Pacific Dunes, Bandon Dunes reviews

March 2, 2008 3:29:43 PM PST
To appreciate the confusing conflict between agony and ecstasy, watch a guy like Mike Dillon as he chunks, sprays, and tops countless golf shots along the fast-running fairways of Pacific Dunes in Bandon, Oregon.

"Rats," says Mike with a grimacing smile. Dillon runs a pest disposal company in Austin, Texas. For his golf vacation this year, he made a pilgrimage to Pacific Dunes, and it older sibling Bandon Dunes. These courses look like Ireland or Scotland, but they play like heaven or hell.

Bandon is a long way from anywhere. Fly to Portland, take a puddle jumper to North Bend, and you might get there in five hours, but that's part of the charm of this place. Your typical Sunday hacker won't make the effort. Tom Doak designed Pacific Dunes to blend in with the sand, native grasses, and natural vegetation. It has small greens with great undulation. Miss by a little, you might as well have missed by a lot.

The same goes for Bandon, designed by Scotsman David McLay Kidd. Seven holes run along a bluff overlooking the Pacific. You know you're in for a battle as you approach the towering, mounded, first green. It's as if you were looking at a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

To play here is humbling and elating, and sometimes in the same swing. Both courses offer stern and memorable challenges.

I went to Pacific Dunes to do a story for ABC's World News Weekend. We'd heard about the caddy program. In keeping with their links land ambiance, Bandon and Pacific Dunes encourage walking. Players tote their bags, or pull them on carts, or they hire a guy like Mitch Moody.

"I never thought I'd be doing this, but when it came around I was more than eager." Mitch grew up in Bandon. He starred on the high school football team, and then, when it came time to find a job, he followed the family tradition by going into the lumber mills.

But that was before hard times, and the spotted owl, would turn central Oregon into what some called a "West Coast Appalachia." The mills closed. Then the fishing industry shut down. By the middle 1990's Central Oregon's economy got so bad that guys like Mitch nearly became extinct.

"We had a little saying going on at one point that the last person in town should shut off the lights. It was getting desperate."

But Mitch, and others like him, found redemption in the dunes by the beach. Five year after opening, Bandon and Pacific Dunes are the hottest and toughest public golf destination in America. If you have $175, fell free to flail away at something bigger than yourself.

"Everybody hurts," said Joe Kuhar, an oral surgeon who came up from San Jose. "We're hurting. Ain't that great?"

Walking connects a player with the roots of the game. By hiring a caddy, he or she enjoys a luxury; one that has disappeared in most other places.

When Tom Dillon hooked up with Mitch Moody, he got a guy who knew all the lines of charm. He knew the lies, the breaks, the tricks, and took pictures.. It harks back to dueling, and having a second. "He's my new best friend," said Dillon.

Friendship works both ways. Last summer, Bandon hired 300 caddies from this community of 25-hundred people. To fill the need, a local college established a training program, and gives course credit.

Now, it's come to the point where walking up the fairways of Bandon or Pacific Dunes isn't much different from walking down Main Street. Among the caddies you'll find a high school teacher, an out-of-work fisherman, and a disabled veteran, Tom Olsen.

"What would you be doing if you weren't carrying a bag?" I asked.

"I'd be growing pot," he said.

It seems that golf has led to a pocket of prosperity in this, the oddest of places. We asked Joey Russell, a recent high school graduate, how much money he can put away for college.

"Two hundred dollars a day from two good loops," Joey said.

"What have you figured out from doing this?"

"I want to be wealthy someday."

For all of them, what has happened here is a case of trickle-up economics. Before becoming a caddy, Mitch Moody worried about having to sell the house in which he grew up. "Now I have money. I can put money in the bank. I can keep money in my wallet. I'm happy. Ecstatically happy."

Bandon and Pacific Dunes are a small miracle on many levels. Like a long hot putt mending a string of bad luck, it's a relief when fortune finally turns.