To a golf culture bred on thick, well-irrigated, wall-to-wall grass — with Augusta National as its benchmark for what an all-American course should look like — that first meeting with the greenish-brownish hues and sparse, buzz-cut-meets shag-bunkered feel of Bandon Dunes’ four courses (with a fifth on the way) can lead to one two emotions: Revelation or revulsion.
Most people who make the effort to get there expect, and experience, the former. The sandy soil on this slice of southern Oregon soil gave Mike Keiser all the ammo he needed to build a resort that has more in common with the great destinations of the United Kingdom and Ireland than most well-known stateside standard-bearers.
That’s exactly the goal, says Ken Nice, Bandon Dunes’ director of agronomy since day one. “Mr. Keiser’s original intent was to bring true links golf to the United States. He searched long and hard to find a spot that would accommodate that. We try every day to provide true, traditional links surfaces.”
A few holes on any of Bandon’s world-class quartet puts most golfers into a mindset they may have not thought possible at their favorite clubs or munis back home — and offers a new lease on their creative shotmaking side. With almost constant winds blowing off the Pacific Ocean and very tight, tilted lies — as well as almost imperceptible transitions between what is fairway and what is green (especially on Old Macdonald), the aerial game has little or no place here. “One of the first things is we go with fine-textured fescue grasses that provide a tight lie that most golfer aren’t accustomed to,” Nice says. “Golfers learn to embrace and have fun with it once they get use to it. We embrace the ground game here. They learn to say, ‘This is a whole new creative aspect of golf that I haven’t experienced it before.’”
To many purists, this is the only true way to play golf. After all, said one well-known architect back in the day, “the ball is round, it’s meant to roll along the ground.” And Nice and his crack crew make sure every course hews to that philosophy, even though they can get several inches of rain in a day in the winter and shoulder seasons.
“It’s more of a discipline factor. Initially you want to ‘chase green,’ and we don’t want to do that here. You learn how to back off the inputs, put less water and fertilizer down so it doesn’t go in the direction of a lush parkland style. Our inputs are a third to a fourth of that of a normal golf courses. We use hardly any pesticides at all. Sustainable turf grass maintenance is our goal, which falls right in line with links golf. It’s kind of a marriage. We provide the surface people expect when they play links golf, and we provide an environmental function as well.”
Many modern architects now follow Bandon’s lead and look to build courses that are far friendlier and lighter on the land — and ask players to open their minds and hearts to the real deal.
“You don’t want to even carry a 60-degree wedge out here,” says Ken Brooke, director of caddy services. “But we’ve got to let people figure that out for themselves.”