The Life and Lean of Bandon’s ‘Ghost Tree’
Battered by the elements over the years, the iconic cedar appears to be on its final days
By Matt Ginella
It was during a visit last April when Mike Keiser, the Bandon Dunes Resort owner and visionary, was informed that the “Ghost Tree” on the ridge of Old Macdonald’s 3rd fairway was starting to give in to the howling winds of the Pacific Northwest.
“I knew it wouldn’t last forever,” Keiser said at the time.
It was, after all, a ghost tree. Others refer to the trees as “snags.” They are dead trees with a dead root system. In this case, the 50- to 60-foot port orford cedar most likely died decades ago, the victim of a fungal root infection. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the port orford cedar, which can rise to 200 feet, “is native to a limited area along the Pacific Coast from Coos Bay, Ore., to the mouth of the Mad River near Arcata, Calif.,” a roughly 230-mile stretch of coastline.
After an especially gnarly storm on Monday night, which produced 25-foot waves and 60 mph winds, the iconic “Ghost Tree” of Old Mac is leaning into its last stand.
“It was a good storm,” says Michael Chupka, who has worked at the resort for 15 years and is now the director of communications, “but I’ve seen far worse.”
Larry Kunders, the starter at Old Mac, a course designed by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina that opened in 2010, wasn’t surprised to see “the old girl” had more lean in her posture when he came to work on Tuesday morning. “I expected to see it the way it was,” Kunders says. “Mother Nature has worn it down. It has taken its toll.”
Kunders shot a picture, which was posted by @bullfrog111 on Instagram. The image immediately went viral across the golf world.
“It’s a tree that means a lot to people,” says Kunders, who speaks to guests as they embark on the journey of Old Macdonald, ranked 12th on Golf Digest’s list of America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses. “It’s a very sentimental situation.”
The Ghost Tree has become a secondary course logo for Old Mac and appears on an increasing amount of the merchandise specific to the course. Some Bandon die-hards have tattooed an image of the tree on their body. Casey Peters is among them; he is a caddie and the grandson of Mick Peters, the celebrated barber who has hit the first shot at every Bandon course opening. “It’s pretty sad and I’m pretty disappointed,” says Casey. “I got the tattoo because it’s a symbol of where I started [caddying]. The courses are somewhat tied to my family and so I thought getting a tattoo was another way to remember the course and my grandfather.”
Peters isn’t alone in his lifetime commitment to the Ghost Tree. Others have tattooed the tree on their calf or shoulder. The arm is a popular spot. Maybe my favorite piece of apparel sold at Bandon is white Ghost Tree logo on a black hoodie.
According to several resort staff whom I reached out to for comment, the plan for the tree seems to be: Let nature run its course. That’s not surprising considering the culture of the resort.
Ken Nice, Bandon’s senior director of agronomy, and other staffers will go out on Friday to see what they can do to stabilize the tree, but everyone I spoke to seems resigned to the idea that the “Ghost Tree” will be gone someday soon.
“When we decided to keep it, I never thought it would become so iconic,” says Josh Lesnik, the original general manager of Bandon Dunes; his colleagues at Kemper Sports continue to work closely with the Keiser family on management of the resort. “But it is a ‘ghost tree.’ At some point, it seems destined to be a ghost. And the spirit of that tree will always be there. I feel sorry for the people who haven’t had the chance to see it, play around it, or even over it. But for the people who have had that chance in the last 12 years, it’ll be an everlasting visual and memory.”
There is no denying the facts: The tree sits on a dramatic sandy slope, it’s dead, its roots are rotting and it’s constantly being battered by the weather. The end seems inevitable.
Meanwhile, the Ghost Tree Grill is under construction behind Old Mac’s 18th green. From what I’ve been told, the naming of that grill will not change regardless of what happens to the tree. According to several sources, the tree will continue to be the unofficial logo. And parts of the tree could be incorporated into the grill architecture.
“During construction [of the course], there were other trees on that slope,” says Jim Urbina, who helped Doak shape Pacific Dunes and received co-designer credit on Old Mac. “But none were as good or as iconic as that one. It was too noble to remove it. And we knew if we made the fairway wide enough, you could choose to play around it.”
For now, she stays. A dead tree with a second life as a logo, batting down balls, serving as a backdrop for pictures and videos and as a muse for tattoos.
What comes after it’s gone?
No one I talked to thought it would be a good idea to replace or replicate it. Most referenced the notion that a rock is more commonly used by links courses in the U.K. and Ireland as an aiming device for a blind shot, which is what the tee shot at Old Mac’s 3rd hole presents.
“To plant another tree doesn’t seem like a sensible option,” Urbina says. “The reality is, they all have a shelf life. And when it’s gone, I’m going to miss it.”
So will Alex Smith, a caddie who started at Bandon Dunes in 2010, the year Old Macdonald opened. “I remember going on shadow loops thinking Old Mac was like playing golf on the moon,” Smith says. “It’s a real lunar scape, with the Ghost Tree standing sentry over the property, both as a welcoming and a warning that this is a course unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Stoic. Silent. Steadfast. Seeing the angle at which that tree now precariously sits is also a reminder that the wind and rain were Bandon’s original designers. And it seems the elements are not done shaping this land and these magical links courses.”
As for Kunders, he’s scheduled to be back at work on Friday. “Hopefully there’s some good news,” he says.
There are some exciting developments out of Bandon, as the design team of Rod Whitman (Cabot Links), Dave Axland and Keith Cutten will begin clearing and shaping a new 18-hole par-3 course in March. It will border a portion of the Bandon Trails course. A name for the course has not yet been announced. Also in the works is a new David McLay Kidd design New River Dunes (below). It will be the sixth big golf course in the Bandon portfolio but is located 10 miles south of the main property. The course is still going through the permitting process so construction might not start for another year or two.
At least one more putting course is coming. Also more lodging, fire pits and the Ghost Tree Grill. Nice tells me the Old Mac course is set to make the transformation from fescue grass to poa annua this winter. Given the aggressive nature of what’s considered a “weed grass,” the Sheep Ranch, which is also fescue, can’t be far behind. The Bandon Dunes resort is a living, breathing organism, always changing and evolving. Any news out of there is usually good news, as in the case of all the new and upcoming playgrounds. The idea of losing the Ghost Tree hurts, but the fact that so many of us are attached to a dead cedar is a reminder of how much Bandon Dunes settles into our golfing soul.
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