Revolutionary Bandon Dunes turns 25

In 1999, Chicago businessman Mike Keiser created a remote golf destination along Oregon's southwest coast and forever altered the golfing experience in the process

Editor’s note: The author is attending the resort’s 25th anniversary celebration this week due, in part, to his having written extensively about the resort over the years and for being a design consultant on the resort’s fourth golf course, Old Macdonald.

As 200-plus friends and associates of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort gather on the Oregon coast this week, they are celebrating the golf resort’s 25th anniversary. It has been a quarter century of dramatic transformation in what is possible in golf and what people will do to get to a place just to play the game.

It turns out they will put up with a lot — like a seemingly inaccessible location, with totally unpredictable weather, at a fairly high price compared to most publicly-accessible golf. They’ll also put up with walking all day — often 36 holes, sometimes even 45 or 54. And they will tolerate golf on a brown, not green, surface and find it appealing rather than simply unattractive or flawed.

How all of this happened will be much discussed during the week. What started as little more than a napkin-sized business plan for one golf course and a 24-room inn grew steadily into what is now a six-course, 300-room operation with 600 employees, making it the largest private employer in all of Coos County, Oregon.

Let's count the ways of the Bandon Revolution:

Bandon Dunes Golf Resort's Old Macdonald, Hole No. 7.

Bandon Dunes' founder, developer and visionary has been Mike Keiser, an avid mid-handicap golfer and successful greeting card businessman. He had just built a gem of a nine-hole private layout, The Dunes Club, in New Buffalo, Michigan, in the mid-1990s before turning his attention to a windswept site on Oregon’s southwest coast.

From the outset, his target market was the keen golfer — not necessarily a championship player, nor someone who collected bucket list experiences to impress folks in cocktail party chatter. He was determined to build a place that a thoughtful golfer would enjoy, have fun with and be tested without being beat up. It was to be links-oriented and exposed to the natural conditions of whatever the windy setting on bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean would bring.    

Marketing folks and those in real estate will tell you, it’s all about “location, location.” The problem was, Bandon Dunes was hard to reach. In terms of access its location was terrible.

There are about five different ways to get there, and outside of a private plane to Southwest Oregon Regional Airport (OTH) in North Bend, 20 miles north of the resort, they all involve a major shlep. Direct flights into OTH are scarce. Portland Airport (PDX) is more reliable, but leaves a five-hour drive. Eugene Airport (EUG) is a great option, and the 125-mile drive is scenic and manageable. Or you can drive nine hours from San Francisco. Interestingly, the slog of getting there becomes part of the intrigue of the place and makes being at Bandon Dunes all-the-more fascinating.

The opening of the first course at Bandon Dunes in 1999 followed quickly on the heels of Sand Hills Golf Club's 1994 debut in Nebraska., and embraced the ideal of sand-based golf.

That means scruffy at the edges, with the fescue fairways and native roughs betraying seasonality and immediate weather conditions, with an ever-changing palette of colors, most of them in the brown range. This is not your normal country club nor your flower-festooned resort with the name spelled out in a bed of annuals. If you can’t tolerate scruffy, you’ll find the place unkempt. If you understand classic golf, the place is a gem.

Figure the cost of a golf club membership to be about $12,000 a year for the dedicated golfer. But why invest it in one place when you can spend $3,000 four times a year with your friends and travel to places like Bandon, Streamsong, Sand Valley and Cabot Links? That’s the secret of these places, and it’s something that started at Bandon Dunes, where buddy trips became a big thing. Hats backwards, pull carts, cigars, $15 meatloaf dinners and $100 bottles of wine. This was a whole new way to celebrate golf travel, and to do so in an inclusive way.

Initial projections anticipated the resort's break-even point to be 10,000 rounds. The first year, Bandon Dunes did 30,000 and had to add more. That’s when it began to mushroom: Pacific Dunes in 2001, Bandon Trails in 2005, Old Macdonald in 2010; a 13-hole par-3 at Bandon Preserve in 2012; and then the unbunkered Sheep Ranch in 2020. More cottages, more diverse dining options, an expansive practice range, the Himalayas putting course. With each trip the destination becomes more varied.

At most golf properties, the folks with the highest contact with guests are the lowest paid employees. That usually does not bode well for hospitality. At Bandon, guests, many of them annual returnees, get to spend a lot of time with staff members, whether they are caddies, wait staff, front desk personnel or someone like the ever-present head of outdoor operations and fun, Bob “Shoe” Gaspar — whose memory for birthdays, spouse’s names and the “last time you were here” is seemingly limitless and belies his age. The result of the way employees are valued — and rewarded — creates for both guests and employees a shared sense of camaraderie that makes coming back to Bandon a second-homecoming ritual.

The vast majority of golf at all five of the full-length courses at Bandon Dunes Resort is played at the 6,100- to 6,300-yard range or under. The back tees are rarely used.

Bandon came about during the rise of Tiger Woods, and yet while so much of golf was worried about “Tiger-proofing” and lengthening, Bandon focused on the experience of that everyday retail golfer, who had all they could handle with wind, ground game, width and bounce rather than with sheer length. The lesson for the rest of the golf architecture world was clear: make the game interesting by having cool stuff happen when the ball hits the ground. 

So much of the golf industry was based upon marketing gimmicks and pandering to a low common denominator: signature architects; that hard was good; that the course had to be lush green; that luxury was valued on its own; that players would prefer to take carts than walk.

Bandon Dunes blew all of these out of the water because it based its entire identity on the fact that golfers are smart, value tradition, seek unique experience and are willing to put up with discomfort in pursuit of a memorable experience. It didn’t matter who designed the course as long as the golf was great. Few knew who McLay Kidd was as a designer when the first course opened up, and golfers still came in droves.

Keiser, his family and the operations team from Kemper Golf understood from the outset that a golf property was embedded in a community. Thus, their commitment to nature preserves along the adjoining Oregon coastline, to local golfers and local resident employees and to the ways in which the resort has expanded and diversified has made Bandon Dunes a vital part of the local economy, tax base and culture.

Golf, more than any other recreational sport, sits in a natural and cultural setting that helps shape its identity and character. Bandon Dunes works because it provides a way for golfers from around the world to experience the life, nature and sensibility of the Oregon coastal community. It created the ideal of a resort that’s part of a place, not walled up away from it.