I've always hated Bandon Dunes. Ever since the first course opened in 1999, it has been a staple of grillroom debates, but I couldn't be part of the conversation because I had never made the trip. In 2001 the Bandon resort debuted the acclaimed Pacific Dunes, and four years later Bandon Trails was built, yet for various reasons I never made the pilgrimage to this holy land on the Oregon coast. This became a personal embarrassment and a professional liability; as a Golf Magazine Top 100 rater I have to play the world's best courses.
Bandon continued to taunt me by opening a fourth track this June, the celebrated Old Macdonald. That was it; I resolved to finally experience Bandon.
No self-respecting golf writer will ever pay to play, so I needed a unique story idea to sell to my editor. The zaniest thing I could concoct was to play all four Bandon courses on the same day. This seemed like suitable penance for having stayed away for so long. Of course, I wasn't even sure it was physically possible to play all 72 in a day. Part of the Bandon allure is that walking is mandatory. Traversing four courses would mean 20 miles or more on foot, up and down hills, through wind and possibly rain, with the setting sun an inexorable foe. I contacted Todd Kloster, an amiable Bandon flack, and he said that while a few hearty souls had played 54 in a day, no one had been brave enough or stupid enough to try the impregnable quadrilateral. That was all I needed to hear (ditto my malleable editor). Game on.
As the details were coalescing, I mentioned my madcap plan to a couple of Golf Channel execs, and they said they'd love to film the adventure for a segment on Golf in America.
Gulp. What had started as a lark would now be a referendum on my game and my manhood, in front of a national TV audience. Preparations would have to be made.
Finding the right wingman was easy. My boyhood friend Kevin Price and I have a long history of golf road trips, including the spiritual precursor to the Bandon marathon, when we played all eight courses at Pinehurst in a span of four days (SI, June 17, 2005). Kevin immediately got into the spirit of things and found on the Internet an antichafing product called BodyGlide. In the run-up to Bandon we did a test by applying it to our inner thighs and other sensitive areas. Separately.
I bought a pedometer to track our mileage and headlamps in case we had to play the final few holes in the dark. My biggest concern was finding the right footwear. I was born with absurdly flat feet. Last year I went to a new podiatrist to get another batch of orthotics made, and as I peeled off my socks, the doc couldn't contain his glee, squealing, "You have a real deformity!" In the months before Bandon, I tested numerous golf shoes. I had decided to change my kicks after every round, so I ultimately settled on a carefully choreographed lineup of what I deemed to be the four most comfortable pairs of shoes.
There was a lot of talk about training for the Bandon marathon, and Kevin a 37-year-old bachelor with a three handicap took it seriously, regularly walking 36 holes in a day. In the six weeks before Bandon, this married father of four played exactly three rounds and rode a cart for one of them. Clearly adrenaline and ego would have to keep me going.
On July 25 the reckoning arrived. As I was leaving for the airport, my loving wife offered a heartfelt pep talk: "Have fun... and please don't hurt yourself."
My alarm went off the next morning at 4:59. At Bandon's excellent breakfast buffet I basically had four of everything bacon and eggs, pancakes, servings of hash browns, plus a bowl of Frosted Flakes, a banana, a mound of berries and a chocolate chip muffin. A normal breakfast for Tim Herron, in other words.
Kevin and I skipped the range on this day every swing had to count and headed to Pacific Dunes, the wild Tom Doak design that is widely recognized as one of the great courses of the last quarter century. I hadn't felt any nerves until I spied our welcoming party: SI photographer Kohjiro Kinno, two Golf Channel cameramen, a sound guy, a producer, two caddies and a half-dozen chipper Bandon employees. After getting miked up and shooting a couple of arrival scenes, Kevin and I headed to the 1st tee. It was 6:30 a.m., and a chilly wind was blowing in our faces. I fanned my drive way right, Kevin yanked his dead left, and away we went.
To encourage a breakneck pace of play we had enacted a few local rules: Practice swings were forbidden, gimmes mandatory, and we were allotted only 10 seconds to look for a lost ball. I struggled to find the right balance between rushing from shot to shot and taking my time over the ball. Kevin stuffed his approach on the 3rd hole for a birdie and played well for the rest of the round; it wasn't until the back nine that I finally settled down, parring six of the last seven holes for a back-nine 38 and a round of 82. (I carry a fragile 8.4 index.) Kevin shot an 80, but the most important number was 2:35. That was how fast we played the 18 holes.
Pacific Dunes was a rousing start to the day. I loved the natural use of the heaving earth, the artistic blowout bunkers, the imaginative green complexes and the tantalizing mix of short holes that can be attacked and long, smashmouth holes you simply try to survive. The 4th, a 463-yard par-4 that skirts the coastline, may be the best hole in Oregon. Standing on the tee, taking in the pounding surf and evocative fog, Kevin spoke for both of us when he murmured, "This is as pure as it gets."
Next up was Bandon Dunes, the course that put this place on the map. The 1st tee is a busy nexus between the resort's main pro shop and some popular restaurants. Our entourage created a bit of a stir and attracted a small gallery that watched us tee off. I had been bragging about having used the same ball for all 18 holes at Pacific, then promptly lost it with a screaming hook into the gunch.
I'm usually pooped after walking 18 holes but felt quite peppy as we toured Bandon Dunes. That may have had something to do with my calorie intake. I was so stuffed from breakfast, I didn't nibble at all during the opening 18, but at Bandon Dunes I started eating again and pretty much never stopped. Over the next 10 hours I would consume, in order: energy bar, apple, banana, big turkey sandwich, bag of chips, humongous chocolate chip cookie, apple, energy bar, two jumbo hot dogs, banana, bag of almonds, Snickers. Plus various waters, Gatorades and a couple of colas for the caffeine. Kevin may have outplayed me throughout the day at Bandon Dunes he shot a smooth 79 to my sloppy 87 but I definitely outate him.
Though they are linked in the public imagination, Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes are different experiences. Bandon is a stouter test than Pacific but not quite as much fun. The terrain from tee to green at Bandon is a little less spectacular, but with six greens perched on the cliffs, the ocean is in play more often and you get the opportunity to execute some unforgettable shots. "You can spend all day debating which course is better or which one you prefer," said Kevin. "Bottom line: They're both amazing."
Changing shoes at the halfway mark, I discovered blood on my left sock, thanks to a cracked toenail. (We were up to 10.6 miles on the pedometer.) I felt strangely jolly; there needed to be a little suffering on this day, and I knew the close-ups of my damaged digit would make great television. By the time our third round began, at Old Macdonald at 1:20 p.m., Kevin and I had grown pretty relaxed about the TV presence. We had each felt as if we were swinging a little too fast whenever the cameras were close by, but on Old Mac the Golf Channel guys made the artistic decision to shoot mostly panoramic scenes from a distance, so Kevin and I had more breathing room. The energy was also altered by pair of perky new caddies, Dave Hill and Daniel Vagnino Jr. (Rich Peterson and Joey Hines had powered us through the first 36 holes.)
Kevin and I were stoked to see what all the buzz was about at Old Mac, and we both got off to hot starts. Alas, I lost my mojo with a ghastly four-putt on the endless par-5 6th hole, which plays 555 yards, uphill, into the fan. Right around then the biggest wind of the day began blowing, with gusts up to 30 mph. Old Macdonald an homage to the work and influences of Charles Blair Macdonald, the father of American golf-course architecture has a number of scintillating holes and subtle design features. I particularly loved the 3rd hole, with its blind Sahara drive. Number 3 is 375 yards (we played all four courses from the tips) but downwind, and with all the roll we both nearly drove the green. But beginning on number 9 there is a stretch of really-good-but-not-quite-great holes, and as I struggled in the wind, my legs were getting awfully heavy. Thankfully, Kevin kept me going with his endless enthusiasm and rock-solid play. On the 15th tee I finally got a little rest, as for first time all day we had to wait on a group in front of us. (Because of prescheduled maintenance at Bandon Dunes there were no tee times before 10 o'clock, so for the first two rounds we enjoyed empty courses.) For five or six minutes I lay flat on my back, eyes closed, while everything around me was spinning. This respite gave me the juice needed for the rousing final four holes, two par-5s and a pair of meaty par-4s that measure more than 450 yards, including the wonderful 16th hole with its completely blind approach over a towering Alps dune.
After finishing off our rounds 79 for Kev, 84 for me I took inventory: 16.8 miles on the pedometer and another bloody sock, though my feet actually felt pretty good after having just spent 18 holes in a pair of Freddy Couples's favorite shoes.
We got to Bandon Trails at 5:20 p.m. It was an interesting way to finish the day. Trails begins and ends among the dunes but otherwise is the only Bandon course to play through the forest. It is the course that seems to engender the most diverse opinions. Kevin and I both fell hard for the place. "The holes sit so naturally on the land," he said at one point. "It's as if you can't wait to get to the next tee simply to see how the hole will unfold."
I parred number 1 and then played the next five holes in seven over. As I dragged my sorry self up the steep 7th fairway, my caddie, Dave, got in my grill and challenged me to show him a little something. I smoked a five-iron pin high, the start of a surge in which I closed the front nine by making consecutive pars and my first birdie in about eight hours.
I couldn't keep it up on the back nine. Trails is by far the hilliest of the four courses. I was still loving the place, but over the closing holes my fatigued body simply wouldn't do what I wanted it to. Still, I had long since stopped caring about the bogeys and was floating along in a kind of blissed-out endorphin high. With a few holes left Kevin said to me, "It's crazy, I know, but I'm kind of sad this is ending." I knew exactly how he felt.
It was 8:15 p.m. when we reached our 72nd hole. Sunset was still a half hour away, but I strapped on my headlamp anyway, just because the poor caddies had toted it all day. Facing a tap-in for one last double bogey, I stood over my ball as Kevin lined up his five-footer for a sand save. We had decided in advance to hole our final putts at the same instant. After all, who got to the top of Everest first, Hillary or Norgay? We didn't want that kind of controversy.
After the putts dropped, Kevin and I shared a sloppy hug. Then a couple of Bandon executives materialized, carrying large wrapped presents. Kev and I tore off the paper to find a framed poster of the four courses, a perfect way to commemorate our achievement. Playing all 72 at Bandon had begun as a personal quest, but a number of people were invested in the outcome.
The Golf in America segment recently aired, and Kevin and I got to relive the experience. I keep the scorecards on my desk for regular perusals, and the poster is on a wall in my office, but Bandon is with me everywhere I go. All I have to do is look down. One toenail is missing, and another is still black.