Bandon Dunes: Ranking the Best Courses

Will Leivenberg@@will_leivenbergFeatured ColumnistNovember 14, 2013

Bandon Dunes: Ranking the Best Courses

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    Golf-obsessed Americans watch the British Open year in and year out fiending for a genuine test of links golf that doesn’t require them to hop on a 747 all the way to Scotland.

    Bandon is their solution.

    Oregon's coastal gem, Bandon Dunes, is not just another attempt at links golf on American soil, rather, it's a seaside challenge of unforgettable value. Sure, the Monterey Peninsula, Kiawah Island and Nags Head in North Carolina provide some impressive renditions, but realistically they’re a driver, three-wood, chip and a putt away from what Bandon Dunes offers.

    The Bandon property is made of up of three links courses—Pacific Dunes, Bandon Dunes and Old MacDonald—and another 18-hole links-eqsue track that treks into a forest of spruce, pines and cedars called Bandon Trails.

    You'll discover an unmatched golf experience at Bandon. But just how do you know which course is best?

    According to one caddie at Bandon,

    Pacific Dunes is the most spectacular. Bandon Dunes is the caddie favorite because it's the easiest to walk. Old MacDonald is the best to play. And Bandon Trails, from a pure golf course design standpoint, is the best 18 holes out here.

    Every golfer who plays all four courses has one course that resonates most with them and it varies from golfer to golfer.

    I've ranked Bandon's courses based on my experience—a golf marathon of 105 holes in less than 72 hours. The ranking system was inspired by a blend of my own metrics and Golf Digest’s revered techniques (Golf Digest produces a Top 100 courses worldwide annually; all four of Bandon’s courses are on the list).

    The categories include: design variety, memorability, authenticity and difficulty. Each category is worth a total of five points; five being the highest and one being the lowest.

    Take a look and post a comment if you agree, disagree or have any questions!

    Also, take a look at the rest of the series about Bandon Dunes:

    Bandon Dunes: Golf's Coastal Wonder with Links to the Past

    Top 15 Coolest Thing About a Bandon Dunes Trip

    Top 10 Essentials for a Bandon Dunes Trip

4. Bandon Dunes

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    The eye-popping, and gut-checking, 16th hole at Bandon Dunes
    The eye-popping, and gut-checking, 16th hole at Bandon DunesPhoto Courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort and Wood Sabold

    Bandon Dunes: 6,732 yards, Par 72

    Bandon Dunes is the least difficult course of the four on the property, but its palpable devotion to links style—with its rippled fairways, massive greens and challenging coastal holes—fuse together a vivid golf experience.

    David McLay Kidd, the course's architect, said it best about Bandon Dunes:

    I imagined the routing having the structure of a symphony—strong start, a sense of anticipation, small crescendos and an incredible finishing sequence along the Pacific.

    In relation to the other courses, Bandon’s fairways are wide open and the greens are relatively easy to hit, but neither of those facts make Bandon easy to score on. The natural dunes cause the fairways to sway this way and that, making a flat lie nearly nonexistent. Bandon’s greens are their own puzzle you must piece together, negotiating an array of tiers in fast and firm conditions.  

    Now consider all of that information and add the one element you really can't avoid at Bandon—wind.

    I played Bandon Dunes early in the morning under calm conditions, but by the second nine, the gusts picked up and altered the experience, affecting everything from strategy on the tee to ball flight. All in all, it's a terrific track with breathtaking views.

    Highlight Hole: No. 16, 363 yards.

    Take a moment to pray, perhaps snap a photo and then hit your tee shot.

    As pictured above, this hole is beautiful, but brutal. There's clearly nothing to the right but trouble, which is why you need to play it safe and out to the left with a drive that can negotiate the often strong winds blowing off the coast.

    The 16th is nearly unmatched in dramatic views on the property, but it's devilishly difficult as well. If you don't make a mistake off the tee, distance control with your second shot is key because of the well-protected green that falls off into, well, the ocean beyond it.

    Beyond the gut-wrenching feeling from the tee and second shot, the hole belongs on a postcard for its stunning view of the Pacific.

3. Bandon Trails

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    The 14th hole at Bandon Trails is one of the highest points on the property and reveals a gorgeous view from the forest down to the dunes along the coast.
    The 14th hole at Bandon Trails is one of the highest points on the property and reveals a gorgeous view from the forest down to the dunes along the coast.Photo Courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort and Wood Sabold

    Bandon Trails: 6,759 yards, Par 71

    Trekking through the towering trees and traversing the rugged land caused Bandon Trails to feel at times feels more like a nature hike than a grueling golf course.

    Trails, the one non-seaside course on the property, features tree-lined fairways and heavily protected greens that give it the appearance of a more traditional American golf course. You’re brought back down to earth from the majestic and coastal views of the other three courses, but don’t mistake that observation for Trails being any less demanding or beautiful than its counterparts.

    The course is Augusta National-esque; there may not be a major championship played there every April, but Trails still evokes a solemn history and charm. From shot to shot, you watch how sunlight trickles through the pine, cedar and spruce trees on to well-groomed fairways and slick, contoured greens.

    Much like Pacific Dunes, the holes radiate with originality, rarely overlapping in design or distance, and yet after 18 holes there’s an unmistakable unity.

    The high-flying shots that got you in trouble on the other three coastal courses are more acceptable at Trails, where the trees shield off most of the wind. But once again, distance control is a must on this course, where the greens are firm and speedy.

    Highlight Hole: No. 11, 445 yards

    The long, dogleg 11th bends to the right where a giant bunker over 60 yards in length rides the edge of the fairway. It's reminiscent of Augusta’s famous 11th hole, which is also a dogleg right, but instead of the water hazard protecting the left side of the green, Trails’ water hazard is on the right side.

    After your tee shot, prepare for a stunning view. The green sits slightly below you, there's water on your right and an amphitheater of high-rising trees frame the green. The risk and reward nature of this hole is classic Bandon—a solid drive over the left edge of the bunker can make it a birdie hole, but a poor drive too far left or right into the hazard can blow up your scorecard.

2. Old MacDonald

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    Old MacDonald epitomizes the sprawling links design of a Scottish course.
    Old MacDonald epitomizes the sprawling links design of a Scottish course.Photo Courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort and Wood Sabold

    Old MacDonald: 6,944 yards, Par 71

    The newest course to round out Bandon's quartet is nearly the best of them all. Finished in 2010, Old MacDonald’s design mirrors many famous holes from the British Isles, which Tom Doak and Jim Urbina—Old Mac’s architects—repurposed along the rugged dunes of the Pacific Coast.

    Old MacDonald draws its name and design from C.B. MacDonald, who is widely considered the father of American golf course architecture. From the first hole, the word "sprawling" takes on new meaning.

    The fairways are rarely defined at Old Mac, as the rippled fairways extend almost as far as the eye can see until you reach the ocean on one end or the pines on the other. While the fairways are generous, the hazards are similarly as well-placed and as punishing as those on Pacific Dunes.

    The one feature that truly sets Old Mac apart, though, is the greens.

    Often reaching more than 60 yards in length, Old Mac’s greens are a beast, testing a golfer’s touch as much as their creativity. When you don’t execute yardages correctly at Old Mac, you pay in a way unlike any of the other three tracks. You’re often penalized with steep false fronts that call for lag-putts ranging from 30 feet to 30 yards.

    The key to surviving, and ultimately thriving, at Old Mac is knowing, and executing, your yardages, which will minimize the impact of Old Mac's perplexing greens. Also, don't let your guard down at Old Mac, especially as you come to the closing four holes, which are all over 450 yards and will be engulfed by swirling winds if you’re playing in the afternoon.

    Highlight Hole: No. 7. 363 yards

    At first glance, this hole seems straightforward: straight uphill and into the wind. But to say the green is elevated would be an understatement. A bomb off the tee may get you inside 125 yards, but the fierce winds call for a two- if not three-club adjustment. 

    The green itself sits perched on the hill, so far above you that your second shot is basically blind—just aim for the dangling flag and say a prayer. To my surprise, ascending the massive hill rewarded my playing partners and I with one of the best views on the property of the seemingly endless coastline, which on the day I played it was bathed in warm sunlight.

1. Pacific Dunes

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    Pacific Dunes was my favorite of the four courses, unmatched in beauty and difficulty.
    Pacific Dunes was my favorite of the four courses, unmatched in beauty and difficulty.Photo Courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Course and Wood Sabold

    Pacific Dunes: 6,633 yards, Par 71

    Every architect dreams of building among the sand dunes, in the same terrain where golf was conceived in the British Isles. Pacific Dunes is that dream come true for me.Tom Doak, Pacific Dunes Architect

    Pacific Dunes was sculpted from the coast's windswept terrain, resulting in a mesmerizing, memorable and mystifying golf course. Like a suspenseful thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat, Pacific Dunes never allows you to get too comfortable. The layout is short enough to give every golfer hope at 6,633 yards, but it's no stroll across the fairway.

    Prepare for every facet of your game to be tested.

    Pacific Dunes was the first course I played at Bandon; it was early in the morning and the course was manicured to perfection, so much so that you couldn’t tell where fairways ended and greens began. It was undeniably the most difficult course of the four because the hazards come into play more often. I'd never played a course where the hazards were so penalizing that it made me feel I couldn't play aggressively.

    In relation to Bandon Dunes, where most tee shots are not very intimidating, Pacific’s tee boxes are gut-checks, daring you to take the bold route along rippled fairways, which often, unknowingly from the tee, feed into gorse on one side or bunkers on the other. What I loved most about Pacific Dunes was how each hole had its own original, treacherous design, and that ultimately made for a continuity among the entire 18 holes.

    Highlight Hole: No.13, 444 yards

    If this hole were only 444 yards, it would still be among the most difficult on the property. But Doak and his crew designed the hole straight into the wind, loaded it with bunkers and built the green to slant directly toward the water.

    You’ll need to rip your drive to get inside of 175 yards for your second, which is a feat of its own into the wind. Remember, though, left is the ocean, right is flurry of bunkers and the wind is ever-present. If that weren’t enough, the green is massive with multiple tiers, which makes knocking it tight an unlikely endeavor. The hole is a beauty but must be played with caution.

Bonus! Bandon Preserve: The Ultimate Par-3 Course and Introduction to Links Golf

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    Photo Courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort and Wood Sabold

    Bandon Preserve: 1,468 yards, Par 39

    The vivid blue of the Pacific Coast is visible from each of Bandon Preserve's 13 holes.

    Every detail, from the manicured edges of green-side bunkers to the finely trimmed, rippled fairways, shines brightly at the Preserve. Beyond the fact that the Preserve is a fun, distinct challenge, it's an ideal introduction to links-style golf and ultimately the conditions you'll face on the larger four courses.

    Preserve begins on the land adjacent to Bandon Trails and then steadily moves towards the beach. Sure, the beach sounds relaxing, but the proximity to the water means wind, and plenty of it. Two- to three-club winds are standard, and as you move through the course you'll face just about every direction of wind; the kinds that hurt, help and perplex you from hole to hole.

    For that reason, scoring well on the par-three course is all about being patient so you can grasp the impact of the wind and consequently utilizing the wind to your advantage. From blind tee shots over dunes to 10-feet deep bunkers, Bandon Preserve is a feisty test that you won't want to miss.