BANDON, Ore. It was pitch-black outside by the time the day's final meal was in full swing.
Massive portions of comfort food were being devoured to replace the untold calories burned after another long day battling the elements along the Oregon coast, wine from multiple bottles was flowing and the conversation was all about golf and humming.
The 12 players around the table in the Tufted Puffin Lounge could no longer see outside, but they knew what lay beyond the glass wall and separating them from the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean: Five of the most memorable and highly rated golf courses in the world. And they had experienced them all over three days.
Like surfers chasing Mavericks, our group had made the trek from Sacramento to live fully in the moment at the ultimate golf resort for amateurs. Had Mike Keiser, who made his fortune making greeting cards out of recycled paper before setting out to create that experience at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, walked through the lounge doors at that moment, he would have met 12 men who would have told him he had wildly succeeded.
Bandon or bust
Lance Bishop is a weekend golfer with a 5 handicap. He's a perfectionist who grumbles after every shot, even the good ones, which are the majority.
There's going to come a day when Bishop makes a hole in one, griping from contact until the ball disappears, and he's going to take grief for that.
If there ever was a guy the Golf Channel should attach to a microphone, he's the man.
All that chatter by someone else might be annoying, but it's charming if you've played with Bishop because he's a give-you-the-shirt-off-his-back kind of guy and nobody loves golf more.
Bishop was made for Bandon Dunes. So when talk of a March trip heated up, it took him about two seconds to commit and two days to get seven WildHawk buddies on board.
"I'd heard so much about it, I was dying to go," he said.
Our Sacramento group ultimately reached 12 and included eight first-timers and four returnees, including unofficial guide Jeff Pickard, making his 11th trip since the resort's first course opened in 1999.
It was a perfect mix and an ideal number. The ages ranged from 42 to 66 and the handicaps from 4 to 15 but, most importantly, everybody's spirits were aligned. Over four days, everybody got to know and play with everybody and nobody got tired of anybody.
Bandon groups of four and eight are most prevalent throughout the year, but larger groups who typically come from within a day's drive on the same dates every year are common in the winter months, when rates are one-third of peak season but the weather is more of a crapshoot.
Good weather, tight lies
The weather couldn't have been much better for mid-March high temperatures in the low 50s with as much as a three-club wind and an occasional squall to give us a taste of the full experience. Considering the stories we'd all heard about three-day downpours, we were lucky.
The gorse was in full bloom, its yellow flowers adding color and definition to an already spectacular setting.
Bandon Dunes opened in 1999, followed by Pacific Dunes, Bandon Trails and Old Macdonald in 2010. Bandon Preserve, a 13-hole par-3 course, opened last year.
All are traditional links courses, even though Bandon Trails is built inland a bit, and players must walk, either carrying or pushing their bags, or hiring a caddie. Everyone in our group played at least 98 holes during our four-day stay, and not without some achy muscles, stiff backs and balky knees. Andy Austin played the most holes, 125, while also spending the most time at the 30-acre practice facility.
"I swung so much my fingers were bleeding," he said, sporting tape on his fingertips.
The courses' predominately fescue fairways provide tight lies none of us were accustomed to. If you're the kind of player who prefers a little cushion under the ball, good luck.
There's hardly a distinction between where the fairway ends and the green starts. Players are encouraged to roll their carts across the greens, although most, the etiquette of the game ingrained, don't. Same with standing in someone's putting line.
If "Jeopardy" offered a category titled "Bandon Dunes," Pickard would be untouchable. He has probably read every word written about the development of the resort. Still, he was swimming against the current with his raves about Old Mac in advance of our trip.
"Old Macdonald offers seemingly endless options to approach each hole, and does so in a setting of remoteness, solitude and adventure," Pickard said.
Turns out, Pickard was right. Old Mac, the most forgiving course at Bandon, won over its detractors within the group and was the consensus favorite.
Ten of our 12 took a caddie for multiple rounds. Their opinions ranged from "it absolutely enhanced my experience" to "it was kind of a waste of money" and evolved as the trip went on. Bishop said his caddie saved him 10 strokes after their first round together, yet said his caddie was costing him strokes by the end of the week.
About 80 percent of Bandon's players take a caddie in the summer. That number drops for value-conscious (a caddie costs $100, give or take), off-peak players. There was as much postround talk about caddies as any topic. What we concluded:
Pay as much attention to where a caddie says NOT to hit your ball, because big numbers can pile up in a hurry from the wrong spots especially in the thick beach sand, as Brian Fitzgerald will tell you.
Communicate, or you'll get what information a caddie is giving rather than what information you feel you need.
Some caddies are better than others.
"I can't wait to get back and play the holes that I messed up differently, caddie or not," Doug Speakman said, speaking for everyone.
Short, fun holes
None of us had played or knew what to think about Bandon Preserve. The rate was steep for 13 holes ranging from 44 to 164 yards and the scuttle was lukewarm.
It was a hoot, we found.
Not only is Bandon Preserve ideal for players who don't want to play (or are incapable of playing) 36 holes in day, it's perfect for skins games where every hole is a match, total score an afterthought and the consumption of adult beverages a priority.
Our gang played as a group of seven one day and as two sixsomes another.
There's something about six balls on a green in regulation that makes you smile. Nowhere else are eightsomes allowed. We were told we could play as 12 if things weren't crowded, and there are stunning views of the Pacific Ocean on every hole.
"It was great to play with a large group in a more relaxed setting than the big courses," Mike Dadey said. "Just a different vibe that adds to the overall experience."
A 3-acre putting course called "The Punchbowl" that's projected to be the biggest in the world is intended to be playable in the fall.
Accommodating in every way
We stayed at the Lily Pond, one of five lodging options that address different budgets and group dynamics. Not only did it offer the best value ($110 per person, double occupancy), it provided six side-by-side rooms that backed up to a lily pond and a surrounding forest. Huge walk-in showers were one of many examples that Bandon Dunes knows its customers the resort won't say what percentage of its customers are women, but we saw four in four days.
The back patio areas provided an ideal place to gather after golf and before dinner.
"Strolling room to room with an empty glass looking to get filled, and learning a bit about the lives of these passionate golfers was my favorite aspect of the week," Pickard said.
Anyone recapping a trip to Bandon Dunes will mention the service either first, or just after the golf.
"I've not heard the word 'no' since I've been here," Chris Savolainen said, summing things up during his first Bandon "treatment."
The resort provides an isolation that gently persuades you to leave your workaday worries behind, myriad quality eating and drinking options, and a cocoon feeling. Shuttles run around the clock to every amenity on the property.
"It's like Disney World for golfers," Bishop said. "Everybody wears hats and trams (are) going everywhere, taking you to little worlds all their own."
If you're looking for a little off-campus variety, the Arcade Tavern in the town of Bandon is where the caddies hang out. It's a salt-of-the-earth experience five minutes from the resort.
The Wilton Express
Bandon Dunes is a lot like Scotland, except Bandon is a lot harder to get to, or so goes the joke.
Fortunately for Sacramentans, that's not true. The options are a relatively easy nine-hour drive, a 45-minute flight from San Francisco followed by a 30-minute taxi ride, or a private plane.
Failing to invite anyone with his own plane, Bishop borrowed a "customized" paratransit bus from his in-laws in which eight players made the trek. We started and finished in the dark at Bishop's Wilton ranch.
The good: The vinyl couches bolted to the floor were far more comfortable and safe than they looked in photos, and camaraderie developed among eight golf nuts in a bus.
The bad: A clogged fuel filter left us stranded axle-deep in mud less than a mile outside the resort the morning of our departure.
Less than one minute after we got stuck off Seven Devils Road, "Bear" pulled up. He was a diesel mechanic. Seriously.
Less than another minute later, Dale pulled up from the other direction in another pickup truck with serious towing capacity. No kidding.
Within minutes, Dale had our four-ton vehicle off its belly and back on its wheels. Bear, after driving to town to buy a new filter and to his home to get tools, had us back on the road before noon.
It was miraculous, really. I have nothing but good things to say about Oregonians from this point forth.
We went to Bandon Dunes wanting the full experience. We got it and then some. And we can't wait to get back.
The Dirty Dozen (a.k.a. Bandon 12)
Andy Austin (rookie) Walk point in mapping most terrain
Lance Bishop (rookie) Monitor myriad weather channels
Mike Dadey (2nd trip) Organize early-arrival staging point
Scott Davis (rookie) Keep the troops fed, hydrated
Brian Fitzgerald (2nd trip) Ensure all bunkers are deep enough
Steve Pajak (3rd trip) Communications
Jeff Pickard (11th trip) Plot infiltration using area familiarity
John Poma (rookie) Flood region with personal currency
Chris Savolainen (rookie) Transport weapons, er, clubs
Kevin Shinseki (rookie) Aerial reconnaissance from Bay Area
Doug Speakman (rookie) Embrace the concept of Reveille
George Valine (rookie) Maintain position, middle of fairway
For resort guests
All four 18-hole courses
December-January $75 (replay: $40)
February: $95 (replay: $50)
March: $120 (replay: $60)
April: $165 (replay: $85)
May-October: $235 (replay: $120)
November: $140 (replay: $70)
Late November-January $50
April-early November: $100
Call The Bee's Steve Pajak, (916) 326-5526.