In the pre-dawn morning, awake and unable to sleep, I ran through the holes at Pacific Dunes in my mind. I could visualize each one, remembering at least the major features–the elevations, the sweep of each fairway, prominent bunkers, the character of each green’s movements. As is often the case when the mind is (unintentionally) alert and lucid, the holes were vivid, tousled by changing forms of nature, distinct in color and texture.
What I could not grasp was the routing.
I walked the course mentally, beginning from the exit at the right of the first green back into the elevated second tee complex, then onward all the way out to the small 3rd green sitting atop a high blufftop dune that caps a tingling march toward the sea. From there you turn south for the long, Broadway 4th spanning the cliff above the Pacific–hard to forget a hole like that–and then it’s a left into the dunes again for the gorgeous par-3 5th. The tee for that damned, beguiling short par-4 6th, it’s damned, tiny green a narrow little bench sitting up on a gorsey dune to the north, is nearby, and then…now I’m turned around.
I know the 8th switches back against the 7th–two excellent, very different fade holes with difficult, very different putting surfaces–but, where the hell on the property are we now? The 9th–blind fairway, alternate greens–runs out toward the ocean again, right? But where exactly? Where in the routing are we? From here I can’t mentally figure out how the remaining holes fall into place across the property.
Looking at Google Maps the next morning, concentration is still required to follow the routing with all its shared ground and directional interplay (the updated “World Atlas of Golf” picto-routing clears it up considerably). Old Macdonald and the original Bandon Dunes course offer views of neighboring holes and sometimes views across the whole terrain, but much of Pacific Dunes is played below a dunescape that’s more intricate and choppy, so that more of the holes are hidden and discreet. The voyage is like traveling via subway–there are terminal points where tees and greens intersect and you encounter other passengers getting on or off different holes, but then you head underground again toward your own destination, alone in the tunnel.
The ability–or the propensity–of players to get lost inside the pockets of dunes, blow outs, gorse and conifers, reorienting only when breaking out along the oceanside cliffs, is at the core of Pacific Dunes’ emotional appeal. The sense of being spun around and then submerged, left alone for a time to explore the nuance and contour and boundary of each hole, creates a sense of possession, and thus intimacy. This be your area. Of all the courses at Bandon Dunes–of almost any course in the world I know–Pacific Dunes is at once the most knowable and the most complex.
What satellite images also reveal is another aspect that’s fundamental to what makes Pacific Dunes such an unordinary expression of American golf: it’s difficult to locate where many of the greens begin and expire as they appear to blend without division into their surroundings. Only the mowing heights delineate.
Of course this is the essence of what links golf is, and the antithesis of American golf. A characteristic of UK links are greens that are true extensions of the fairway, extensions of the land. Holes are total. They are homogenous expressions of site, not composite pieces of tees, fairways, bunkers and greens built separately and assembled. Links golf is blurred lines, American is definition.
Tom Doak’s reputation as an architect and creative mind need no further burnishing here, and better hole-by-hole exegesises of Pacific Dune’s attributes are found all over the internet (a good one is here). It goes without saying that the golf at Pacific Dunes is elevated to the point of being nearly sacred. At the risk of sounding vague, the holes possess width, an refreshing vernacular of lengths and orientations and sizes and shapes, multiplicity of playing opportunities, a fearless sense of variety, brevity, voluptuous green contour, ferocious hazards, and, by hand or nature, an incomparable level of small, rich detail. There are only two holes, 12 and 15, that don’t reflect the verve and sense of excitement found throughout the property, and these are still enjoyable par-5’s that give you a chance to go big with your first and second shots.
But in exploring why this course has such a profound effect, I keep coming back to the routing and the sense of mystery it evokes, how it alternately hides and reveals aspects of one of golf’s great landscapes, one that never stops moving.
It is earth in flux, a flow of sand and fescue and primordial brush. At Pacific Dunes you are always coming and going, moving over and down, in and out, and this sense of journey is as compelling as golf gets. (99)
Architect: Tom Doak