By JOE PASSOV
I don't want to sound like a broken record, but the needle, turntable and amplifier don't lie: Bandon Dunes rocks. With four courses ranked among Golf Magazine's Top 100 You Can Play, Bandon Dunes could have coasted had it wanted to. Instead, they keep adding, keep improving, keep striving. The results are clear and convincing. Bandon Dunes is America's ultimate golf playground.
Here are five things I've learned on the trip so far.
1. Punch Bowl is going to be a knockout. The gigantic putting green project, modeled after the Himalayas at St. Andrews is a sprawling, heaving carpet co-designed by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina that is slated for a September 15 soft opening. So that the Bandon bosses can figure out how it will all work, play will be free of charge until further notice. Situated adjacent to Pacific Dunes' first tee, Punch Bowl unfolds right beneath the Pac Dunes clubhouse. What a scene this will be, with 36 holes, perhaps 18 set up at any one time, with onlookers gathered around the firepit, peering over from the second deck. Plans are to light the course for nighttime fun, not with overhead street lamps, but with ground-level illumination, possibly even including the cups themselves.
2. Put Bandon Preserve at or near the top of the list for the best par-3 courses in golf. I'm not just sayin' that because I claimed the majority of the Skins in our group, either. This little Coore-Crenshaw creation is nearly ideal. With 13 holes, you get the satisfaction of feeling like you played another entire round, which makes it the perfect complement if you're just not up to another full-size 18, either because of fatigue or cost. And, with only 13 holes, you're done pretty quickly -- not that you want to rush through it. Holes range from 63 yards to 147, but when the wind is up, you might have to pull off a headcover a time or two. The 142-yard fifth is a downhill stunner, with an ocean backdrop, but I'm equally fond of the multiple holes that play over or alongside of massive dunes. Still, my favorite might be the 142-yard 11th, which features a canyon carry and some gorgeous trees.
3. Bandon Trails is underrated. I've always appreciated its beauty, sort of a mix between Spyglass Hill and the best alpine courses in the Lake Tahoe area, but with no ocean encounters, a few design quirks and lots of calf-crunching climbs late in a (tiring) round, its impact on me has been muted. No longer. The uphill, par-4 18th has been altered, making it more fair and more fun. Elevating the tee box roughly six feet has eliminated the blind tee shot. The fairway was re-graded, so that it wouldn't shed balls to both sides. The slope leading up to the green was softened and dished out, so that short approaches on the firm, wind-blown turf no longer will come careening down 60 yards, or even right back to your feet. Finally, the green was expanded significantly and lowered perhaps six feet, creating a better amphitheater for a finisher. Additional tweaks to the right side of the second green, to the green at the par-4 15th and to the par-5 16th have enhanced playability. I still think the complex green and its green complex at the short par-4 14th borders on the ridiculous, but overall, I'm left with the idea that Bandon Trails would be a star if it were anyplace else.
4. Pacific Dunes confirmed yet again that it's worthy of its Number 1 ranking on our list of the Top 100 Courses You Can Play. Pebble Beach will always be more special to me, but Pac Dunes wins the side-by-side test. Old Macdonald might be the most fun course at Bandon Dunes, because even in a 4-club wind, it's relatively stress-free off the tee, but for pulse-quickening drama and pure variety, it's Pac, man.
5. There is no better buddies destination in golf than Bandon Dunes. Sure, it can be really tough to get to, with limited and fogged-in flights a problem, both in San Francisco and in North Bend and it's hardly dirt-cheap -- but unquestionably, it's worth the cost and the hassle factor. The testosterone level at McKee's Pub was off the charts this past Saturday night. I counted only one woman in the place who wasn't actually working there. At every table, it was one loud chorus after the next, singing the praises of heroic deeds on the ocean holes, of winning wagers and losing presses and replaying shot after shot, with the promise of doing it all again the next day. This is what we live for. (Photo: Wood Sabold)