Bandon Dunes – a pilgrimage to the world’s best golf resort

I’ve long thought that unless you want guaranteed sun on your back, there is no point traveling abroad to play golf. We have the best courses in the world in Britain and Ireland, in terms of those accessible by the public.

As a result, there are very, very few bucket-list overseas trips for even the intrepid British golfer. The Melbourne sand belt and increasingly Tasmania in Australia is definitely one. New Zealand, with its expanding coastal portfolio, too. Canada, maybe. Collections of courses in areas of those countries – although they all require some traveling between the elite venues – would light up the eyes of many British golfers with some worldwide awareness.

There is one that comfortably trumps them all though. One that, whenever I told people I was going, the answer was only ever one of two options: “Oh, I’d LOVE to do that one day” or “You lucky ********”.

Bandon Dunes.

It had, naturally, been on my radar for years even though I’ve only played sparingly in the US and am not really trying to make a dent in its plethora of great courses; GB&I, Continental Europe, North Africa and the Middle East have been the areas I have been focused on as Golf World’s courses editor for 14 years. 

The US is something I plan to do in one glorious ‘year out’, then get a proper job to pay for it all. 

I’ve been to Pinehurst and Kiawah (you can’t expect me to go to the Masters and not lasso at least two epic trips on the back of it!) but Bandon was The One.

I knew people who had been, the latest being Rob and Ali McGuirk, who own Prince’s in Kent. They’ve seen some good golf let me tell you, but their expressions alone when I asked them about how good Bandon was said it all.

The irony is that the idea for Bandon Dunes was conceived after its founder spent years crossing the Atlantic to Britain and Ireland in order to play great links like Prince’s. 

Mike Keiser developed an enduring love for our golf and wondered if it – the character, the style and the philosophy – could be successfully replicated in the US.

The success of his greeting card company – founded with college room-mate Phil Friedmann – gave him the financial muscle to build a course with the same emphases as the fabled links he adored (Royal Dornoch and Ballybunion are his particular favourites).

His first course – Dunes Club – opened in 1989 but it was just nine holes and was private – his own Pine Valley. That is not what the great links of Scotland or Ireland are though, and that’s what Keiser really wanted; great public access golf.

He knew from the full car parks of Dornoch and Ballybunion that remoteness was not a problem if the golf was good enough. Build it (on sand and ideally by the sea) and they will come. So he scoured the coastline of the US for the right parcel of land. He found it in a small town in Oregon.

Bandon Dunes opened in 1999 and Keiser admits he was so sceptical of its success that breaking even was his ultimate objective. 

He hoped for 10,000 rounds in its first year. 

He got 25,000. 

Keiser had struck gold.

The success of that original David McLay Kidd design meant more inevitably followed. “One course is a curiosity, two is a resort,” is a Keiser mantra, and nowhere needed a second reason to visit more than his venture on the remote coast of Oregon.

Bandon Dunes Pacific Dunes

Pacific Dunes was added within two years, fulfilling Keiser’s 1+1=3 philosophy. Well, there aren’t just two 18-hole courses at Bandon now, there are five – plus a 13-hole Par 3 and an extravagant putting course.

There is a wealth of accommodation, restaurants and even a massage center but although Keiser’s sons now largely run the show, their father’s influence remains tangible. The golf is first, second and third at Bandon, and always will be. 

There is not a building at Bandon that isn’t linked to golf; they are either housing golfers, feeding them or soothing their limbs. 

A road that runs parallel to the coast a mile or so inland links it all together, with each course having its own little driveway off it. It reminded me of a compressed version of East Lothian, with the link road bringing to mind the A198 that winds past the entrances to Luffness, Kilspindie, Gullane, Muirfield et al

Bandon Dunes Trails

First you come to Bandon Trails, which shares its clubhouse with the Par 3, Preserve; then a couple of minutes’ drive along the road is Bandon Dunes, in what is the heart of the resort; really close by is Pacific Dunes, plus Punchbowl, the putting course; then comes Old Mac; and finally, after a five-minute drive from its neighbor, is Sheep Ranch. 

Four of these courses are in Golf World’s World Top 100. The fifth is in the conversation for that ranking and sits at No.12 in our US list and I’d suggest it would be in the top 80 of our GB&I Top 100. 

Just let that sink in for a minute; the WORST course of Bandon’s five would be in a GB&I Top 80 – and is the 12th best public access course in the US.

This frankly ludicrous scenario meant Bandon broke the marking system when we were compiling our inaugural World Top 100 resorts in 2021, because its golf offering dominated the ‘Courses’ category so much. Giving it 40/40 would have meant almost every other resort having a Courses mark in single figures.

To avoid giving resorts with a really good course a humiliating 8/40, we added some extra marks on to Bandon’s 40 and explained the scenario to our readers as we named it the world’s runaway No.1. 

It is the No.1 again in our refreshed list in 2023, which was not a difficult decision; although accommodation, setting and non-golf facilities account for 60% of the mark in our Resorts Top 100s, and although there are incredible contenders – from Gleneagles to Costa Navarino and Adare Manor to Pinehurst – Bandon is No.1. 

Unless the ‘Courses’ category loses some of its weighting – or 10 miles of currently-protected duneland in some part of the world is suddenly OK to be developed – it always will be. 

This is naturally what gives it the bucket-list status I mentioned at the start. Remember Keiser’s hope for 10,000 rounds in Bandon’s first year? They now chalk them up in three weeks.

As a result, it can only be done with extensive planning. You book into Bandon at least a year in advance. 

Well, you could arrange a trip closer to the time, stay offsite and get lucky with a tee time on, say, two of the courses, but if you want to stay on site and play most of the courses – and if you’re traveling that distance, surely you want to play them all – start planning now for autumn 2024 at the earliest. In reality, 2025.

I booked my flights for July 2023 in autumn 2022 – and I was very lucky to get in as quickly as I did despite having help from Bandon’s communications guy Michael Chupka. 

Anyway, we got in. Usually when I write about courses and resorts I take my own experience largely out of it. I always think no-one will care too much about precisely what I did, when I did it, and certainly how I played. I’m going to break the habit of the past 14 years and recount my trip in largely chronological order and with a bit more personal detail. It feels appropriate for this one; I hope you feel it was warranted and I’d be interested to know if you agree it was the correct approach.

Bandon Dunes Sheep Ranch

A frustrating false start

The trip started in Manchester airport, where I was taking a shuttle to Heathrow to connect with the main flight to Seattle. I was meeting a colleague there who was crossing the Atlantic via Dublin.

Andrew got there on time. I did not. 

BA couldn’t muster a plane for the 30-minute flight south to leave within three hours of the scheduled time, so I missed the Seattle flight.

No options were possible later that day so rather than be in America excitedly awaiting my debut at Bandon, I was sitting in a box room in Staines counting down the hours to the following morning’s flight. Meanwhile, Andrew had left the ‘comfort’ of Motel 6 and was prowling the mean streets around Seattle-Tacoma airport looking for a Taco Bell.

[It’s worth noting that flying to Portland – or, even better, into the small airport (OTH) at North Bend – gets you much closer to Bandon than Seattle and makes a transfer financially viable, because shuttle buses take you from accommodation to course to restaurant once you get to the resort so you don’t need a car. The flights to Seattle worked better for us, so we hired a car as a transfer would have been expensive.]

Anyway, the key impact of BA’s incompetence was a concertinaed itinerary. What was already packed became unremitting, with Sheep Ranch moved from Sunday PM and Preserve (the Par 3) shunted to what became ‘Super Tuesday’.

The revised schedule

Monday: Pacific Dunes am, Sheep Ranch pm

Tuesday: Old Mac am, Preserve lunchtime, Bandon Dunes pm

Wednesday: Bandon Trails am, Punchbowl lunchtime

That adds up to 103 holes in two-and-a-half days. 

It was hardly going to daunt us though. We were at Bandon! And we had Ecco shoes.

Our accommodation was in Round Lake Lodge (a room overlooking the picture-postcard lake) and it was everything you ever want from accommodation on a golf trip: a mattress you melt into; a dump zone for your clubs, carry cover and golf detritus; spacious and powerful shower; two sinks; skin lotion for wind/sun-battered faces; and a coffee machine you don’t need an engineering degree to work out how to use.

Bandon Dunes Pacific Dunes

Oh, and it is a two-minute drive from the clubhouse of Pacific Dunes, where we were playing our first round at 0750. For jet-lagged Brits who’d been delayed a day and had arrived at 2240 after a seven-hour drive from Seattle, having a mere two-minute commute on that first morning was heavenly.

Bandon’s popularity meant we were always playing with another two golfers – plus their caddie/caddies – and the synergy of the group naturally made a difference to each round.

We had our best experience of this scenario at Pac Dunes; a lovely US couple and their caddie Stu, who’d played on the European Seniors Tour, had lived in Portugal, and was great craic.

He was more invested in our games and indeed our match than any other caddie that week and really added to the experience. 

On Tuesday morning we had another couple-caddie combination who were definitely less interested in us! The caddie was a bit of a character, barking at a roaming deer at one point and chewing tobacco as prolifically as John Wayne. Then on the last day at Trails we played with two singles who had their own caddies (rather than a couple sharing one), so that meant much less interaction. 

I couldn’t imagine spending the £100 to hire a caddie but there is absolutely no doubt they help their clients, notably on and around the green. And I love Bandon’s strategy of the same caddie being paired with the same golfer/couple all week, so they really get to know each other and more importantly their game. The caddies all wear white overalls a la Augusta, which some might think is a touch twee but I rather liked. 

Sun, wind, Guy and ’Cheers’

‘Pac Dunes’ is the Bandon course we rate the highest – it’s No.8 in our World Top 100 – so we were starting with a bang, and a lot of expectation. 

It was designed by Tom Doak in 2001 and begins gently, with what Tom Watson would probably describe as a handshake so warm you need Savlon and a dressing afterwards. The 1st and 2nd are friendly and solid, but you are *kind* of wondering when the fireworks begin. The answer arrives as you walk to the next tee…

The course explodes into life at this point, with one of Doak’s trademark ’big reveals’ as you walk onto the 3rd tee and are greeted with a breathtaking view of the coastline. The tempo was indubitably raised and it flickered around ‘epic’ for most of the remaining 15 holes.

I had read ‘Pac’ is considered the most exacting of Bandon’s courses but we found it very playable. There was only a slight breeze to be fair but it was not overly exacting and that let us drink in the aesthetic drama – even if it was an overcast morning.

The coastal holes are inevitably the highlight, led by the downhill 10th towards the ocean, plus the 11th and especially the 13th alongside it. The sporty two-shot 16th was another highlight. I enjoyed plenty of the inland holes too, such as the sporty two-shot 6th, where a left-side tee shot leaves a fun/impossible blind wedge approach over a hill. 

It arguably has a weaker finish compared with the pyrotechnics that have gone before, but this is a course that for me stands up to all but possibly the top five best courses in GB&I.

Lunch was a blackened chicken club sandwich in the main clubhouse. It came in at about £14, which is hardly cheap but was extremely good and, compared to what you might get in Britain, excellent value.

The sun came out as we ate to suggest the afternoon on Sheep Ranch would be especially Insta-worthy. By the time we raced onto the 1st tee (we had underestimated SR is the furthest course away – at a desperately inconvenient 10 minutes – from the center of the resort where we had lunch), the clouds had returned and, more importantly, the wind had picked up.

We had a single Canadian golfer, Guy, for company. He quaffed a few cans of beer on his way round and his idiosyncrasies – he basically walked into the shot like a batsman coming down the wicket to a spinner, was not adverse to chatting on our downswings and darted about the fairways looking for yardages on sprinkler heads like a startled hare – became more pronounced. 

Remarkably, he only realized we were having a tight match when my colleague boxed a putt on 17 to go one up. Now in on the game, Guy then turned into Ewen Murray and virtually commentated on every shot as we played the last, including *slightly* annoying faux drama on my never-going-to-go-in long par putt to half the match.

Bandon Dunes Sheep Ranch

Anyway, Sheep Ranch; this is the one course we felt we didn’t ‘get’ as much as we should have. We really enjoyed it and could see why people absolutely love it, so while it didn’t *quite* do as much for us, we almost felt we were getting it wrong. The 30mph wind may have been a part of that, although it will frequently be windy at SR – one of the caddies said it used to be a wind farm. The grey skies perhaps too – because the nine oceanfront greens will unquestionably look utterly sensational against the blue of the sky and the Pacific.

SR hit home why you never see two people’s ranking of Bandon’s courses the same; they are all so, so good that one small variable on the day tilts views one way or another. 

Make no mistake, SR has holes that left us open-mouthed. The 1st is achingly good, sweeping you downhill as you play to one of the nine infinity greens.

The 3rd, 5th and 7th to infinity greens, the inland 4th that oozes strategy, the drive over Hell’s Half Acre on the ultimate bluff-edge dog-leg 6th. All are monumental holes. Some quieter ones at the start of the back nine give you a breather but it finishes with a bang, none more so than the short 16th that is mesmerically scenic and gloriously tricky.

Three more things I loved about it: no bunkers, illustrating what a lazy indulgence they so often are; it is a perfect walk (especially for the second 18 of the day); and it’s arguably the most natural of all the courses there.

Credit to Coore-Crenshaw for the routing because it is not on a big site and they must have sweated to get the jigsaw puzzle working. 

SR opened three years ago and the greens are not comparable for maturity with Pac or Bandon, so I look forward to returning in 2025 to make sure I was correct [smiley face emoji].

After waving goodbye to Guy, who was still talking to us some 15 yards after we headed in a different direction, we had time for a quick shower and then it was off to McKee’s pub for drinks and dinner. It was packed, with waiting time for a table at 45 minutes, so the hostess mooted hopping on a stool at the bar and eating there. It had serious ‘Cheers’ vibes but was a brilliant decision – we were right in the heart of the buzz and our accents piqued interest in us among what was naturally a majority US crowd.

A ‘Sheep Ranch’ lager and a very, very good burger were demolished in quick time before another beer or three were enjoyed (it helped with the wind burn, we found) as we quizzed our fellow golfers about their Bandon experiences. I think we asked six people for their order and none of the six matched.

I felt completely contented with my lot that night and thinking back to it now as I write this, I may have underplayed it if anything. A magical day.

A template for success

Tuesday’s forecast promised sunshine and there were hints of it between moody clouds as we teed off on Old Mac. It might be widely regarded as the weakest course here, but we absolutely lapped it up.

We had another epic match and the weather was superb by the back nine, but there was more to it than that. 

Bandon Dunes Old Mac

The fourth course to open here, in 2010, Old Mac is Doak and Jim Urbina’s tribute to the revered CB Macdonald (regarded as the godfather of US course architecture) and his fellow Golden Age architect Seth Raynor.

It is sometimes dismissively labeled as a ‘template’ course because you find famous features from other courses airlifted in here, such as ‘Redan’, ‘Sahara’, ‘Biarritz’ and ‘Alps’.

Well, I loved unwrapping them and more. The features were all known to me but I felt the caddie could have explained a bit about the original hole to their clients (unless they’d already played it of course). 

The fairways are so wide that I missed only one all day (a mysterious lost ball that, yep, still rankles five months on) but the premium on finding the correct angle to the green is as high as the bunker on ‘Sahara’. However Doak always gives you the chance to use the terrain to kick, nudge and deflect your ball towards the target – none more so than the 18th, where a running mid-iron approach up the left will swing down and round to any pin central or right. It was one of my favorite shots of the week, and part of a wondrous closing stretch. 

The 3rd is also one of the resort’s best holes. The haunting ‘ghost tree’ on top of the plateau is the line to take as you drive up onto the ledge, from where the hole swings right-to-left and Doak again gives you the land to make the approach to a funky green easier and fun. 

While the terrain often lends itself to funneling your ball onto the green, once there it is often a different story. They are huge and seriously undulating, so unless you are within 15ft from the pin (and even sometimes even if you are!) you are battling to avoid a three-putt. 

In summary, *what* a course to have as the worst of the five. Loved it.

Bandon Dunes Preserve

We were on the tee of Preserve at 2pm so the BBQ truck called Charlotte’s – named after the wife in the couple who used to look after the land on which Bandon is built (Shorty was the husband, who has the more simple Par 3 course named after him) – was ideal. The only problem with the pulled pork bap in the sunshine was I wanted two more of them. SENSATIONAL. We had no time though. Damn you BA.

Instead, we had to play some more world-class golf, because the next stop on ‘Super Tuesday’ was the Preserve, which is casually home to some of the world’s finest par 3s – and I’m including all the par 3s on all the world’s full-size 18-holers when I say that.

I’d read how good Preserve was, but part of me was thinking people had said that because it is cool to say ‘short is great’. Well, it IS brilliant.  

There is nothing longer than 150 yards and you choose your own tees so can make plenty of the holes fewer than 100 yards. We just wandered up to whichever tee looked like giving us the coolest angle; we kind of invented our own course.

The 13 holes are packed into a really small site – there is a double green shared by the 4th and 7th – whose often dramatic changes in elevation add to the intrigue. The greens are predictably bonkers at times, including dramatic tiers, punchbowls and ledges. It is riotous fun and, if like me you enjoy wedge play more than any other aspect of the game, you will have found your utopia.

It is not easy though. Don’t go thinking you’ll breeze round with nine pars and four birdies. If you don’t enjoy hitting three-quarter wedges and your chipping isn’t confident, you’ll end up with a score threatening 50. I can give you Andrew’s contact details if you want verification on that.

You are supposed to use your putter to trundle your ball down the path of the 13th but I was putting so badly I couldn’t bear to have a go; trust me, there is great satisfaction holding that green with a well-struck three-quarter 56˚ wedge [smiley face emoji].

Bandon Dunes

The original and best?

We were on a high after Preserve, there was not a cloud in the sky and we arrived on the tee at Bandon Dunes to be told our playing partners looked like being no-shows. Life was good.

We knew we wouldn’t play any quicker because we were, needless to say, behind a succession of fourballs. And we’d got on perfectly well with our playing partners and their caddies. But it was nice to be just us for our round on Bandon’s original course.

Scotsman McLay Kidd – who has lived in Bend, two hours inland, for many years, almost like a father keeping one eye on his offspring – has produced a course as close to a Scottish links as you’re likely to see in north America.

It was so firm, fast and fiery. A puff of white sand exploded into the air after you’d hit your iron shots and the greens had an enjoyable amount of quirk.

McLay Kidd serves up a perfect mix of tough holes and birdie chances, risk-reward teasers and palate cleansers, sporty par 4s and all-world par 3s.

It starts with an awesome two-shot hole that sweeps up and right to a green partially obscured by a sand hill but the temperature then rises on the 4th – in fact, it breaks the thermometer. Swinging left to right this gorgeous strategic hole ends on the ultimate infinity green. 

Bandon Dunes

It might not be the best par 4 on the course though; the 16th – reachable if you fire over the sandy waste direct at the cliff-edge target – might top it. I would dearly love another crack at that hole…

The 4th starts a magnificent three-hole stretch along the coast, the sound of the waves in your ears as you tackle the 5th that plays between dune ridges and funnels tighter as it reaches an amphitheater green. The 6th is a majestic short hole, where you want to steer right away from the edge of America but can’t because of an acute drop-off.

On the back nine the short downhill 12th dazzles, as does the short two-shot 14th to an amphitheater green while McLay Kidd has sited the par-3 15th perfectly in a saddle between the dunes.

We finished in near darkness, as we knew we would. We didn’t take much from the 18th in all honesty, but our thirst had long been sated.

We had talked of being more adventurous in the evening but ’Super Tuesday’ had taken its toll, so it was back to McKee’s. It was a little less busy so we got a table this time, which almost felt like a mild disappointment; we hadn’t realized it, but we’d turned into Norm and Cliff the previous evening.

Bandon Trails

A change of pace

Day three dawned with glorious sunshine and the prospect of the course some believe is the best at Bandon.

Bandon Trails by Coore-Crenshaw opened in 2005 and it is unquestionably routed masterfully across what I think we would all imagine as classic Oregon landscape; hills, forests, lakes… then more hills forests and lakes.

At about 15 moments in the round I took a picture that looked like a watercolour painting. Indeed, the view from the back of the 14th tee was apparently the moment that convinced Keiser to build Bandon (funnily enough, the downhill 14th is probably the worst hole on the whole property, a ‘drivable’ par 4 whose contours make it virtually impossible to successfully drive).

Trails starts among dunes but soon heads into parkland and then woodland. We enjoyed the different phases and it is indubitably a world-class course, but I wouldn’t personally have it as my No.1 at Bandon. Part of that is the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that I don’t think you travel to the edge of Oregon to play that style of golf.

We had partners again for this final round, an athletic all-American kid called Gary who gave the ball a serious whack and was a really nice playing partner and a diminutive, well-heeled older guy of Mexican descent dressed head to toe in USGA merch. He spoke to his caddy in Spanish when he was focused on his game at the start but became a lot more relaxed and chatty with us after he had caressed a few drives to places that only bears reside around the turn! Golfers, you have to love them.

Andrew’s driving deserted him on that last round – he is a ludicrous character who his fancy app told us was +1.6 strokes up on a scratch handicapper in driving after the first day – so it was a simple win for Scotland [echoes of Gary Wolstenholme v Tiger Woods in the 1995 Walker Cup] in, remarkably, the only match of the week that didn’t go down 18. 

We reluctantly checked out of the room when really all we wanted to do was have a beer on the rustic wooden table and chairs on the edge of the glistening lake. We had the consolation of the Punch bowl to enjoy though, Bandon’s extravagant nod to the Himalayas at St Andrews. Insane, fun and occasionally humiliating, it will definitely best be done with a pint in hand with sunset imminent. 

Instead we had to drive back to Seattle via a former colleague who has immigrated to Portland. 

Lucky ******** indeed.

Bandon golf

My reflections

Bandon Dunes golf resort does not feel like a golf resort. 

Your fourball round will routinely take little more than four hours. You won’t see a concrete buggy path all week, because there are no buggies to ride on them. 

The accommodation is very nice but not ostentatious and most of it barely visible because none of it occupies the property’s best land. 

The food and beverages are not crazily expensive and the menus have things you actually quite fancy eating. 

The non-golf facilities extend to nothing more than a massage center for aching limbs. 

The golf is unfailingly epic. And varied. Pac Dunes and Bandon Dunes are for me the top two and have similarities but the others are the epitome of distinctive. ‘Samey’ is not a word you ever say here.

I take notes on a scorecard on every round I play. People think I am obsessed with my score – nothing could be further from the truth. I just don’t have a good enough memory to remember holes weeks, months and years later. But I haven’t looked at my notes once when writing these 4,892 words, and that to me says a lot.

Bandon is all about the golf – and Mike Keiser’s fingerprints are on every inch of it. For the British golfer, it is so far clear as the bucket-list overseas destination you need a British Airways flight to get to whatever would be regarded as No.2.


Chris Bertram, Golf World Top 100 Editor

Chris Bertram – Golf World Top 100 Editor

He was born and brought up in Dumfriesshire and has been a sports journalist since 1996, initially as a junior writer with National Club Golfer magazine.

Chris then spent four years writing about football and rugby union for the Press Association but returned to be Editor and then Publisher of NCG before joining Golf World and Today’s Golfer as Senior Production Editor.

He has been freelance since 2010 and when he is not playing and writing about the world’s finest golf courses, he works for BBC Sport.

A keen all-round sportsman, Chris plays off 11 – which could be a little better if it wasn’t for hilariously poor lag putting which has to be seen to be believed.

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