In search of obsession, the discovery of something far more powerful inside the...
A little more than a decade ago, Bandon, Oregon was one of the more obscure places in the Lower 48. Tucked away on the coast almost five hours from Portland, the community numbered just 2,800 souls—lumberjacks, fishermen, and cranberry farmers, with perhaps a few hippies thrown in for seasoning. It was Mike Keiser, a former greeting card magnate, who put this place on the map by making it the home of Bandon Dunes, one of the finest golf resorts in America. Keiser chose the town because of its remoteness, not in spite of it: He believed that this spot, which has the same blown-out sand dunes, lightning-quick turf, and mercurial weather conditions found in Scotland and Ireland, would be the optimal setting for “dream golf”—with no golf carts or encroaching real estate development to spoil the fantasy.
From the beginning Keiser took calculated risks in his choice of architects, hiring rookie David Kidd for the first course, Bandon Dunes, which debuted in 1999, and Tom Doak, a rising but still relatively unknown star, for the second, Pacific Dunes (2001). Both courses opened to popular and critical acclaim, as did the resort’s third, Bandon Trails (2005), designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. But the fourth course, Old Macdonald Golf Links, which opened this June, represents Keiser’s most daring move yet. Doak, now at the forefront of his profession, was again hired—but not to work in his own trademark style. Instead, Doak and his team were given the task of channeling and interpreting the famously bold designs of none other than the father of American golf architecture: Charles Blair Macdonald.
At this point the story must travel to the home of golf itself. In 1872 the young Macdonald, scion of a wealthy Chicago family, made his way by steamship to Scotland to attend the University of St. Andrews. There the 16-year-old caught the golf bug, playing the Old Course obsessively from dawn to dusk under the tutelage of legendary architect and greenkeeper Old Tom Morris. Macdonald returned home in 1874 profoundly changed by his experiences on the links, but golf in America was still virtually nonexistent. It would be two decades before courses of any reasonable standard arrived, and three decades before Macdonald had the opportunity to put his ideas of what constituted an ideal golf course into practice.
He finally got the chance in 1907, when he set out to create the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, New York. For this seminal design he drew inspiration from the best holes he had played in Scotland and England—the ones that had withstood advances in equipment technology to provide timeless challenges and strategic interest. As Doak puts it, Macdonald believed holes such as the Eden at St. Andrews, the Redan at North Berwick, and the Alps at Prestwick were “something like the essential reading of golf.” Starting with the National and continuing through his entire design career, Macdonald endeavored to re-create as many of those famous old holes as each site would allow.
This is the stuff of connoisseurs: Only the most well-connected golfers can compare the merits of, say, the Cape hole at the National with the Cape hole at St. Louis Country Club or Bermuda’s Mid Ocean Club. Nearly all Macdonald’s courses are owned by elite private clubs. Keiser addresses this point in The Making of Old Macdonald, an upcoming documentary (produced by Michael Robin, executive producer of The Closer): “I wanted to build a course that honored Macdonald’s ideas but made them available to the public golfer for the first time.”
Keiser originally approached Doak about re-creating a long-lost course: the Lido Golf Club, designed by Macdonald in 1914 and considered one of the best in the world in its time. A private club on Long Island, the Lido was hit hard by the Depression, requisitioned by the Navy during World War II, and ultimately sold off to developers. Looking at the maps, “it was clear that the Lido’s footprint wouldn’t fit the property—at best the new course would be an amalgam of Lido holes,” Doak says. “But that wasn’t much different than what Macdonald always did: He had a series of holes he thought were great classic concepts, and he looked for the best places on each site to fit them in.” Doak advised Keiser to abandon the Lido replica but adopt Macdonald’s basic working method.
In designing Old Macdonald, Doak and his team took 16 of the 18 holes straight from the Macdonald playbook. The Eden, Redan, and Alps are represented as 2, 12, and 16, respectively. “We tried to keep every hole faithful to something Macdonald might have built,” Doak says, “even the fourteenth and fifteenth, which are the two not inspired by any particular hole.”
Still, historic significance and commercial success are hardly one and the same, and the design of Old Macdonald, which differs in several fundamental ways from that of a typical American course, has polarizing potential. In that sense it’s not unlike St. Andrews’ Old Course, the quirks of which have provoked plenty of choice quotes over the years. (Sam Snead, the winner of seven major championships, once said “Until you play it, St. Andrews looks like the sort of real estate you couldn’t give away.”)
One thing golfers will immediately notice is that Old Macdonald is wide, almost radically so. While this increases the chances of finishing a round without losing a ball, it can also frustrate golfers who are used to having clearly defined targets for every shot.
Options are the defining characteristic of the course. Usually a 50-yard shot means reaching for the wedge and lobbing a high shot straight at the flag. But golfers have to think twice before trying that at Old Macdonald. With firm, tightly mown fescue turf instead of rough grass, the wiser play is a chip-and-run using an iron. The added necessity of aiming low to keep the ball out of the ever-present wind means golfers often find themselves using the putter from distances they’d never imagined.
As befits a course inspired by Charles Blair Macdonald, golf at Bandon’s newest links is on a grand scale. “The greens are some of the largest in the world,” says Doak, “but as at St. Andrews, there is a wide variety of hole locations.” For example, the green of the par-three fifth, the Short hole, measures an enormous 17,000 square feet—far larger than the original at England’s Royal West Norfolk Golf Club. Merely finding this rumpled putting surface with one’s tee shot hardly guarantees two putts and a par.
Doak also made sure to capture the nature of Scottish bunkers: deep and mean. After all, when charged with creating a hole in the spirit of St. Andrews’ 14th (the vaunted Long hole), building a milquetoast version of its notorious Hell Bunker just wouldn’t do. On the corresponding sixth hole at Old Macdonald, a huge horseshoe-shaped bunker dominates in the same way, with its position precisely on the beeline from tee to green.
Doak thinks only a small percentage of visitors will be familiar with Macdonald and his template holes. For the majority who are playing the Redan for the first time, he says, “We just hope they enjoy the course at face value.” This is a safe bet. On this stretch of Oregon coastline, where the elements of wind and water, turf and dune are more reminiscent of golf’s ancestral home than anywhere the old master himself ever built, the legacy of Charles Blair Macdonald has found new life.
Bandon Dunes offers several types of accommodations, including private cottages (rooms, from $200). A round of golf on Old Macdonald is $220 (888-345-6008; bandondunesgolf.com).