Jutting out into the Pacific like a pier, Five Mile Point is one
of the most dramatic pieces of real estate along the majestic
Oregon coast. Standing on the tip of the promontory, it is a
steep, 40-foot drop to the untouched sand and roiling surf below.
What imbues the land with an otherworldly quality is its sheer
desolation. Through an early winter rain, the only sign of life
is a stray shore bird, the only sound the wind whistling
through an isolated stand of pines. The telltale blights of
human civilization--paved roads, houses, electric wires--are
nowhere to be seen. Yet on this pristine land lies the most
tantalizing secret in golf.
Unlike the wild, overgrown coastline extending to the north as
far as the eye can see, Five Mile Point is adorned with a
beautifully manicured green, part of a spectacular golf course
taking shape on 250 acres of prime linksland. Thirteen greens
already exist, several of them with bunkers. The greens are well
thatched and complete with white cups. The fairways, though
patchy, are not far from being fit for regular play. There are
people who know about this course, but probably not more than
100. Only about 50 have played it. When SI discovered the site
and went to investigate it, two workmen were on the course mowing
fairways and greens. There were no signs advertising the presence
of this secret garden, but one of the workman gave away its name
with the words stitched on his baseball cap: BALLY BANDON SHEEP
RANCH. (The name is reminiscent of Ireland's Ballybunion.) Asked
why he was grooming the course, the workman said, "I guess
they're expecting some guests out here, people who might invest."
So this would be a private course? "That's right," he answered,
adding that Tom Doak, an esteemed architect, was working on the
layout. The second workman agreed that the course was destined to
be a private facility. "That's what they're telling us," he said.
A search of public records in the Coos County courthouse in
nearby Coquille revealed the mystery owners: Phil Friedmann and
his old Amherst College roommate Mike Keiser. The latter is the
visionary behind the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, which is less than
a mile south of Five Mile Point, separated only by Whiskey Run
Lane and three or four acres of prickly gorse. Bandon Dunes,
which debuted in 1999, was designed by an untested 27-year-old
Scot named David McLay Kidd and was immediately hailed as the
purest expression of links golf this side of Kidd's homeland. A
second course, Pacific Dunes, opened on neighboring land to even
more acclaim in '01. Designed by Doak, Pacific Dunes is
distinguished by its roller-coaster fairways and rough-hewed
blowout bunkers that recall the best seaside layouts in Ireland.
It ranks 19th on Golf Magazine's list of the world's best
courses, and Bandon Dunes is No. 74. No other golf destination in
the world--not Pebble Beach, Pinehurst or even vaunted St.
Andrews--has two courses so high on the list.
As praiseworthy as these two Oregon courses are, Bally Bandon is
taking shape on land that is even more spectacular. Bandon Dunes
and Pacific Dunes hug coastline that is as straight as a ruler;
the ocean is a gorgeous backdrop, but comes into play only if you
hit a foul ball. Bally Bandon's jutting, swooping coastline
presents myriad possibilities for heroic carries, calling to mind
the shot values of the 18th hole at Pebble Beach, the 16th at
Cypress Point, the 1st at Machrihanish and the 7th at Teeth of
the Dog. Those holes are shrines, immortalized on television and
in coffee-table books and glossy golf magazines.
Yet Bally Bandon, until now, has been a private playground
enjoyed largely by one man--Friedmann. Even Keiser has been left
on the outside looking in. The two have been friends since their
college days in the '60s and have much in common, including their
love of golf and the fortunes they made as founders of Recycled
Paper Greetings, the nation's third-largest greeting card
company. But they seem to have very different ideas about what
Bally Bandon's destiny should be.
Until now the anticipation about a new course in Bandon has been
centered on a track tentatively named Dune Valley, for which
Keiser announced plans in July. Scheduled to open in 2005, it was
to be the third gem in Keiser's crown, and the announcement was
big news among the golf cognoscenti. The hiring of the
mistake-proof design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw seemed a
guarantee that Bandon would add to its standing as America's--if
not the world's--undisputed golf mecca.
Left unannounced was the continued grooming of the mysterious
course to the north, which threatens to dramatically alter the
character of Bandon Dunes. Since its inception, the resort has
held fast to a purist's view of golf--and a decidedly democratic
one at that. It is in a remote coastal area of Oregon because
that was the only place in the country that Keiser, a lifelong
golfer and frequent pilgrim to Scotland and Ireland, could find
authentic linksland suitable for building. Intent on courting
only serious golfers as customers, he made the place singularly
inhospitable to hit-and-gigglers and rubberneckers: Bandon and
Pacific Dunes are walking-only courses, and there are no housing
developments on either one. For this Keiser has been hailed as
the messiah of public golf. So how is it that the best piece of
land in his portfolio has been hidden from the masses and may
wind up as an exclusive hideaway, reserved only for the
Keiser, 58, has no fundamental opposition to private golf. Bandon
Dunes was the second course he built. The first, the Dunes Club
in New Buffalo, Mich., near his summer home, is private, and in
his hometown Chicago, Keiser is a member of the exclusive Chicago
Golf Club and Shoreacres. His heart, though, has always seemed to
be with the public game. Upon arriving in Chicago in 1971 after a
three-year stint in the Navy, he became a regular at Cog Hill's
Dubsdread course and came to admire Cog Hill's iconic owner, Joe
Jemsek. "I wanted to do something like Cog Hill No. 4--a great
course that average golfers could get on, but I wanted it on a
sandy site near the ocean," Keiser told Golf World in '01.
Such sentiments notwithstanding, it has long been rumored that
Keiser intended to build a private course in Bandon. Yet when SI
asked him about those rumors last month, Keiser said, "I have no
inclination to build a private course." In another conversation
he acknowledged that there was a potential site for a course
north of the existing resort but never let on that the layout was
partially complete and playable. "I don't know what it would be,
whether private or another resort facility," Keiser said, "but I
don't think we'll build it for another six to eight years."
Questioned again after SI had visited Five Mile Point, Keiser
seemed surprised to learn that there were already holes that are
playable. He explained that he had not visited the site in more
than six months and said that it was Friedmann who, on his own
initiative, was keeping the course playable. "The workmen are not
my employees," Keiser said. "I'm not paying them anything. I
don't even know how many there are."
Friedmann, 58, also lives in Chicago. He has played golf
seriously for only about 10 years and has become, in his words,
"absolutely crazed by it." He, too, has become part of
Chicagoland's private-club scene, belonging to Butler National
and the Merit Club (site of the 2000 U.S. Women's Open). He
candidly admits that Bally Bandon essentially has a one-man
membership. "I know it sounds precious, but right now it's just
for one person's play," Friedmann says. "It's wonderful to be
able to go out and play, to sometimes bring friends and enjoy
what I would say would be close to going back in time 150 years
to a course in Scotland."
Friedmann declined to discuss the comments made by his workmen,
but Keiser finds them credible. "I don't doubt that [Friedmann]
has brought people out there and said, 'Would you consider
joining here?'" he says. Keiser also indicated that he and
Friedmann have a fundamental difference of opinion about the
future of Bally Bandon. "He says it should be a private course,
because he likes that concept," says Keiser. "The concept I give
him back is that the resort is all about public play and the idea
of a private course clashes with that. That's where we have
reached a stasis."
If Keiser seems in no hurry to resolve the issue, it is probably
because he already has enough on his plate. He is preoccupied not
only with the Coore-Crenshaw course but also with his first
foreign venture, a Doak-designed course in Bridport, Tasmania,
named Barnbougle Dunes that is to open in April. Keiser already
has had discussions with Kyle Phillips and Mark Parsinen,
designers of the highly regarded Kingsbarns Golf Links, near St.
Andrews, about a fifth course to be built on land east of Pacific
Dunes. There is also the matter of making a decision about
on-course residences, which Keiser says will not be easy and has
become a battle between his heart and his wallet. "Getting the
permissions means that we can build them," he says. "It doesn't
mean that we will build them."
That Bally Bandon is in "stasis" is both a curse and a blessing.
Bandon Dunes's clientele won't be able to play Bally Bandon, but
they won't have to envy (and curse) a private membership that
can. Until Keiser presses the issue with his co-owner--"We'll
make a decision about it one of these years," he says--the grass
will continue to grow, and occasionally be mown. And every once
in a while a lucky man will fly in from Chicago, walk out to Five
Mile Point and enjoy the unspoiled view.