As we hit the coast at Reedsport and head down Pacific Coast Highway 101 to Coos Bay, I'm reminded that this is the same fresh sea air that served as an elixir for the late, great runner, Steve Prefontaine. Appearing in the distance are the brawny rock outcroppings that give the beaches of southern Oregon their special character. Never overrun like their Southern California counterparts, the broad avenues of undisturbed sand are part of the state's public highway system, which means cars, dogs, horses, campers and whale watchers all have free and equal reign.
A few miles farther, the entrance drive to Bandon Dunes provides an easy introduction, with wild grasses, Scotch broom and sand leading up to a pond adjoined by four two-story cottages that each contain twelve separate domiciles. Surrounding the starter's hut are a dozen or so white-uniformed caddies, old and young, whose number swells to as many as 100 in the summer months. The cedar-shingled clubhouse is evocative of Stanford White's classic at Shinnecock Hills but is subtly modern at the same time. The lobby is both airy and elegant, rising forty feet from floors of end-cut Douglas fir to exposed beams of Oregon maple. All told, the clubhouse is 32,000 square feet, with a subterranean level that includes a spa, exercise room and tavern. The focal point of the reception area is four huge rocks, the biggest being fifteen feet tall, poised in the center of the floor. Inspired by the spectacular formations such as Face Rock at nearby Bandon Beach, their configuration suggests a mini Stonehenge and a nod to the game's mystical dimensions. Meanwhile, the adjacent main bar and grill is encircled by picture windows that open to the course as well as some astonishing sunsets.
Out on the state-of-the-art thirty-two-acre practice range, my old man is preparing for battle. His good drives go about 180, but he maintains an eight or nine handicap at his home course by running the ball through openings and making his putts. Taking note of the springy turf and freshening breeze, he's in full links mode, calling on his memories of St. Andrews, Dornoch and Turnberry, and issuing a solemn pronouncement: "I would say that, in my opinion, this is a magnificent operation. Really." Thank you, Mr. Diaz.
Tortured syntax aside, I have no doubt he's right. But I'm looking for even more from Bandon's courses: compelling evidence to rebut the idea that golf architecture will never again attain the level of art it achieved in the early part of the last century. The so-called Golden Age between World War I and the Depression was marked by money, choice land and master architects such as MacKenzie, Tillinghast and Ross, and so is the current era. The main differences are that the ideal land is in farther-flung places, and the jury's still out on whom will be considered the best architects of our time. But the fact is, there has never been a greater demand for memorable golf courses, and we know more about what comprises one and have more tools to build one than ever before. I believe that history will show soon enough that the best golf courses ever designed are being built right now—represented by places like Sand Hills in Nebraska, World Woods in Florida, Kingsbarns in St. Andrews, Whistling Straits in Wisconsin and El Dorado in Mexico. I want to see whether the courses at Bandon will be at the top of the list.
To build Bandon Dunes, honored both youth and the past by giving the job to David McLay Kidd, then a twenty-eight-year-old architect whose only previous eighteen-hole course is literally in Kathmandu. But McLay is the son of Gleneagles greenskeeper Jim Kidd and had learned his golf at the primordial links of Machrihanish. During his nothing-to-lose job interview, Kidd told Keiser that if he were the architect, he would get rid of all the gorse and keep the clubhouse off the coast to save the best land for the golf. Going with his gut, Keiser made the cheeky Kidd the first Scottish architect to build in the United States since Donald Ross.
Like Jack Neville (another inexperienced architect who, along with Douglas Grant, was chosen in 1916 by Samuel Morse to build Pebble Beach), Kidd created a wonder. Actually, Bandon Dunes is more of a links than is Pebble Beach, with turf that is more porous and fast-running. The hirsute look of its bunkering is correspondingly more Old World, courtesy of shaper Jim Haley. Although a very stout 7,326 yards from the championship tees, Bandon Dunes's firm surface and wide targets provide access to the short hitter with a feel for the bounce of the ball. Like Pebble, the routing is beautifully paced, building, in Kidd's words, "like a symphony."
The first crescendo comes on the fourth, a panoramic 443-yard par four that tumbles downhill toward the blue horizon. The par-four fifth is already, in my mind, Bandon Dunes's signature hole, a 470-yard brute that is as terrifying as it is beautiful. The hole funnels through a narrow corridor framed by hairy dunes, very much reminiscent of the eleventh at Ballybunion. When the prevailing wind is blowing hard against, it's probably best played as a three-shot hole. The green on the 217-yard par-three sixth sits on the course's highest bluff, one hundred feet above Whiskey Run Beach, making it the best spot from which to spy migrating whales. After returning inland, the course peaks again at the par-four sixteenth, destined to be one of the great short par-fours in the world. Set on a dramatic finger of land that was originally envisioned as the site of the clubhouse, the fairway is trisected diagonally by two golden blazes of wasteland, both of which can be carried in a strong following wind with an inspired stroke.