Travel

The Bandon Experience: Old Macdonald

(Photos courtesy of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort)

The defining landmark of Old Macdonald is a bare Port Orford cedar standing alone at the crest of a sand dune which juts into and across the third hole. The “ghost” tree is assuredly the most photographed on all of Bandon’s property, one you’ve likely seen even without realizing what or where it is. Besides being quite photogenic it plays a vital strategic role as its position atop the dune provides a crucial reference point for players navigating a blind tee shot below. It’s my belief the significance of this stately old cedar extends far beyond its immediate role on the Sahara hole, and in fact serves as a beautiful metaphor to the spirit and experience of Old Macdonald.

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Nostalgia can be a funny thing. What is it about certain settings, particular atmospheres, that will strike competing chords of tranquility and longing? How can the yearning to return to a particular time, or a specific place, be present in a body which has never experienced anything of the sort? Scratch at the surface too long on questions like this and the mind goes to some heady places. Yet these inquiries were precisely what was swirling around my head as I walked the first couple holes.

The soundtrack accompanying these existential musings is the persistent rumble of waves breaking in the distance beyond the dunes. The thunderous echoes permeate across the course, beginning in earnest as one walks down from the ghost tree to the third green. From here it’s impossible not to feel the ocean, to appreciate its proximity and scope. The routing of the course through the fourth, fifth and sixth holes weaves closer to the dunes at cliff’s edge as the symphony of the ocean’s waves strike up their intensity each step along the way. By the time the seventh hole, “Ocean,” comes along, the anticipation is at a maximum. The details are for you to discover on your own, I’ll merely say that the reveal is extraordinary. Among the highlights of any trip to Bandon.

Apart from a few locations like the aforementioned seventh, Old Macdonald is likely the least picturesque of Bandon’s courses. It’s certainly not an unattractive piece of land – no such spots exist – but the routing doesn’t yield the same volume of postcard images inherent on other tracks. The course itself lays sprawled out across a hollowed-out piece of the property framed on one side by the dunes and the sea, and more foliated, undeveloped parts of property on the other side. What Old Mac does possess is a grand scale – wide open sightlines and massive greens – that are digestible at many points throughout the walk. Pause every now and again, take a look around, and soak it in.

Old Macdonald is the creation of architects Tom Doak and Jim Urbina, who set about crafting the course in the spirit of, and as an homage to, Charles Blair “C.B.” Macdonald, widely regarded as the “Father of American Golf Architecture.” Each of the eighteen holes are named for and utilize characteristics of the various classic-age design templates used by Macdonald and Seth Raynor. Several of these names (and concepts) are self-evident, such as the “Short” and “Long” holes, while others describe a defining feature of the hole, for example the “Double Plateau” and “Hog’s Back.” Even if you know the holes these templates are based on, it still leaves you wondering about names, origins, history and a million other things. (“Westward Ho” and “Eden” and “Littlestone” spring to mind, specifically). It’s by no means essential one has any architecture knowledge to play or enjoy the course, lord knows I have a cursory understanding at best, but I do think it’s helpful to carry an open mind into a round at Old Mac, along with an inquisitive attitude. For better or worse, it’s a chance to connect with the past.  

Twisting the tenets of space and time is at the core of Old Mac. It brings forth people and ideas from the past while carrying back modern minds. It is a valuable reference point for where the game was, and importantly, where it is today. It is a ghost tree amongst the modern golf landscape. For a guy from Ohio who’d never played links golf, never set foot on the sandy soil of Scotland or Ireland, and certainly never experienced a classic template design, the unmistakable, unshakeable feeling of nostalgia – nostalgia for something I’d never experienced – came as quite a wonderful surprise. My parting words for anybody embarking on the journey of Old Mac: enjoy the ride.

HOLE NOTES:

1)     “Double Plateau” –refers to the green feature here. It is the best opening hole at Bandon in my opinion. A shorter par-4, it’s a very comfortable drive, especially early in the morning, as you can practically hit any club anywhere you wish.

2)     “Eden”

3)     “Sahara” –is home to the famed ghost tree. The blind tee shot is one of my favorite shots on the property, one greatly enhanced by the presence of our caddie.

4)     “Hog’s Back” –in my opinion the hog’s back at Bandon Trails (hole #4) is probably a starker example of this design feature.

5)     “Short” –as the name suggests, a diminutive par 3. The green here is massive and undulating—lots of fun pin positions. A two-putt par is a hell of a result.

6)     “Long” –maybe more than any other hole this transported me to Scotland. Or, as I’ve never been, my idea of Scotland.

7)     “Ocean”–home of the big reveal. The green complex is massively elevated from the fairway and sits between dunes. Hope for a wait on the 8th tee so you can snap a picture or three.

8)     “Biarritz”– is a par 3 with its name referring to the swale in the middle of this green.

9)     “Cape”–finisher on the par-34 front nine. Things most likely will get more difficult on the back nine.

10)  “Bottle”–another fun drive. A series of fairway bunkers narrow the landing area forcing you to pick a line and commit.

11)  “Road”–as you might have guessed, named after the famous hole at St. Andrews. Not quite the same without the hotel squarely in play off the tee.

12)  “Redan”–another hole where I think a better example exists elsewhere on the property, specifically #17 at Pacific Dunes.

13)  “Leven”

14)  “Maiden”–I quite enjoyed this short par 4. It plays all the way uphill with bunkering protecting a direct line and lots of room to bailout right. There is a large dune behind the green which serves as a backboard for shots played long. The view up here is probably second best at Old Mac behind “Ocean.”

15)  “Westward Ho”

16)  “Alps”–another really fun hole where the second shot is a blind approach over a bulky dune to the green. There’s a signal board on top of the dune to help with aim. Enjoy the walk up and surprise (or disappointment) of where your ball finishes.

17)  “Littlestone”

18)  “Punchbowl” is a rollicking way to finish an inward par 37. The green is a large punchbowl which funnels everything to the middle. You kick yourself if you scrape an iron right and don’t get the full effect of the contouring.

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THIS COURSE IN ONE WORD: Ethereal

WEIRD COURSE TRIVIA: The genesis for Old Macdonald came from Mike Keiser’s affinity for the Lido, a hallowed CB Macdonald course on Long Island thought to be the equal of National Golf Links but lost during the Great Depression.  

WHAT SHOULD I DO BEFORE PLAYING THIS COURSE?The short answer is as much, or as little, as you want. If you are so inclined, I offer up the following:

There’s an awesome run down of Tom Doak’s hole-by-hole descriptions of Old Mac’s front nine and back nine on the Bandon website.  

Good friend of NLU and architecture nut, Andy Johnson (@the_fried_egg), offers a background on CB Macdonald and his template holes. These are great places to begin for anybody wishing to dip their toes in the water of architecture.

For those looking to go further, the rare book Evangelist of Golf: The Story of Charles Blair Macdonald may be more up your alley. As the link shows, Amazon sells it, but it’ll set you back a bit. The book Dream Golf: The Making of Bandon Dunes offers really good insight into Old Macdonald as well.  

CLUBHOUSE/FOOD: We spent the least amount of time in this one and it appeared the least distinctive, however the breakfast sando’s we did have were delicious. Old Mac also has a cool logo and the pro shop there had some of the best merch on property.

About the Author

Perma-case of the yips inside 5 feet. Completely lose my swing at least once a year. No concept of what a good leave is. Harbor delusions of golf grandeur.

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