Bandon Dunes Confidential: The Designers Dish on Their Courses

Bandon Dunes Confidential: The Designers Dish on Their Courses

Bandon Trails was designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in 2005.
Courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort

We convened the designers of Bandon’s four powerhouse courses to dish on the resort’s best holes, untold secrets (hidden tee boxes!) and what they’d like to do over again.

1. What’s the best hole on your course(s)?

DAVID MCLAY KIDD (Bandon Dunes, 1999): The one that everyone gravitates toward is 16 because it’s on the most spectacular piece of land. But the one that gives me the most pleasure is probably 14, where the land is modest and I was able to make a bigger architectural contribution. It’s a potentially drivable par-four, depending on the wind, and there are a spattering of bunkers in the fairway that appear random but are actually very carefully thought out. They force you to position your tee shot with a driver or a 3-wood, maybe even an iron, which leaves you with an interesting approach. People tend to remember that hole, even though it’s inland, not on the ocean. And that means a lot to me.

BILL COORE (Bandon Trails, 2005, with Ben Crenshaw): I’m not trying to be politically correct, but I don’t think I could point to one single favorite. But I do have holes that are among my favorites. Two of them are the par-3s that sit in what we call the meadow, the 5th and the 17th. In both cases, what you see today is pretty much what we saw in natural form, particularly in regard to the 5th green. It has a large swale in the middle of the green, a massive swale, some people might say, but it’s not a feature that we conjured up in any way. Some people might even describe it as a Biarritz, but that was not our intent. When we first walked through those areas, those holes presented themselves to us naturally. And it’s not just the greens but the vegetation that surrounds them. The native grasses and huckleberry bushes and exposed sand—that’s what we saw right from the start.

TOM DOAK (Pacific Dunes, 2002, and Old Macdonald, 2010): Pacific Dunes has a lot of candidates. The one that most confounds good players is the 6th, the short par-4. It’s barely 300 yards but the green target is VERY narrow, and with the trouble to both sides it makes for a scary second shot … or a scary tee shot if you are trying to get close to the front of the green. My favorite hole, though, might be the 8th. It’s one of the few where we had to make a good green out of a not-so-good green site, and I love how it turned out, with the big bank around to the right of the green side bunker. For Old Macdonald, I’ll go with the opening hole, because I think it sets the tone for the course so well. You’ve got a huge expanse of turf to hit your opening tee shot, but the green is based on Macdonald’s Double Plateau concept, and it’s a really exacting second shot if the hole is cut on either of the high portions of the green. You can make a big number there without ever leaving the short grass, and that’s what the whole course is like.

2. What’s the best hole on one of the other courses?

DOAK: For Bandon Dunes, my favorite is No. 4 (410-yard par-4], because of the moment where you come around the corner of the dogleg and have that great revealing view of the ocean for the first time. It’s just a terrific second shot, with the wind helping from the right and the green running away on the diagonal. At Bandon Trails, my favorite is also the 4th hole. There is a ridge running diagonally through the fairway, and if you bite off just the right amount of it, you’ll be rewarded with a big kick forward off the slope on the other side; but if you get a little too greedy you won’t clear the ridge, and you’ll have a long, blind second shot to a green set back in a narrow hollow.

COORE: It’s hard not to think of the holes on all the courses that line up along the ocean. The 4th and 5th at Bandon, for instance. The 11th at Pacific Dunes is spectacular. But one of the many holes I love is the first hole at Pacific Dunes. Ben and I have discussed this quite a bit, and we’ve both always believed that the first hole of any course should tell you something about what your about to experience. It doesn’t have to be the dramatic but in some way, subtle or not, it should serve as a prelued. And the first hole at Pacific does that very well. You stand there on the tee, looking at the land forms, it’s got a little mystery. It takes advantage of the setting in a beautiful way.

KIDD: There are many. But No. 2 at Trails is one of them. It’s a par-3 that plays through dunes that are probably bigger and tighter and steeper than any on the property. You’re not on the water but it’s a very dramatic spot. On Pacific Dunes, the back-to-back par-3s, 9 and 10, are always a kick. You’ve got two chances at glory, one after another.


3. What’s the coolest design feature on your course(s) that golfers tend to overlook?

DOAK: For Pacific Dunes, I have people come up to me all the time to say how thrilled they were to shoot a career low for nine holes on the back nine there. The reason for that is that there are four par-3s and three par-5s on that nine. We were a little bit scared to go with that routing because too many people judge a course by the scorecard, and that arrangement is so unusual; I hadn’t stopped to consider the effect that it would have on play. If you hit good shots on the par-3s, and keep the ball in play on the par-5s, there are a lot of opportunities for birdies and pars in a nine-hole loop like that. I’ve also noticed that Mr. [Mike] Keiser [the resort’s owner] encouraged a similar setup at Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs, because he knows how it makes the customers happy. For Old Macdonald, the coolest feature is the two blind shots—the tee shot at the 3rd, and the approach to the 16th. It is so rare to see a shot like that on a modern course—I doubt Mr. Keiser would have let us build them, if we weren’t trying to pay homage to Macdonald’s work, and having the two big blind shots was characteristic of his courses. Yet a lot of people name one of those holes as their favorite on the course.

COORE: I’d like to think there are a lot of them, because we worked so hard on the details. One of the holes you don’t hear so much about at trails the 8th hole, a drivable par-4. You can make eagle, but the next time around, it can easily take those two shots away from you and more. It has one of the most elusive greens, just fascinating in its contours, and it’s a green that I think you really need to study. You think you can play any kind of shot up there. But in many instances, particularly if the pin is back, before you know it, an ill-considered chip takes a left turn and runs not only off the green but into a bunker, or worse, to a bank down below.

KIDD: What most people won’t know is that there are hidden tees on six and 17. Mike Keiser wanted the sixth to play from a high dune on the right, but I was only able to build a very tiny tee there, about the size of dining room table. It’s basically just enough for one guy to be up there hitting a shot. It’s not suitable for regular play, day after day. But if you ask your caddie, they can take you up there. Mike also wanted the 17th to play as a par three over the gully on your second shot, so I put a tee down there way to the right of the landing area. You need to walk into the rough to get to it. Since the green is 80 yards deep, you’re playing anywhere from 150 to 230 yards in.

4. What was the single biggest challenge of building your course(s)?

KIDD: The wind in the summer and the rain in the winter. It was either to wet or too windy to build. So we had to do our work in the fall and spring. We built nine holes in the fall of 1997, and nine in spring 1998, and we opened in 1999.

DOAK: For Pacific Dunes, honestly, we knew how special the land was and the most important thing was to get out there every day and do our best work and not mess it up! For Old Macdonald, the challenge was to deal with the immense scale of the property and how open it was. Instead of trying to break it up into smaller areas, we just went big with everything … huge greens, huge bunkers, huge fairways, and tees so free-form that they don’t look like tees at all.

COORE: Building a course that would compliment the other two, that would hold up its end of the bargain and add to the appeal of the resort. That challenge was heightened by the fact that the site was not on the ocean. When Mr. Keiser first called us about it, he warned us that we might not want to take the job because of that. Most of us have been to resorts that have two or three courses or maybe more, but there’s only one course people want to play. We didn’t want to build something that would be perceived as the “third course at Bandon.” One of the things we’re most pleased about Trails is that over its relatively short life, followers have really shown an appreciation for it, and that appreciation seems to grow the more they play it.


5. If you could go back and do one thing differently in your design(s), what would it be?

DOAK: At Pacific Dunes, there isn’t one day of the construction process I’d like to have back again. The only thing we’ve changed at all is to break up some of the bigger bunkers so the sand doesn’t blow out of them quite so badly. We wanted to mimic the look of the blowouts we found on the property at the start—we knew they’d be a headache for the greenkeeper, but none of us understood how much work it would be to replace the sand in them regularly. For Old Macdonald, we went out on a limb by doing something different with the Redan hole [205-yard, par-3 12th]. It plays straight downwind in the summer, and the wind is so strong that I thought if we built a more conventional-looking version of the hole, nobody would be able to stay on the green; so we tried to do it a bit differently. The green is just as difficult to hit as I thought it would be, but it just doesn’t feel like a Redan to people. Actually, the 17th at Pacific Dunes is a better version of the same hole.

COORE: I’d make the tee boxes bigger. That’s purely from a pragmatic perspective, and I think the architects of all the courses would probably agree. The truth is, I don’t think any of us realized just how popular Bandon Dunes Resort would be and how many rounds would be played out there. As for something more interesting than square footage of tee boxes, we have already made changes at Bandon Trails. We’ve tried to take note how it has played and we’ve listened to the people who play there. My biggest personal concern was addressed a few years ago when we made changes to the front of 18 green. I never realized how fast some of those fairways would wind up playing. That green initially had a false front where if the ball didn’t get up on the flat surface and the wind was up and it was summertime, the ball could wind up rolling 30 or 40 yards back down the fairway. We’ve since lowered the green about three feet and made it more receptive. And we’ve pushed some of that sand in front of the green and created contours so that if the ball comes up short, it stays in the proximity of the green.

KIDD: I’d go second. Building the first course, I got to be the pioneer, the trailblazer and that’s amazing. It’s exciting. It’s wonderful. You’re inventing the wheel. But you’re also going into unchartered territory. Back then no one really knew that you could build a course like that in this country. That nasty pot bunkers would be acceptable. That you didn’t need cart paths. That people would be willing to play in the rain. It may sound strange to say that now, but 15 years ago, a bunker with no edge was a big deal. So were big sandy waste areas with no defined lines. I remember talking to some of the guys from Kemper Sports and they said, “This is crazy. As soon as you’re gone we’re going to have to straighten out some of those lines to formalize the rules of play.’ Don’t get me wrong, being a pathfinder was a wonderful privilege. But I love that at Sand Valley I’m going second.

6. Where do you rank your Bandon course(s) among all your design credits?

DOAK: When I built Pacific Dunes, I didn’t think I’d ever have the opportunity to build a course on that good of a piece of land again in my lifetime. To my amazement, we’ve had a dozen great properties to work on since, but I don’t know if we’ve built another that plays as well for all levels of golfers as Pacific Dunes does. It’s the only course of my own that I rate a 10 in my book. I give Old Macdonald an “8,” which puts it in some pretty elite company, but a bit below Pacific Dunes and Barnbougle and Ballyneal and Rock Creek.

COORE: It’s certainly among my absolute favorites. When I think of the courses we’ve worked on, the number may not be very large but we’ve been lucky to be handed some extraordinary sites. I believe Bandon Trails to be among the best work that we’ve done, and so much of that lies in the degree of detail that went into it. These aren’t always details that are readily apparent the first time you play it, but they grow more so through repeated exposure. There’s also the fact that the course moves well through three distinct environments: the dunes, the meadows, and the Pacific northwest forest. In my view, and I think Ben would agree, Trails travels in and through those three environment in a way that seems to bring them all together in a compatible fashion, showcasing features that are so much a part of the Bandon landscape as a whole.

KIDD: Probably number one. It’s my highest course and it’s the one everybody seems to want to talk to me about. The day I get bored talking about Bandon Dunes, shoot me.


7. If you could give one piece of advice to a first-timer playing at Bandon, what would it be?

COORE: Play the (par-3 13-hole) Preserve first. It’s a fun way to introduce yourself to the turf conditions and how the ball reacts. Most people who come to Bandon have never putted fescue and have never played off the kind of tight lies you get out there. The Preserve helps you get acclimated. Relative to the Preserve, it also has greens that are not identical but which I would say are in the same family of what you’ll find when you play the 18th hole. There are several of them I’d say have echoes of one another. Interestingly enough, the first green of the Preserve used to be the putting green at Trails, so that should tell you something.

DOAK: For every course at Bandon, there are the same two pieces of advice: (1) Around the greens, keep your pitching wedge in your bag, and play the ball along the ground with a putter or chipping club; and (2) When you are playing into the wind, take a lot more club than you think you need, and swing easy. The harder you swing, the more spin you put on the ball, and the more the wind will affect it.

KIDD: I agree with Tom. Wedges are not your friend. The ground game you’ve heard people talk about-—it’s not just some mythical thing.

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