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 privileged?
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."