Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Old Macdonald will do what Charles Blair Macdonald hoped that NGLA would do – expose American golfers to the great holes of the U.K.

Old Macdonald is truly the completion of Charles Blair Macdonald’s dream. It brings to life for the everyman golfer his Gift : Golf. National Golf Links of America on the remote east end of Long Island was intended to show Americans what a proper golf course was – but in its first 100 years only a privileged few were able to do so. Access to America’s finest golf courses is so much more restricted than it is in Scotland, golf’s birthplace as we know the game today. Old Macdonald change all that. The exposure is now available – what the golfer makes of it is yet to be determined. One approaches Old Macdonald with an open mind, hopefully a completely blank slate as it will be for most, unlike anything they have ever seen.
Old Macdonald is the newest course at the arguably best destination golf resort in America. It is best because it is openly available and Bandon is all about the celebration of golf. It is the last piece of the puzzle in so many ways. Unless something extraordinary happens, it is the final course in the collection at Bandon Dunes – a revolutionary resort in America. More importantly it finally makes whole Charles Blair Macdonald’s original intent. Charlie Macdonald was from Chicago, was sent to St. Andrews to receive a proper education at St. Andrews University and became infected by golf in the process. Charlie called his years after St. Andrews the dark years as he was so removed from his beloved golf. In 1911 he opened his gift to America – The National Golf Links of America commonly known by cognoscenti simply as NGLA. It is truly THE National.
With the opening of Old Macdonald this upcoming Tuesday June 1, 2010, Old Macdonald will do for the American player what Charlie originally hoped NGLA would do for American golf – introduce the concepts, the features, the interpretive ideals of the great holes of the British Isles. NGLA managed to expose the wealthy, privileged, country club golfer to these strategies and replica holes – Old Macdonald will now expose to anyone willing to make the somewhat arduous trek to the remote coast of Southern Oregon to what NGLA intended to do 100 years ago.
Old Macdonald will make available to the everyman golfer in America the wonderful nature of strategic and truly classic golf as NGLA was meant to do. Due to its exclusivity this unfortunately never happened. NGLA even today with a new appreciation for its magnificent architecture recognized by American Magazine’s Top 100 lists, it remains a name mostly unfamiliar to the retail golfer (as Owner Mike Keiser has labeled the daily player) not fortunate enough to have received a coveted invitation to NGLA.

Old Macdonald is a true collaboration of many minds. Tom Doak and his assistant Jim Urbina are the official architects of record but an even more unfamiliar name – George Bahto – plays a pertinent part. He is Charlie Macdonald's biographer in The Evangelist of Golf. After a successful career as an owner of a dry cleaning business, George Bahto has become a sought after consultant by courses designed by Macdonald and his protégées Seth Raynor and Charles Banks. Noted author Bradley S. Klein has also had a significant consultant’s role, but George Bahto is the real go-to guy anyone could want for encyclopedic knowledge of Macdonald. The definitive tome on NGLA and Charles Blair Macdonald’s so-called template holes, George’s basement is a candyland for the golf course architecture student. He has hand drawn nearly all of their routings and holes and has archived materials unlike anything outside the Tufts Collection at Pinehurst and the USGA Museum itself. George is a modest man who has greatly played down his role; however he has been on site for much of two years and will continue to be there for the first month of opening.
A lot of site wandering and conversation has gone on in the process of giving birth to Old Macdonald. Jim Urbina, a warm and friendly bear of a man who admits that he never really intended to become an architect has spent so much time and effort on the project meeting with Tom Doak and processing the suggestions and implementing them on an ongoing process that has been non-stop. The large original plain bisected by a tall ridge situated north of Pacific Dunes and south of the legendary Sheep Ranch that was to become Old Macdonald was originally deeply covered in gorse. Routing or the laying of the footprints that are to become golf holes was the first step in creation. A routing map was finalized and drawn. Then the final details took place in the proverbial dirt constantly shaping and arranging features to yield the course you will find today. Mr. Keiser is to be given so much credit first for creating Bandon Dunes and having it exceed all expectations. The, especially for the freedom allowed at Old Macdonald. Every step of the way everyone involved has nothing but praise for his foresight and the opportunity given.
Those familiar with Scottish and English will recognize the names of the holes. Eden, Redan, Biarritz and Short comprise the par 3’s. Long, Littlestone (perhaps better known as its Lido iteration), Westward Ho! and Hogback are the fives. Double Plateau as the opening hole introduces wild features, perhaps unlike any ever seen by many a golfer new to Macdonald and the links inspiration. In fact, the holes rather than being based upon the NGLA or other American templates are inspired by the original holes themselves, George Bahto having been dispatched to the U.K. by owner Mike Keiser to see the originals for himself, otherwise having seen virtually every version Macdonald and partners ever constructed. Sahara, the third hole, is an inspiration and is most unlike its namesake at NGLA. It has a very wild fairway and a very large green with even more intense contours and slopes. I think it is fair to say that at Old Macdonald one generally finds more undulations, dips and hollows on one green than one usually encounters at any complete American Golf Course.
Familiar hole names Cape, Road, Punchbowl, Alps, Maiden, perhaps less so Leven and Bottle coupled with the unique hole (a la CBM’s original the “Cape”) “Ocean” are there to relentlessly engage you. The scale, the massive nature of this project is overwhelming. First seen when one crosses the spine on the Sahara hole, there are at least four other spots where one can see nearly three hundred acres of golf ground in a single sweeping view – something nearly unparalleled in golf – and it does not encompass the entire course. Even Pacific Dunes fourteenth hole affords such a view giving one a tantalizing preview or recollection depending on whether or not one has yet to play Old Macdonald.
On the one hand if you are completely unfamiliar with the strategies, concepts and features of these iconic holes, I won’t spoil the discovery for you, but will comment on architectural specifics elsewhere. Suffice it to say, educated or not, you are likely unprepared for the assault on your perception of golf by Old Macdonald. I think Charlie would wholeheartedly approve.

What NGLA was to do -Old Macdonald will do precisely what Charles Blair Macdonald hoped that NGLA would do – expose American golfers to the great holes of the U.K.

It is done by Doak, Urbina, Bahto and others, but it is their doing what Charlie intended for the 21st century retail golfer.

Additionally, some random and directed thoughts all off the top to expand on my original thoughts.

The "Edges of greens" are very indistinct from the surrounds in many places, I like that.

One thing that really stands out again: Ocean strikes me as a wonderful golf hole, perhaps the hole I most look forward to playing at Bandon, at least today. An original hole, no "Template", no "Replica" - a complete original. All of the holes are pretty much originals based on classic holes and features - actually the sort of design I champion. Strategic over "random".

Going off the specifics of Old Macdonald, I feel overall that par 5's are the least interesting, hardest to build, most overall repetitive strategies in golf. Tillinghast died before writing his "Par 5 Treatise" as he did for 3's and 4's. Most of the fives at OM and at Bandon are the least interesting holes of respective hole types. Hog's Back, Long, Westward Ho!, Littlestone they are at Old Macdonald.

Overall opinions of holes at OM (being extremely critical - as not particularly given to throwing around superlatives am I)

1-good starter, interesting (Double Plateau)
2-v.good (Eden)
3-superior (Sahara)
4-OK (Hogback)
5-rather decent, if perhaps over-done (short)
6-fair, decent green, the new fresh Hell (High(in))
7-outstanding for the view alone, a feel-good hole (Ocean)
8-nice take (Biarritz)
9-meh (Cape) didn't translate well to property

10-very! good (Bottle)
11-OK hole. great evocation of green (Road) corner not at all fearsome (Road)
12-nice take (Redan) bunkerless front right pretty cool
13-very good to superior; not very close to orig. hole - doesn't matter, it's just super tee to green! (Leven)
14-very! good (Maiden)
15-left me a bit cold, least interesting hole to me with Cape (Westward Ho!) - inspired by 18 NGLA - little resemblance, should be more engaging
16-quite good with a slight reservation - 2 alternate routes around bunker (Alps)
17-very! good to superior (Littlestone/Lido) easily most vexing five, demanding!
18-nice! take! (Punchbowl [modified]) would love to hang around and play shots into and around THIS green

I put it solidly into the top 10 GolfWeek Modern class.

But ... the fives as a whole aren't the outstanding hole type.
Also Fives at the rest of the resort:
Bandon Dunes #9 & 18 are steps down from #3 and #12 (I love that one)
Bandon Trails #16 love it!, #3 is a real yawn (done x3 (var.) at Pac Dunes!), #9 extremely, sadly just dull.
Pacific Dunes #3, #12, #15 v.similar play tee to green, varied greens from #3 - excellent, #12- kinda blah to blah +, #15 good to rather good. #18 is a loads of fun 3-shotter (never played in North wind ...)

Doing good fives is just tough, I think. But this is everywhere. I'll do a bit on par fives perhaps this summer.

p.s. Keep checking in as these articles on Bandon are works in progress.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Old Macdonald and Bandon Dunes

A sign of things to come. A few of us pre-opening were rather privileged to receive opening day medals.

As with all the courses at Bandon, Phil the town Barber, in keeping with the everyman spirit will be the FIRST official golfer to put the peg in the earth and ball in the air at Old Macdonald.

Sometime in the next few days as play opens June 1st, pre-opening play has already started for select groups. Debate will be "Which course is now the number one at America's number one golf resort?" Some foolishly wonder if Doak has already done his "best work" but I think that Doak would have done differently on this piece of land with an original design, but we'll never know. All I know is that Old Macdonald is worth the trip and hopefully the resort will vary the near infinite variety of pins available for the guests.

1 Double Plateau

2 Eden

3 Sahara

4 Hogback

5 Short

6 Long

7 Ocean

8 Biarritz

9 Cape

10 Bottle

11 Road

12 a Redan

13 Leven

14 Maiden

15 Westward Ho!

16 Alps

17 Littlestone (Lido)

18 Punchbowl

Friday, May 21, 2010

Report from Bandon

Bandon Dunes, America's greatest seaside golf resort? Is it the best overall? Boy oh boy it is a pain in the rear to get to - a long drive from Portland. Connecting from Portland is tough as the return flight from Bandon to Portland is 0600 and that's just way too early. Report of more convenient connectors through SFO are a welcome addition. To be honest, the drive back was way less a bother than I thought it would be, I guess I just enjoy driving.

All the hype about Bandon Trails, never having played it I was able to do so yesterday. I wanted to wait until I played another of the courses before rendering an opinion, but my initial impression of Bandon Dunes (Kidd) was a wrong one as I underestimated just how good it was. It more exceeded my expectations from memory than Bandon trails failed to live up to its considerable hype. It by contrast was better than I remembered and gave it credit for on my last visit. I had had the opinion comparing Bandon Dunes to Pacific Dunes - on my first trip - that BD was perhaps a more ordinary course boosted by an extraordinary setting. That's selling it short in the very least. One major aspect the last few years of travel and exposure to more and more links golf was for my part greater recognition of design styles dictated by environment and weather. Kidd did a wonderful job of finding flexibility in length and bunker placement accommodating these elements. The ability of a player to play the same tees into and down wind does not significantly vary. There is one major and two minor forced carries to deal with on Bandon Dunes and each has reasonable tolerance for wind and interesting choices depending on wind direction.

As for Bandon Trails, one loves it if one loves Coore and Crenshaw and that is no surprise - that seems to be a distinct pattern among architectural aficionados. Whether or not you care for the features independent of style preference otherwise guides your opinion. This seems a better way to me to judge a golf course's merit - answering the questions asked of you.

I found Bandon Trails in far better condition, especially near the greens yet it was less interesting and challenging to play even in more severe weather. I tend to favor difficult golf courses and found that just as at Saguaro We-Ko-Pa, the Talking Sticks as well as other public access C&C courses that the greens while fairly representative of many of their courses were toned down in severity to allow faster pace of play. The bunkering and the wooded terrain tended to slow play more than at the Bandon Dunes course. The varied types of woodlands coupled with the dunes to start and finish diminished the feeling of being on a golf course rather than a collection of holes.

The fourth hole at Trails is the first hole of architectural note with a diagonal spine of great character determining the play of the hole. Playing further right and still carrying the ridge yielded the best angle into the green. The fifth seems a favorite of many with its hystrionic green yet I found it a bit cold and over-done. Coore et.al. seem to take pride in minimalism yet I find they either do too much or too little to a piece of land. On three they did too little other than sprinkling a spate of bunkers on a landing strip while on five the green is grossly over-shaped to yield just a few sport to place a pin.

On six there was far too much effort for such a windy hole to combine slopes, centerline bunkers, blind bunkers and diagonal run-out bunkers which while looking quite attractive just do not deliver. Looks great, plays silly especially since so much happens out of view. It would be far better if one could play the tee shot and see the ball run rather than just hit and wish and find out your fate - especially on a public access course. The uphill seventh has lots of eye candy but comes down to avoiding same and gauging the uphill approach. well ...

Eight is a par 3 1/2 Redan plain and simple. There seems little to no reason not to hit the ball as far as you can because of the fairway contours being such that running into the bunker is a likely option most times - lay-up or going for it.

Nine and ten are just nothing holes so I'll wax poetic about the On Golden Pond setting of number 11. Giving the slope of the green surrounds left of the green, there is little reason to challenge the water more than 15-20% of the time. Eleven through 13 share connecting areas and gives a sense of vastness unlike any other spot on the course. The knob front right on 12 is a real hazard if you hit it on the fly.

14 is very remote requiring a very long walk or a ride on a truck - rather momentum breaking, more than a stop at the halfway house. It's a real deal-breaker for me. The hole as well is controversial, but the green is a problem for the greedy and unsure more than anything else. The elevated tee makes it hard to control distance, but the more blind lower area is less threatening than I had been led to believe as I heard that the area left of the green had been softened a bit.

15 is simple - hit it up the left side and you'll have a direct approach to the green. Sixteen is dramatically uphill and credit is due for building the hole. 17 is very busy visually but plays more often simply than not if you don't go long. Back to the dunes on 18, the hole meanders around a bit to a very amorphous green.

Overall Trails is a lovely walk in the woods but I'll prefer to remain more near to the water and out of the forest.

Bandon Dunes gets it's largest elevation change out of the way straight off. The first and second holes feature uphill shots, a particular favorite of mine. The first is a shorter four with an elevated second shot and plays into the prevalent wind so it gets you recognizing the wind fast.. You need to hit it solid as the wind demands and the first green is mostly blind and rather large. Two is up an escarpment with a false front again demanding solid shot this time into a crosswind. It is a very fine non-ocean par 3 to say the least, often lost in discussion to its more scenic brethren. The first par 5 is the third hole, always in a crosswind and introduces the bunker-littered fairway to the Bandon Golfer.

Many a critic has noted that there are longer walks green to tee at Bandon than Pacific, but it does create a bit of a buffer or separation of the holes fast to the water from the more central portion of the routing, I don't think it was unintentional, the routing selfishly and shamelessly displays the coast on the coastal holes. The Oceanfront holes at Bandon are glorious and varied with the fourth a nearly Z-shaped hole coming out of the gorse onto the shore for a fun of three greens and holes fronting the ocean. Seven and eight away from the coast are magically different sorts of holes seven again playing very sharply uphill on the second and eight another driving examination in a mostly crosswind, just wonderful stuff. Those returning visitors will not remember seeing so much of number nine as near total (and over) removal of gorse and brush leaves one with an almost painless drive, something I hope will be recognized and remedied. It is still a wonderful little two or three shot par five, but nearly all penalty for missing right is now absent.

The routing and incorporation of features is the real strength of the original Bandon Dunes course as it truly ebbs and flows. The character of the front nine routing to have such highlights and return to the original clubhouse (a necessary idea for the first course, but perhaps viewed by some as a weakness) is quite an accomplishment as the original idea for Bandon Dunes was a hopeful 18,000 or so rounds annually which is now a laughable memory as the resort has grown far larger and faster than I think anyone could have originally imagined. On has to thank the success of this first course for building that platform on which the resort has grown to the deserved number one spot (at least in this opinion).

The second nine routing begins right at green nine and plays away towards teh ocean. A short walk is necessary to get food and drink and this was done well. Nine green and ten tee are close to the clubhouse, but more importantly if you just want to play on, it's very easy to do so. Ten has some lovely blindness, eleven compelling bunkering and a 90 degree direction change from 10.Twelve turns back south and is now completely bunkerless and a favorite par 5 of mine. Weaving back and forth, going out to the ocean for a few holes including the very clever and intriguing shortish 16th. Seventeen is manly and 18 takes you home gently without much fanfare and little memorability but it must be played more left, perhaps way more to the left than one might think. It is a little bit of a sleeper with some cleverness, but not a proverbial ball-buster finish that Americans seem to favor.

The original Bandon Dunes by Kidd remains the sleeper and the one that started it all.

Given personal taste and preferences, Old Macdonald will be best for a select number of those who care to order the four courses. Links will perhaps now have to reconsider their comparison of Pebble Beach and Pacific Dunes? Whatever of the four is your favorite is OK with me, they're all way above the average golf course by a mile. I am not personally going to declare a personal favorite. I do have an order and Old Mac is definitely NOT the last of the four. Where its place in American golf is yet to be seen as only insiders and architectural geeks have weighed in so far. Joe Blow and Jane Doe will have to let us know how the "Mike Keiser retail Golfer" perceives things.

Overall I can recommend Bandon Dunes Resort as worth the trip as it is arguably America's best golf destination resort.

Digressing, most all are expensive. Pebble Beach is a once in a lifetime play for most and deservedly so, otherwise it's a waste of money to spend any time there, you are better off driving around to play a variety of courses in a number of places.

Pinehurst has real problems with cost given the plethora of highly variable quality of courses some great as #2 and awful as #7, #8 and arguably #4 (Once my second choice at the resort) AND requiring many surcharges.

A real sleeper is the Turning Stone resort in Oneida, NY near Syracuse with remarkably fine lodging and three good to excellent courses.

Doral, Broadmoor, We-Ko-Pa and others offer nice variety, but Bandon will continue to be the spot golf lovers will dream about and return again and again.