‘From the moment I stepped out on these wild, wind-shaped sand dunes, I knew this would be the opportunity of a lifetime.’ David McLay Kidd
One of modern golf’s most extraordinary success stories, Bandon Dunes was the vision of Mike Keiser, a millionaire successful businessman from Chicago who became a genuine devotee of links golf after being profoundly affected by a trip to Ireland during the mid-1980s. He later built a terrific nine-hole course on family land near Lake Michigan, but retained a burning desire to somehow bring traditional links golf to the American mainland. His quest eventually brought him to the remote dunes of southern Oregon, near the small town of Bandon where he discovered the perfect combination of sand, surf and spectacular coastal cliffs.
Despite being hundreds of miles from a major city, Keiser thought the 1,215-acre property was ideal and quickly negotiated its purchase for $2.4 million, about half the asking price. Although the tall sandhills were covered in dense gorse, they also had a healthy smattering of scotch broom, scrub pine, fern, cedar and spruce. The gorse, however, was the key as not only did the weed remind Keiser of Ireland, but it had grown out of control since its introduction to the region and had twice caught fire and burned down much of the town. The prospect of a developer removing most of the gorse and then controlling what remained helped him win planning approval to construct the resort.
Remarkably, Keiser employed inexperienced Scottish architect David McLay Kidd to design his first course, primarily so he could retain control and be actively involved in the decision-making process. Conscious of the potential for additional development, he kept some of the coastline for a future course but was still able to offer Kidd more than a thousand yards of prime seaside land. He was also given great natural vegetation and undulation, as well as the freedom to plant fescue grasses and keep his course playing firm and fast. This allowed for the building of wide, rolling fairways, often with strategic approach shot angles, and large greens that are contoured to present golfers with a variety of short game challenges.
While the majority of Kidd’s holes are arranged within the region’s wind-swept dunes, each of the nines loop beside the ocean and regularly touch the shoreline. Away from the water, better holes include the mid-length 14th, its green beautifully angled beneath a huge sandbank, and the teasing par four 10th where golfers can select a short, blind route or play down the longer more open left side. The cross-ridge approach into the opening green and the par three 2nd, played into a steep ledge, are also very good. The rest of the interior holes are noticeably less impressive than those along the cliffs, which is understandable given how spectacular these holes are.
First to introduce players to the Pacific is the 4th, an outstanding two-shot test that bends through dunes toward an open green site with an incredible ocean backdrop. Cleverly the putting surface is receptive to a chasing approach, but angled toward a pair of deep bunkers. The 5th then tiptoes right along the edge of the West Coast and narrows as it approaches a target tucked beneath a gorse-covered ridge. The 6th, like the 12th and 15th, is a beautiful par three that features an exposed green and uninterrupted sea views. The final coastal hole is the mid-length 16th, the most photogenic of all, and also the most unique as its fairway is made up of staggered landing areas divided by a nasty ravine. Downwind this is a real treat, but into a headwind it can be somewhat confusing to play as it is unclear where one needs to place the ball for a decent shot into the obscured target.
Bandon Dunes opened for play in 1999 and seemed to immediately reawaken Americans to the glories of seaside golf. The resort has since grown and, in many ways, improved, but it was Kidd’s course that first put it on the golfing map and the track remains as popular with visitors as any of its neighbors. The project was an unbelievable opportunity for a young designer like Kidd, and its profile and popularity has given his career a huge kick-start. Although he deserves great credit for the quality of the design work, it was the vision of Mike Keiser, and his drive to make this resort truly unforgettable, that has placed Bandon Dunes on most golfers ‘must-play’ list.