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Seaside Links: Golf on the Oregon coast

By Andrew Penner, Contributor

FLORENCE, Ore. - In 1778 Captain James Cook discovered a tiny spit of land that was home to some of the fiercest weather he had ever seen. Cape Foulweather, the highest point along the Oregon Coast, is a rugged chunk of rock that juts from the tree-coated slopes of the mainland.

In winter, wind and rain mercilessly batter the rock, and fog, thick as molasses, hangs over its bulging shoulders for days at a time. In summer, however, Cape Foulweather is seldom 'foul' as the weather does a 180. Sunshine breaks through and bakes the coastline, the sea lions come out on the rocks, the gulls soar against the azure blue skies, and the tourists - including the golfers - begin their pilgrimage to Oregon's stunning coastline.

Known for its jaw-dropping views, wonderful beaches, and numerous sights to sea - lighthouses, shops, aquariums, caves, dunes, you name it - the Oregon Coast has been one of America's most beloved tourist 'zones' for decades. Highway 101, which zigs and zags its way along the sea, has always, seemingly, been a well-traveled road. RVs, motorcycles, and cars pulling campers are staples on this famous trail. But seldom, at least in the past, are the cars loaded with golf clubs. Oh sure, there have always been a few decent courses (most of them nine-holers) sprinkled near the coastline. But a true destination for golf? No, the Oregon coast just didn't have the goods. Emphasis on didn't.

Thanks largely to the creation of what has become one of the most cherished golf resorts in the world - Bandon Dunes - the Oregon coast is a place to be reckoned with. But there are other convincing "reasons" - also scattered along the coast and woven through the dunes - that make this place one of the most unique and rewarding places to play in North America. But aye, Bandon Dunes. Now this is "where the soul of the game resides." Just a mention of the name gets addicts like me muttering the Old World lingo. The two courses here, Bandon and Pacific, are symphonic gems that rise and fall, but mostly rise, with the enchanted duneland. Both are ranked in the world's top 100. Both will sweep you off your feet.

And it's only getting better. Just recently the resort announced that the design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw will begin work shortly on Bandon's third course. They'll have it ready for 2005. In case you're wondering, Coore and Crenshaw are doing the best work out there right now. Only 540 more sleeps to go.

Maintained in true links fashion - with tight, dry turf, fescue greens, and nasty gorse creeping throughout - Bandon Dunes offers a stirring visit to the likeness of how the game began. Here, a mention of the word "powercart" gets you labeled, shunned. This is hallowed ground which is only walked upon, like it used to be until money tainted the game. Together with their caddies, golfers saunter out into the dunes and experience two of the finest links in the world.

The owner, Mike Keiser, would have you believe that Scotsman David McKlay Kidd and American Tom Doak were the designers. But truthfully, an ageless ever-present wind, massaging the faces of a thousand dunes, was the true creator, conductor, of what is sung in Bandon.

Pacific Dunes, the better of the two, is much different in character than its older, wider, and more forgiving brother. Green complexes are smaller with more subtle features and slope. Rugged, grass-lined, and wind-shaped sand pits creep beside the greens and frame the fairways. This is Tom Doak's finest work and if you do play just one course when travelling the Oregon Coast, for the love of all things pure, make it Pacific Dunes.

About an hour and a half north of Bandon in Florence, also routed through linksland, lies the Ocean Dunes Golf Links - the ongoing project and home course of architect Bill Robinson. Robinson, who has designed golf courses all around the world, lives in Florence and is the owner of the club. Known for his unique, often water-laced designs, Robinson tinkers with the short, but thoroughly engaging design at Ocean Dunes like a mechanic on his favorite hot rod.

Not your typical fare (it's kind of quirky with only one par-5 and many short par-4s), Ocean Dunes still offers a truly memorable experience on engaging linksland. While it doesn't have the dramatic views of the sea like Bandon, Ocean Dunes is a demanding test of golf and a super-fun course to play. At only $38 per round, this course could be dubbed the "poor man's Bandon Dunes."

The other layout in Florence that's frequently talked about is Sandpines. This track, which was awarded the Best New Public Course in America by Golf Digest in 1993, offers diversity and plenty of room to play as its greatest attributes. The front nine flows through pines and incorporates a number of lakes while the back nine cruises through dunes. The slick, contemporary Rees Jones design offers plenty of length (almost 7,300 yards from the tournament tees) and large, gently sloping greens. The price, $59 during peak season, is right here too.

Farther up the coast, near Lincoln city, is the Westin Salishan Lodge, home to the quaint and peculiar Salishan Golf Club. Here the small, sloped greens (some of them extreme) make for a tougher-than-you think round. But look for bigger and better things in 2004 when the course will unveil wholesale changes by Peter Jacobson's design group. Rest assured, the tranquil, hemmed-in feeling that one gets while playing this tricky little track will remain.

Naturally, a trip along the Oregon coast cannot simply be about the golf. The stunning beauty, the 100-year old lighthouses, the charming little fishing towns, the antique shops, the cheese factories and the beaches. Ah yes, the beaches. Crystal blue surf crashing, foaming, lapping on soft, white sand for as far as the eyes can sea. The view broken only by massive rock stacks, pinnacles of lava, bursting from the sea and home to a thousand birds and sun-loving seals. If you've never walked along a beach on the Oregon coast, breathed the moist, salted air, explored a tidepool filled with starfish, watched the whales, the sea lions, the puffins, the sunsets, then you've never really experienced the sea and all its splendor.

In fact, if you do one thing when you go to the Oregon coast, make it a lengthy stroll along the beach - with or without your golf clubs.


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Other attractions

Some of the things not to miss along the Oregon coast include a trip to the famous Sea Lion Caves, which are just north of Florence. The sea lions fill the cave during periods of poor weather (and the off season) but are mainly outside the cave on the rocks during summer months. The cheese factories in Bandon and Tillamook offer samples of their award-winning cheeses and are popular stops. The Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport offers an exciting and up-close look at the amazing sea life along the coast. There are numerous lighthouses, day-use areas, and parks along the coast where you'll want to stop, stretch your legs, comb the beach, and explore.

Other Courses

One of the finest, and oldest, courses along the Oregon coast is the Astoria Golf Club. Special arrangements for members of other clubs are possible during certain times. The Astoria G.C. is a fabulous topsy-turvy track that was built in the 20s. The Gearhart Golf Links, also near Astoria, is another ancient layout that's fun to play. Salmon Run, in Brookings, is a contemporary design that's routed through marshland and is also a worthwhile stop if you're arriving from the south.

Andrew PennerAndrew Penner, Contributor

Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout North America and Europe. You can see more of his work at www.andrewpenner.com.

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