Bandon Dunes, America's greatest seaside golf resort? Is it the best overall? Boy oh boy it is a pain in the rear to get to - a long drive from Portland. Connecting from Portland is tough as the return flight from Bandon to Portland is 0600 and that's just way too early. Report of more convenient connectors through SFO are a welcome addition. To be honest, the drive back was way less a bother than I thought it would be, I guess I just enjoy driving.
All the hype about Bandon Trails, never having played it I was able to do so yesterday. I wanted to wait until I played another of the courses before rendering an opinion, but my initial impression of Bandon Dunes (Kidd) was a wrong one as I underestimated just how good it was. It more exceeded my expectations from memory than Bandon trails failed to live up to its considerable hype. It by contrast was better than I remembered and gave it credit for on my last visit. I had had the opinion comparing Bandon Dunes to Pacific Dunes - on my first trip - that BD was perhaps a more ordinary course boosted by an extraordinary setting. That's selling it short in the very least. One major aspect the last few years of travel and exposure to more and more links golf was for my part greater recognition of design styles dictated by environment and weather. Kidd did a wonderful job of finding flexibility in length and bunker placement accommodating these elements. The ability of a player to play the same tees into and down wind does not significantly vary. There is one major and two minor forced carries to deal with on Bandon Dunes and each has reasonable tolerance for wind and interesting choices depending on wind direction.
As for Bandon Trails, one loves it if one loves Coore and Crenshaw and that is no surprise - that seems to be a distinct pattern among architectural aficionados. Whether or not you care for the features independent of style preference otherwise guides your opinion. This seems a better way to me to judge a golf course's merit - answering the questions asked of you.
I found Bandon Trails in far better condition, especially near the greens yet it was less interesting and challenging to play even in more severe weather. I tend to favor difficult golf courses and found that just as at Saguaro We-Ko-Pa, the Talking Sticks as well as other public access C&C courses that the greens while fairly representative of many of their courses were toned down in severity to allow faster pace of play. The bunkering and the wooded terrain tended to slow play more than at the Bandon Dunes course. The varied types of woodlands coupled with the dunes to start and finish diminished the feeling of being on a golf course rather than a collection of holes.
The fourth hole at Trails is the first hole of architectural note with a diagonal spine of great character determining the play of the hole. Playing further right and still carrying the ridge yielded the best angle into the green. The fifth seems a favorite of many with its hystrionic green yet I found it a bit cold and over-done. Coore et.al. seem to take pride in minimalism yet I find they either do too much or too little to a piece of land. On three they did too little other than sprinkling a spate of bunkers on a landing strip while on five the green is grossly over-shaped to yield just a few sport to place a pin.
On six there was far too much effort for such a windy hole to combine slopes, centerline bunkers, blind bunkers and diagonal run-out bunkers which while looking quite attractive just do not deliver. Looks great, plays silly especially since so much happens out of view. It would be far better if one could play the tee shot and see the ball run rather than just hit and wish and find out your fate - especially on a public access course. The uphill seventh has lots of eye candy but comes down to avoiding same and gauging the uphill approach. well ...
Eight is a par 3 1/2 Redan plain and simple. There seems little to no reason not to hit the ball as far as you can because of the fairway contours being such that running into the bunker is a likely option most times - lay-up or going for it.
Nine and ten are just nothing holes so I'll wax poetic about the On Golden Pond setting of number 11. Giving the slope of the green surrounds left of the green, there is little reason to challenge the water more than 15-20% of the time. Eleven through 13 share connecting areas and gives a sense of vastness unlike any other spot on the course. The knob front right on 12 is a real hazard if you hit it on the fly.
14 is very remote requiring a very long walk or a ride on a truck - rather momentum breaking, more than a stop at the halfway house. It's a real deal-breaker for me. The hole as well is controversial, but the green is a problem for the greedy and unsure more than anything else. The elevated tee makes it hard to control distance, but the more blind lower area is less threatening than I had been led to believe as I heard that the area left of the green had been softened a bit.
15 is simple - hit it up the left side and you'll have a direct approach to the green. Sixteen is dramatically uphill and credit is due for building the hole. 17 is very busy visually but plays more often simply than not if you don't go long. Back to the dunes on 18, the hole meanders around a bit to a very amorphous green.
Overall Trails is a lovely walk in the woods but I'll prefer to remain more near to the water and out of the forest.
Bandon Dunes gets it's largest elevation change out of the way straight off. The first and second holes feature uphill shots, a particular favorite of mine. The first is a shorter four with an elevated second shot and plays into the prevalent wind so it gets you recognizing the wind fast.. You need to hit it solid as the wind demands and the first green is mostly blind and rather large. Two is up an escarpment with a false front again demanding solid shot this time into a crosswind. It is a very fine non-ocean par 3 to say the least, often lost in discussion to its more scenic brethren. The first par 5 is the third hole, always in a crosswind and introduces the bunker-littered fairway to the Bandon Golfer.
Many a critic has noted that there are longer walks green to tee at Bandon than Pacific, but it does create a bit of a buffer or separation of the holes fast to the water from the more central portion of the routing, I don't think it was unintentional, the routing selfishly and shamelessly displays the coast on the coastal holes. The Oceanfront holes at Bandon are glorious and varied with the fourth a nearly Z-shaped hole coming out of the gorse onto the shore for a fun of three greens and holes fronting the ocean. Seven and eight away from the coast are magically different sorts of holes seven again playing very sharply uphill on the second and eight another driving examination in a mostly crosswind, just wonderful stuff. Those returning visitors will not remember seeing so much of number nine as near total (and over) removal of gorse and brush leaves one with an almost painless drive, something I hope will be recognized and remedied. It is still a wonderful little two or three shot par five, but nearly all penalty for missing right is now absent.
The routing and incorporation of features is the real strength of the original Bandon Dunes course as it truly ebbs and flows. The character of the front nine routing to have such highlights and return to the original clubhouse (a necessary idea for the first course, but perhaps viewed by some as a weakness) is quite an accomplishment as the original idea for Bandon Dunes was a hopeful 18,000 or so rounds annually which is now a laughable memory as the resort has grown far larger and faster than I think anyone could have originally imagined. On has to thank the success of this first course for building that platform on which the resort has grown to the deserved number one spot (at least in this opinion).
The second nine routing begins right at green nine and plays away towards teh ocean. A short walk is necessary to get food and drink and this was done well. Nine green and ten tee are close to the clubhouse, but more importantly if you just want to play on, it's very easy to do so. Ten has some lovely blindness, eleven compelling bunkering and a 90 degree direction change from 10.Twelve turns back south and is now completely bunkerless and a favorite par 5 of mine. Weaving back and forth, going out to the ocean for a few holes including the very clever and intriguing shortish 16th. Seventeen is manly and 18 takes you home gently without much fanfare and little memorability but it must be played more left, perhaps way more to the left than one might think. It is a little bit of a sleeper with some cleverness, but not a proverbial ball-buster finish that Americans seem to favor.
The original Bandon Dunes by Kidd remains the sleeper and the one that started it all.
Given personal taste and preferences, Old Macdonald will be best for a select number of those who care to order the four courses. Links will perhaps now have to reconsider their comparison of Pebble Beach and Pacific Dunes? Whatever of the four is your favorite is OK with me, they're all way above the average golf course by a mile. I am not personally going to declare a personal favorite. I do have an order and Old Mac is definitely NOT the last of the four. Where its place in American golf is yet to be seen as only insiders and architectural geeks have weighed in so far. Joe Blow and Jane Doe will have to let us know how the "Mike Keiser retail Golfer" perceives things.
Overall I can recommend Bandon Dunes Resort as worth the trip as it is arguably America's best golf destination resort.
Digressing, most all are expensive. Pebble Beach is a once in a lifetime play for most and deservedly so, otherwise it's a waste of money to spend any time there, you are better off driving around to play a variety of courses in a number of places.
Pinehurst has real problems with cost given the plethora of highly variable quality of courses some great as #2 and awful as #7, #8 and arguably #4 (Once my second choice at the resort) AND requiring many surcharges.
A real sleeper is the Turning Stone resort in Oneida, NY near Syracuse with remarkably fine lodging and three good to excellent courses.
Doral, Broadmoor, We-Ko-Pa and others offer nice variety, but Bandon will continue to be the spot golf lovers will dream about and return again and again.