the Bandon Pale Ale for many weeks to come.

Sens: Snobby? I’ll eat pretty much anything that’s not bolted to the table. Meat-and-potatoes Berhow just thinks I’m weird because I’m not afraid of Asian food and green vegetables. But he is right about the style of food at Bandon. Hearty, generous portions, a good fit for the place. My vote is to keep things simple: a burger, the cheese pizza, fish and chips. You will not be disappointed.

McKee's Pub at Bandon Dunes.
A look inside McKee’s Pub at Bandon Dunes.

Bastable: Second-best deal of the week: the bacon, egg and pepper-jack sandwich at the Bandon snack shack —$8! Great way to fuel up before a 36’er, especially if you’re running late for your tee time. If you’re a wine guy/gal, the resort’s offerings are deeeeeep. On night 2 movement was afoot to grab a nightcap at the Bunker Bar — a cozy bar/cigar lounge/pool room in the basement of the main lodge — but Berhow was “too tired” after toting his bag for two rounds. (Youngest guy in the group, too tired, lol.) It’s a point worth hitting on, though: Expect to be gassed at the end of the day. If you play 36, you’ll be walking about 10 miles a day, at times into a howling wind. It can wear down even the fittest golfers. I, too, am a fan of the Bandon Ale. On a cool evening, it’s best enjoyed in an Adirondack chair by the outdoor fireplace.

Berhow: Too tired? Sad but true. I had three blue toenails and couldn’t take another step. I was maxed out and regret nothing. Maybe next time, Bunker Bar. (Another tip: comfy golf shoes are key.)

All right, to the golf! First up, the original course, Bandon Dunes. Impressions?

Berhow: As the Bandon rookie, I learned right away that your good shots will get rewarded and the bad punished. I missed the mark on approaches by just a foot or so on the 1st and 3rd and both resulted in balls being ushered down into the abyss. You get your first “Woah,” moment on the par-4 4th, as the Pacific Ocean gives the green a perfect backdrop. The green resembles an infinity pool. What I loved about Bandon, though, was its playability. I haven’t played much golf lately and no one will mistake me for a scratch golfer, but I played well and feel like I left several shots out there. When it comes to courses I always like to find the ones that are both challenging and fun for every golfer, regardless of their skill level. That’s exactly what you get at Bandon Dunes.

MORE: 11 things you might not know about Bandon Dunes

Sens: Berhow pretty much nails it. It’s links golf, with all the quirks and charms. And that first turn toward the ocean at 4 is about a memorable look as there is anywhere. We played all the courses with pretty much no wind, which is rare and makes for a very different experience. If you want the Full Monty, a trip to Bandon should include a few more gusts and maybe even a little rain but not enough to soak you. It’s part of what makes Bandon, Bandon. It’s also gives you a truer sense of how the courses were designed to play.

Bandon Dunes 4th and 5th holes.
The 4th hole at Bandon (top) gives a spectacular view of the ocean, while the 5th (bottom) brings you back along the coast and through the dunes.

Bastable: If you have flexibility in your schedule, play Bandon first. If you get it on a reasonable day, it’s the most forgiving/manageable of the four 18-hole tracks and an ideal warm-up. The fairways are wide, the greens fair, and the views stunning — oh, and you don’t need to be Gary Woodland to reach a couple of the par-5s. As Berhow mentioned, the walk to the infinity green at the 4th is a “Welcome to Bandon” moment you won’t soon forget, as it serves up your first ocean view — it’s reminiscent of the 6th as Pebble, when you reach the crest of that par 5 and get your first glimpse of Stillwater Cove. Of course, the playability of the course is wholly contingent upon the conditions (and this is true of all the Bandon tracks). Get it when the wind is down and you’ll probably outplay your handicap; get it when the wind is howling and hang on for dear life. Only downer is the home hole, a meh par-5 that plays back to the clubhouse.

Sens: Thanks for dissing the only hole I birdied.

Bastable: Meaningless birdie, too, as I recall it.

Sens: Didn’t realize you were paying attention, what with all the chopping around you were doing in the fronting bunker.

You played without caddies. Any regrets?

Berhow: No, but only because the guys I played with had course knowledge — it was Sens’ 10th trip! — and could help me with lines off the tee and approaching the green. I also spent $10 to buy a yardage book for every course (nerd alert) and I think it was definitely $40 well spent if you aren’t going to get a caddie. It would have been nice to have a looper reading some putts and helping with the speed of some greens, though. That’s what really threw me off. How often are you practicing 35-yard lag putts?! You see a ton of them at Bandon Dunes. So for sure a caddie could have helped me, but with our situation we got by. Although if it’s four first-timers playing and no veteran to guide, a caddie is a smart call.

Sens: My lower back definitely regrets it. Taking a caddie at Bandon is a bit like getting a little wind and rain. You should definitely experience it at some point. They really know the courses and they’re often great characters to boot. In this case, I was traveling on a tight budget, so it was mostly my own stinginess that kept me from having someone on my bag. That and the fear of having Bastable call me “unmanly.”

Bastable: No question caddies are a boon when you’re trying to calculate uphill yardages into a 25-mph wind or the line for a quintuple-breaking 110-footer at Old Mac, but I must say I enjoyed the pure and uncluttered vibe that came with toting our own sticks. Pro tip: If you are going to carry, invest in a lightweight bag and pack only the essentials (couple of sleeves and some rainwear should do it). I picked up a new ultra-light bag for this trip and it was some of the best money I’ve ever spent. Next to my satchel, my playing partners’ bags felt like they were loaded with wet rain gear and rocks. Advantage: me.

Pac Dunes came next. Pac is the highest-rated course at the resort, clocking in at No. 2 on GOLF’s latest Top 100 You Can Play list, just behind Pebble Beach. Does it deserve such a lofty perch?   

Berhow: It’s definitely in the conversation, but I haven’t been to Pebble so it’s hard for me to compare. I have played two of the other top five — Bethpage Black and Whistling Straits — and prefer Pacific Dunes. (I also haven’t played No. 3 on the list, which is Pinehurst No. 2.) But Pacific has one of the most fun back nines I have ever played. The whole course is challenging and the bunkering and green complexes run together so seamlessly, but in a beautifully rugged way. As for the aforementioned back nine, it begins with two gorgeous par 3s — it’s unconventional and I love it — and continues with a strategic par-5 12th and daunting par-4 13th, the latter highlighted by a crazy undulating fairway and a ridiculously huge dune flanking the green. That final nine featured exactly what makes every golf course fun — short par 3s, dramatic par 4s and reachable par 5s. It’s a simple formula and was done right. Play it at sunset. You won’t regret it

The 13th hole at Pacific Dunes.
If you miss right on the 13th at Pacific Dunes, good luck getting out.

Sens: This is one of those fun grill-room debates, but I prefer it to Pebble. I love the raw, unvarnished quality. No houses. Stark cliffs. Minimal pre-round speeches from the starter.  If you’re lucky enough to get it when the gorse is blooming, it’s pretty much an out of body experience. Throw in a little coastal gloom, and you half expect Shivas Irons to appear out of the mist. At which point you can tell him that Golf in the Kingdom was unreadable and you don’t get what all the fuss was about. Just to clarify, though. I think the front nine at Pacific Dunes is the stronger side. The back nine has four par-threes. All fun holes but if I had to come up with a quibble about a course I love, that would be it.

Bastable: Raw is a good word for Pac Dunes. Spectacular is another good word. Doak killed it. It’s a more interesting design than Bandon but it’s also a far superior piece of land. I love the straightaway par-4 4th that plays along a bluff edge, the Pacific Ocean beckoning to your right. For right-handed faders — i.e., most of the golfing population — the drive and approach are knee-knockers, especially if you catch a left-to-right wind. The short par-4 6th will also haunt your dreams. You’d more easily land a wedge shot on your office desk than on the No. 6’s narrow, sloping tabletop green. The variety and creativity in the design is Doak at his best. Make sure your phone battery has a full charge. You’ll be stopping frequently to take photos.

The fourth hole at Pacific Dunes.
The wind can make the 4th at Pacific Dunes quite treacherous.

Any flaws out there?

Berhow: I’d like nothing more than to blow up the massive bunker hugging the left side of the 18th fairway. You can probably guess why.

Sens: See above on those four back-nine par-3s.

Bastable: Sens is a food snob and a golf snob. Is there a rule in some dusty architecture tome that dictates you can’t have four par-3s in nine holes? Please. That stretch is great fun.

Sens: No argument that they’re fun. Like I said, I’m being forced to quibble with a course I love.

The 10th and 11th holes at Pacific Dunes.
Pacific Dunes’s back nine begins with back-to-back par-3s.

The light starts to fade earlier in the day this time of the year. Any trouble getting 36 in?  

Berhow: You gotta want it! We had tee times at about 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. both days, which basically means few groups went off before us in the morning and after us in the evening. You’ll have anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour between tee times (as we did), but it’s possible. Bandon has a great shuttle service jetting you from place to place, so you can make up time quickly and grab food on the go. Plus, there are turn stands and bathrooms every 5-6 holes at every course, so you might not even need much of a break between rounds.

Sens: Definitely doable. Bandon sets a goal of four-hour rounds. Most groups out there meet it. How often do you see that at a popular golf resort?

Bastable: Turns out you can even “lose” your phone and still squeeze in 36. Right, Sens?

Sens: Yeah. That was bad. Who knew iPhones came with built-in geolocation? What’ll the kids think of next?

Bastable: Geolocation? Why the need for that? I think we owe it to the people to inform them that said phone — reputedly lost on the back nine at Trails and searched for by half the staff — was, in fact, in your bag all along.

Berhow: Not to get even more off topic, but you have to give the man credit for thinking he lost his phone while walking off the 18th tee, turning around and searching the last couple of holes for 15 minutes, returning, hitting an approach short of the green and then, still rattled from iPhoneGate, chipping in for birdie. Impressive stuff.

Tuesday brought Bandon Trails and Old Mac. Let’s start with Trails, which is at times woodsy and secluded and therefore a very different experience from the coastal tracks. How was your experience out there?

Berhow: I like a lot of Coore/Crenshaw tracks and this one just beautifully weaves through the property. The layout plays with your mind when you’re on the tee box, but thinking is what good golf courses force you to do. Sure, you don’t get the ocean views, but you get a sprawling course that tests you from tee to green and has trouble lurking everywhere. I have heard some people say the short par-4 14th is unfair or too tough, but hey, that was my only birdie of the day, so no complaints here!

The 14th hole at Bandon Trails.
The 14th hole at Bandon Trails has a sloping fairway and small green that will test all golfers.

Sens: My personal ranking of the courses goes back and forth, but on most days, Trails is my favorite of the 18-holers, with Pacific Dunes a close second. That first look of the wispy dunes of the 1st tee gives me goosebumps every time. And the way the course shifts seamlessly from that dunescape to a piney setting is magical. Berhow’s birdie on 14th was heroic. Someday, I expect Mark Frost to write a book about it. It’s a polarizing hole, no doubt. I know a dude who had drafted plans to have it dynamited. His argument was that almost any tee shot with any club would spill to the same spot on the fairway, leaving you with a very testy short shot to a slim, hard green. He thought the green was impossible to hold and unjustly penal. It’s difficult, for sure. But he’s also wrong. It’s a fun hole.

Bastable: For what’s it worth, my tee shot on 14 managed to stay on the top shelf left of the area to which most balls funnel. From there, I had a fairly straightforward, though still nervy, pitch. Trails was the one course I hadn’t played on previous visits and ergo it was the course I was most excited to check out. Design nerds will tell you that Trails is the best track at Bandon — assuming you can get over the fact that it lacks the bluff-hanging oceanside drama of Pac Dunes and Bandon. The layout is wonderfully imaginative with fairways that don’t look generous but are, drivable par-4s, dramatic par-3s. Coore & Crenshaw’s smartest use of taking what the land gave them may be on the 4th hole, where a natural sand ridge runs diagonally across the landing zone away from the golfer. Bomb it down the left and you can carry the ridge and have a short flip into the green. Lose it to the right and you’ll have a blind shot over the ridge. There are many other spots on the course that you challenge you with similar risk-reward scenarios. You’ll love it.

And Old Mac?

Berhow: I loved Old Mac from the start (so did my scorecard with little wind) — tons of room, huge greens and lots of undulation kicking balls toward the hole, but there were some pretty steep slopes surrounding a few of the greens midway through the round I wasn’t big on. This course was designed by Doak and Urbine to replicate/honor a design that would have been made by the late great C.B. Macdonald but, minor gripe alert, I don’t understand why every green needs to pay tribute to something. A “Road Hole” tribute (the 11th) is cool and all, but it’s not like that’s the reason I’ll return to play Old Mac again. It’s a fun course, and it’s different from the others, proof there’s something for everyone at Bandon. Debating which is best is so much fun.

PHOTOS: All 85 holes at Bandon Dunes

Sens: Old Mac is good rollicking fun. It’s also my fourth favorite of the four 18-hole courses at Bandon. Partly, it’s just a personal preference for holes that place more of a premium on accuracy off the tee.  But I’ve got some minor gripes with a few of the approaches. We were just talking about the controversial 14th at Bandon Trails. To my mind, less fair are the greens on 10 through 12 at Old Mac.

Bastable: That stretch is flawed, to be sure — and I agree if you have to give one course a pass, it should be Old Mac — but largely it’s victim of the company it keeps: If you took that design and placed is just about anywhere else in the country, it would be more highly regarded. The ascent to the 7th green, which culminates with a sweeping ocean vista, is one of the great thrills on the property.

The par-4 7th green at Old Macdonald.
The fog rolls over the par-4 7th green at Old Mac.

Berhow: And that ascent also gives way to the par-3 8th, which boasts a top-of-the-world view of the property as you tee off toward a biarritz green. Good fun.

You wrapped the trip Wednesday morning on The Preserve. Where does it rank among other par-3 courses you’ve played, and when would you suggest visitors ideally slot a round there into their own Bandon itineraries?

Berhow: I haven’t played a ton of par-3 or short courses, but this is the best. It’s great because it’s not just a flat piece of land. You are walking up and down these dunes and trails and have several tee boxes to choose from (you don’t play one set of tees the whole time; you instead just pick whatever spot looks most exciting/treacherous). Good par 3 courses consist of fun, topsy-turvy greens and short irons. Check and check. As for the best time to schedule this course — that’s a no-brainer. This should be your sunset round with seven buddies in tow and a drink in hand. Place bets, play music, go after pins and leave no birdie putt short. It’s a blast. (Oh, and if that late tee time doesn’t work, play it at about 10 a.m. or so, after breakfast, as the perfect warm-up to your afternoon game on one of the big courses.)

Sens: I remember loving the par-3 course at Treetops in Michigan. But the Preserve is the best I’ve played. It’s everything that’s great about Coore and Crenshaw, shrunk down in scale and set on dunes along the coast. I haven’t played anything remotely like it. As for when to play it, I like how we did it: squeezed in on the last morning before the 1:50 p.m flight out. At that point, we were so wrecked that full swings with drivers would probably have led to traction. As Berhow says, though, the other time to play it is at sundown — the golden hour, with a few golden ales and a few unresolved bets on the line.

Bandon Preserve par-3 course at Bandon Dunes.
Bandon Preserve offers just as many high-quality shots (and photo ops) as the 18-hole tracks.

Bastable: You must play it. It’s Disneyworld for golfers out there. Late-day, mid-day, midnight, whenever. We played it at the crack of dawn in an impenetrable, can’t-see-the-flagstick-from-80-yards-away fog that gradually burned off as the round progressed. The view from the 10th green, which is perched on a point, rivals any on the entire property. One of the coolest Bandon traditions is hitting putter on the final tee at the Preserve, which plays downhill to a green that allows you to run the ball up. Pro tip: Hit last. If you have the honor, futz around in your bag as if you’re looking for your phone and tell your partners to play away. Allowing the rest of your group to show you the line is a huge edge. Case in point:

Any parting words of wisdom for first-timers planning a Bandon trip?    

Berhow: Plan, plan and plan. There’s so much to do and based on how long you are staying, you might not be able to get it all done, but make the most of your days. Play great golf courses but sneak in an hour or so on the 100,000-square-foot Punchbowl putting green. Play the Preserve. Use the facilities. Buy merch. Eat great food. Don’t waste a second.

Sens: Carpe golf-iem. What else are you here for? Book as far out in advance as you can and come up with an itinerary that allows you to play all the courses at least once. If you’re going to double up on an 18-holer, make it Trails or Pacific Dunes. On your first morning, wake up early. Grab a breakfast sandwich and a coffee to go. After 18, a quick lunch, then back out for as much golf as possible until it’s too dark to see your own nose. Eat a hearty dinner. Pass out. Repeat.

Bastable: Fatigued? Power through it. You can sleep on what is likely to be a long haul home. Also, if you have kids, check out the children’s merch in the shop in the main clubhouse. From bucket hats to a Bandon coloring book, it’s one of the best collections of kids’ gear I’ve encountered in a golf shop. My son Mac really dug his Old Mac T-shirt.

The Punchbowl at Bandon Dunes.
Have time to kill at Bandon Dunes? Try the massive Punchbowl putting green.