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The New Legend of Bandon Dunes

The first thing you need to know about Bandon Dunes is that you can't get there from here. Some one hundred miles from the California border, it's four hours by car from Portland and eight from San Francisco, and not a straight shot from anywhere. The area is one of the most environmentally fecund corners of the nation, but because of the severe downturn in the lumber and fishing industries, one of the more economically fallow. The landscape is Bunyanesque. The road that leads to Bandon, Highway 38, is a two-laner along the Umpqua River and also runs through such megalopolises as Drain and Elkton.

Nevertheless, in the two years since it opened, Bandon Dunes Golf Course has already gained a spot on the rota of the game's meccas—this raw, windswept and absolutely felicitous meeting of land and water is a place where pilgrims long to gather. In July, an equally distinct, adjoining course named Pacific Dunes will open at Bandon, and that leads to the second thing you need to know: It may not be long before Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes are considered the best tandem of courses in the world, surpassing even the Old and New Courses at St. Andrews, and Pebble Beach and Cypress Point on California's Monterey Peninsula.

It's all been an instantaneous, back-to-the-future success, as well as a follow-your-passion parable that could serve as a veritable vat of chicken soup for the soul. Mike Keiser, a fifty-five-year-old rich guy from Chicago, who as an Amherst College English major liked his poets dead and his golf courses old, decided to direct the fortune he amassed converting recycled paper into greeting cards toward creating "golf as it was meant to be." After warming up by building a nine-hole underground classic called the Dunes Club in New Buffalo, Michigan, Keiser set out on a nationwide search for the same kind of sandy soil that serves as the wondrous base for the links courses of the British Isles, as well as such American gems as Shinnecock Hills, Cypress Point, Pine Valley, Pinehurst No. 2 and Sand Hills. He looked in vain until he got a call in 1995 from a real estate agent in the coastal town of Gold Beach, who knew of 1,200 acres of dunes north of the old fishing village of Bandon, Oregon, population 2,900.

The virgin land was blanketed by prickly gorse, which had been planted in the 1870s by the town's founder, Lord George Bennett, who brought the forbidding stuff from his home in Bandon, Ireland. Going against advisers who considered the area too remote, Keiser bought it all for about five million dollars, a deal that will ultimately go down as golf's version of Peter Minuit's buying Manhattan for twenty-four dollars in trinkets. When Bandon Dunes opened in 1999, Keiser expected it would get about 12,000 rounds.

It got more than 35,000.

I am paying a visit to Bandon Dunes with my seventy-one-year-old father, and our port of entry is the airport at Eugene, 130 miles to the north. The sunlight streaming through the airport's broad rafters of indigenous timber offers a toasty welcome, and as we walk among men in hiking shorts and women without makeup, my father notes the similarity to two other enchanted golf trips we have made together. He says he remembers having the same feeling after landing in Shannon and Glasgow and anticipating the curvy seaward drives ahead to Ballybunion in one case and St. Andrews in the other. He punctuates this observation with a pet superlative that has become a family joke he still doesn't get: "Amazing."

I actually roll my eyes; at age forty-seven, I'm still an exasperated teenager. Regardless, the parallel with the great golf destinations of the world is the very point of our trip to Bandon. The courses are perched end to end on craggy bluffs high above the shimmering Pacific, and each tumbles along what is the closest thing to authentic linksland in the United States. Even more visually dramatic than their British seaside brethren, they possess the elemental feel of ancient playing grounds: the wide, mostly treeless panorama accented by a burnished mix of shaggy natural grasses, vast sandy dunes, sod-faced bunkers that lurk like dark eyebrows, and the dull roar of wind and surf. Both courses are public, with no golf carts, no real estate and no rip-off green fees. Maybe you can't get farther from the Scotland-Ireland axis in the contiguous United States than the Oregon Coast, but give or take a few pubs, you also can't get any closer to the cradle of the game.


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