How an affinity for Bandon Dunes turned into an annual affair

Since the Oregon golf resort opened in 1999, Brian Kruhlak has shepherded a growing contingent of golfers on a yearly trip that are short for time, but long on memories

Brian Kruhlak recently returned from his annual trip to Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. Leaving what he — and many others like him — regards as the world's greatest golf resort is never easy, but planning his group’s 26th visit will begin soon enough.

Resort officials says there may be as many as 50 groups that have made a similar pilgrimage to the Oregon coast every year since the first course opened in 1999, but few are as large as Kruhlak’s, which is now a 56-strong gang of Bandonistas.

The Canadian native’s first trip came just a few months after David McLay Kidd’s eponymously-named Bandon Dunes course welcomed its first guests. Kruhlak, at the time a young, assistant pro at Avalon Golf Links in Burlington, Washington, and his boss were doing reconnaissance work for potential club member trips to Bandon.

The group that Brian Kruhlak, director of golf at Sudden Valley Golf Club in Bellingham, Washington, leads to Bandon Dunes Golf Resort each February has grown to over 50 golfers.

In previous years, they had taken groups to Scotland and Ireland, but with those trips becoming immoderately expensive, Kruhlak was pleased that Chicago businessman Mike Keiser built a links course on bluffs above the Pacific Ocean just a few hours drive south of his home.

Keiser, who obviously loved sandy, seaside golf as much as Kruhlak, had purchased a 1,250-acre property covered in gorse and hired an unknown, 27-year-old Scotsman to transform a third of it into the sort of golf course Brits had been playing for centuries.

Kruhlak was in love from the moment he first set eyes on Bandon Dunes. So, in March 2000, a few months after the initial scouting trip, he was back with a group of 12 friends who were hoping this new destination would measure up to everything they had experienced across the pond.

The Guinness might have tasted different, there were none of the eccentric characters Kruhlak’s groups had met in Irish pubs and Scottish clubhouses, and the weather might have been almost as bad as what they had encountered overseas, but everyone loved it nonetheless. And instead of having to find $2,500-$3,000 for the long trip abroad, everyone was paying about $600 for three days of golf, lodging and meals.

After a few years of unpleasant Oregon March weather, the group decided to heed the local caddies’ advice and try February instead.

“A few of them told us it was usually quite a bit drier in February,” Kruhlak says. “So we switched in 2005, and it’s been February ever since.”

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The group has certainly encountered a number of inhospitable days over the last two decades but never anything that stopped play.

“The weather has been significantly better in February,” Kruhlak says. “We get plenty of rainy days, sure, but there’s been a lot of sunny, 60-degree days too. I take a pair of shorts every year, and think there may only have been a couple of times when I didn’t wear them at least once.”

The contingent that now numbers 56 is made up of members from Avalon; Sudden Valley Golf Club in Bellingham, Washington, where Kruhlak is currently the director of golf; friends from Vancouver, British Columbia; and even a cousin from Edmonton, Alberta. Each of them stays for either four or five days, and there are three group dinners — this year, for example, two were in Macdonald Hall above McKee’s Pub and the third was  at Trails End.

Everyone has the option to enter the event’s competition for $50. The format is better-ball and competition rounds take place in the morning. The Stableford system is used to tally points. To facilitate scorekeeping, Kruhlak now uses Golf Genius software, saying it’s a big improvement on the barely-legible, rain-soaked scorecards he once had to deal with. 

“It’s made such a difference,” he says. “It’s all digital and everyone can keep up-to-date with where they stand.”

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From left, Brian Kruhlak, director of golf at Sudden Valley Golf Club in Bellingham, Washington; Bob "Shoe" Gaspar, director of outside happiness at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort; and Eric Ferrier, head golf professional at Avalon Golf Links in Burlington, Washington.

Several group members have been coming for 15 or more years, but only one, Eric Ferrier, now the head professional at Avalon, has accompanied Kruhlak since the first trip. He says that as soon as the invites are sent out in September the excitement and conversations begin.

“That is the true greatness of the Bandon trip,” Ferrier says. “Even though we might be there for only five days in February, the anticipation begins months before. It’s such a special time, and I give Brian all the credit. Well, Mr. Keiser, too.”

Having been so many times, Kruhlak is accustomed to the question about which of the resort’s five 18-hole courses is his favorite. Not surprisingly, he loves them all and has a special memory of each, most notably, perhaps, Pacific Dunes. In March 2000, Kruhlak arrived on the 10th tee of the yet-to-open Tom Doak design during a preview round, and watched in disbelief as his buddy hit an unpromising shot that bounced off a sandhill and ran straight into the cup.

“It was a horrible, clunky sort of strike,” Kruhlak remembers. “The ball must have hit 20 feet up the bank to the right of the green. Everyone, but him, went crazy. It was the course’s first ever hole-in-one, but he was upset that his ace was the result of some outrageous luck. He still hasn’t quite come to terms with it, and I give him grief about it whenever I see him.”

Then there was also the time, in 2016, when two players in the group were playing so badly they decided a drastic change was in order. They played a hole on Old Macdonald without their shirts (photographs actually do exist).

“It didn’t work,” says Kruhlak, who was playing an afternoon match against the exposed pair. “My partner and I still kicked their a***s.”

If pushed, Kruhlak might concede that his favorite course is actually Bandon Dunes, adding that the only one he didn’t love immediately was Old Macdonald. “But that only lasted a few rounds,” he says.

He wasn’t terribly thrilled on hearing that the original Sheep Ranch was going to be extended to 18 regulation holes and be made an official part of the resort, either.

“We used to start every trip on that mysterious property to the north,” he remembers. “We’d meet someone at the gate, pay our $100, and make up holes all day long. We’d be the only people out there, and have a crate or two of beer and some sandwiches. Then we’d lock the gate when we left in the evening. It was so much fun, and a bit of me wanted it to stay that way forever.”

Again, though, Kruhlak didn’t stay upset for long. The course that the original Sheep Ranch became may not be his absolute favorite, but now he wouldn’t miss it.

“Developing the Sheep Ranch didn’t excite me to begin with,” he says. “But I’ve learned to trust Mr. Keiser over the years. And, as with everything else at Bandon Dunes, he was right.”