I'm standing on the peak of a vast sand dune, watching an endless procession of whitecaps roll in on the Pacific. In the distance a red flag snaps in the breeze, the sentinel of a narrow and well-defended green. It's a mild, sunny morning in early February, and Bandon Trails looks superb—dewy and verdant, if still a little rough around the edges.
"This is a par four, and it's drivable," Bill Coore says.
The magic words.
This massive dune, anchored in place by beach grasses and scrub, is the fourteenth tee of a hole that seems destined to dole out heartbreak and glory in equal measure. The land vanishes a few steps away from us, then reappears beyond the manzanita-covered slopes in a valley fairway, which itself is split in tiers from high to low, left to right. "It's only about 300 yards," Coore continues, which is hard to believe, given the sweeping dimensions of the scenery. "But it's also downhill and downwind. Long hitters might occasionally drive it over the green."
Coore and I started out at dawn, carrying cups of coffee instead of golf clubs, just walking and talking about the new course. Seven holes were briefly open for special preview play last fall, but other than Bandon Dunes resort owner Mike Keiser, I would be the first to explore Bandon Trails, start to finish, in the company of one of the architects. It's an exceptionally pleasant way to see a course, especially one as significant as Bandon Trails, which will add an entirely new dimension to golf at Bandon Dunes when it opens in June. The silver-haired Coore, outfitted in work boots, jeans and a white cable-knit sweater, stops to joke with crew members and consult with them on a wide range of finishing touches.
Now we're standing at the lowest point in the fourteenth fairway, about 150 yards away from the green. The top of the flagstick is just barely visible, and the eye is drawn to a fierce-looking bunker built into the greenside slope. My imagination struggles to envision hitting, from this lie, a seven-iron on a sand wedge trajectory. Coore picks up on this and smiles.
"Come down here, and you're cooked," he says.
On second thought, maybe it's two parts heartbreak, one part glory.
It's somehow fitting that before Bill Coore studied the architects of the golden age of golf—the earthbound alchemies of MacKenzie and Ross, MacDonald and Maxwell—he studied classics of another kind. At Wake Forest in the 1960s, Coore parsed the finer points of such ancient luminaries as Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon. His early ambition was to be a college professor and maybe play a little amateur golf on the side. Instead, he linked up with Pete Dye and launched a remarkable design career, but it's easy to see his path not taken. Given his soft-spoken, thoughtful manner, Coore would fit right in on a university campus if he were to exchange his denim for tweed.
This isn't a minor point—as any student of the classics will attest, reading dead languages demands a sense of aesthetics, great attention to technical detail and a level of comfort within an esoteric discipline that very few truly understand. And to a certain degree, this also describes the craft of the golf course architect. Over the past two decades, working with his partner, former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw (a serious student of golf's golden age in his own right), Coore has demonstrated a flair for creating nothing less than a series of modern classics. From the sandhills of Nebraska to the lava flows of Hawaii to the rugged Oregon coast, the team's designs have succeeded in both capturing the imaginations of amateurs and testing the best players in the world.
By now, only golfers who have spent the past half decade in a cave will be unfamiliar with the majestic, windswept links of Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes, but Bandon Trails is different—"stunningly different," in the words of Keiser, who adds, "I don't think anyone will believe it, given how close it is to the other two."
Over dinner with Keiser and Coore, the owner described the highs and lows of his inaugural eighteen-hole round on Bandon Trails, which he'd played that day in the company of two visiting USGA officials. In his fifties, Keiser has the searching gaze and measured speech of a businessman accustomed to clearly articulating his message, but he also displays a wry, slow-burning sense of humor. A twelve-handicap, he refers to himself as "the retail golfer"—in other words, all aspects of his talent are so unremarkable that if someone were to market an off-the-rack golf game, it would be his. This may or may not be true as it applies to his swing, but it does reveal an affinity for the average duffer, for whom he has spoken during the design processes of all three courses. In point of fact, however, Keiser had tuned up on the Trails for his appearance the next day at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. When asked whether he'd be attending Pebble's legendary star-studded after-hours parties, Keiser feigned surprise and deadpanned, "I thought it was all about the golf."
But the Keiser quote that stayed with me most was "stunningly different." After touring Bandon Trails with Coore, I decided that this is about as accurate a two-word description of the course as you'll find. The most obvious difference between the Trails and its predecessors is that this course isn't routed hard against the Pacific bluffs—Bullard's Beach State Park hems in the coast along the southern portion of the resort's property. But it's a marvelous piece of land in its own right. From its beginnings high in the interior dunes, the routing traverses a pristine meadow studded with manzanita, huckleberry and wildflowers (a heathland setting that reminds Coore of the Melbourne Sandbelt in Australia), then enters a towering pine and spruce forest before returning to the dunes in a roller-coaster finale.