I'm standing at the 13th and final hole at Bandon Preserve, about to drive off of a tee with my putter.
Why does the course have 13 holes?
"Why not?" says Michael Chupka, the pro-turned-publicist showing me around the Preserve, which has been ranked the best short course in the world. "That's the number of holes that fit."
Why play with a putter?
"It's the tradition here," says Erik Anders Lang, a documentary filmmaker who's tagging along. "People who are in touch with the beating heart of Bandon, they play the 13th hole with a putter."
And why off a tee? Because I'm not a good golfer, and I need help with the distance while trying to play a 90-yard hole with a putter.
This is not what I was expecting from the most famous golf course in Oregon and one of the most famous in the nation, a place where Justin Timberlake and Stephen Curry have come to play. There was a lot I was not expecting about Bandon—such as the free public practice course and driving range, or the touch of French Christian mysticism.
"It's the least-fancy fancy place you'll ever go," says Lang, who's been a lot of fancy places making his documentary series Adventures in Golf, and with his ex-wife, the Australian electro-pop singer Sia.
Bandon Dunes sits on the southern Oregon coast, four and a half hours from Portland. The first course here opened in 1999, with others added in the decades since, most recently the par-three Preserve I came to play. All the courses here are ranked in Golf magazine's top 50 courses in the country, much to the chagrin of a jealous President Trump, who angrily tweeted that his tacky Trump-brand courses "blow Bandon Dunes away."
You don't have to be a serious golfer to appreciate this place. It's one of the most magical things in Oregon, a low-key, self-contained world betwixt surf and forest where you may find yourself inspecting stone monoliths in the woods, surrounded by buzzing blue dragonflies, while you try to determine whether the lines etched into the stones are symbols carved by humans.
Part of Bandon's fame comes from the fact that it's an oddity from the ground up. These public courses were built by Chicago greeting card magnate Mike Keiser, who fell in love with golf's origins and sought out a suitable place to build something in their image.
Few American golfers have ever played a real links course, modeled on the Scottish originals. As the story goes, Scots shepherds once let their sheep wander around grassy dunes unsuitable for farming, the animals digging bunkers to keep themselves warm. Links courses are defined by their hard and fast fescue grass, blustery winds, lack of trees and bumpy fairways.
After a long search, Keiser found his linksland in Bandon, a coastal city founded by Irishman George Bennett, who named it after his hometown. Unfortunately, in his quest to make it like the Bandon he knew, Bennett introduced an invasive evergreen bush called gorse. Gorse is not only thorny, but spreads like kudzu and is extremely oily. During the southern Oregon coast's hot, dry summers the oiliness is a problem. In the early 1900s, the town of Bandon burned to the ground—twice. Even today, the gorse keeps firefighters on their toes every summer.
In 1993, Keiser took some of the fortune he made selling recycled-paper greeting cards and bought 1,200 acres of coastal land overrun by gorse. He cut away the thorny brush and replaced it with red fescue. It's expanded several times, and Keiser is eyeing more land in Oregon, telling a golfing blog that he plans to build more courses "until I die or until I run out of money."
Playing Bandon Dunes is not cheap, but it's not exactly expensive, either, depending on how you play. During the summer months, playing 18 holes on the full-scale courses costs a princely $325. But's only $165 to play another 18. If you want to play 54, that third round is free. And if you can handle all 72, you actually get a $100 rebate.
You'll have to walk, though—there are no golf carts allowed unless you're disabled, which may be part of the reason President Trump isn't a fan. Playing 72 holes means walking the equivalent of a marathon. But people do it. On the summer solstice, Bandon hosts a special event where hardcore golfers play all 72 holes, plus the par-three course, logging 85 holes and 30 miles of walking before sundown.
Lang has done the Bandon Dunes Summer Solstice event, and speaks of the day in spiritual terms.
"I was waiting for the invitation to come back and do it this year and hoping I'd get it and when I did I almost cried—like, really, tears," he says. (I've just watched him spend several minutes filming a snail slowly crawl across the green, so this could be literal.)
But if you want to get in a quick 18, wait until around Thanksgiving when the greens fee drops to around $100 for an Oregon resident, with the second round running about $50 and anything else you can get in on the short winter days being free. In the winter months, the short course I played, Bandon Preserve, is just $50—not bad for playing the best of its kind in the world.
Oh, and anyone can play the practice course, called "Shorty's," for free. There's a driving range with balls waiting for you in pristine white pyramids and a nine-hole par-three course designed by Scotsman David McLay Kidd that's also seeded with fescue grass, which makes for greens so ridiculously fast it feels like you're playing on marble floors.
If that seems a little weird, it's because of Bandon's roots. Keiser wants to recreate the Scottish links courses, not sell timeshares. Everything here is designed to be "minimalistic," Chupka says.
"It wasn't about the real estate development aspect of it," says Chupka. "All the best real estate is the courses, and all the lodging is cut back in the forest on the eastern side of the property."
Indeed, from the course you won't see the lodging, which has been described by the New York Times as "deliberately Spartan."
Instead, you will get sweeping views of the sea pounding against the sand, dunes spiked with tall, yellow grass and rolling fairways that give way to massive Scottish-style greens. The fences here are made of driftwood, and deer amble about everywhere.
Yes, the celebrities come. The staff are instructed not to treat them any differently. You can see the appeal of this place for an athlete celebrating a championship—the courses are peerless, the grounds are beautiful and there's a touch of the celestial.
At one point, I found myself alone in the forest, sitting in the middle of a soapstone labyrinth modeled on a labyrinth from a French gothic cathedral, looking at a piece of bark decorated with a fern, some lichen and a daisy.
Like that 13th hole, it's part of the "Bandon thing." Chupka, the publicist, had given me instructions about this—the only instruction in mysticism I've yet received from a publicist.
"Once you get to the middle you can't just walk out, you have to follow the maze," he says to me with piercing seriousness. "It's like life. There are no shortcuts."
While You're In Bandon…
Eat hot dogs at Langlois Market
48444 U.S. Highway 101, Langlois, 541-348-2476, langloismarket.com.
A few miles south of Bandon on Highway 101, you'll come across a little roadside market with a sign for "world famous" hot dogs. The extent of this fame is debatable, but the quality of the frankfurters is not. These wide, bulbous franks are made with beef and pork, and swell up in weird ways as they spin around behind the counter. They're flavorful dogs that taste great sliced up on a "sandwich," topped with house-made mustard and pickles. The market also has basic provisions for this tiny town and a growler-fill station in the back.
Beers at Bandon Brewing
395 2nd St. SE, Bandon, 541-347-3911, bandonbrewingco.com.
This brand-new craft brewery had tapped some of its very first beers on our visit. The Camp 7 Coffee Porter was very nice, with a round roastiness and an appropriate heft. They also make decent pizzas in a wood-fired oven.
Ice Cream at Face Rock Creamery
680 2nd St SE, Bandon, 541-347-3223, facerockcreamery.com.
Cheese samples are part of the Oregon coast experience—the Tillamook factory is one of the state's top tourism destinations. Down here, things are a little more low-key. Face Rock is also famous for its aged cheddar, which you can try here, at a cozy tasting room and mini-restaurant. The creamery also sells squeaky curds and Umpqua ice cream, including a fabulous flavor that pays tribute to Face Rock's popular cranberry cheesecake.
Sunset at Cape Blanco
91100 Cape Blanco Road, Port Orford.
The disputed westernmost point in the contiguous United States (and undisputed westernmost point in Oregon) is a wonderful place to watch a sunset. There's a beautiful lighthouse on the craggy bluff and a lonely sand beach below.