2001: Preferred - Destination

Bandon, Ore.

Dec. 16, 1916, a publication called The Western World advised its readers that there were three ways of getting to the town of Bandon. The first one was easy: The steamer “Elizabeth” from San Francisco. The fare: $10.

From Portland to the north, you needed to take a train and a boat. From Roseburg, to the east, the paper recommended a riverboat because it was “quicker and pleasanter for those not afflicted with seasickness.”

Four score and five years later, the golf elite are beating a path to Bandon’s door. The conveyances have changed. Seasickness isn’t a problem anymore. But the location is no less remote. And the point, Paul Spengler says, is this: “People are going.”

Spengler is vice president of golf for the Pebble Beach Co. and knows a thing or three about underpinnings and overhypings at these sorts of golf destinations. “If it’s built and it’s good,” he says, “people will find it.”

The Bandon Dunes resort is built. It is good. And people are finding it. It is no longer a rumor. It is a must play.

The best way to get there from most places is via commercial jet to Portland where the player can connect to a commuter flight south to North Bend, 20 miles north of the resort. Private jets can land at North Bend and at a smaller airstrip in Bandon.

The buzz began two years ago when the first course – called Bandon Dunes – opened to rave reviews and unprecedented high early placement in most of the top course rankings lists. The buzz has turned into a din now that a second course, the surpassing Pacific Dunes, has come on line.

Spengler, for one, wanted to see what all the fuss was about. He first visited the resort before the lodge and pro shop were completed and before “Pac Dunes,” which is adjacent to Bandon Dunes north along the coast, opened for play in July. “Just by the lay of the land, it looked like it would be spectacular,” Spengler said of Pacific Dunes.

So spectacular that Oregonians are driving as many as five hours to play a round. Then they are motoring home, aglow, the same day. Meanwhile, the rich and curious from around the country are arriving in their own aircraft and shuttling to the lodge by luxury SUV. You can spot them a knockdown 9-iron away. They’re the ones cradling their precious boxes of Pro V1s as carry-on luggage. At night in the main dining room, they are ordering world class bottles of pinot noir and pinot gris produced from grapes grown at the King Estate near the neighboring Willamette Valley. Soon enough they are regaling each other with tales of their own linksian legerdemain and the comparative artistic virtues of David McLay Kidd and Tom Doak, golf design’s new minimalist Michelangelo.

Bill Shean, a two-time USGA Senior Amateur champion, has made the pilgrimage to Pacific Dunes. “The Lord ought to get half the credit,” says Shean of the 6,557-yard layout that plays to par 71 from the backs. “But I think this course is the coming of age of Mr. Doak as an architect.”

Of Pacific Dunes, Doak said, “We had only one chance to get it right,” It is not by coincidence that Doak named his firm Renaissance Golf Design Inc.

To be sure, golf now is the main attraction at Bandon, a town whose Dark Ages occurred when the logging and fishing industries hit the wall in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The local economy went “to hell in a handbasket,” is the way local hospital official Jim Wathen puts it. Worse, much of America still thought of dunesy, coastal Oregon as the place where God left his shoes. With the advent of Bandon Dunes, you have the makings of a rebirth.

The “Bandon Experience” is a precious one for several reasons. Green fees on both courses are stiff but fair at $150 in season (May 1-Oct. 30). Even high rollers generally don’t have time for more than one visit in the course of the fiscal year. So there’s a right way to do Bandon Dunes. You, too, might have just one chance to get it right. And now might be the best time. When the third and fourth courses open sometime in the next decade, the golf options will double. The attendant bustle could turn Bandon Dunes into something less charming.

But low-key Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser, who made his millions producing greeting cards from recycled paper, has made it clear that the mission statement of Bandon Dunes won’t change. And Illinois-based Kemper Sports Management, which runs the place for Keiser, is determined to preserve the pure “golf” feel.

“Yes,” says marketing director Josh Lesnik when asked if he categorically can state that Bandon Dunes will never build a swimming pool or a tennis court. “This is not a family resort.”

Nor will it ever be Bushwood. If Al Czervik, Rodney Dangerfield’s over-the-top “Caddyshack” cartoon character, showed up at Bandon Dunes he would be told it is a walking course. If Ted Knight’s Judge Smails arrived with a note from his doctor, he would not receive the use of a cart unless one was available. There are six carts on the premises. For both courses. This shortage is calculated and by design.

You will be getting off to a good start upon your arrival at Bandon Dunes if you hook up with Judy and Wayne Nichols at the North Bend airport. They operate Connoisseurs Limousine Inc. and are connected up and down the coast. When nationally syndicated talk show host Maury Povich recently needed to take home something special for news anchor/wife Connie Chung, Wayne picked up fresh salmon at the local fishery, had it packed in dry ice and shipped it for Povich.

Judy regularly chauffeurs lodge guests out to the Mill Casino, a 20-minute drive from Bandon Dunes. There the Coquille Indian tribe runs a tidy little gambling operation. The limit bet at the blackjack tables is $100. And that can be a little tame for certain of Bandon’s clientele. But if you let Judy know in advance, she will arrange a special table where the host tribe can raise the stakes to $500.

The food at the lodge is mostly hearty fare with several selections that flirt with gourmet status. But if you want to get away at night, there is the “La Fiesta” in town which features a solid menu of Mexican selections and at least four different Mexican beers. Golfers and locals mix down the block at Lloyd’s of Bandon, the bar of choice if you are looking for a little eightball or darts after dark.

Catherine Dials, a bartender at Lloyds, says golfers are mistaken if they think they can blend anonymously with the townies. “We can tell,” she says of the golfers. “They’re the ones with the sunburned ears.”

Do the regulars ever resent the intruders at Lloyds? “It depends,” Julie says. Depends on how much the outlanders respect the differences in style.

There is a growing artist’s community on the outskirts of what used to be a blue-collar town. And there is a whiff in the air that suggests this must have been what the Monterey Peninsula was like back when Steinbeck was still on the tip of everybody’s tongue and golf in and around the Del Monte Forest was still a gleam in a developer’s eye.

“You have to have the infrastructure to support that kind of thing,” says Wathen when asked if Bandon Dunes might one day become Pebble Beach North. “I don’t see that developing that quickly where this would become a Carmel or that Old Bandon will become Cannery Row.”

And this, too, is seen as a good thing. “All things being equal,” says Steve Casey, a former Bandon Bed and Breakfast operator and one of the town’s civic leaders, “remote is good.”

But in the same breath Wathen and Casey will tell you how much life Bandon Dunes has pumped into the local economy. The resort employs 235 staffers. Plans are in the works for 60 more rooms. Local merchants are excited about that kind of growth.

“Golfers who golf that course have money to spend,” says Grover Hatcher, who runs the Second Street Gallery in Bandon.

But controlling the inevitable growth is still on everybody’s mind. “It’s something that’s going to take a few years to figure out,” says Martin Hauser, owner of the Northwest Country Gift Shop in Bandon.

Wood Sabold was a landscape architect in Florida when the development crush there convinced him to switch careers. He became a nature photographer and moved to Bandon. When he first heard of Keiser’s plans to build a golf resort, he was concerned. “One side of me said, ‘I don’t want to be in a development Mecca again,’ ” he said.

Sabold and everybody else in Bandon kept close watch on Keiser and Kemper Sports Management. Eventually, by sheer dint of consistency, Bandon Dunes won over the community. Keiser, a quick study and a good listener, quietly made donations to local causes. Lesnik engineered the founding of “The Golf Club at Bandon Dunes,” which allows resident members to play on Tuesdays for $35.

In short, a quiet community has embraced an outsider in Keiser. The visitor to Bandon Dunes will sense this even before he or she indulges in the golf. The local caddies at Bandon Dunes have caught on quickly to the benefits of large tips and of passing on local knowledge of all kinds. And the staff won’t overwhelm you with service.

“People don’t want to drive up and have five attendants jump on them when they get out of their car,” says Bob Gaspar.

Gaspar is known to everybody in and around the bag room simply as “Shoe” because an early visitor once remarked at the startling resemblance he bore to jockey Willie Shoemaker. “Everything comes down from the top,” says Shoe. “You have to be able to judge people. Some people don’t want me to touch their clubs. So I don’t.”

At Bandon Dunes you won’t find officious young head pro wannabees wearing headsets and acting way too organized at the bag drop. You will find Shoe. And you will know it is Shoe because that’s what it says on his name tag. Asked for Shoe’s job title, Lesnik answered, “Director of Outside Happiness.”

These days at Bandon Dunes outside happiness is not in short supply. Motorized carts are. And that’s the way it ought to be. It might be hard to get to Bandon Dunes. But it is even harder to leave.

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