Golf was months away this last December when I loaded up the back of my Toyota with clubs, rain gear, and every piece of warm weather clothing I own. There was no less than a foot of snow on the ground in Bend, OR. While most of my friends were headed to the Mountain to snowboard, I was giddy with excitement for what the next five days had in store.
The drive south down Highway 97 was a whiteout and my speedometer never got above 45 MPH. The turn onto Highway 58 West was more of the same. When I finally crested the Cascade Mountains and came into Eugene, snowflakes turned to torrential rain and my thermometer registered 39 degrees. The first above freezing temperature I’d seen in weeks felt balmy as I briefly rolled down my window.
I pressed on further West, via backroads and shortcuts until I arrived in Coos Bay. As I rolled down my window again, the smell of salt water welcomed me back like a lost love from long ago. My senses heightened. I knew I was back in the place where I came to revere links golf. In a little more than ½ hour, I’d be at Bandon Dunes…
This was it. The annual Bandon boondoggle with 43 of my closest friends. We congregate here every year in the first week of December to tell the same stories, take each other’s money, and enjoy golf as it was meant to be.
I’ve been to Bandon north of a dozen times and every time feels like the first. You bet Foreigner’s greatest hit was blaring as I pulled into the practice facility the following morning. It happens the same way every year. You’ve probably read about Bandon Dunes in the likes of Golf Digest. It’s ranked as one of the top resorts in the United States alongside Pebble Beach and Pinehurst every year. If you’ve never been, you must go.
I arrived at the practice facility, which is world-class, with the intention of warming up. All I really accomplished though, was giving our resident Chairman $200 for the game and catching up with familiar like-minded faces I hadn’t seen for a year.
Before I knew it, we were called to the first tee at Pacific Dunes, my favorite golf course of all-time. A bit closer the shore, the first tee was cloaked in a layer of fog. I thought about how long this layer of fog has engulfed the same gorse bushes for centuries. It’s true at Bandon Dunes, that the landscape remains very much as it was before the courses were built.
Checking back into reality, I shook hands with the rest of my foursome, and we agreed on a $20 net best ball Nassau within our group (separate from the big group game).
All four tee shots found the middle of the fairway and we were off and running.
It didn’t take long for the tight fescue lies to expose the rust of almost everyone in the group. Though there were some birdies made in the opening holes, there were plenty of chunks, skulls and shots that were below our normal aptitudes.
My side was up a bet and a press at the turn. By now, the fog had given way to an icy northerly wind. We came to the iconic par three 11th hole which measures only 148 yards from all the way back. I took out 6-iron to account for what I figured to be a three-club wind and ballooned my shot into the fescue right of the greenside bunker. Dead. Nice double.
The par four 13th, one of my favorite par 4’s in all of golf, yielded similar results as I hit a solid drive, but proceeded to come up short on my approach and make another double bogey.
Like every course at Bandon, the difficulty of Pacific Dunes is dictated solely by the weather. If you catch a day with minimal wind and warm temperatures, you can reasonably expect to shoot a decent score. However, once the seasonal winds decide to kick up and a smattering of rain starts to pelt your face, the courses start to show their teeth.
In my mind, that’s why these courses were designed. To test players of all abilities when true links conditions take hold.
When you come to Bandon Dunes, you don’t know what the weather will have in store. That’s why you come for the experience. Chances are, you’re going to be humbled, beat up, and tossed back out into the elements for another test of perseverance the following day.
We finished our round and what looked like an under par score on the front, quickly turned into 77 and a $40 loss as the back nine cooked my goose.
After a quick shower and a change of clothes back at the Lily Pond cottages, a number of us gathered in the Bunker Bar. The Bunker Bar is one of my favorite places on property. Nestled beneath the main lodge, the bar boasts the feel of a speakeasy with cigar smoke in the air, dimly lit pool and poker tables, and relics from years past on the walls.
The poker game had already started as I ordered a rye and cigar. As I took my seat, chips began to fly and war stories of the day, and past trips to Bandon were interspersed with laughs, toasts, and jokes.
As the night carried on, I was intermittently reminded of why I love it here so much. Sure, the camaraderie is tough to beat. But more than anything, it’s the mutual admiration and respect that all of us have for this special place. Golf in its purest form.
The weather was almost too perfect for the next four days. Warm temperatures, light winds, and minimal rain made the long walks through sand dunes and gorse forests more pleasurable than I can ever remember.
The golf improved in the benign conditions but that took a back seat to views and our time together on these hallowed grounds. I still haven’t had the opportunity to play the Sheep Ranch. But Bandon Trails, Bandon Dunes, Old MacDonald, and the Preserve are all memorable experiences that are shaped by the land, not in spite of it. Indeed, the entire Bandon experience is just what they promise, Golf as it was meant to be.
There are no golf carts at Bandon Dunes, and the walks aren’t the shortest. On the fourth and fifth days, I decided to hire a caddie. My good friend and lifelong Bandon looper, Adam, was just the man for the job. Adam has been caddying here since the mid-2000’s when we were both in college at Oregon State.
A good player in his own right, his advice and guidance helped me turn the trip into a positive gambling endeavor.
If you’re playing any of the courses for the first time, I can’t recommend taking a caddy enough. The subtle nuances, humps, and bumps that are inherent to links golf, can leave you scratching your head and needing an abacus to add up your score if you don’t know where you’re going.
The $100 caddy fee, plus gratuity, is well worth it if you want to enjoy your experience to the fullest. If you plan on playing multiple rounds, the policy is that you keep the same caddy for the duration. This allows your looper to become familiar with your game, club selection, and the two of you are sure to develop a bond.
The final night of our stay is always spent in the Gallery Restaurant. Awards are given for everything from best total gross score, to most embarrassing moment, and everything in between. Payouts for our gambling ventures are also given… This was a good trip for me.
The Gallery boasts a menu of Northwest inspired dishes complemented by a wine list that rivals just about anything you can find on the West coast.
As the evening wore on, 44 of us commiserated over drinks and fare meant for kings. Stories were shared, promises to play more together were made, and wishes for safe travels were sealed with handshakes and embrace.
Though I’ve been coming to Bandon with this same group for more than a decade, the experience never grows old. For the next 12 months, we all play our share of golf with friends, loved ones, the occasional stranger. But if there’s one thing we can all agree on, there’s no experience quite like that of our time together at Bandon. For any golfer that’s never been, Bandon truly is golf as it was meant to be.