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.
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.
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.
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.