(Photos courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort)
Though we’ve never met in person, I have a tortured relationship with the Doakito.
Our first interaction was at Streamsong Blue. It was hot and heavy from the start and then things kind of faded and conflict abounded. The foundation for my relationship with Doak was the very idea of Doak – opinionated genius, keenly invested in history, painfully truthful, hard-headed and stubborn. All of those traits resonated with me. On subsequent trips to Streamsong the relationship started to feel emotionally abusive and one-sided. But then I’d head home and dive back into the angsty takes in the Confidential Guide and forget about the bad stuff. We reconciled at St. Andrews Beach down in Australia on a whim last year and I decided to give things another go (for the kids, ya know?). We were back in a good place. SAB was minimalist and sat light on the sandy terrain. Then we hit the rocks again a few days later in Tasmania at Barnbougle Dunes. Tom’s mean-spirited side came back out. The place was too extreme, he’d asked too much of me and thrown too much at me, and I harbored some frustration and angst in the deepest recesses of my soul for the next five months. I was done with Tom forever, frustrated that he lacked nuance and had a propensity for messing up good land with unnecessary tricks and sleight of hand.
It was under these auspices that I reconnected with the Doakito on the Oregon coast. It was the second day of the trip and it felt like heading into a mediation with our lawyers; I was going to be forced to appreciate it because it was such a great piece of land, but I didn’t have to enjoy it. Additionally, the windy conditions we experienced the first day at Preserve and Bandon Dunes caused some consternation that we were absolutely going to get our shit pushed in out in the wind. To our surprise it was as calm and benign a morning as one could ask for, yet I still braced myself to get my ass kicked for four hours, keenly aware of tricky bunkers in spots that kicked you when you’re down. To my surprise, the first few holes showed a deft touch, each progressively harder than the next, but all offering the subtlety absent at other Doakito designs. Bunkers weren’t quite as deep, nor as plentiful; the surfaces, both fairways and greens, were longer, broader, more grand and befitting the surroundings. Was it still hard? Absolutely. But the layout was an eminently fair progression, ebbing and flowing to allow the occasional breath.
Many people talk about golf courses being a canvas and the architect being an artist. The land upon which Pacific Dunes sits feels more like the finest marble a sculptor could ever ask for. Doak freely admitted that he got the best piece of land at Bandon, and that he had the benefit of going second. Chip away at it. Don’t do too much, don’t fuck it up. And Doak seemingly put that philosophy into practice. It feels wise and elevated. And while Barnbougle was completed three years later, it sits on an equally spectacular piece of property but feels more the product of a more temperamental, arrogant artist – too many wrinkles, rumples and over-the-top flourishes that were needlessly penal. And the flow was far too extreme – the holes were great on their own but the dunes were so massive that the course didn’t quite flow or speak in harmony. Maybe that’s just a commentary on the site at Barnbougle and just how extreme it is.
And therein lies the key to Pacific Dunes in my opinion: the routing. Yes, the individual holes are strong, the views resplendent and the land upon which it sits is perfect. In his seminal thesis, The Anatomy of a Golf Course, and later repeated in Stephen Goodwin’s Dream Golf, Doak says “On choice property architects must discover the correct routing through the natural terrain, and thereby claim it’s advantages… But the architect cannot decide upon his best alternative until he has put together several different schemes.” Well, Doak certainly avoided the obvious scheme (nine holes inland and nine holes along the cliffs), deciding instead upon a layout reminiscent of an earlier trip he’d taken to Royal Portrush. In Goodwin’s book, Doak’s former associate Jim Urbina offers the following: “Our routing kept looping, looping, looping.” And I think that’s what spoke to me the most, the symphonic, circular nature of the course. The first three holes are eminently fair, and you’re gradually introduced to the ocean playing up to the third green. Then you get your ass kicked along the cliffs for 15 minutes on the fourth hole, but not in a way that’s unfair or mean-spirited. It’s more like you’ve been rewarded with the view and you need to sack up and hit two good golf shots. Then you get a straightforward, yet handsome par three to catch you breath, moving inland just a bit but still in earshot of the ocean. After that you hang out inland away from the water and the golf is just as good. This is the pattern and it’s great.
Despite moving farther inland, the sixth offers another mini-crescendo, with a salacious short four that’s an eminently fair par but tough birdie, as it should be. Depending on how you play the sixth you can either take a little break or buckle up and try to be a hero. Regardless, the seventh hole might be the toughest on the entire property. If your tee shot is even remotely out of position then you’re pretty much dead and left to extricate yourself from a bad situation by laying up. I ignored my caddie Squid, attempted a heroic recovery, and ended up looking like a dipshit traipsing through the remarkable natural bunkering up the left side (Doak’s words) and making a triple bogey for which I was solely responsible. Despite this, at no point did I feel like Doak was reverting back to his mendacious, mean-spirited habits. When I stepped on that tee I knew what I was in for, and looking back, the hole rewarded placement and precision rather than brute strength, which is a rarity for a long par four.
The inland jaunts away from the coast hold your attention with stern, but fair, golf. Perhaps this stretch of the course also resonated more deeply than it would have during other times of the year due to the honeyed hues of the blooming gorse.
The eighth hole was another highlight for me. The drive was fair and forgiving and the approach featured far more than what met the eye from the fairway. A massive false front on the left intimidated you, but as Squid noted, there was more room right of the green than you could imagine and the green offered up a half-punchbowl. It also felt like the start of a new journey back down to the ocean, with palpable suspense building on 8 and 9. You get back down to the 10th and you’re given a chance to breathe – a medium-length, bunkerless par three awaits and allows you to level out in the presence of the sensory overload in front of you. The scenery is one thing, but along the way you’re hitting cool pockets of ocean air sitting snugly among the dunes, smelling the salty humidity, and hearing the dull roar of the waves drifting up from below. You’d gotten a dose of this earlier and here you’re getting a second chance to relive it all, but with the key learnings from earlier. And then you get to the 11th and you’ve got another par 3, well-bunkered yet shorter, and you can maximize the enjoyment of that piece of land that much more with the quick flourishes inherent in one-shot holes. In all, there are four par-threes on the back nine and at no point does it feel gimmicky or cute.
The 12th offers a wide-open, yet thought-provoking, par 5 ripe with strategic options. The thirteenth was one the highlights of the entire trip. It’s long, uphill, into the wind, but easier than it looks from the tee, and buffeted by bunkers up the right side and cliffs down the left. Instead of bitching about how hard this hole is, take it with a grain of salt and treat it like the pay-off for the four par threes on the side. The green site on 13 backs up to Old Mac and is one of the more spectacular perches on the property, isolated and rugged. After that you start heading back to the clubhouse (realizing at this point that you haven’t been back there since the first hole).
I found the closing stretch a bit uneven, which isn’t surprising given what you’ve just experienced. However 16 is a cerebral par 4 up the hill to a challenging green and 17 is a spectacular long, redan-ish par three set among the gorse and befitting the land movement quite well. The 18th leaves a bit of a sour taste in your mouth, as if Doak couldn’t quit without a parting shot. The par 5 features a penal drive; the gorse cuts in way too much down the right to the point where even well struck drives get punished, and then the green side features some unnecessary bunkering. I was left to stew on what I had just experienced over lunch on the veranda overlooking the entire property. Man, those oceanfront holes were *heavy* and I immediately wanted another crack at the whole place. It certainly wasn’t the ass-kicking I’d expected.
The next afternoon saw our second loop around Pac Dunes and those sour notes completely dissipated. Perhaps it was the beers at lunch, or the rapidity with which the weather the turned and the cold fog rolled in just in time for our second oceanfront climax (the fog was just thick enough to shroud the course in mystery and make each hole feel distinct and remote from the others). Or it could have been the fact that I played more patiently or that we’d been on property for long enough to adjust to the slower rhythms. Whatever it was, I felt all of the positive things I’d felt the day prior, just more acutely. The characteristically extreme elements were all still there – the unforgiving green on four, the massive blowout bunker on six, even the encroaching gorse on eighteen – but they all felt complimentary, natural, and essential to the larger ebb and flow of the round. This course is truly a give and take. It’s both thoughtful and emotional; but above all else, it’s restrained.
So where does that leave me and the Doakito? At this point I’m seeing other people (Coore & Crenshaw) but Doak and I remain good friends (think the movie “It’s Complicated”). I’m unsure what brought on his restraint (perhaps Keiser, perhaps just a dutiful responsibility to that piece of land). Whatever it was, it offered up the best golf experience of my life.
• • •
THIS COURSE IN ONE WORD: (actually two words) Violent & Sexual.
WEIRD COURSE TRIVIA: The restroom/concession stand/bomb shelter that you hit on 4 and 13 features outdoor urinals which Keiser says are among his “favorite places on the course” according to Dream Golf.
WHAT SHOULD I DO BEFORE PLAYING THIS COURSE?: I actually wouldn’t do anything. It’s better to go in open-minded and untarnished by specific expectations – just wing it!
CLUBHOUSE/FOOD: The aesthetic is very Pac-Northwest and the space is airy upstairs. Breakfast here was the best of the bunch. Drinks and appetizers on the back deck were also essential.