Appeared in March 2000 LINKS
Until recently, the town of Bandon, Ore., had been little more than a coastal tourist stop, attractive because of its rugged and spectacular shoreline, whale watching, cheese making and cranberry bogs. Not anymore. Now it’s also home to Bandon Dunes, ranked as the nation’s top-ranked new, upscale public golf course last year. You may have heard the hype. Believe it—it’s more than justified.
Although open for play less than one year, Bandon Dunes is already a pillar of classical golf course architecture. It’s as sporty and fun as a ride in a Porsche on a winding country road; as beautiful as Michelangelo’s Cappella Sistina; as charming as Cary Grant; and as mentally tough as a Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. But Bandon Dunes is only a golf course, you say. Yes, but what a golf course it is.
Looking at the inside of a Bandon Dunes scorecard, you find a set of numbers similar to that of most modern courses: par-72; five sets of tees, ranging from 6,844 to 5,178 yards (plus tournament tees that stretch the course to 7,326 yards); and slope ratings varying from 145 to 121. But when you flip the scorecard over, you see a photograph of the course, and suddenly Bandon Dunes looks unlike most any American course you have ever seen, dreamt or read about—or exactly like the best of the British and Irish courses. You’re not sure if you’re looking at a course from 100 years ago or 100 hence.
The photo shows three putting greens, one cavernous, heart-shaped bunker, brown grasses in the rough, the Pacific Ocean stretching for miles to the north, south and west, and a glorious blue sky. The bottom inch of the card shows the fifth hole, a memorable, 445-yard par-4 that has a definitive risk/reward drive zone, the Pacific as its guardian on the left side and a green surrounded by 25-foot dunes that make you feel like you’re in the Grand Canyon.
Time to get out the family atlas. Most people recall that Oregon is the state sandwiched between Washington and California. Actually, most atlases list two entries for Bandon: one in County Cork, Ireland, and the other in southern Oregon. They are related. George Bennett moved from the former to the latter in 1873, when the Oregon location was known as Averill. He became such a leader in the community that a year later it was named after his former home. Bennett so missed home that he had his favorite native vegetation—gorse—sent over, and it took root on the duneland near Bandon with gusto.
Except for a brief time as a Gold Rush town in the 1850s, Bandon’s traditional industries have been logging, fishing and tourism. But as the business life cycle gives, it also takes away. The fishing and timber industries in Oregon have declined in recent years, causing the unemployment rate in the area to soar. Given Oregon’s longstanding devotion to environmental causes, it seemed unlikely that the state would ever approve a golf course directly on its precious coastline. But add economics to politics when it comes to strange bedfellows. Bandon’s depressed economic status and the goal of eradicating Bennett’s beloved gorse were two of the main reasons this fabulous golf project was allowed to go forth.
There are three keys—or “K’s,” if you will—to the Bandon Dunes story. Mike Keiser was the man with the vision, as well as the bucks to back it up. David McLay Kidd was a young Scottish architect with no significant architectural experience in his portfolio. And the man who really made the project happen was Howard McKee, an architect with the world-famous firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
McKee met Keiser while in Chicago working on an unsuccessful bid for the 1992 World’s Fair. Over dinner one night, Keiser turned to his friend and said, “I want a big piece of property; one as inspiring as Yosemite, with reasonable access and in an area where the playing season is longer than four or five months. Would you have the time to help me find it?” Keiser, a self-described maverick businessman from the Windy City, had made a fortune in the business of recycling paper for greeting cards. Fortunately, Keiser loves golf so much—he’s a 10-handicapper—he would rather put his manifold resources into building up the game rather than gobbling up other businesses.
“I dared not look for linksland, but I started looking for land in the East, first along the coast in the Washington, D.C. area,” he explains. “I visited a lot of places in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, but the East Coast didn’t yield anything. That’s when Howard, who had lived in Oregon for a number of years, directed me west. I made eight trips to northern California and southern Oregon. We saw a lot of beautiful, but mountainous, terrain.
“I began to give up on finding linksland when the telephone rang at home one Saturday afternoon. It was a real estate agent from Gold Beach, Oregon, who said, ‘I hear you are looking for land for a golf course. I have 1,200 acres on the coast with one mile of oceanfront property.’”
Keiser quickly called McKee, who was in Oregon at the time, with instructions to go take a look. McKee, who plays but is not passionate about golf, reported back to Keiser within 24 hours. “Howard wasn’t that enthusiastic,” Keiser recalls. “Actually he was pretty negative. He described these big sand dunes and big valleys to me, all covered with gorse and trees. I got a feeling immediately that I had to go see it for myself.“The first time I saw the land I said, ‘Wow!’ It was so vast and choked with overgrowth—and had such potential. But now that it is a golf course, every time I go there, it is even a bigger ‘Wow!’”
The land became Keiser’s, and in the process of building Bandon Dunes he acquired another 800 acres. Previous owners had thought the land ideal for golf but never were able to proceed with their plans. That Keiser was able to get his project through the Oregon political and permitting systems was a modern miracle—and largely because of McKee’s efforts.
“I participated in the creation of Oregon’s Land Use Laws written in the 1970s,” says McKee. “One of the 18 goals dealt with open space, and recognized that destination resorts were a legitimate economic activity. When we started the process, the governor was less than enthusiastic, but she assigned an environmental staff person to be coordinator of the project.
“Coos County was always very supportive of the idea. It was a long process, over three years, but I think people around the state began to see we were credible and they began to trust us. But I also think as we continued to get approvals, a lot of people thought Mike would sell to Californians. Then when he didn’t, to their total and utter amazement, people began to embrace us. We have given the area a boost.”
David Kidd, the third key to the Bandon Dunes success story was, at the time of his introduction to the project, a 27-year-old golf course architect with Gleneagles Golf Developments. His primary course building experience consisted of one course in Nepal and a low-budget course near London. Kidd, with his compelling Scottish brogue and infectious laughter, explains how he received this juiciest of commissions in the modern world of golf course design:
“Mike knew my father [Jim Kidd, the green superintendent at Gleneagles Hotel]. Someone said to Mike, ‘You should get a Scottish architect for your Oregon project,’ and Mike replied, ‘There aren’t any, are there?’ Then he heard about me and had me come, with my dad, to look at Bandon Dunes.
“I was given the opportunity of going out to look at the property to come up with a 36-hole plan with one course on the ocean and one partially in the woodlands. When I got there I was amazed at what a beautiful site it was, but very difficult to walk. It was completely covered in either forest or gorse. I came up with the concept of a classic links course, like in our country, where the course emanated from the edge of the village out across the linksland and back to the edge of the village.”
The original concept had the clubhouse sitting on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Kidd explains how the building, which bears a similarity to the historic shingled clubhouse at Long Island’s Shinnecock Hills, was moved inland—but still within view of the ocean. “I felt if I put the clubhouse out on the point, it would have meant putting roads in through the golf course, car parks, garbage trucks and the like. The best land would have been taken up with these rather than golf holes.” A golf hole does indeed take up the original clubhouse site. It’s the 345-yard, par-4 16th, with a ravine slashing up the fairway from the beach, and many call it the most dramatic on the course.
When Kidd was getting ready to leave Bandon Dunes after his first visit he was asked by Shorty Dow, the property’s long-time resident caretaker, for a business card. Now that Bandon Dunes is the most exciting new course in the country, Kidd laughs at the experience with Dow. “He was desperate for one of my business cards,” he says. “I finally realized he must be collecting them. He had cards from people of whom I would pale in reverence. I realized there was no chance for a completely unknown, 27-year-old boy to be given this fairly major project. So I had a heavy heart when Mike came in and I explained my thoughts, knowing that I probably would never get to come on the land again and that I was probably there as the token Scotsman.
“Those feelings probably made me all the more vociferous in telling him what I totally believed. I had absolutely nothing to lose. I explained I wouldn’t allow people to drive golf carts, I wouldn’t put real estate or houses out on the best property, I wouldn’t put the clubhouse out on the point.
“If Mike really wanted to talk to me about links golf and then just do a pastiche version of it, then employ who you want, but if you really mean it, then employ me and live with the consequences. I didn’t hear from him for three weeks.”
Keiser’s original idea for the design was to have an amateur competition and use the best 18 hole designs for Bandon Dunes. Luckily Ron Whitten, architecture editor of Golf Digest, saw the property and told Keiser it was far-and-away too special to be entrusted to amateur architects.
Keiser’s impressive gamble on an unknown quantity, even one with good genes, paid off most handsomely as the young Kidd came through in spades. The layout at Bandon is a marvelous, challenging mix, with seven breathtakingly majestic ocean holes, and non-ocean holes that complement each other and enhance the whole.
Fairways are wide (100 yards in some cases), not for visual effect but because the wind can be a major factor when playing Bandon Dunes. Natural elements take on renewed meaning. Players can face conditions of dense fog and zero visibility (Keiser’s two best rounds at Bandon Dunes were in complete fog), driving, sideways rain, and blustery winds. Adding to the lure, Bandon Dunes is a walking course with caddies, pull carts and just six motorized cars for the truly physically challenged.
“If we ever get a second traffic light in Bandon, I’m going to have to move,” an elderly resident commented recently. The town, with a population of 1,727, will certainly change because of this fine destination golf resort. Keiser is already building a second public course, designed by Tom Doak, and a third by Kidd that will be private. More may be in the offing. Bandon Dunes, in time, may well be Pinehurst West or Pebble Beach North.
One of the great lessons golf teaches us is world geography. Many of the world’s finest courses correspond to their town’s name. Golfers could pass any pop quiz that ask the location of Pebble Beach, Pine Valley, Carnoustie, Augusta National, Royal Dornoch, Loch Lomond, Ballybunion or Pinehurst. Now add to golf’s lexicon a worthy new entry: Bandon Dunes in Bandon, Ore.