Typical of a day on Scotland’s west coast, the late-afternoon sun had rapidly capitulated to darkish clouds, and a gathering wind-cum-gale had begun blowing defenseless golfers’ shots every which way but straight. All that were missing were bagpipers and haggis.
But alas, this was Oregon’s Pacific coast. The weather switcheroo was indicative of what I’d frequently encounter over the next few days on my 220-mile journey up Highway 101 from Bandon to Astoria. Yet, the omnipresent precipitation, wind, and fog only enhanced Oregon’s stunning shoreline, which includes thick pine forests, giant sand dunes, massive headlands, surf-battered offshore rock formations, historic lighthouses, quaint fishing villages, and the often-turbulent Pacific Ocean.
Oh, yeah. The fickle weather and outstanding courses contributed to some memorable golf experiences, too.
The town of Bandon is, well, remote (250 miles from Portland and 100 miles from the California border), so we suggest taking a commuter flight into the North Bend Airport (served by Northwest, Continental, and Alaska airlines), then driving 20 minutes south to Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, the Oregon coast’s shining star and the place that has finally stamped the region as a serious golf destination.
Caddies are encouraged at Bandon Dunes (888-345-6008; 541-347-4380; www.bandondunesgolf.com), the two-year-old, walking-only masterpiece of young Scottish architect David McLay Kidd that immediately earned GOLF Magazine Top-100 status. The flatter portions of the par-72, 7,326-yard (from the sixth set of tees) gem are Scottish links-like, while areas covered with high dunes and gorse, such as the par-4, 390-yard 14th, which features a dunes-enveloped green, conjure up images of Ireland’s seaside classics. Seven holes at least partially border the Pacific; all 18 boast ocean views.
A private course also is planned, but in the meantime a Tom Doak-designed sister track, Pacific Dunes, will open to the public in July. Seven of its holes hug the ocean bluff but, unlike unprotected Bandon Dunes, the par-71 Pacific Dunes’ inland holes wind through towering dunes and blowouts. The signature holes are consecutive coastline one-shotters, the 197-yard 10th and 168-yard 11th.
Just south of the resort is Bandon’s Old Town harborfront, featuring galleries, shops, and cafes. Follow Beach Loop Road south to view Elephant Rock, Table Rock, and Face Rock — striking offshore formations.
Highway 101 mainly runs inland from Bandon to Florence, but the 41-mile stretch from Coos Bay (the world’s largest timber-exporting port) to Florence contains the 32,000-acre Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Some of these monstrous shifting sand hills — taller than those in Africa’s Sahara Desert — stretch several miles inland.
Once in Florence, savor a bowl of the west’s best clam chowder at Mo’s, on the dock, before heading to nearby Sandpines Golf Course (800-917-4653; 541-997-1940; www.sandpines.com).
Don’t be turned off by the trip up the driveway, which parallels two ugly water tanks and concludes at a cart barn-sized golf shop. This fine par-72, 6,954-yard (7,252 from the tips) Rees Jones layout weaves through and around a thick pine forest, dunes, and ponds, including one that figures prominently on the final three holes. The 348-yard, par-4 16th has water down the right side; the 203-yard 17th is all carry over the pond to a green encompassed by bunkers; and the 501-yard, par-5 18th doglegs left around the water. You decide how much to bite off.
A few miles east of 101 is the deceptively-named Ocean Dunes Golf Links (800-468-4833; 541-997-3232). Sure, some holes border the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, but if this is a links course, so is Augusta National. Despite being just 6,055 yards from the tips, the somewhat hilly Ocean Dunes is a worthy and fun test. However, it needs better maintenance, readable yardage markers, and a ranger to ensure that slow-playing territorial residents from the development’s Ocean Dunes Estates allow faster non-members (read: you and me) to play through. Consider taking a cart — and maybe a Valium.
The scenery really starts getting impressive north of Florence, where 101 rediscovers the coastline and sweeping dunesland surrenders to dense fog-shrouded pine forests and vertiginous, sea-battered basalt cliffs. There are numerous worthwhile stops en route to Gleneden Beach’s Salishan Golf Links (800-890-0387; 541-764-3632; www.salishan.com) and comfy Westin Salishan Lodge (see sidebar). There is the Sea Lion Caves, where the basking beasts can be viewed from the clifftop observation deck or from the beach 208 feet below via an elevator; Cape Perpetua, whose 800-foot-high lookout point is the highest spot along the state’s coast; Yaquina Head Lighthouse, Oregon’s tallest and second oldest (1872); Devil’s Punch Bowl, a collapsed sea cave; Newport’s fishing village and its fine Oregon Aquarium; and Depoe Bay, whose world’s-smallest harbor was the setting of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Coincidentally, the testy Salishan Golf Links (also not truly a links) can drive you crazy, especially when wet, which it often is. Its numerous uphill holes offer minimal roll, so Salishan plays much longer than its 6,453 yards. The front nine winds through the inland forest. The flatter back plays around and near Siletz Bay, giving it a linksy feel at times, although tall firs are never far removed.
Between Gleneden Beach and cheese mecca Tillamook, home of the Tillamook County Creamery (600,000 annual visitors) and Blue Heron Cheese Company, are storm-battered Cape Kiwanda, Cape Lookout, and Cape Meares — accessible by 35-mile-long Three Capes Loop. A bit farther north is artsy Cannon Beach’s oft-photographed, 235-foot-high Haystack Rock. Once past Seaside, Oregon’s northernmost beach community, tackle the just-overhauled (to the tune of $4.6 million by architect Bill Robinson) Gearhart Golf Links (503-738-3538), Oregon’s oldest course. Built in 1892 as a nine-holer, then extended to 18 in 1913, this well-bunkered par-72’s large greens and wide landing areas come in handy on windy days, when it plays longer than its 6,218 yards.
Our final stop, Astoria, was named in 1811 for John Jacob Astor, then the nation’s wealthiest man, who bankrolled the original fur-trading colony here. While in town, climb the 164 spiral stairs of Astoria Column for a brilliant scenic overview; find a way to play the private Astoria Golf and Country Club (503-861-2545); visit Fort Stevens, the lone U.S. mainland military installation fired upon by an enemy (a Japanese submarine) in World War II; and stop by Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark wintered in 1805.
Your journey from Astoria to Portland International Airport on US 30 will retrace, in reverse, the explorers’ route, on which they noted “wet, cold and miserable” weather. You may also be wet and cold upon reaching Astoria but, unlike Lewis and Clark, you won’t arrive miserable. After all, your journey will have included some superb golf.