(Photos courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort)
I tend to gravitate toward hipster things. Hipster music, hipster movies. Give me all of it. I just want to say that up front because I want us to all be on the same page here regarding my biases.
“My favorite Bandon course is Trails” can often sound like the “that single is the worst song on the album” of golf takes. In my experience, it’s typically uttered by 19th hole contrarians looking for an argument and an excuse to grab one more cocktail before calling it a night.
But now, as I’m sitting on the flight home, my feet sore from logging north of 150 holes in four days, I’m trying to silence the contrarian part of my brain. It’s attempting to surface some wild ideas about my experience on the central coast of Oregon and wreaking havoc on my personal course rankings.
Here’s where I’ve landed: Bandon Trails is the best golf course at Bandon Dunes. (Don’t stop reading; I’m going to bring this home.) It’s the best golf course, but it’s not my favorite course on the property. It can’t be. That would be ridiculous. Right? Shit, I don’t know.
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I’m not sure about their cinematic and musical tastes, but Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are hipsters, too. You can tell from the feeling you get while you’re playing their courses. Hipsters care about the really little things – especially the really little things that take time to discover and are easy to miss. That’s what I always seem to take away from playing C&C courses. They are so subtly brilliant that it’s really easy for the beginner and average player or architecture fan to miss the simplistic beauty of what they’re looking at. On the first trip I took to Bandon 3 or 4 years ago, Trails was far and away my least favorite course because I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t process what I was looking at. I hated that my ball kept getting ejected like a cursing baseball manager and I definitely couldn’t comprehend why the hell I flew to the middle of nowhere to not be looking at the ocean. This time I’m leaving the resort wearing a Bandon Trails sweatshirt. People change.
This time around, feeling a little more seasoned and well-read – as always, shout out to The Fried Egg – the loop felt as serene and gratifying as any round in recent memory. It was an 18-hole nature walk that was as challenging as you wanted to make it on yourself. In relation to the resort’s other courses, where vast, wide-open seaside scale is on display, Trails plays through intimate corridors of tall, rail-thin pines that kept making Neil shout lines from The Revenant. (“GET THE PELTS!”) But despite the hallways you’re playing through, you have as much width as you need, while still being challenged constantly by strategic ridges and centerline bunkers.
The greens are by far the calmest on the property and rely more on pin placements to change strategy than the dramatic contouring you’ll see on the other courses. The subtlety throughout the course makes for a weird conundrum – the first time you play it will probably be your least favorite. But the second and the third and the fourth times around, more and more of those little things start to come into focus. C&C are masters at this. It’s the way they use one seemingly random, seemingly irrelevant bump in the landscape to change the entire strategy of a hole (see: Streamsong Red No. 7). Or it’s the way they trick your eye with deception bunkers or ridges that appear closer to the green than they really are. It sounds like a cliché, but if the average player truly plays the course within themselves, playing to the fat parts of fairways and greens, they can easily put up a score they’ll be happy with. But C&C know that people don’t think that way and they make the hero shot look so appetizing that you can’t resist. They give you just enough rope to hang yourself. (Doak also does a great job of this at Pacific Dunes.)
The reason that I say that Trails is the best course at Bandon, but not my favorite course at Bandon is admittedly very stupid. It’s a victim of circumstance. Without an ocean there are no shots on Trails that make you feel the way you feel standing on the fourth holes of Pacific or Bandon Dunes, which is a sensation you just can’t replicate, no matter how great the architecture is. This is, again, an unfair and dumb way to rank things, but I suspect many people feel the same way. It reminds me of an exchange I have almost monthly with one of my friends:
“Pebble Beach is overrated and wouldn’t be nearly as good if it didn’t have the ocean.”
“Maybe, but it does have the ocean.”
Trails is fantastic in every way, just like it would be if it was in North Carolina or Texas or New Jersey. If you were ranking golf holes on a scale from 1-10, I’m not sure Trails has many 10’s – the big, bold, dramatic holes that get painted and hung in gray-haired people’s tasteful dens. But the difference is that it is almost entirely 7’s, 8’s and 9’s. It doesn’t let up.
The thing that Trails has working against it – the lack of any seaside holes – also makes it stand out amongst its neighbors. Since getting to Bandon is such a pilgrimage, people tend to play all four courses on their visits. Spending four hours walking through the woods not only gives you a chance to play an excellent golf course, it also just reinforces how spectacular the other three happen to be.
– Don’t let the opening hole scare you. It was my least favorite opening hole on the property and feels like a connector from the dunes and the clubhouse (which is shared with the par 3 course, The Preserve) to the dramatic wooded parts of the property, which make up the vast majority of the course.
– No. 2 sets the tone for a great set of par 3’s. You’re playing downhill into a green that’s sandwiched between the forest you’re about to enter and the massive ocean dunes you’re about to leave. The entire shot is a trick of the eye – the scale of the dune, the height of the trees, the deceptive native grasses short of the green – it all makes you feel claustrophobic and tight. But when you get to the bottom, you’ll see that you have plenty of room to miss short and left. Like always, C&C are there to catch you if you fall, provided that you fall in the correct spot.
– No. 3 was among my favorite par 5’s I’ve ever played. The tee shot is the first real play into the tree-lined corridors you’ll see for the rest of the day and a smattering of land mine bunkers throughout the fairway keep you thinking on every shot.
– The hog’s back ridge on No. 4 was a perfect example of creating strategy with land forms. Play as safe as you want up the weak right side and leave yourself a longer, blind shot into the green. Or swing away to clear the ridge and leave a flip wedge, but take on the pot bunkers you can’t see on the other side.
– No. 5 was just a fantastic short par 3. When the pin is in the front, you are convinced you’re going to make a one. When it’s tucked in the back, you’re holding on for 3.
– No. 8 is tremendous drivable par 4 that is too tempting to waste time hitting iron off the tee. The green, especially the front portion, swings wildly from right to left, making the laid-up approach shot all the more dicey.
– No. 9 is reminiscent of No. 3; it’s just a classy, handsome af par 5 packed with strategy on every shot.
– Eleven was among a favorite of our group. The tee shot feels bombs-away; wide open and down a slingshot slope (stay left). The approach shot sets up as an inverse of No. 11 at Augusta National and the view of the greenside pond catches you completely off-guard in a fun way as a stark contrast to everything else you’ll see on property.
– The 12th hole was another fantastic (and totally different) par 3. It’s long and the tee shot almost feels like a really short 4 – players have the whole world right to miss and set up an easy four at worst. But the way the mounding fronting the green sets up, it just tempts players to take on the flag, usually missing left. Long story short, it’s a really fun bogey to make.
– No. 13 was another serene par 4 – Trails might be the best collection of medium-length, interesting par 4’s I’ve seen. There is plenty of room to hit your tee shot and plenty of room to miss left of the green, but again, as soon as you get cheeky, you’re bringing a DAF bunker (Deep as F***) into play that is so severe it kind of makes you want to drop a ball in to see if you can get it out.
– No. 14 is the most talked about hole at Bandon Trails and not necessarily for good reason. It’s a driveable (for long players) par 4 with a green so severe that they’ve already had to re-do it multiple times. I’m of two minds on this hole: Yes, it would be great to see them flatten more of a shelf on the left side of the fairway to give players short of the green an actual chance to hit the green. But also, it’s just really hard and semi-unfair and in a weird way, it’s absolutely fun to try to conquer it and watch yourself get ejected. It gives you something to talk about that night. (For what it’s worth, Soly and Randy both birdied the first time around, so it’s not impossible.)
– Fifteen has a really cool diagonal cross bunker that makes you really think about angles and WHO CARES I HOLED OUT FROM THE FAIRWAY FOR EAGLE THIS IS THE BEST HOLE EVERRRRRRRRR
– No. 17 was another dynamite par 3, especially if you’re willing to move around tees if you’re able to play it more than once. The whole aesthetic of this hole feels like the Sand Belt in the foreground, but from the top tee, you can still see past it to the ocean. It’s so uniquely cool.
– The finishing hole was just OK; like the first, it feels like a connector from the Trails clubhouse to the land that makes up the bulk of the course.
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THIS COURSE IN ONE WORD: Serenity.
WEIRD COURSE TRIVIA: There’s a trail behind the 14th tee that leads to a clearing and a bench. That spot, with its expansive view of the woods, the dunes and the ocean was apparently the Eureka! moment for owner and developer Mike Keiser, convincing him the project would be successful.
WHAT SHOULD I DO BEFORE PLAYING THIS COURSE?: Go listen to Andy Johnson’s podcast with Bill Coore to hear where he came from, his approach to strategy and much more.
CLUBHOUSE/FOOD: Our favorite clubhouse of the bunch, with the simplicity and aesthetic you’d find in a Japanese lodge. The only thing more on point than the feng shui was the lunch menu, which featured subtle Asian takes on traditional staples (see: the scrumptious spicy caesar), along with a few wholly-Asian flourishes (Tron ordered the noodle bowl and was blown away!) Never has a clubhouse so perfectly matched it’s course.