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Course Preview: Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes Resort

E-I-E-I-O: The 7th at Old Macdonald makes me want to sing.

E-I-E-I-O: The 7th at Old MacDonald makes me want to sing.

Course Preview: Old MacDonald (Bandon Dunes Resort, Oregon)

Designers: Tom Doak and Jim Urbina

Here’s the premise so far for those that think Old MacDonald is a child’s sing-song.

Bandon Dunes creator Mike Keiser wants to build a fourth course. And he’s fascinated by the Lido, a now defunct design by fabled golf designer CB MacDonald. He is also a member at Chicago Golf Club, a Macdonald design, and he loves National Golf Links, a MacDonald design on Long Island. So what’s a man to do, especially when he already owns terrific designs by Tom Doak (Pacific Dunes), David McLay Kidd (Bandon Dunes) and Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw (Bandon Trails)? He brings a group of MacDonald aficionados together, including Golfweek architecture writer and editor Brad Klein, and George Bahto, MacDonald’s biographer, as well as designers Jim Urbina and Tom Doak. And together they come up with the genesis of Old MacDonald — a course based on the fundamentals that were the basis of MacDonald’s designs.

Just don’t call this a replica course. Jim Urbina bristles at the notion that this is some sort of Tour 18 of the Golden Age of Golf Design. The burly golf designer is getting co-credit on Old MacDonald with Doak and doesn’t want people to think they’ve simply knocked off a bunch of classic golf holes on a stretch of links land in Oregon.

“People come up and tell me ‘This isn’t what I expect,'” Urbina told me while we toured Old Macdonald. “I ask them what they expected and they usually just say, ‘Not this.'”

What he means is that some people who have toured or even played holes (it had some preview play late last year and opened to the public on April 1) anticipated holes that were copies of the greats. A version of the Eden hole at St. Andrews here. A copy of the Road Hole there. Oh, and there’s North Berwick’s Redan and Short from National Golf Links.

All the way Biarritz France: The devilish 8th hole.

All the way Biarritz France: The devilish 8th hole.

Don’t get it wrong — those holes are all part of Old MacDonald. They just aren’t replicas of either MacDonald’s holes or the originals that MacDonald patterned his after.

“Ours are in the spirit of MacDonald,” says Urbina. In other words, it is what MacDonald might have done had he worked at Bandon Dunes. Or maybe more correctly it is what Urbina, Doak and co. think he might have done had he worked at Bandon Dunes.

MacDonald, for those not familiar with him, felt there were a certain number of great golf holes. These were timeless classics in Scotland. In contrast, he felt American golf was lacking. So when he started to build his courses, he used the archetypes of these great holes for his own work. His courses sport Redans and Road Holes and the like.

That’s the basis of Old MacDonald. Urbina and Doak set out to find land that would naturally fit the hole concepts MacDonald utilized. I toured the entire 18 with Urbina and then played the 10 holes that are complete on Wednesday. Four other holes are seeded and four are in final stages of construction. The whole affair will open next June.

Currently players are starting on what will be the sixth hole (I’ll talk about the actual hole numbers – using the numbers on the current scorecard is a bit confusing), patterned after the 14th at St. Andrews and including a “Hell Bunker.” I suspect this hole will be a challenge, but we were playing with a wind that was running opposite of prevailing, and therefore it felt shorter than its listed 590 yards.  The course seems very open, with little definable rough, and largely lacks the gorse found on nearby Pacific. It is the green that makes the hole – a large rolling affair surrounded by swales and buried elephants. It also demonstrates the scale of the course – the greens are massive, with one more than 22,000 square feet.

A New Version of St. Andrews Long: The sixth at Old MacDonald

A New Version of St. Andrews Long: The sixth at Old MacDonald

From there players are tackling the seventh hole, one of a handful that have no Macdonald ties other than the perception of Doak and Urbina that MacDonald might have done such a hole had he been on this piece of land. Where the sixth was big and bold, the seventh is smart and not unlike something that might be found at Pacific. Not surprisingly you can see the 13th and 14th at Pacific while playing this one. The green site is brilliant, perched atop the ridge line that runs along the right of 13 at Pacific Dunes.

The Biarritz comes next, with one of the largest greens on the course at 80 yards long. Yes, the hollow in the middle is in place and if golfers find the wrong section, three putts or worse are very possible. They may find the hole maddening, but they won’t forget it.

The ninth hole (our fourth of the round) is interesting as being based on a cape hole. The only issue is cape holes have an angled tee shot over water, and H2O is something absent from all of Old MacDonald. In order to try to recreate the concept, Urbina scattered gnarly bunkers on the inner angle of this par four and tinkered with the tee so golfers playing from the back can’t fully see what is in front of them.  Urbina jokes that he makes these sorts of holes, and “then we don’t let [the golfers] see everything.” It looks like an intriguing concept from the back tees. However, the “regular” tees are shifted to the left, removing the angle and making the tee shot rather plain.

The 10th hole, based after a bottle hole in which the fairway is increasingly squeezed by bunkers, is also sharp, and shares a green with “Short,” our final hole, but the actual fifth when the course opens. The Road Hole seemed a bit superfluous, though it was used by MacDonald. Sure the hole is set up by the deep bunker, and Urbina and have created a clever green with a large indent in front of the deep bunker that protects the left flank of the putting surface. But the tee shot is far less exacting than the Road Hole and makes the position of the approach less a struggle for survival.

In fact, the other Urbina/Doak creation, the short, uphill 14th is one of the other standouts. Well bunkered, with a  fairway that plays wide to the right, the green on this clever hole is set near the crest of a ridge that is utilized for the Sahara hole (#3). A true short four, it is reachable on day when it plays downwind,  the green was featured a neat false front and requires an exacting pitch.

The other standout in our round was Short (#5, our final hole). Patterned after the NCGLA hole, this has one of the more extreme greens I’ve seen on a modern course. We’re not talking steps or shelves, but flowing, wild interior contours that place a premium on accuracy, which is fair enough considering most players will have a short iron in their hands.

Short but mighty: The fifth at Old MacDonald

Short but mighty: The fifth at Old MacDonald

I can’t fairly comment on the remaining holes. Several were a mass of flying sand, while others, like the Alps, were more complete. The Alps hole seems to be a favourite of Urbina and his team, but I wonder if the mound in front of the green will seem contrived and whether they played it safe by making the bunker partially visible for golfers coming on the right side of the hole. It is also likely a polarizing hole for those who simply don’t know its relation at Prestwick in Scotland.

One question I have — and one that no one seems to be sure of — is how the public will react to the course. The first three courses at Bandon have all been hits. Hell, Bandon Trails is, to my way of thinking, a step better than Bandon Dunes. That means there is a lot of scrutiny on the new course. There are likely three types of golfers interested in the course. The first is the MacDonald groupies, those who want to see whether Urbina and Doak have matched the genius of the masters. These are members of National Golf Links and Chicago. There aren’t very many of them, but they are rich and well connected. Secondly are those architecture types that hang out on Golfclubatlas.com. They love to nit pick things to death and they’ll surely have a go at the course. Then there’s the public in general. Most of those who come to Bandon won’t know MacDonald from the farmer with the pigs (or might think they are one in the same). But they are the most important group as they make up the bulk of those who play green fees. If they find Old MacDonald to be whimsical, smart and fun, it’ll be a hit. If they can’t figure out why they are hitting over a hill on their approach to a green, which will be the case with the Alps, or they find the massive greens with dramatic rolls to be a bit over the top, then it might struggle to find an audience.

Either way it is it’ll be the tally of Visa card receipts that will tell the tale.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

11 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Robert:

    Thanks for the summary. I find it interesting that you seemed to enjoy the two non-Mac-template holes best (7 & 14). Also curious is that both are WELL uphill. Its obviously more difficult to build a good uphill hole than a downhill one.

    Do you think this might be a case of expectation management? or lack thereof? By this I mean do you get up on the tee of the Biarritz and say “whoa.. this is cool, but not like I thought”.

    or perhaps a better example is the Cape. did you have the idea/theory of a cape hole too built up in your mind to remove yourself enough to evaluate? for the record, MacDonald’s Cape @ NGLA (in its current form) is likely one of the weaker holes there. How did the Cape green strike you at Old Mac? How does that compare to NGLA?

    Thinking out loud more than anything.
    Cheers, MTP.

  • Philip,

    I will balance the count a little.

    Merging the two topics, I always book so far in advance at Bandon that every day we have the first time. Having the course open in front, playing in 3.5 with no effort is magical.

    As for Old Mac, I expect it will be magnificent, but I just want to play it, and I want to play it with as little advance notice as possible.

  • Tighthead:

    I don’t understand your “as little advance notice as possible” comment. Are you referring to what MTP above was sort of talking of? expectation management?

  • Philip – I like to hear some general comments before I play a course, but I don’t want to have the opinions and prejudices of other people rattling around in my head. It’s not so much about managing expectations, but keeping my mind open to what unfolds before me.

  • Played the 10 hole “preview” today (April 26th) and absolutely loved it. When I played it the wind was blowing (howling say 30 to 40 mph would be a more appropriate description) the prevailing way. It made 6 and 7 especially difficult. 7 in particular was a bear. It is only 360 yards from the regular tees, but there was no way I was getting there in 2. To put that in perspective, hole 11 is maybe 80 yards longer into the same wind and I hit both driver and 3 wood absolutely on the screws and got there – barely. Such is the elevation change on 7. Of the holes we played I’d rank them as follows – which is obviously subjective. The only hole I really didn’t love was 9 – which I thought was a bit pedestrian when playing with the wind. The yardages I give are regular tees. I’m told the course can play as long as 7100 – which is quite a bit longer than Bandon Dunes.

    8 – The hole is 165 yards long. You are way up on a hill going down to a massive green. The wind makes it a very nervy hole. It played every bit of 165 despite the elevation change. The green has this huge swale in it. Very fun hole to play out and to putt.
    7 – Massive elevation rise. I couldn’t get there in 2 with the wind howling in my face. Fantastic green. Unbelievable views of the ocean. It will be a tale of two holes depending on which way the wind blows.
    4 – 465 yard par 4. We played it downwind. You have to keep that tee shot to the left side of the fairway or you’ll have a blind shot into the green. And there are two sizeable bunkers in the fairway to keep you from scrubbing it too far along the ground with a second shot. Quite a bit of left to right slope on this green. Very fun hole.
    11 – You need to think about how best to play this one off the tees. Bunkers along the right side and the fairway does run out of room on the left. Good hole. Green is very wide but not very deep. 440 yard par 4. I’m not a “huge” hitter and I managed to get there in 2 just barely. Deep pot bunker protects part of the green.
    14 – This one will play different depending on the wind. Into the wind it is a dog leg left. With the wind you may want to go for the green but if you fall short you are going to be in a big collection of traps. Huge elevation change again – the hole plays uphill all the way. Enormous green. Don’t be short, the ball is coming back down if you are. Very fun green to putt as well – to be honest they all are.
    10 – The approach here is key. You want to stay to the left. 440 with the wind when I played it. When you are going into the wind it will be a very challenging hole. With the wind a series of traps come into play.
    5 – Short hole with a green unlike any I’ve ever seen. 120 yards maybe. Anyone with a handicap under 20 is going to hit the green. It’s that big. But it slopes severely back to front. It’s like you are hitting into a giant target. The green sort of has a series of tiers. So you do need accuracy with that tee shot less you don’t have a great way to get close with your putt. I suspect this hole will actually be a favorite of many.
    3 – Blind tee shot to a green that is way down a hill. With the wind and a decent handicap I think you have to find a way to make par here. I dumped out my tee shot with a big fade and was sitting 70 yards from an enormous green. I dumped a mediocre half wedge on the green and two putted from 40 feet. When playing INTO the wind this hole would be totally different. Fun hole, but not the toughest one out there.
    6 – Into the wind this hole was a complete bear. There’s a huge bunker in the middle of the fairway. But seeing as how hard the wind was blowing I wasn’t even tempted to go over it with my approach. I just dumped around it and then chipped on.
    9 – Agree with the author on this one. Green has some sand around it. And a tee shot right will get you in a bunker. But overall it was the hole that gave you the least to think about. I pushed my tee shot into a trap and dumped out a wedge right to the front of the green. 3 puts later I was home. 390 with the wind. Into the wind this hole will be another story though.

    Personally I found the course much more challenging than Pacific Dunes – which I played earlier the same day under similar wind conditions (howling). I liked it better than Trails and Bandon Dunes as well. I think it will perhaps play a bit harder than Bandon Dunes but not much as I thought Bandon offered much more resistance to scoring than Pacific. It is going to be harder than Trails – which I thought was the easiest of all the Bandon Courses just because the wind isn’t as brutal. Overall I think this one will be loved by all avid golfers.

    It is raw and wide open and as a result you really have to think through each and every shot as it is presented to you. The greens are gigantic. If I had to use two words to describe the course it would be “raw” and “authetic”. You almost feel like you are playing on what was once an open farmland where the sheep have knawed down the grass and someone has stepped out to carve up a green and select a decent flat place to call a tee box. It just feels very natural and highly authetic. And I mean that in a very positive way. It is very unique, unlike anything else in the States. I’m having a hard time envisioning golf afficionados not raving about this course. In fact when I think of all the Bandon courses I think this one will get the most consistent praise from golfers of all levels. For the really low handicapper (I’m not one) this will be considered the toughest of all the Bandon Courses because it can play so much longer than the others. Mid-handicapper like me should find it similar to Bandon Dunes in terms of difficulty. High handicappers – I’m not sure. The fact it is so open with huge greens will likely cause them to like this one best.

  • I can only dream of playing Old MacDonald. I sincerely hope that whoever has the opportunity to play this course understands the tradition of golf and they way McDonald designed golf courses to be played. His designs were to challenge the game of golf and the players ability. McDonalds designs tested your inner strength. He taught us to use imagination in our shot making and that you must know your game. Whether the hole is up hill or down hill play the game and enjoy the experience of being challenged by his sculpture of the land and not by 495 yard par 4’s. McDonald designs have lasted from wooden to grahite shafts.

    Michael

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