Damn, this is good. A simple revelation, not particularly profound but true as I stood on the ninth hole at Sunset Bay. Not regarding my drive; shots come and go, and golf has a habit of making a good swing a distant memory by the next pass. This thought was something far from ephemeral, on what I had saw, on what I had savored.
This sense tipped its hand at the first hole. Walking down the fairway, it was clear this track, one my father and I paid $18 to play, promised more than its price in beauty, charm, challenge and entertainment, an observation supported with each passing hole. A morning mist that blanketed the property, conferring an image that only exists in Mark Frost novels, did not hurt.
Now on the ninth, it dawned on me: That fog might have been the passage from this life to the next. Then my phone vibrated with a PGA Tour notification, and though I hope heaven has sports, I’m skeptical Wyndham Championship scoring updates seep through the Pearly Gates.
Still, this round, which began as a diversion, proved to be much, much more.
• • •
Bandon Dunes is as invigorating and astonishing and enjoyable as you can imagine. A recent trip confirmed Bandon lives up to, and surpasses, its billing. It is not, however, the only rejuvenating golf experience in the region.
Eighteen miles north of the American mecca resides Sunset Bay in Coos Bay, Ore., a nine-hole course tucked away in a state park. In character and complexion, Sunset is the epitome of a hidden gem.
“Oh yeah, it’s a secret,” says Timothy Martin, a caddie at Bandon Dunes Resort. “It can be tough to find, which makes it easy to forget. Heck, I live right by in town, and I forget it’s there.”
A severe itinerary miscalculation bestowed seven hours for the two-and-a-half hour commute between Eugene and Bandon. Hoping to stumble onto a course with an open slot on the sheet, a Google search revealed a mere three courses between the Oregon towns. According to Sunset Bay’s website, there are no tee times, utilizing a first come, first serve basis. Intrigued, we were off.
Pulling into the lot, it becomes apparent Sunset Bay is a contradiction. While its driveway resides less than 800 feet from the Pacific Ocean, the course sits in a valley, with vistas more akin to Napa County than coastline. Due to the valley’s towering pines, a permanent shadow is cast over the property, the sun visible only at high noon. I suppose “Midnight Canyon” doesn’t scream golf course. (Great band name, though.)
Also apparent: the lack of cars. Zero, to be precise, odd for 10:00 a.m. on a sunny, low 80s Thursday. The course had to be closed, or it was a real dog track.
The latter was disproved, as the clubhouse—which is more like a cabin—balcony provided a vista to a meadow with nine flag sticks and a serpentine creek. The former put to bed by a cordial gentleman in his 70s named Jim, who opened a screen door to see who was loitering on the deck. “You’re our first customers today,” he said, unprompted.
Jim told us there’s a couple of regulars and a few leagues, but that it is never crowded at Sunset Bay. Coos Bay, after all, boasts a population of just 16,000, and it’s not exactly a golf-addicted crowd. Not that we were complaining, as we headed to an open first tee.
The first hole is an inviting par 5, or as inviting as a hole with bunkers in the middle of the fairway and a stream poking its head halfway up can be. Conversely, there’s no rough to speak of—as we’d soon discover, there’s no real rough at Sunset Bay in the summer—and it takes a mighty poke to reach the water. As far as first tee angst goes, this is relatively stress-free.
The second shot, not so much. The green is reachable, but a tree guards the right-side of it, with a bunker standing vigilant on the left. Should you give the green-light to a 3-wood or long iron, good luck keeping it on putting surface. If Pebble Beach’s greens are the size of car hoods, Sunset Bay’s are those of Hot Wheels. A lay-up seems to beckon … but that aforementioned creek doesn’t make it an easy one.
Yet, not hard, either. It’s a subtle dynamic, and omnipresent at Sunset Bay, which weighs in at 3,000 yards from the tips. Each hole both challenging to the most skilled player yet playable to the novice. Our favorite ways this manifests:
No. 3: From a narrow shoot off a forest bluff, a player will be left a short wedge with a bomb over the creek. But the creek is sneaky wide and not as easy a carry as the scene conveys.
No. 4: A short par 3 (anywhere from 135 to 90 yards), the green is two-tiered and slopes violently to the front, emptying to, you guessed it, the creek.
No. 5: A drivable par 4 that plays shorter than its stated distance, with woods on the left, sand to the right and fescue to its back.
No. 8: A reachable par 5 where anything longer than a 7-iron, even 8, off the tee is dead in the trees.
In writing, that comes off as quirky, and when it comes to golf architecture, quirky often has negative connotation. Admittedly, I don’t remember ever hitting 8-iron/4-wood into a par 5.
“You’ll hit some shots that you haven’t hit before,” Martin, who also dabbles as a mini-tour player, says. “That’s the fun of it though, right?”
He’s right. There’s not a single hole that failed to entice or fascinate. Those small greens call for precision. You’re not going to lay-up when the holes beg to be taken. Through nine holes, I hit all but two clubs in my bag. It was fun to hit 8-iron/3-iron into a par 5 (even if your putter fails to come along for the adventure).
Golf is sorely lacking in nonconformity; for that alone, Sunset Bay should be thanked. And it’s not different just to be different. There’s a nuanced vision in each hole, striking a note that perhaps you’re not expecting yet is auditorily pleasing. As the round progresses, those notes begin to harmonize to a symphony you’ve never heard before.
Its original conductor was John Zoller. Sunset’s website credits Zoller for designing Poppy Hills & Spyglass, which is not true; those honors belong to Robert Trent Jones, Jr. Still, Zoller was an influential force in West Coast golf from the late ’50s to mid ’80s. He served as a superintendent at Eugene Country Club and Monterey Peninsula, was the director of golf at Pebble Beach Company, helped oversee the development and construction of Poppy Hills, helmed the First Tee program in Monterey and was the vice chair of the Monterey Peninsula Foundation board of directors, which stages the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. With that resume, it’s no wonder Zoeller received the Donald Ross Award for outstanding contributions to golf course development.
Sunset Bay doesn’t appear in Zoeller’s curriculum vitae, which is a shame. He was heralded as an artist and pioneer, and Sunset has the markings of both. Well before minimalism became a trend in golf, Zoeller believed a course should be in concert, not conflict, with nature. “God gave us the land,” Zoeller said in a 1981 interview. “It’s our job not to destroy it.”
This belief is evident at Sunset; so too is the property’s original intended use as a cattle ranch. But the state saw it fit that its residents have a public course at their disposal, so in 1969 Zoeller sculpted this beauty in the basin. (Although there are nods to its farm heritage throughout the links, with farm tools scattered as monuments and chickens roaming freely.) Now family owned, the course keeps its fees criminally low, adhering to the mantra that it should be accessible to all.
Be it tight pine corridors, landing zones the dimensions of a laptop, multiple drivable holes, or green contours that would make Bryson DeChambeau check his book a dozen times, Sunset Bay combines a creativity and joy that harkens back to a simpler time, reminding us what we, and the game, could be once more.
Lest we wax too poetic, Sunset is not without a handful of kinks. There are few hole markers or headstones illustrating the hole ahead, and for the life of us we couldn’t find a score card. That, shall we say modest, ethos was prevalent. Many holes don’t have yardages outside the tee box, the bunkers are more mud than sand, there’s no real snack bar to speak of. For those looking for pristine conditioning, look elsewhere. It’s a bare-bones operation.
But them bones are good, and for a mere $18—essentially, three drinks at your local 19th hole—worth a nimble.
As I walked down the ninth, my dad turned to me and said, “Well this was an unexpected treat, wasn’t it?” And with that, we were in the car, heading to our entrée at Bandon Dunes. But Sunset Bay was a hell of an appetizer.