Old Macdonald
Oregon, United States of America

Green Keeper: Ken Nice

Interpretations on classic design elements find a new home at Old Macdonald. Above is the sixteenth green as taken from on top of the Alps hill. A bell hangs from the post in the background for golfers to ring as they clear the green.

When Chicago Golf Club opened in 1895, Charles Blair Macdonald had every reason to be proud as he had designed an eighteen hole golf course in a country that had few of them. Thanks to his time at St. Andrews, he had gained a good understanding as to what constituted great golf. As he continued his travels back and forth to the United Kingdom, he developed and refined his thoughts on architecture. By 1906 – in part thanks to hiring Seth Raynor as a project engineer – Macdonald was much better able to translate his ideas into the dirt than his first effort at Chicago Golf Club. One result was his masterpiece National Golf Links of America which opened for play in 1910 and was followed by other courses of great quality including Lido Golf Club. Macdonald became a central figure in shaping the evolution of golf in the United States and he is commonly referred to as the father of golf course architecture in America.

Roll the clock forward one hundred years and there are now four hundred plus competent architects around the world, a few of which are building golf courses as grand as any that have ever been done. Rather than a paucity of talented golf course architects, what is more scarce today is great land for golf mirrored with owners who will act as good land stewards and who will put the golf first.  Few it seems enjoy the clarity that Macdonald possessed as to what makes great golf.

As of 2010, one man has differentiated himself from all others that build golf courses as his name is now tied to more world class courses built since World War Two than any other.  That man is Mike Keiser who owns the wildly popular Bandon Dunes resort that caters to the public with its four courses as well as having helped back the golf at Barnbougle and Lost Farms in Tasmania. With well over one hundred and twenty thousand rounds expected to be played on one of these six golf courses in 2010, his sure-footed continuation of creating golf courses that inspire and invigorate people to enjoy the sport has conferred upon him populist influence that is unmatched in the game today. And at Old Macdonald, the two central figures at the beginning and end of the twentieth century have come together to yield a special course.

As the success of the Bandon resort roared on from one to two and then three courses, a fourth became a genuine consideration. This form of dream golf as envisaged by Keiser, of man out in the elements battling nature, had proven popular beyond imagination with no sign of abating. Hence, the most asked question in golf architecture was what kind of course Keiser might want and which architect he would select.

Living in Chicago, Keiser had long enjoyed an admiration for Charles Blair Macdonald, based on his own exposure to Macdonald and Raynor’s work at Chicago Golf Club and Shoreacres as well as Keiser’s own extensive travels. In 2005, with plenty of land still at his disposal at Bandon, Keiser had George Bahto, the world’s lead Macdonald scholar, draw up an eighteen hole plan on three hundred plus acres at the northern end of the resort that replicated Macdonald’s famous Lido course on Long Island which had fallen victim to the Great Depression. With Macdonald’s work having stood the test of time so well, why not borrow some of his favorite design concepts?  Paying homage to the most time tested design principles in golf course architecture was not folly (folly could have been considered building Bandon Dunes on a remote part of the Oregon coastline in 1996 when  your friends said you were crazy!).

As this notion began to crystallize in Keiser’s mind, he determined not to do a slavish copy of Lido as that would be a disservice to the natural features of this particular Oregon coastal property. Nor was he after eighteen holes that were rigid copies of either the originals or of the template holes as built by Macdonald and Raynor at their other courses. Rather, he was keen to replicate the strategic dilemmas that these famous holes posed while building them in a manner consistent with the rugged, sandy nature of the property with which he had to work.

To build the holes, he elected to go back to Tom Doak and his Renaissance Design team. Obviously, Keiser’s interaction with them had yielded a wonderful result at the bordering Pacific Dunes. More importantly, Tom Doak and co-designer Jim Urbina had a plethora of work experience on many of Macdonald and Raynor’s finest courses including Mid Ocean, Yeamans Hall, Camargo, Shoreacres, The Creek and Chicago GC. There was no team better prepared to adopt Macdonald’s principles into the ground than Renaissance.

Initially, much of the land was shrouded in gorse but as the thick, dense vegetation was pulled back some startling landforms that were three to eight feet tall (which are ideal for golf) were found underneath. Despite being the fourth course built on the Bandon property, the land and its characteristics were most assuredly not the fourth best. Indeed, debate as to which of the four courses enjoys the best property from which to build a course is a matter of ongoing debate. Each property has its own defenders, be it the diversity of Bandon Trails to the number of cliff side holes afforded at Bandon Dunes to the sandy blowouts at Pacific Dunes and now the rippling land features, scale and long views at Old Macdonald.

The long, uninterrupted views at Old Macdonald will remind many of some of the great courses in Scotland that inspired Macdonald, such as North Berwick and St. Andrews.

Many of the template holes that Doak and co-designer Jim Urbina chose to use were obvious. The four short holes were the classic Macdonald/Raynor set of Short, Eden, Redan and Biarritz. The Long hole after the fourteenth at St. Andrews was a must as was the Road hole. The most famous holes that existed in Scotland and England when Macdonald was making his trips there were to be included, namely the Sahara at Royal St. George’s (a short par four that bent left to a blind green in a dell), the Bottle hole at Sunningdale (a stout par four where the fairway bunkering narrows down the hitting area off the tee) , the Alps at Prestwick with its famous blind approach shot over a dune to a tightly defended green) and the Redan at North Berwick (perhaps the most copied hole of all featuring a high right to low left green set on a 45 degree angle from the tee). Other holes made famous by Macdonald and Raynor such as a Double Plateau and Maiden greens were to be included if possible.

In a tribute to Doak and Urbina’s ability to route a course, all these famous holes made it in. Even more important, each of the holes sits so well upon the land and makes it look as if any other type hole would have been a poor substitute. One may lament the absence of a Knoll hole (indeed there was one in Doak’s first two routings but it was dropped when the decision was made to build the seventh green atop the dune line which opened up the creation of the Biarritz green in approximately the same place where the Knoll green would otherwise have been) but otherwise, this collection of type holes is as impressive as any collection that Macdonald and Raynor ever assembled.

For students of golf course architecture, a trip to the public access Bandon Dunes resort is as rewarding as any they can make. After all, Macdonald and then Raynor primarily built courses for elite private clubs and the opportunity to see their best work is limited. The opening of Old Macdonald on June 1st, 2010, one hundred years after National Golf Links of America opened, changes all that. Perhaps the opportunity to see such classic strategic dilemmas will inspire a new wave of interest in golf course architecture?  Maybe the next Brian Slawnik or Eric Iverson or Brian Schneider will emerge from the experience of coming to Bandon.

However, rest assured: The primary goal at Old Macdonald was to create a series of arresting holes that fit the land and that people will enjoy playing. If they become inspired to delve into the subject of golf course architecture, all the better but, as with the other three courses at Bandon, it is all about the quality of the golf and the shots that you are going to be asked to hit/invent.

As we see in the yardages given below, the length that Old Macdonald can be played ranges from just over 4,200 to almost 7,000 yards. Regardless of the yardage selected, the common theme is that the golfer is unlikely to lose a golf ball. As such, with the possible exceptions of Yeamans Hall where Doak and Urbina have worked for years and Pinehurst No.2, the author can’t think of a single course more conducive for a grandfather, father, wife and child to play than here. Forced carries are at a minimum while the amount of acreage presented as short grass is at a maximum for any course built since World War Two.

Holes To Note

First hole, Double Plateau, 340/215 yards; At around 255,000 square feet, the greens at Old Macdonald are far and away the largest set in the United States, dwarfing all others,  and they provide the course with an unusual amount of flexibility in course set-up. Take the first green for instance. If the hole location is on the front left plateau, the hole will likely play a full stroke harder than one found in the middle part of the green. Similarly, a hole location on the back plateau that bleeds away to the rear is at least half a stroke more than the ones in the middle. Pressure in turn now shifts to the green keeping staff in selecting the day’s hole locations and getting the right mix of hard and easy ones. The smooth transitions throughout this monster Double Plateau green is a prime example of how Keiser picked the architects: Doak and Urbina were coming off of restoring Yeamans Hall’s own Double Plateau with spectacular success when this project commenced and clearly what they learned in South Carolina carried over here.

The width of its fairways and size of its greens provide playing angles galore, something that most golfers aren't accustomed to. Part of the fun is how many rounds it will take to learn how to play best each hole in certain wind conditions. For instance, when the flag is on the front left plateau, many a golfer might decide the best angle is from the high right portion of the fairway.

One of the most elastic features on a Macdonald course is the placement of the Principal's Nose bunker, ranging anywhere from 160 yards from the green as at Chicago Golf Club to much closer in to a Double Plateau green. At Old Macdonald, the architects opted to use it as a greenside bunker.

Second hole, Eden, 180/100 yards; Some hunches pay off and some don’t but Doak’s did regarding the landform that became the second green. It had two characteristics, first it was wide enough to serve as the basis for the Eden green which is nearly twice as wide as it is deep and secondly, the backdrop wasn’t for hundreds of yards in the distance. Macdonald’s own adaptation of the Eden at St. Andrews was his weakest copy at National Golf Links of America. An unintended consequence of that is that Raynor, who never went to Scotland himself to study the original holes, perpetually never built enough back to front slope in his Eden greens to properly create the ‘tension’ (as  Desmond Muirhead termed it) between the green slope and the penal Strath bunker. Doak and Urbina successfully rectified that shortcoming here.   Of course, the very definition of a slow start to one’s round is finding yourself on the opposite plateau at the first from where the hole is followed by dumping your tee ball into Strath bunker at the second – woe is that golfer!

The Hill bunker loops around the left and back of the Eden green and a miss long left is a definite no-go. However, it is the deep Strath pot bunker to the right coupled with the steep back to front nature of the green that creates the most perturbing hole locations.

Mike Keiser has done many, many things right in the world of golf and one of them was having George Bahto consult on the construction of Old Macdonald. As seen above, tee balls that finish anywhere near Bahto's feet leave a recovery shot whereby the golfer desperately needs to get the ball elevated quickly in order to escape Strath bunker in just one blow.

Third hole, Sahara, 375/215 yards; One inherent challenge in building template holes is that they invite direction comparison to the original ones, which were generally of alarming excellence or they would never have become template holes to begin with! In this case, the Sahara at Royal St. George’s was a personal favorite of Bernard Darwin and one of the most famous holes in England up until it was altered in the 1970s in the mistaken pursuit of placating the modern player.  Just listen to how Darwin described it: When a name clings to a hole we may be sure that there is something in that hole to stir the pulse, and, in fact, there are few more absolute joys than a perfectly hit shot that carries the heaving waste of sand which confronts us on the third tee. The shot is a blind one, and we have not the supreme felicity of seeing the ball pitch and run down into the valley to nestle by the flag. We see it for a long time, however, soaring and swooping over the desert, and, when it finally disappears, we have a shrewd notion of its fate.  Despite the original’s outstanding reputation, this one may be even better with its blind drive from the back markers needing to first clear a fearsome fifty foot deep sand pit before playing to a large, free flowing green that emerges from the base of the dune on the far side. 

When the flag is tucked all the way left against the dune, the golfer needs to drive right and toward the outside of this dogleg left in order to gain the best shot in.

The tumbling nature of the third fairway is captured in this view looking back up the hole. The rolls and hollows appear natural, which is a great compliment to the skill of the Rennaissance crew who built the course and includes Bruce Hepner, Kye Goalby, Brian Schneider, Eric Iverson, Brian Slawnik, Mike McCartin, and Jonathan Reisetter). The challenge was in seamlessly transitioning from the top of the dune to a green in the flat below and they accomplished it with apparent ease.

Fourth hole, Hog’s Back, 505/ 285 yards; There isn’t a particular Hog’s Back hole in the United Kingdom but the concept of a ridge that sheds balls both left and right and that runs parallel down a long wide fairway is found on many courses. In fact, one of the best modern versions is found just down the road at the fourth hole at Bandon Trails. Here, the golfer ideally seeks to have his ball stay atop the ridge and thus gain the best view of the green. To accomplish that requires the most exact drive on the course, despite this fairway being over eighty yards (!) wide. Doak’s visit to Scotland in 2008 with George Bahto and their tour of the seventeenth hole at Lundin Links reminded him again of what a fan he personally is of this design concept and his design at Ballyneal employs this strategy within several fairways to great success.

Tee balls tugged left take the Hog's Back slope in the fairway and are pushed all the farther left. Conversely, ...

... tee balls that drift right are shunted toward the menacing right fairway bunker. Best of all is the playing angle/stance, and view afforded ...

... from a top the Hog's Back ridge to the distant green.

The construction process of Old Macdonald was over a three year period with all the key decisions occurring in the field. This slow process of evolution suits Keiser perfectly as there is time to mull over options. One such example occurred here at the fourth green where a greenside bunker was initially placed left of the hollow above. With time, the decision was made on this long two shotter that either into the wind or downwind the hole played better without it. The bunker was removed and the hole is better for it.

Continued >>>