I was fortunate to tag along on Evan Schiller’s May photo shoot at Bandon Dunes. This was my first visit (but certainly not last) to this extraordinary golf resort. Despite it being a work trip, I did enjoy a “Bandon-tasting”, playing the par 3 Bandon Preserve as my appetizer, followed by Old Macdonald and Pacific Dunes. A lot has been written about Bandon Dunes since the first course opened for play in May 1999. And a lot more will be written, because what has been thoughtfully created here over the past 20+ years is a golf destination – a place where those with a love of links golf and golf course architecture stand in deep appreciation. It’s my intention, as an avid golfer and “The Golf Photographer’s Photographer”, to share my own experience about this unique place.
Our visit was made extra special with a sneak peak of the work occurring over at Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch which is in the process of becoming a 7,000 yard, par 71 course. It’s scheduled to open to the public in 2020. Located on Five Mile Point, this property abuts the north end of the resort with a mile of coastline frontage, designed with nine greens on the water, and views of the ocean from every hole – I can tell you right now, I will be back (and soon).
Observations from the Cockpit
For those of you who have yet to make the trip, “yet” being the operative word, you have probably heard that Bandon isn’t the easiest destination to get to, at least coming from the East Coast, but I believe the journey there just adds to its allure and your own sense of adventure. I got up at 2:30am on a Wednesday morning to catch a 6am flight out of Newark to SFO. I landed in San Francisco at 9:30am PST where I caught up with Evan for breakfast and our connecting flight to North Bend, Oregon. There’s only one direct flight a day from SFO – a jet that holds about 75 people and it’s my understanding the plane is usually packed – packed with testosterone that is. If I had kept my eyes closed during the boarding process I would have thought I was headed to Disneyland with 74 little boys (or should I say, “Linksland”) to ride the Bandon Dunes’ rollercoasters. The atmosphere bordered on giddy. There were lots of four-somes and eight-somes, each on their own well-organized “guy trips”, but feeding off each others’ euphoria that it felt like one very big “guys’ trip”. I don’t think I have ever been on a plane with so many genuinely happy people.
Your Improv Skills versus the Weather
When your setting is on the Oregon coast, Weather always has a role to play. She’s the one character that finds her way into every scene; sometimes the heroine, sometimes the villain, occasionally a supporting actress, but always there to test your Improv skills – whether you’re holding a camera or a golf club. Interestingly enough, the weather at Bandon does have a degree of predictability. You can generally expect one of two personalities to greet you at the first tee, either (1) sun & wind or (2) marine layer/fog & calm, but just because a particular personality shows-up doesn’t mean she sticks around. We are talking about the Oregon coast, so rain may be thrown into the mix too and that might be expressed with or without wind, steady or gusty and at speeds from gentle to gale – sounds like the potential for a Starbucks order, except you’re not the one doing the ordering…
We landed that first afternoon into North Bend to lots of sunshine and a blustery wind off of Coos Bay, ie., typical. Late in the afternoon Evan and I went out to do some course scouting and encountered the heavy marine layer as it rolled back in on the way to sunset, also typical. So what is a photographer to do? Basically, cross your fingers and hope for some light and better luck tomorrow, and the tomorrow after that… This challenging weather pattern was a big reason behind our decision to stay for six days in the hope Mother Nature would throw us at least a few photographic crumbs along the way. Of course, shooting in black and white is also an option…
Sneak Peak of Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch
First order of business the next morning was a 5:30am rendezvous with Michael Chupka, Bandon’s Director of Communications for our preview of the Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch. It was still dark when Michael picked us up and brought us over to the property, since no official signs were up yet to lead the way. In the predawn darkness Michael shared the Sheep Ranch’s back-story. This extraordinary property, cloaked in a bit of mystery and a lot of fog, has been jointly owned by Michael Keiser and his business partner, Phil Friedmann for many years but never commercially developed. Around the same time that Tom Doak was designing Pacific Dunes he also designed 13 greens on this parcel of land, just north of the Resort’s property and this came to be unofficially known as the Sheep Ranch. While not open to the public, guests were occasionally granted permission to play and explore, adding to its appeal. There was no specified course layout – the fun was in being able to create your own hole by choosing the next green from which you played to. The timing was finally right for the Sheep Ranch to shift into high gear. Mr. Keiser and Mr. Friedmann received proposals from some of the best known and respected golf course architects, many of whom Mr. Keiser had worked with over the years including David McLay Kidd (Bandon Dunes and Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley), Tom Doak (Pacific Dunes, Old Macdonald and the Punchbowl, and Sedge Valley now being built at Sand Valley), Coore & Crenshaw (Bandon Trails, Bandon Preserve, Cabot Cliffs, Sand Valley and The Sandbox at Sand Valley). The shape of the Sheep Ranch’s acreage created a design challenge for the architects – with some saying that it was impossible to fully develop 18 holes, but as Mr. Friedmann likes to say, Coore & Crenshaw ‘solved the riddle of the perfect routing’ by creating a double green for holes #3 and #16. Work began in earnest in early 2019 and The Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch is expected to open for play next year. Some people have suggested that this may be the “best” piece of property of all the Bandon courses… just another reason to return and judge for myself.
This morning the crew was in full swing working together to hydro-seed the 8th fairway. This is a process that requires lots of coordinated teamwork and effort to do well. (I’ve since spoken again with Michael Chupka and he reports huge amounts of progress have been made since these photos and video were taken two months ago).
Aspects of the southern end of the course were still being shaped at the time of our visit and the success of the recent weeks’ hydro seeding was evident in the delicate blades of grass poking through. Ken Nice, Bandon’s Director of Agronomy, was onsite to monitor his team’s progress. I can appreciate why he has successfully held this job for 20 years as his attention to detail is nothing less than extraordinary. Case in point, when we caught up with him at the Ranch he was walking the property and fixing the heavy heel and toe prints of someone who had tramped through recent hydro-seeding – I think that is probably how Ken defines “a good walk spoiled”. After explaining the proper way to traverse a hydro-seeded area, Ken gave us permission to explore more of the course but Michael, Evan and I were reticent to tread too far or deeply on the ¾ inch delicate green blades that were just coming to life. All the while Evan kept one eye to the sky. We got lucky – the sun finally broke through the heavy cloud bank. Evan was quick to get his DJI Inspire 2 drone in the air for a bird’s eye view, at this stage really the best way to capture the progress being made. The aerial views provided a more holistic perspective on the course design, something that I hadn’t been able to fully grasp from the ground. Evan’s preparation paid off. As it turned out, this was the only morning the sun chose to fully grace us over the six-day trip…
When the sun got too high for any more morning photography, Michael decided to take advantage of the tide being out to give us a ride back to the resort via the beach for a different perspective of the property. What a treat racing across the hard packed sand with the dunes of Bandon above us. In the process we came across a couple of guys prospecting for gold, yes gold, using a sluice box on a little tributary that flowed down to the beach. I’ve since learned that certain beaches along the Southern Oregon coast are known for their gold prospecting, especially those found south of Coos Bay, which is Bandon country. I also learned that the beach gold you do find can be as small as the grains of black sand it is hiding in, so no easy task. As the conversation bounced back and forth between “gold” and “golf” I smiled at the closeness of their spellings. Around Bandon, I believe the two words are interchangeable, so the quote from a Mark Twain novel, “there’s gold in them thar hills” could just as easily be “there’s golf in them there dunes”. Whether you come here to play, or prospect, I think you’ll agree.
Bandon Preserve – A Tasty Appetizer
The primary purpose for our trip was photography, so it wasn’t until our second afternoon that we took an hour and played the Coore & Crenshaw-designed 13 hole, par 3, Bandon Preserve. I love my driver too much to play a lot of par 3 courses, but I have a feeling that there can’t be many that compare as well to this one: 13 real golf holes, all with views of the Pacific Ocean.
This was our day to experience some of Bandon’s “atypical” weather – and I was lucky (really an afterthought) to have tucked a golf skirt into my bag because the temperature hit the unusual high in early May of 80+ degrees – and yet no wind! I was told that the only time you ever see a skirt worn on a Bandon course is when an advertising agency orchestrates a photography shoot… This day was incredibly rare, making us all a little sunburn “rare”, but thoroughly enjoyed by all lucky enough to be on property that day.
Old Macdonald and its Morning Ghost(s)
Old Macdonald, designed by Tom Doak with Jim Urbina, was Bandon’s fourth course to open for play. Old Mac pays homage to Charles Blair Macdonald, one of my all-time favorite architects of the early 20th century. I can say that because Evan and I played The Course at Yale practically every weekend for ten years. Yale was designed by Macdonald in collaboration with Seth Raynor and Charles Banks. Over those 10 years I came to appreciate many of Macdonald’s template hole designs. My personal favorites at Yale are the Redan, Biarritz, Blind and Alps. I took immense pleasure in being able to recognize how Doak and Urbina deftly crafted the links land here to bring C.B. Macdonald’s classic designs to life once again. My personal favorites on Old Mac are Sahara, Cape, Redan and Alps.
We played Old Mac on an overcast afternoon, with the clouds so heavy that if I hadn’t heard the gently lapping waves, I wouldn’t have known the beach lay below us. I found the course quite player-friendly especially given the expansiveness of the fairways and the overall openness of the design. It’s pretty difficult to lose a ball.
On the photography front, Mother Nature ultimately gifted us one amazing afternoon at Old Macdonald, but she made us wait it out. The usual marine layer had rolled back in for the afternoon and we weren’t sure if any sunlight would ever have a chance of breaking through. Evan was keeping himself busy when he noticed a shift on the horizon. We were fortunate that Old Mac is so open because we were able to move the drone across the golf course faster in the air than we could move ourselves. Evan guided the drone towards the coastline and hovered, not knowing how long the opportunity would last. The marine layer was thinning but still hugging the warm land. Evan quickly realized he shouldn’t fly the drone through the marine layer – too much moisture was collecting on the camera lens. He determined that the camera angle was too low flying below it so he went above – and liked what he saw! The shots were accentuated by the last bit of yellow in the gorse’s bloom – adding vibrant dashes to the landscape.
The next morning we returned to Old Macdonald but knew from the start there was no chance of sun. Rather than pack it in, the misty gray monotone day provided Evan with a bit of inspiration. While not as famous as the Lone Cypress, Old Macdonald has its own iconic tree, a tall bare cedar that stands guard on a dune in the center of the 3rd fairway. The “Ghost Tree” also serves as a guidepost for what is a somewhat blind drive. And to give you more perspective on the openness of this course, the Ghost Tree can be seen from practically anywhere you stand. Remember what I said if the sun is a no-show; think black & white. Evan envisioned a foursome walking across the dune ridge with the silhouette of the Ghost Tree in the morning mist. He had the tree, he had the fog, now all he needed was a foursome… then out of the mist, almost on cue, we heard unfamiliar voices shouting “Evan, Evan!”. Given his last two days of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn posts, lots of people knew Evan was at Bandon. Combine social media feeds with a guy standing next to a big Hasselblad camera swaddled in towels to ward off the rain and they knew they had found Evan Schiller. Evan asked if they would be willing to help him out with his next shot. His directions were simple, “walk single file across the ridge from right to left so I can capture the silhouette of each man and the Tree”. The guys were thrilled to participate and I believe Evan perfectly captured through his camera lens what he had created in his mind’s eye.
Lastly, a big shout-out to Marcus Lakey, the Superintendent of Old Macdonald, featured here with his trusty #2, “Bill” the dog, riding shotgun. We got to spend some one-on-one time with Marcus and Bill and heard great stories about the earliest days at Bandon when the team was so small that everyone pitched in to help, no matter the project. (Marcus grew up here and did most of the talking while Bill collected belly rubs).
So while I haven’t played all the Bandon courses (yet), I can appreciate why Pacific Dunes gets so much play and praise. Of Bandon’s current four 18-hole courses, Pacific Dunes is ranked the highest at #17 in Golf Digest’s America’s 100 Greatest Courses for 2019-2020. (FYI, Bandon Dunes, Old Macdonald and Bandon Trails also make that Top 100 list). Pacific Dunes is a par 71, 6,633-yard course that is both challenging and fun. So what makes it so great? For me, Pacific Dunes offers the “complete package” – it’s quintessential links golf, very reminiscent of a course like Ballybunion with its backdrop of dramatic dunes and the Atlantic Ocean. At Pacific Dunes, you have similar dunes now shaped by the winds off the Pacific. You can also check the boxes for firm, fescue’d terrain and lots of gorse. I know that some people talk about Tom Doak’s “minimalist” style – if that means that what he designs looks like it has always been there, then I would tend to agree. Michaelangelo is famously quoted as saying “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”. I have no idea if Tom Doak would say that he created Pacific Dunes in this fashion but it certainly feels that way to me.
Advice from Mark Twain
In the midst of drafting this piece I happened to have an email exchange with a friend of mine who lives around Hartford, CT. With all the rain on the east coast this spring, his golf game had gotten off to a late start. I was regaling him with our Bandon stories when he mentioned that some of his golf buddies had a Bandon trip planned for this fall but he had scheduling conflicts and wasn’t going to be able to make it. Then he added, “but I think it’s a whole lot easier just hopping on a plane in Hartford and heading to Ireland”. I acknowledged that Ireland has indeed been one of my longtime favorite golf destinations and agreed that he might get there faster, but to paraphrase Mark Twain again, I told him, when you get the chance, “Go West young man!”.
For more information:
Bandon Dunes Golf Resort
57744 Round Lake Road, Bandon, Oregon 97411