The First Decade of Bandon Dunes

By: Blaine Newnham

Can it be a decade since Mike Keiser opened his Bandon Dunes Golf Resort with one course and an outrageous, if quixotic, dream of making European golf available to Americans? "No one really thought it would work," he said recently. "Including me."

This week signals the opening of the fourth course - Old Macdonald - in an industry where more courses are closing than opening. "I wasn't sure how many avid American golfers there really were," continued Keiser. "We found out there were quite a few."

His three acclaimed courses - Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes and Bandon Trails - did a combined 120,000 rounds a year during much of the past decade. A good case can be made for Bandon offering the best collection of public-access golf courses in the world.

The resort did all those rounds despite Bandon's isolated location on the southern Oregon coast, Keiser's refusal to let the authenticity of the links courses be compromised by carts and cart paths, and green fees that are now more than $200 a round.

Along the way, Keiser seemed to make every right decision, especially his choice of golf architects, from unknown Scot David McLay Kidd doing the first course, iconoclast Tom Doak doing the second and the highly-respected Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw doing the third.

"I didn't want a best course or a worse course like there is at Pebble Beach or Whistling Straits,'" said Keiser. "I wanted there to be genuine debate."

The debate is on already among those who have played Old Macdonald, a different, massive layout that was designed by Doak and Jim Urbina based on the principals of Keiser's favorite architect, the late C.B. Macdonald.

My sense is that the course will prove very popular, but not winner of the "if I had only one round left to play" quiz. Pacific Dunes is one of the great courses in the world, and Bandon enjoys large doses of playability and beautiful ocean views.

Still, as a wonderful change of pace, the average players will like Old Mac because it is easier than the others - with wide, wide fairways, while good players will like it because it is more difficult. Try making birdie on a green that might be 100 yards long.

Keiser seems to have a sense of when to go for it, and when to back away. Despite rumors to the contrary, he didn't build a convention center or a spa, or allow the building of homes or condos on the property. He says as long as he owns and runs the resort, there will be no real estate component at Bandon.

There will be at least 12 more holes, however. Keiser asked Coore to design 12 par-3 holes in the rugged dunes west of the first hole at Bandon Trails. Construction will begin in the fall. It will be called the "Conservation Course" and a portion of the $100 green fees will be donated to saving the Oregon dunes. Keiser wants Coore to design par-3s like he did at Bandon Trails. The owner wants his clients to play 36 holes a day, but realizes some would rather have a par-3 experience after lunch.

Keiser played down the possibility that the fabled Bally Bandon Sheep Ranch would be the fifth full-size course. Owned by his partner, Phil Friedmann, the Sheep Ranch is located on 300 acres north of Pacific Dunes. Friedmann had Doak design and build 12 greens but not provide a route of play. Those who spend a day there get to design their own layout.

Although visible from the resort, Keiser said the 15-minute drive to the sheep ranch may keep it from being an integral part of the Bandon Dunes complex.

Keiser, who made his money recycling paper for greeting cards, said he would like to build two more courses in Oregon, courses not connected with the resort but on the coast and open to the public.

With the economic recession, rounds are off at Bandon. But Keiser said he has done better than the industry average. "Our goal wasn't to woo corporations with tournaments and convention centers," he said. "We focused instead on what I call the 'retail' golfer. And they haven't lost interest in what we are doing."

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine now plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.