Bandon Dunes Resort Lays Claim to North America’s First Real Links Courses

There is arguably no course anywhere in North America more reminiscent of Scotland than Old Macdonald, tucked away in coastal Oregon on a scenic strip of sandy bluffs and dunes alongside the Pacific Ocean.

Credit: Wood Sabold

Bandon Dunes

Bandon Dunes Resort’s golf courses overlook the Pacific Ocean.

There is arguably no course anywhere in North America more reminiscent of Scotland than Old Macdonald, tucked away in coastal Oregon on a scenic strip of sandy bluffs and dunes alongside the Pacific Ocean. It is the latest course to open within the remarkable Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, which has been awarded pretty much every accolade available since opening little more than a decade ago. Its location may be remote, but that hasn’t stopped golfers from flocking to it in droves.

The latest nod to the resort and its four courses isn’t so much a prize as it is an acknowledgement that Bandon Dunes does more than just look like a page out of Old World golf. In True Links, written by former Golf magazine editor George Peper and Scottish golf writer Malcolm Campbell, three of the creations at Bandon Dunes – Pacific Dunes, Bandon Dunes and Old Macdonald – are included among the 246 courses in the world that hold true to the authors’ notion of what constitutes real links.

“We’ve heard almost limitless descriptions about what qualifies as a links course,” says Mike Keiser, the Chicago businessman and visionary who created and owns Bandon Dunes. “I’m rather sympathetic to their rather hardline or more disciplined approach. It is a beautiful book and does define links courses if you see where they draw the line.”

For Peper and Campbell, the defining attributes of a true links course are clear. To be included in the book, courses had to qualify in several categories, ranging from terrain and proximity to the sea, to whether the course rests on sand and whether it plays firm and fast year-round.
They praise Bandon for its convincing replication of true links conditions. “The ground game is paramount,” they write, adding that at Pacific Dunes, “playing options abound.”

“Indeed, that’s one of the joys of the Bandon courses – their sand-based fescue fairways run so fast that a putter or utility wood can readily assume the task of a wedge,” the authors add.

The authors offer up high accolades for Old Macdonald, which opened last year to rave reviews. Created by designers Tom Doak and Jim Urbina (who both worked to develop Pacific Dunes, the resort’s second course), Old Macdonald is a throwback to another era in more ways than one. As far as Peper and Campbell are concerned, its main lure is the fact that the grass on the course is entirely fescue – unheard of in North America but the standard for links courses in England, Ireland and Scotland. The hardy grass, which doesn’t grow well in extremely warm or cold conditions, usually creates very firm playing conditions, allowing golfers to use their imagination in devising unusual shots uncommon in North American golf, like putting from 30 yards off the green or chipping with long irons to avoid the ever-present wind.

The course’s links characteristics make it an anomaly in North American golf, and currently it’s the only all-fescue course on the continent. But that’s not the only element that makes Old Macdonald an unusual offering in a golf world filled with cookie-cutter designs. The most unique element is the overall design, which stemmed from Keiser’s direction to Doak and Urbina to build a course based on the concepts of legendary American designer Charles Blair Macdonald. Often considered North America’s first golf architect, Macdonald built many of the earliest great golf courses in the U.S. – places like National Golf Links of America in Long Island, New York, and the Chicago Golf Club. As a teenager, Macdonald went to school in Scotland and studied at St. Andrews University. However, his real interest was golf. He was tutored by Old Tom Morris, and investigated the great links courses throughout Scotland. He came back to the U.S. to work in the stock market, but found his calling in designing golf courses.

It was Macdonald’s belief that courses should be built using concepts from the best Scottish golf courses. His subsequent “template holes” weren’t replicas, but instead emulated the basic elements that made these great holes unique. That means that in every Macdonald design there is a “Redan,” a par 3 based on a hole at North Berwick’s West Links that features a green that falls away and to the left, and an “Alps,” a concept lifted from Prestwick in the west of Scotland where golfers play over a large hill to a well-bunkered green.

With that in mind, Doak and Urbina had to create holes that fit Macdonald’s model. The final result is a fine tribute to Macdonald’s work, with not only an Alps hole, but also a terrific par 3 called “Short” based on the original at National Golf Links, and an homage to other Scottish courses like Lundin Links near St. Andrews. Old Macdonald also features massive greens and blow-out bunkers throughout. Not every hole is a replica, and several original creations, including the majestic 7th hole with its green perched high above the Pacific Ocean, are standouts on the course.

Despite its unusual premise, Old Macdonald has won over golfers and critics alike. Fans of Bandon Dunes’ existing three courses were intrigued by the new design and flocked to Old Macdonald over the summer. Pundits from such august titles as Golf magazine also raved, naming it the “best new course” to open in 2010.

“Pleasantly surprised,” is how Keiser characterizes his reaction to the success of Old Mac.

“But I’m not totally surprised,” he adds. “My model has been for some time that if you take National Golf Links and place it on an ocean site and make it open to the public, I thought the design would be both so peculiar and fun that it would be a winner. I bet that it would be popular – and I’m the one that put the money on it.”

What’s next? Keiser has a “short course” created by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw on the books to start construction soon. It will be situated between the first hole of Bandon Trails and the Pacific, creating the potential for another magnificent design at the resort. Beyond that, Keiser also has plans for what he calls “Bandon Muni.” Located south of Bandon Dunes, Keiser is proposing a 27-hole complex, with free green fees for junior golfers, low rates for locals and higher costs for those visiting Bandon. To be designed by American Gil Hanse, it would also be built along the ocean, once again tapping into Keiser’s interest in links golf.

An iconoclast to the end, Keiser continues to find success in a remote location no one felt would work. He’s quickly creating the most impressive golf resort since James Walker Tufts opened Pinehurst more than 100 years ago.

“I don’t have a friend who goes to Bandon Dunes who didn’t tell me it [was] the dumbest thing they’d heard of,” he says, referring to his decision to build a resort in such a rural locale. “The furthest I got in my dreams was that the first golf course would do well enough to let us build a second one, because I knew the site for Pacific Dunes was that good. As long as we did that and didn’t lose money, I thought that would be pretty good.”

Pretty good indeed.



The Courses . . .


Bandon Dunes:

The first course to open at the resort when few — including owner Mike Keiser — knew what to expect. Heralded as a links golf experience akin to anything you’d find in Ireland, Bandon Dunes was immediately considered one of the best courses in North America and elevated its designer, young Scotsman David McLay Kidd, to stardom. The course’s best holes, like the dramatic par-4 16th, play a long seaside bluffs with views that will take your breath away.


Pacific Dunes:

Keiser hired maverick golf designer Tom Doak to build the second course at Bandon. Pacific Dunes opened in 2001 and was quickly considered one of the best in the world. Crafted over wide, tumbling fairways and devilishly tricky greens, Doak let the land dictate the golf course, including the unusual consecutive par 3s that make up the start of the back nine. Doak hits a home run on holes like the par-4 1 3th with a fairway set overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a green that runs parallel to large, looming sand dunes.


Bandon Trails:

The first course at Bandon not to have the ocean as a key element, Bandon Trails is no less compelling than the resort’s earlier creations. Designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the course opens in wild dunes before heading inland to thick-forested areas. Perhaps a slightly more difficult walk than either Bandon Dunes or Pacific Dunes, the Trails offers more shifts in elevation and is a favourite of many who come to the resort.


Old Macdonald:

The fourth course at Bandon, Old Macdonald opened to play last summer. Inspired by the holes of architect C.B. Macdonald, Old Macdonald is full of wonderful quirks that are sure to capture the imagination of any who play it. With difficult deep bunkers, designers Tom Doak and Jim Urbina tapped into some of the classic concepts of golf architecture to build Old Macdonald. You don’t need a history degree to appreciate the course, but Old Macdonald can teach you a thing or two about the evolution of golf while you enjoy your round.