by MIKE BAILEY
There’s nothing like links golf. It’s a different game, played more on the ground, using the angles and the wind to help steer the ball to the ultimate goal, the hole. This kind of golf, of course, is abundant in Scotland or Ireland, but if you don’t want to make a trip across the pond (or simply can’t), go west my friends, northwest to be more specific, to the southern coast of Oregon on the Pacific Ocean.
We’re talking about Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, which for avid golfers in the U.S. has become sort of a pilgrimage over the last 24 years since the original David McLay Kidd designed Bandon Dunes course opened. A few years later, the Tom Doak-designed Pacific Dunes debuted. It’s a course that’s been perennially ranked as the second best public golf course in America right behind Pebble Beach Golf Links (which is not a links course).
Now, with the addition of the Sheep Ranch in 2020, Bandon Dunes has five regulation length, walking-only courses. With the possible exception of Bandon Trails, which is set away from the cliffs, these are the only true links courses in the United States. They’re sand-based, fescue, and seaside, playing firm and fast, and encouraging the ground game. (Highland Links, on Cape Cod, also claims to be true links, but several of the holes really don’t fulfill the requirement. I also found, during a round this summer, it’s soft in front of the greens, making it impossible to bounce a ball up onto the green, but it’s a great experience nonetheless.)
The first iteration of Sheep Ranch was originally a 13-hole course with no set tee boxes, designed by Doak and Jim Urbina. Golfers had endless options on the way they could play it. It was sort of a secret course for a while, one that the general public couldn’t really play.
But for various reasons, Bandon Dunes founder and owner Mike Keiser decided to bring this incredible property, located on the north side of the resort, to the public, so he hired the team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore (who designed Bandon Trails) to renovate it into 18 glorious holes with set tee boxes. It has quickly become a fan favorite, mostly because of the views. You can see the Pacific from all 18 holes, and nine of them play right along the cliffs. It’s also the only course with its own driving range, and the greens are huge. It’s not uncommon to have a 100-foot putt that breaks three or four different ways, making a two-putt the most challenging part of the holes in many cases. (I found that I was often better off missing the greens with a chance to pitch it to avoid the undulations.)
There are also no sand bunkers on Sheep Ranch. The reason is because this might be the most exposed course to the wind. Keeping sand in the bunkers would be difficult at best. And speaking of the wind, using it to your advantage on this course is the key to success, as well as a great short game. You have to flight the ball accordingly, and keep the ball close to the ground when you can. The Sheep Ranch definitely encourages creativity. And if it isn’t too breezy, it’s the most playable and perhaps easiest of the courses at Bandon Dunes.
And while Sheep Ranch is the latest in the lineup, there’s more to come. Shorty’s, what looks to be a wonderful 19-hole par-3 course, has been shaped and grassed, and should open by next summer. It’s located near Bandon Trails and Bandon Preserve, the existing 13-hole par-3 course designed by Coore/Crenshaw with all ocean views. The new course is named for the late Shorty Dow, the original caretaker of the property and close friend of Keiser. There’s also talk of redoing the putting green at Old MacDonald, perhaps more akin to Bandon Dunes incredible Punchbowl, a 100,000-square foot putting course that pays homage to the Himalayas putting course at St. Andrews.
There’s actually another par-3 course at Bandon Dunes’ outstanding Practice Center, and it was called “Shorty’s,” but is now being named for Shorty’s widow, Charlotte. Additionally, one of the newest eating venues at Bandon Dunes also honors Shorty’s wife. Charlotte’s barbecue food truck and restaurant opened during the pandemic to give guests a good option for outdoor dining. It’s located at the Practice Center, and I highly recommend it, especially the pulled pork.
Bandon Dunes is booked out now until early 2025 (rounds and hotel), but don’t fret; you don’t have to hold out that long if you want to make a trip out there. Guests can cancel up to 30 days out, and spots do open up.
Also, Bandon Dunes is open 12 months a year. If you’re willing to play there during the colder, wetter months, you also can save a little money as green fees and hotel rates can be significantly less. Just remember your rain-gear, or you could get lucky. It’s not uncommon to see a day in the 60s or above, even during winter.
(Mike Bailey is Travel Editor of Pro Golf Weekly www.progolfweekly.com)