Bandon Dunes: A little piece of Scotland in the USA

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Of the approximately 16,000 golf courses in the United States of America, few invoke the history and traditions of the game quite like those you’ll find at Bandon Dunes.

Located on the vast Pacific coast, sandwiched between Washington and California, it is a little slice of Scotland in Oregon.

This is just one of the many ways in which Bandon Dunes stands apart from almost every other golf development in the US. This isn’t some cigar-chomping, white collar fat-cat’s country club, nor was it created with a view to staging PGA Tour events.

Instead, this is a golf resort built by golfers for golfers.

“Golf as it was meant to be.” That’s its mission statement, its tantalising promise. And it’s all the better for it.

By the end of this year, there will be five 18-hole courses to choose from as well as some of the best practice facilities you can think of. We’re talking par-3 courses, putting courses, short courses, the works.

However, to tell the Bandon story properly, you need to go all the way back to the late 1980s when Mike Keiser visited Scotland for the first time.

After leaving the Navy, Keiser launched Recycled Paper Greetings, a Chicago-based greeting card company, in 1971. He later sold the business for a reported $250million.

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Like so many Americans before him, Keiser – a golfer from the age of ten – decided he wanted to embark on a pilgrimage to the cradle of the game. The trip took him to many of Scotland’s finest courses but it was one in particular, Royal Dornoch, that made the biggest impression. Not just the iconic links itself but the car park adjacent.

“There were these tour buses disgorging all these Americans who went out there to play golf and then would climb back onboard and head back to Inverness or Edinburgh,” he told Golf Digest last year. “It was proof enough for me that there were enough avid golfers to justify building a golf course on the ocean somewhere in America.

“The remoteness of Dornoch inspired me. If it worked at Dornoch, it’ll work at home. Nothing in America is as remote as Dornoch.”

Upon his return home and as he was putting the finishing touches to his first golf course project – The Dunes Club in New Buffalo – he started to scout potential locations for his ‘American Dornoch’. The Atlantic seaboard offered nothing but swamps and mud. The California coast was mainly mountains and rock. But Oregon? Oregon offered something different.

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He started making a series of impulse buys in the ‘Beaver State’: a $2.8m ranch near Bedford and 500 acres by the ocean in Pistol River which set him back another million. This attracted the attention of a real estate agent from Gold Beach. He tracked down Keiser and told of him of a 1,200-acre property just north of Bandon-by-the-Sea. The site had originally been earmarked for a golf resort but its owners had been unable to get the necessary planning permission from the state lawmakers. Frustrated, they were looking to cut their losses with the land. They wanted $5m. Keiser gave them $2.4m in cash.

How could Keiser hope to succeed where they had failed? He had an ace up his sleeve. One of his closest friends was an Oregon building architect called Howard McKee. Back in the 1970s, McKee had written the state’s Land Use laws, which included an obscure reference to “destination resorts” as an appropriate use of such land.

Thus, Bandon Dunes Golf Resort was born.

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It was a risky move on a number of fronts. For one, Bandon is in a remote part of Oregon, a state not exactly known for tourism. A recent report ranked it 28th of the 50 states in the USA for tourism. Plus, Keiser was entering a market already accelerating at breakneck speed towards saturation point. Florida, Myrtle Beach, Napa, Monterey, Hilton Head, Arizona, Pinehurst – these places had already cornered most of the American golf tourism sector. Was there really any room or appetite for another?

To persuade people to visit, Keiser knew he had to create a world-class proposition, starting with a golf course of the highest quality.

So, it was somewhat of a surprise when he plucked a relatively unknown 27-year-old Scottish designer from obscurity to lay out his first track. That man was David McLay-Kidd. Higher profile names, such as Tom Doak and the double act of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, had been in the frame for the job. But McLay-Kidd got the nod.

It proved to be an inspired hire.

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Bandon Dunes opened for play in 1999 to rave reviews. “Picture a cross between Pebble Beach and Carnoustie,” said Golfweek, “with a pinch of Pine Valley for good measure, and you have Bandon Dunes.” Golf magazine called it “probably the finest land made available for a golf course in America since Alistair MacKenzie was shown the site for the Cypress Point Club on Monterey Peninsula.” Golf Digest proclaimed it the ‘Best New Upscale Public Course’ in the US.

Golfers voted with their feet. In year one, Keiser had set Bandon Dunes a “doable but a bit optimistic” target of 10,000 rounds. It recorded 24,000. 

It was a remarkable start but, nonetheless, just that: a start. As Keiser is apt to say: “One course is a curiosity. Two courses is a destination.”

In 2000, Tom Doak got his shot at the land and, in 2001, his Pacific Dunes course opened to similar acclaim as its older, McLay-Kidd-designed sister.

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Writing for LINKS Magazine, the respected Jaime Diaz – an astute critic – said: “It won’t be long before Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes, given their public accessibility, unspoiled environment, dramatic setting, thoughtful design and true golf spirit, are considered the best tandem of courses in the world.”

In 2002, at the end of a year in which the two courses did a whopping 78,000 combined rounds, Golf Digest named Bandon Dunes as the fifth best golf resort in the country. The following year, both courses ranked inside the top-50 of Digest’s ‘Best Golf Courses in the USA’, Pacific at No.11 and Bandon at No.49.

In 2004, Coore and Crenshaw were hired by Keiser to build his third 18-hole course and, on June 1 the following year, Bandon Trails opened for play. Also in 2005, Pacific Dunes was rated by Golfweek as the No.1 course in the USA. It pipped Pebble Beach to the top spot.

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Doak collaborated with Jim Urbina on course No.4, Old Macdonald, which was built as a homage to the great pioneer of American golf, Charles Blair Macdonald. It opened in June 2010 and, within three years, had cracked Golf Digest’s ‘100 Greatest Courses’ list, making Bandon the first development to have four courses on the list simultaneously.

Still, Keiser wasn’t done. A 13-hole par-3 course called Bandon Preserve was designed by Coore and Crenshaw and opened in May 2012. The Punchbowl, a 100,000sq/m putting course designed by Doak and Urbina, followed in 2014. Comprising 18 holes, it sits next to the first tee of Pacific Dunes and takes around an hour to play. If it helps, picture an American version of ‘The Himalayas’ putting green at St Andrews. Both of these courses complement McLay-Kidd’s long-established nine-hole par-3 course. Called Shorty’s, it was named in honour of the late caretaker and self-proclaimed “mayor, governor and sheriff” of Bandon Dunes, Shorty Dow.

A fifth 18-hole course, again designed by Coore and Crenshaw, called Sheep Ranch, is opening this year.

All of this adds up to 130 holes of truly world-class golf with an authentic and tangible Scottish twist.

Bandon Preserve Bandon Dunes Punchbowl

Naturally, if you’re going to play them all, you’ll need at least two or three days so it’s just as well that the resort has a variety of overnight accommodation options, varying from single occupancy in ‘The Lodge’ to the spacious, four-bedroom ‘Grove’ cottages.

That’s to say nothing of the fantastic array of dining options. The Gallery Restaurant showcases the finest in Pacific Northwest cuisine, complemented by a world-class wine list. Right next door is the Tufted Puffin Lounge, serving a full menu and your favourite drinks. Downstairs, the Bunker Bar is open late into the night and offers a light menu, whilst the Scottish-infused McKee’s Pub serves traditional pub fare, local microbrews, and classic single malt scotches. And that’s just for starters.

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Day rates on the five 18-hole golf courses start from as little as $70 in the off-season, rising to a high of $345 from July to September. But remember: that’s the day rate. Do it right and play three rounds in a day and it’ll cost you only $115 per round. That’s based on the most up-to-date non-resort guest tariffs. There are generous subsidies for people who stay on site.

As for Keiser, he has gone on to cement his legacy as arguably the most influential and strangely underrated golf developer of all time.

He has expanded his reach with Cabot Cliffs in Canada, Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania and, more recently, had hoped to expand his portfolio by creating a new course, Coul Links, within striking distance of the source of his original muse, Royal Dornoch. Alas, political red tape means that is now unlikely to happen. Still, at least he’ll always have Bandon. Brilliant, beautiful, beguiling Bandon.

Golf as it was meant to be? None would argue. 

To find out more, log-on to bandondunesgolf.com

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