Imagine the crazy luck of Oregon.
One day, back in 1999, Oregonians were just minding their own business, logging, beavering, checking for moss on the children -- it rains occasionally -- when greeting card magnate Mike Keiser, who lives in friggin Chicago, opens the first of four remarkable seaside links at Bandon Dunes on the southern coast, forever altering the landscape of American golf.
Knowing what they do now, most states would have groveled like Mayberry courting Toyota and trucked in half of Yemen to find Keiser the sand he wanted, but back then Oregon seemed content with their Ducks and track stars. Bandon Dunes sounded like a fun project, most thought, but perhaps not the life-altering pilgrimage it has become for thousands.
Aye, but that’s what it is, the St. Andrews of America, a quartet of gorse-lined Scottish courses unlike any golf canvass in our hemisphere. And since I was the last golf writer alive not to have seen it all, I loaded up my college scholar in June and took us for two weeks of Oregon golf, which also included some munies, mom-and-pop nine-holers and swanky masterpieces around Bend, Oregon’s high-desert playground.
For most travelers an Oregon golf vacation will thankfully begin in Portland, an endlessly satisfying town that despite its “cultural creative” influx still resembles a working class port city, even if many of its Willamette River docks are now yuppie lofts. The Rose City is thick with authentic neighborhoods featuring sidewalk movie theatres, stunning parks, great mass transit and dozens of real local taverns, not just brewpubs. Our favorite was the Dockside Saloon, where Terry and Kathy Peterson not only open at 5 a.m. every weekday with a full menu, but also seemingly know every worthwhile golf course in the state. (Ask Kathy how she became the undoing of Olympic skating thug Tonya Harding.)
You could spend a good week here playing Portland’s stellar public courses, but time and rain – Oregon just had its second wettest spring on record -- limited us to two of the best, Eastmoreland and Heron Lakes. Nearly a century old, Eastmoreland is bordered by the city's Rhododendron Gardens and Crystal Springs Lakes, which make the 6,529-yard, walkable layout feel like a deep-forest wildlife preserve. Thirty bucks covers a weekday walking round. Legend has it that Walter Hagen loved No. 13, a short par-five. Busy Heron Lakes offers 36 holes of Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and Sr. design work ($50-$60), with Greenback being the more tame layout and Great Blue, which hosted the 2000 USGA Amateur Public Links Championship, the more adventurous, at 6,900 yards of sand-and-water peril. Located in the fertile floodplain between the Willamette and Columbia Slough, both have a tranquil wetlands setting but can get noisy when the nearby Portland International Raceway is humming.
If you love college towns, evergreen Eugene and The University of Oregon not only offer the ethically-challenged but consensus top-five Ducks football program, but, of course, iconic Hayward Field, the throbbing heart of Track Town, USA and the ghost of Seventies legend, Steve Prefontaine. If you want a $250 round and are a private club member, get your head pro to arrange a "reciprocal" play at the Eugene Country Club, a Robert Trent Jones, Sr. re-design (1967) that's full of Doug firs, Big Leaf Spruce and Oregon Oaks, and is ranked in America's top 100 by Golf Digest and Golfweek.
Cue the bagpipes. Foolishly, I was one of those who thought no matter how much Bandon Dunes Golf Resort paid homage to Scottish links and the minimalist British Isles golf experience many of us revere that it would inevitably fall short. Oh, how I love to be wrong. Incredibly, Mike Keiser's creation exceeds its enormous and well-deserved hype.
At times during my rounds at Bandon, I did 360-degree spins in the fairways and looked in vein for anything that shouted American Golf Resort. There were no garish tee markers and signage. No golf carts – the courses are designed for walkers. Yes, the golf is pricey at $245 per course, but the food is not, and there’s no sales tax in Oregon. No valet parking or spa. No SWAT team of frat boys named Brent trying to forcibly carry your clubs 30 feet. No assault of dark leather and testosterone in the clubhouse. And the staff is uniformly polite, helpful and smart, without the oily sheen of corporate hospitality. (Hint: They treat their employees well. I met one waiter who had been there 12 years and now earned four weeks vacation.) Plus, a par-three Coore-Crenshaw course, Bandon Preserve, will open next July.
For those not familiar, here is the Bandon lineup:
Bandon Dunes (1999, David McLay Kidd), just 27 when he first saw the land, Kidd and his father, Jimmy, both Scots, took inspiration from ancestral links like Machrihanish and North Berwick; now ranked No. 7 by Golfweek.
Pacific Dunes (2001, Tom Doak), the iconoclastic Doak now has his name on five of Golfweek’s top 15 post-1960 courses in America, and this is probably his best. You will not find a contrived or indifferent hole. Golfweek’s No. 2.
Bandon Trails (2005, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw), the designers of Golfweek’s No. 1 course in America, Sand Hills, in Mullen, Nebraska, carved the third Bandon track out of a more inland coastal forest, a massive sand dune and a lovely meadow; Golfweek’s No. 29.
Old Macdonald (2010, Tom Doak and Jim Urbina), a tribute to architect C.B. Macdonald, the father of American golf architecture, Old Mac is a sprawling canvass with blasted bunkers, oceanic fairways and greens larger than St. Andrews’; Golfweek’s No. 3. Caddies range $80-$100. [Full disclosure, I am a rater for Golfweek.]
There’s little need for hole-by-hole narratives here. Instead, go buy Stephen Goodwin’s new edition of "Dream Golf," which expertly tells Keiser’s fantastic pursuit of his Bandon golf mecca and describes the landscape in marvelous detail. Though Bandon Trails doesn’t qualify as a links, all four courses generally play like their Scottish ancestors, complete with native gorse, constant wind, ragged fringed bunkers, tight fescue fairways and inscrutable greens built upon eons of sand. (Women golfers will especially appreciate that all four courses now have more forward, "Royal Blue" tees that have proven popular.)
If for some reason you are physically prevented from reaching Ireland or Scotland, you need go no farther than Bandon Dunes. Tiptoeing out on a limb, I’ll venture to say Pacific Dunes is the finest course I have played in North America. Tom “Golf Should Be Fun” Doak practices what he preaches by keeping the tips at a reasonable, yet always challenging 6,700 yards. In normal stiff wind, mere mortals will not overpower this cliffside exam. There are just too many exacting approach shots, uneven lies and rippled greens complexes, but when you inevitably fail, Doak doesn’t waterboard you into submission. He often allows you to find your ball in benign native rough and at least dream of heroic pars. You could shoot 110 here and never lose your ball.
"I’ve played Pacific Dunes about 50 times now with all sorts of players," Doak wrote me recently, "and there is still nothing I would want to change. I was lucky that it came at the perfect time in my career -- 12 previous courses from which to learn mistakes, and enough time to build up a talented team – and luckier still that it’s a public course so that everyone can come and see my best work."
Old Macdonald, the newest course at Bandon, is a joy to play, more expansive and equally thoughtful, with such huge multi-tiered greens – one is 22,000 square feet, 75 yards from stem to stern -- that you’ll often be thrilled to only three-putt. Cresting no. 3 fairway, for your first glimpse at the Pacific and all your golfing colleagues below, is like a Three Tenors concert.
Off the course, I was just as impressed with the on-site cabins, uncluttered natural setting and flawless shuttle bus system at Bandon Dunes. A frustrated, non-golfing wife once described the cabins (roughly $200 to $600 May to October) as “exalted Best Westerns.” That comes from spending too much time in them. They’re spacious and comfortable, but without the dozen Balinesian pillows that mean so much.
There are no cute shops, no funky local flavor, within walking distance. There are, however, great hikes in the forest, along the gorgeous beach, and at three lovely state parks nearby. The small town of Bandon, five miles south on Hwy. 101, naturally has its share of tourist flotsam, but there’s a nice variety of restaurants in the Old Town harbor area and several good mom-and-pop motels that beckon frugal golfers.
Two local golf courses are worth checking out. Bandon Crossings, five miles south of the town, is good enough that Bandon Dunes pros often send folks there. Exceptional par-threes, bentgrass greens, about $45-$75 in the summer, check for discounts. And for unpretentious charm, try Old Bandon Golf Links, a nine-hole, 2100-yard delight originally laid out in 1927 and now lovingly kept by Troy Russell, former super at Bandon Dunes, and wife, Kim. You can even rent hickory-shafted clubs and authentic hand-made gutta percha golf balls (for $20 each!), watch their sheep dog work his flock and stay next door at the newly-renovated Inn at Face Rock. Now this feels like a golf trip.
Bandon to Bend is a splendid journey if you’re not impatient. The winding road beside the brrrisk Umpqua River, home to one or two bass and steelhead, is lined with Fifties postcard cabins and wide-load logging trucks that made us scream like Miss Alabama. Although Bend, population 77,000, has been featured by almost every outdoorsy magazine worth its Chapstick, Central Oregon’s high-desert array of destination golf still remains largely undiscovered by those back East who may think Oregon means only damp green coastal golf.
Not unlike Boulder or Asheville, Bend is an educated, very white, lite-jazz kinda town where it seems everyone kayaks to breakfast and hails from somewhere else. Bend was deluged with pre-recession, upscale migrants, but got hit hard by foreclosures and double-digit unemployment. Act now if you dream of a fairway McMansion.
With summer’s long days we took our time climbing up to 3,200 feet and cruised directly to a sunset round at Pronghorn Golf Club’s Nicklaus course – there is also a more private Fazio track – which felt a bit like a Scottsdale resort without the cactus. The impeccably groomed course, ranked no. 149 by Golfweek, seems almost poured onto the sagebrush steppe landscape, a threatened or degraded ecosystem that occupies much of central Oregon. Tipping out at 7,400 yards, the course winds its way through lava outcroppings and scattered junipers. The bunkers are razor cut, the greens as smooth as Secretariat’s rump. It’ll cost in the $125-$200 range, but check for discounts.
Our home base for a few nights was Brasada Ranch, an 1800-acre, family resort 16 miles northeast of Bend that offers horses, fishing, rafting, a spa, swimming, and dining of the informal fireside and artsy grub varieties. The golf is a relaxed and wildly scenic experience known as Brasada Canyons, crafted by former Tour player Peter Jacobsen and partner Jim Hardy. There’s no gut-check intimidation here, just wide fairways, elevated tee boxes and a Cascades backdrop of Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top, Three Sisters and Mt. Jefferson. In the spring, I’m told, you can ski Bachelor in the morning and do 18 holes by sunset.
New owners are putting real attention to Brasada – the cabins are already sublime man caves – but we were taken with the staff, from the smart trailguide at the stables and the front desk’s sweet border collie to restaurant manager Lee Ottow, who not only finds great locally-grown produce, but also owns a reclaimed golf ball outfit, 9Lives Golf Balls, that will soothe any hacker’s wallet. Check Brasada’s website for package deals with nearby courses.
Tetherow Golf Club, designed by the adventurous David McLay Kidd of Bandon fame, is the hip new guy in central Oregon, having won some national magazine huzzahs since its opening in 2008. Close to downtown, the sprawling 7,300-yard course unfurls like a “Bonanza” episode from the moment you step on the lofted driving range. I’m one who liked Kidd’s Bandon course and his loved-or-loathed Castle Course at St. Andrews, whose mogul-icious greens the Scottish lords later insisted be tamed. But I walked off Tetherow thinking, hmmm, it’s gorgeous eye-candy, relentlessly difficult and has some links qualities I enjoy, but ultimately I thought there was just too much going on – heaving fairways, penal bunkers, potato chip greens, uphill approaches, false fronts, showy rock outcroppings, water features, angry gnomes. It felt like a symphony with nothing but crescendos.
The front desk guys begged me to take a caddie, and of course one might help on your first visit, but caddies can’t cure that visual busy-ness that detracts from the calm coherence one expects at great courses, and finds at, say, Coore & Crenshaw’s Bandon Trails, which has similar topography. But by all means, play Tetherow, recently ranked No. 141 by Golfweek, and drop me a line.
My favorite course in the Bend area was Sunriver Resort’s Crosswater Golf Club, a Bob Cupp and John Fought creation (1995) that has hosted several senior PGA tour events and has been a fixture on Golfweek’s top 100 modern list. Unlike most Bend spots, Crosswater offers a serene and flat layout of wetlands and wildlife that lures you into forgetting that you must hit more than a dozen forced carries over water. You’ll cross the Little Deschutes River five times, dodging in and out of forested greens complexes. I caught it at dusk and was charmed by the stillness, the wooden bridges and the proud bald eagle whose nest rises above the no. 13 tee box.
If you have more time, cruise online to the Central Oregon Golf Trail, where you’ll find details on nearly 20 more courses near Bend that may fit your skills and budget better than these.
We ate well all over Oregon, from Portland’s ubiquitous trailers to our outdoor breakfasts at Brasada Ranch, but none were more satisfying than our grilled salmon and baked ziti dinners ($20 and $14) at Terrebonne Depot, a century-old remodeled train depot 17 miles north of Bend, in little Terrebonne. (Open 11:30 am, closed Tuesdays) It’s all lovingly local, with a fun menu that runs from Moroccan couscous to fancy rib-eyes and awesome ground buffalo nachos. Best of all, the restaurant is just minutes from the exceptional Smith Rock State Park, a world-famous rock climbing haven.
Imagine our delight, being Texans, that Oregon has discovered the joys of glass-bottled Mexican Cokes, that is, Coca-Cola bottled in Mexico using the original cane sugar recipe (not that frothy high fructose corn syrup in cans) that gives this childhood vice a cleaner crisper taste. We found them in even the tiniest towns.
Sampling Bend’s assortment of craft beer is now made simple (and safer) with the Bend Ale Trail and clever entrepreneurs like John Flannery with GetIt Shuttle who will take you by pedi-cab, horse-drawn carriage, bicycle or bus to the many cool breweries in town. Find all the details at VisitBend.com.
Travel Oregon, Travel Portland, and the Central Oregon Visitors Association each have worthy websites that work hard to find cool stuff at all price and sophistication levels. And it never hurts to ask for discounts.
WHERE TO STAY
Portland is full of fine hotels, but few are more convenient than the Hotel Fifty, just across from Tom McCall Waterfront Park in downtown Portland. There are 13 light-rail (MAX) stops within a quarter-mile of the hotel, including runs to the airport.
Around Bend, the aforementioned Brasada Ranch is perfect for the rural resort crowd, but if you want that gritty urban ambiance that defines Bend, ahem, try the Oxford Hotel, an eco-friendly boutique inn surrounded by galleries and restaurants.
Bruce Selcraig lives in Austin and writes for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and Mother Jones, among others. You can reach him at email@example.com.