Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Builder, part II

"I told Jack [Nicklaus] I loved national because it's so unpredictable. Every time I go there, there's something new to learn. What I like about it is the mystery. It's a course you're never going to figure out." -- Jim Urbina

Jim Urbina and Tom Doak started their careers by working for Pete Dye. Jim was the "dirt guy" whose experience and savvy on a bulldozer was the perfect complement to Tom's already extensive knowledge of classic courses and architectural principles. They teamed up in a partnership that gave them both a chance to learn from each other and push each other toward new ideas and concepts.

Jim was the field marshal for many courses, including Pacific Dunes. He was the guy who hired the labor force, drew up the work schedules, designed the drainage plans, coordinated the work of the subcontactors, worked with the course superintendent and the turf consultant, and, generally, made sure that all the moving parts worked together. During the construction at Pacific Dunes he put in 168 days on site, about three times as many as Tom, whose visits were spaced out so that he could review progress (often with Mike) and fine tune the work. At Old Macdonald, Jim put in just about the same number of days but this time -- at Mike's suggestion -- he shared the design billing with Tom.

During the building of Old Mac, Jim did a little of everything -- including, when needed, getting up on a Sand Pro to get the shaping exactly the way he wanted it. One of the best days I had during the construction of Old Mac was a day when I caught Jim and Ken doing a walk-around, with Jim pushing Ken, the superintendent, to give him "rough with soul."

I also go Jim to talk a little about the "power spots" on the property that he had come to know so well. For a practical guy, Jim aso has respect for intangible forces. He traces this back to his experience building Apache Stronghold,near the Superstition Mountains. A medicine man showed him where the spirits entered and exited the stronghold, and gave him a string of mojo beads that Jim has carried ever since. Those beads, and a copy of Macdonald's book -- the "red book" -- were his talismans during the work on Old Mac.

During the walk he showed me a couple of "power spots." One was on Old Mac No. 3, Sahara, where the drive has to clear a sand ridge that has a dead cedar silhouetted against the sky, the ghost tree. Jim was absolutely sure that this was a power spot; it had been confirmed for him when he almost got hit by lightning near the tree.

As Jim and Ken looked for places where some rough with soul might be introduced, they gave me a short seminar on the virtues of fescue. Old Mac is 100 per cent fescue, the first course at Bandon Dunes to be planted exclusively with fescue. From Ken's point of view, fescue is huge plus because it needs less water and chemicals than other kinds of grass.

From a design point of view, an all-fescue course makes for a playing surface where, says Jim, (everything just flows into everything else. You don't see lines and edges. The course isn't constantly giving you directions and about where to hit the ball or what kind of what you should play. It's all one playing field. The only way you'll know it's a green is because of the flag."

We walked some of the interior holes that day, where the fescue was just starting to sprout, and eventually made it up to the No. 14, one of the high points on the course. From there we could see just about every hole, plus some of Pacific Dunes, and Five Mile Point, and the shimmering Pacific. "When I look around now," Jim aid, I almost don't believe it. I think, Wow. We did all that. Tom, and Ken, and the whole crew -- we did that. We changed this place."

The Builder

"I generally talk about how many courses we have built, not how many I have designed." -- Tom Doak

Charles Blair Macdonald called himself a "golf architect" (he was the first to use the term).

A. W. Tillinghast advertised himself as "the Creator" of Baltusrol.

Tom Doak prefers to think of himself as a builder. He suggested to Mike Keiser that Old Macdonald could be presented as "a Macdonald design built by Jim (Urbina) and myself. Not codesigned, but built, which I still think of as a noble title."

The emphasis on building makes sense for a man who earned his stripes by working in the field. On nearly all his courses, Tom has spent at least some time aboard a machine, doing the actual shaping; and he's always expected his design associates to know the trade from the ground up. At Old Macdonald, he figured that he and Jim had a "much more experienced and polished construction team than Macdonald ever had and . . . we should not not give up everything we had learned about natural-looking construction over the past one hundred years."

Old Macdonald does appear to be far more natural-looking than the Macdonald courses I've seen. When I mentioned to Tom that many of Macdonald's greens seemed to have geometric shapes, unlike those at Old Macdonald, he pointed out what I had missed: "Many of the greens at Old Mac are geometric, but instead of reinforcing the square corners we tried ery hard to blur the edges and lines so that you don't notice it too much. Most of them are big, blocky greens where you have a hard time finding the corners."

I hope the photos are good enough to show the difference between a Macdonald hole and the Old Macdonald version. The upper photo is of the No. 9 at Yale, perhaps the most famous Biarritz hole that Macdoanld built; note the clean oval shape of the green, with the trough in the middle more or less bisecting the green.

Now look at the shot of No. 8 at Old Macdonald, a very different version of the Biarritz. The huge green seems to be a rectangle, though the edges are hard to find. And the trough sort of meanders like a creek across the green, shallower in some places than in others, its course anything but direct. This shot is taken from the back of the green.

Here the difference between the original hole and the Old Mac version speaks volumes about the spirit of this "tribute" course.

And while I'm thinking about Biarritz greens, I can't resist adding a photo of the other green at Bandon Dunes that -- to my mind -- qualifies as a Biarritz green. This is No. 5 at Bandon Trails, a deadly little beauty that usually requires no more than a wedge. But you'd better put it on the right level of this astounding green.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Mike at Old Mac

"Mike's love of the game doesn't depend on how he plays. It's being out there that makes him happy." -- Jim Seeley

First, let me admit that I have been an unreliable blogger. I intended to post daily while I was out in Oregon, and instead I posted . . . once. There were too many things going on, too much golf to play, too many people to talk to. So I'll try to catch up, starting with my last day at Bandon Dunes.

Weather had moved in. We had a tee time at 7 at Pacific Dunes, but as we ate breakfast the rain streaked sideways across the windows. I could see the flag on the 9th hole at Bandon Dunes blowing straight out, and the flagstick was starting to bend in the wind. Gaeton, who had flown over from Paris for this occasion, sipped his coffee and asked, "Anybody want to go hit some balls first?"

Ha. No one took him up on that offer, but six dauntless members of group did head out to play a round at Pacific in a 4-club wind. Most returned soaking and remorseful, but Gaeton had a big grin on his face. While everyone else was trying to break 100, he shot a 75,

I was one of the wusses who stayed behind, hoping the weather will soften up so that I could get in an afternoon round. And I got lucky. At 3, I headed over to Old Macdonald with Mike Keiser, Jim Seeley, and Brian Hewitt. There was still enough wind to turn an umbrella inside out, and the rain came in hard gusts. There were only a few other groups out, but Mike hadn't been able to play on Opening Day and he wasn't waiting any longer. With water pouring off the brim of his white cap, but he punched his first drive right down the middle.

We got a match going, Mike and Brian vs. Jim and I. Jim, a former pro and now a senior executive at KemperSports (he's had general oversight of golf operations at Bandon Dunes from the start), hit his approach stony -- a kick-in birdie. We were all in full rain gear and I won't say that no one noticed the weather, but no one said anything about it. From Mike's demeanor, you would have thought it was a bluebird day. Up at the second, after we both holed out for 4's, he said, "We've done our job. We made our bogies." Then, on the way up the Sahara Ridge on No. 3, he chatted with the caddies, wanting to make sure that their raingear kept them dry. There was another kick-in birdie on this hole -- made by yours truly, a 6-iron that I nailed. I hasten to add that the shot was blind, and the birdie illustrated how friendly the rolls on some of the huge greens at Old Mac can be -- the contours will funnel some balls right to the hole.

Brian won the 4th, with a couple of well-hit shots into the south wind, and on the 5th, Mike hit a 7-iron straight as a string and pin high. An easy par. It had taken us about 50 minutes to play 5 holes. It was exhilarating to pull off a decent shot in that weather, and I for one had the feeling of braving the elements. I was thinking of how Mike had gotten started as a golf developer at the Dunes Club in Michigan, how he'd played ""wilderness golf" on the land before there any golf holes there. And thinking of what Bill Coore had told me about Mike on a recent visit to another project, Lost Farm, in Australia; they went out, just the two of them, and played golf all day on the roughed-in holes, carrying their bags, hitting the shots even though they couldn't putt on the fuzzy greens.

Obviously, Mike Keiser is a man who hasn't lost the kid's fascination with the game -- for him it's still an enchanted form of play. It's about being outside, and about walking, and hitting shots, and enjoying the journey, every single step of it. For all of us who love the golf at Bandon Dunes, we can only be grateful that he had the vision and the wherewithal to build a place where we can partake of that experience.

The photo of Mike is from an earlier, drier round, and it shows him playing a pitch up to the 7th green. Of course, there are some conditions that no one would dream of playing in. Take a look at the video on Matt Zaffino's website for Bandon in a hailstorm:

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Opening Day at Old Macdonald

"I guess I took a lot of putts, but they didn't seem like putts.  They were more like approach shots." -- Overheard remark by a golfer who was describing his round at Old Macdonald

There's an established ritual for the opening of a new course at Bandon Dunes. 
All the golfers sign a log as they await their turn on the tee.  They're presented with a sleeve of balls with the Old Macdonald logo, and coin stamped with the date -- and a bas relief of Charles Blair Macdonald poised at the top of his backswing.
Then, when their time comes, each foursome moves to the tee where they are greeted by Mike Keiser.  But he's not the only one on the tee.  Co-designers Tom Doak and Jim Urbina were both there for a while (but Tom soon drifted off to watch how people played the course), along with other key people in the resort's short history -- Hank Hickox, the GM; Josh Lesnik, president of KemperSports; Shorty and Charlotte Dow, who were the unofficial hosts for the development before the first ground was broken.  Each group posed for a picture with Mike (taken by Wood Sabold) and a film crew was on hand, too.
The whole atmosphere was welcoming and personal -- even as it added to the first tee jitters.
In this post I'm not going to try to sum up the experience of Old Mac, but everyone in my group -- everyone I talked to -- marveled at the greens.  They are mind-boggling.  I've come from lunch with a group of well-travelled golfers who were trying, and failing, to come up with a course that has greens so big and so turbulent.  And I didn't talk to anyone who minded the size of the greens, or minded three-putting.  
In our group, the most memorable shots occurred around the green.  I'll mention only one, on the 8th hole, the Biarrritz green.  I was standing at the fron of the green when my partner, who'd come up short, played his ball out of the valley in front of the green.  It looked good from the moment it started rolling.  I watched it travel across a green that has to be at least 50 yards front to back.  As it made its way through various hollows and crevices, it disappeared from three times -- three times! -- like a train going through a tunnel.
That's what I call a triple peekaboo, and I'm not sure I've ever seen one before.
Check in later for more on Old Mac.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Oregon the Brave

Tomorrow I head out to Oregon so I won't be posting for a few days (unless I can figure out how to manage with with my android phone). During the writing of Dream Golf, I fell not just for Bandon but for the whole state of Oregon. On this trip, as usual, I am adding a couple of days to visit other parts of the state -- this time the area around Sisters, where I will fish the Metolious and the mighty Deschutes. The Salmonfly hatch is on. Then it's on to Bandon and the opening of Old Macdonald.
Below is another image I've borrowed from Wood Sabold, a shot of the fabulous sea stacks that line the Oregon coast.

Character and Charm, or Why I Like Old Courses

"I asked myself, What makes these old courses hold up today? They're not just museum pieces. They're still fun and exciting to play, a lot more fun and exciting than most modern courses." -- Mike Keiser

When George Peper was the editor of Golf Magazine, he gave a harsh review to a new course by a well-known professional whom I probably shouldn't name (Greg Norman). Norman let him know he wasn't happy about the review, and in the ensuing dust-up Peper tried to get to the essence of what he valued in a golf course. He came up with this formula: Character and Charm.
Both qualities are elusive, of course, and I can imagine some golfers -- like the illustrious duo Bomb and Gouge -- rolling their eyes and curling their lips with contempt. Charm? CHARM???? What has CHARM got to do with a 340 yard drive???? To which I would reply, what has a 340 yard drive got to do with most golfers? A part of Peper's argument -- and Mike's, too -- was that courses had gotten so big and so difficult that they were unplayable for most golfers. Who wants to spend four hours (or five) getting beat up by a golf course?

Older courses were built on a different scale. Even though clubs like Baltusrol and Winged Foot competed to host prestigious events, and wanted tough courses, the designers of the Golden Age didn't design their courses with professionals in mind. I can't claim to have read the work of all the golf architects who worked during the Golden Age, but those I have read -- Macdonald, Tillinghast, Mackenzie, Hunter, Thomas, Ross --seem to have a firm idea of the what makes an ordinary golfer so passionate about the game. One of my favorite quotes is from George Thomas, the architect of Riviera, Bel-Air, and many other California courses: "To learn golf architecture one muist know golf itself, its companionshipes, its joys, its sorrows, its battles -- one must play golf and love it."
The mindset of the man who wrote those words is worlds away from the mindset of, for instance, Robert Trent Jones, who famously summed up his philosophy as "hard par, easy bogey." Thomas was identifying with the average golfer, considering the intangible and emotional appeal of the game; Jones seemed to regard the individual golfer as a hopeless hacker whose main interest was in the number on the scorecard. Thomas wanted to create a playing environment that invited a golfer to respond with his inmost golfing self -- a self made up of imagination, judgment, emotion, fantasy, and of course frustration.
Jones wanted to create a playing field that was exacting in its demands, requiring a player to execute certain shots -- or else.

Jones, of course, designed for the pros. He was known as the Open Doctor, and his son Rees -- who has inherited that title -- has reminisced about his early experience measuring the drives of the professionals. This was information his father used to place the fairway bunkers, pinching in the landing areas where a good drive would finish. Jones also liked elevated greens, requiring high, fast-stopping approach shots. These and other features of his design seem to intended to "defend par" --a vaild concept, I guess, for a club hosting the U. S. Open.
But it seems as though this idea of "defending par" influenced not only the courses that Jones designed, or re-designed, for major tournaments but seeped into nearly all his work. I think it defines the work of many of his contemporaries and successors, which is to say most of the golf architects of the modern era. Just think about it: Defend Par. That's the mindset, excuse me, of the prim spinster who has decided that her mission is to defend her . . . you know.

In any case, it's a long way from the mindset of a designer like George Thomas . . or Bill Coore or Tom Doak or David Kidd. These are the designers whom Mike Keiser hired to build the "throwback" courses at Bandon Dune. From the jump, he made it clear that he wanted the courses to appeal to the "retail golfer," his term for the average golfer who would pay to play. He had no interest in a building a course that would attract a professional event. When interviewed, he had no hesitation in declaring his opinion that too many courses were built for the top 1% of golfers, and they weren't much fun for the other 99%. Mike wanted courses that offered a player like him (his handicap hovers around 10) fun and excitement.
Fun and excitement. Mystery and adventure. Charm and character. I'll take a helping of all of those, thank you, and let Bomb and Gouge lead the charge on those courses that Defend Par.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Back to the Links

"I'll never forget how I felt when we got to Ballybunion and I saw those unbelievable dunes, and those holes perched on the clifs over the ocean . . . This wasn't just a different kind of golf. It was a different kind of experience." -- Mike Keiser

As it happened, I made my first golf trip to Ireland in the summer of 1986, the same year that Mike Keiser marvelled at the wonders of Ballybunion. The first course I played was Connemara, and I remember the sense of strange excitement as I approached the clubhouse, driving past a meadow stippled with buttercups and tiny daisies. This didn't look like any golf course I knew, and the sense of strangeness built as I pushed deeper into the course. There were rock outcroppings everywhere, and jumbled Celtic hills, and the smell and sound of the sea slashing at rocks, more buttercups, wind and weather speeding swiftly by. I was playing golf, or trying to, but I felt more as though I had stumbled through some kind of looking glass into an enchanted world. It was spinning, or my head was spinning. Out there near the ocean, the golf felt more like an adventure than a game, and I knew I wanted more of it.

I didn't know Mike Keiser then, though we might easiy have run into each other that summer. We played several of the same courses. I link us here as representative Americans who discovered links golf in those years -- there must be thousands, tens of thousands of us. The great pilgrimage back to the source of golf, back to the links, was just starting to gather steam. For many, the exposure to links golf was a conversion experience. For Mike, it provided the model for the kind of golf course he would build at Bandon. He would become, in Bill Coore's words, "a living American connection to links golf."
Mike started thinking about how he could build a links course, and I started thinking about how I could manage to play them. I annoyed my golfing buddies by going on and on about the joys and virtues of links golf -- though when I finally got them over to Ireland and Scotland, they were hooked, too. They liked the rugged, rumpled, natural look of the courses and the firm fast turf. They (mostly) liked the brisk, changeable weather. Up at Brora, they liked playing in among the sheep ("What sheep?" said a Brora member, who'd stopped seeing the critters). They liked the Honor Box at Enniscrone where visitors were asked to deposit a few pounds before going out to play. It was at Enniscrone, too, that a black collie decided to accompany us, and a very good thing that was -- we wouldn't have found our way with him. They loved sitting in the bar at the Marine Hotel in North Berwick and watching the passing groups struggle with the green on the 16th hole, that wild Biarritz green. They couldn't believe Gullane, the town where the golf radiates outward in every direction. They woke at four to get in line for a tee time of the Old Course at St Andrews. They loved the warmth of the hospitality and the inclusive spirit of the game and the general lack of pretension. They had a high old time trying to pronounce the name of that course out at the end of the Dingle Peninsula and finally decided that the correct way to say it was Celine Dion.
Of course we were on a golf vacation (the alert reader will realize that the above paragraph lumps together several different vacations), and the grass is always greener, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so on. Still, it is hard to play links golf and return to golf American style without feeling that something, somehow, got lost in translation. Maybe I'm just too accustomed to American parkland courses (and I'm not even talking here about condo-lined fairways, overmanicured fairways, carts and cart paths), but they don't have the wild, gamy flavor of the links.
Mike Keiser was able to capture the spirit of links golf at Bandon Dunes, and now many American golfers have their religious moment as they play along the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. The courses aren't old but they feel the ancient magic of the game.
I'm just guessing, but I imagine that their inner voice goes something like this: "Holy Tom Morris, great patron of the links, have mercy on my golfing soul for I did not know what I was missing."

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Macdonald School of Design

"Contrary to modern architecture, where the line of play is clearly delineated by the designer, many of the classic courses left descisions on the ideal line of play entirely up to the individual.  Macdonald sought to make his course more than a simple objective test of skill, but strove to compose challenge that gave the game its essential subjective interest." -- George Bahto 

There, in a nutshell, is the essence of Macdonald's approach to golf architecture.  He didn't design courses that dictate what a golfer must do.  Strange to say, this big, blustery man with the big, blustery ego, a man who seems to have enjoyed telling others what to do, understood that the designer of a golf course had to stand back.  He couldn't bark orders.  He had to provide golfers the opportunity to make their own decisions about how to play a course.

Given how Macdonald began his quest to build an ideal course, this was by no means an inevitable conclusion.  His interest had been piqued by an article in a 1901 volume of Golf Illustrated which posed the question:  Which Are the Most Difficult Holes in the World?
Many leading players answered the question, and many holes that made the list are today regarded as iconic.  The Road hole, of course.  The Redan.  The Alps, the Long, the Eden.

Macdonald decided to use these tried-and-tested holes as his models, but the genius of his plan was to recognize that he needn't produce exact replicas.  The thrill of playing the Alps wasn't just hitting a ball over a high hill (though there is joy in it!).  No, the full satisfaction came from playing the hole successfully from tee to green, from choosing a method of attack and executing it as planned.

Macdonald and his associate/successor Seth Raynor built many courses that have become American classics, and they stuck to their repertory of holes.   If you just read the names of the holes that appear on many of their course -- Redan, Long, Road, Short, Punch Bowl, Short, Biarritz, Cape -- you could easily conclude that they didn't have much imagination.  They seemed to build the same hole over and over.

But when you actually see these holes, you realize how how much variation there can be from course to course.  Just look at the two shots of the Redans here.  Actually, since you can't see much in either of the pictures, I'll have to ask you to take me at my word. The top one is the Redan at the Chicago Golf Club, and the picture doesn't really do justice to the size of the green which stands high in its flat surroundings. This green looks like the roof of a house.The lower shot is of the Redan at National. Standing on the tee, you see just a sliver of green with the rest sloping away. They're both intimidating shots, but the Chicago Redan intimidates but showing you the wild slope of the green; the Redan at National intimidates by not revealing all of its dangers.

The Redan is probably the most frequently imitated hole in golf. For Macdonald's views on the hole, hit the link "Consider the Redan." And I can't resist adding that the hole was named for a fortress in Russia that was besieged by British forces during the Crimean War. Manned by Russian artillery, the "Great Redan" acquired a reputation as an impregnable fortification. The image at the right is from the Museum at Sebastopol.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Lido

"Lido is the finest course in the world.  It is a standing miracle, the wonder of which will never fade." -- Bernard Darwin

After the success of the first three courses at Bandon Dunes, Mike Keiser knew hat he wanted to build a fourth course,  and his first idea was to reconstruct the Lido, a long-lost Macdonald masterpiece and the most famous of America's lost course.
The Lido was built at staggering expense on Long Island, where Macdonald dredged 2,000,000 cubic yards of sand to fill in a marshy site.  The rough was created by hand-planting 1,000,000 bents, rushes, and eel grass plants.  Several holes were built around a lagoon, and the overall result was a course that rivaled the National.  
When he read The Evangelist of Golf,  Mike was so smitten with the story of the Lido that he called author George Bahto.  He asked if George thought it would be possible to recreate the Lido.  He said that he had a piece of property in Oregon and would like George to come out and take a look at it to see it would be a suitable site for the Lido.

It didn't take George long to say yes.  He was thrilled with the opportunity, and on his trip to Bandon Dunes he drew up a routing plan.   When Mike talked to his golfing friends and advisors, he tried the idea out on them.  To his surprise, they weren't as fired up about the idea of resurrecting the Lido as he was.  They thought it would turn out to be just a novelty or curiosity, another replica course -- one with a twist, admittedly, since the Lido would be a replica of a course that no longer existed.
A new idea began to take shape -- a course that would be a tribute to Macdonald.  The holes wouldn't be slavish reproductions of the holes he built at the National and elsewhere, but contemporary versions that employed his design concepts and principles.  As the concept evolved, many of the key conversations were between Mike and Tom Doak.  What's the difference between a replica and tribute course?  Mike has found a way to state it in mathematical terms:  his formula is that replica holes are 98 per cent the same as the original, and holes "inspired by" are in the raged of 5-25 percent the same.  He says that "holes inspired by are sisters, brothers, cousins, and distant cousins."
For a full story of the rise and fall of the Lido, take a look at Bahto's account in The Evangelist of Golf (there's a link on the left where you can read about the book -- buy it!).  There's also a link to an article about the Lido by Macdonald himself, and it's free.
That's George Bahto in the photograph with Mike Keiser, on the Old Macdonald site during construction.  Photo below shows the Hell bunker on Old Macdonald No. 6

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How Old Macdonald Got Its Name

Mike Keiser cares about names.  At the company he founded, Recycled Paper Greetings, he selected thousands of greeting cards, and he understood the importance of hooking people right away.  
The process of naming the other courses at Bandon Dunes had been long and drawn-out, with lots of candidates for each course.  But this name -- Old Macdonald -- had immediately sprung to mind, thanks to the children's song with the funny barnyard noises.  A more grandiose name might have given the impression that this tribute course was a museum piece, a dull lesson in the history of golf architecture.  But Old Macdonald was playful and irreverent.  It sprinkled a dash of irony on the idea of a tribute.  It was different.  It was a name that could make a golfer curious, and that was exactly what Mike was aiming for.
The name had taken care of itself, but the logo had proven tricky.  Two designs emerged as finalists, and they were as different as a rose from a rooster.  Actually, one was a rooster that looked like a weathervane rooster, proud and brash, flaunting its fantail.  The other, more traditional design consisted of a round O encircling an M whose diagonal lines were golf clubs.
Mike himself seemed to prefer the rooster, but Brad Klein, one of the design consultants, thought it was silly.  When he saw the rooster logo on a hat, he said it looked as though you ought to be able to push the rooster to play the song.
To settle the matter, visitors to Bandon Dunes pro shop were asked to choose between the two logos.  The rooster lost.

The Old Man Himself

"Variety is not only the 'spice of life' but it is the very foundation of golfing architecture." --
Charles Blair Macdonald

Old Macdonald, the fourth course at Bandon Dunes, pays tribute to Charles Blair Macdonald, who was not only present at the creation of American golf but was a leading actor in the story.  In 1895, he won the first Amateur Championship sanctioned by the United States Golf Association -- at the time a brand new organization that he had helped to found.   He laid out the first 18-hole golf course in the country, and he poured his enormous energy and talent into the creation on the National Golf Links, on Long Island.  His declared purpose was to build a "classical golf course in America, one which would eventually compare favorably with the championship links abroad and serve as an incentive to the elevation of the game in America."

Charlie Macdonald had a big ego, a big vision, and a big talent.  He went abroad to study and map what he considered ideal holes, and after locating an ideal site adjacent to Shinnecock Hills (after failing in his effort to purchase that club), he built his version of those holes, adapting, combining, rearranging, and sometimes inventing features to suit his purpose.  When the course opened for limited play in 1910, it was immediately recognized as one of the best courses anywhere -- a course that was as grand as Macdonald had promised.

And the National did spark the development of golf course design in America; it marked the beginning of what we now think of as the Golden Age.  As the decades passed, Macdonald's reputation lagged behind while other architects, like Donald Ross and A. W. Tillinghast, were rediscovered and lionized.  The explanation seems simple enough -- Macdonald built fewer courses than they did, and some of his finest courses, notably the Lido, have vanished (I'll talk about the Lido in my next post -- meantime, try to imagine the reputation of Donald Ross if Pinehurst No. 2 had disappeared).  Further, his courses were ultra-private and didn't regularly host high-profile events.   (The only Macdonald course open to the public is the Old White course at the Greenbrier, recently renovated by architect Lester George and slated to host a PGA Tour event, The Greenbrier Classic).

In the last ten years, though, there's been a revival of interest in Macdonald.  George Bahto's book, The Evangelist of Golf,  is a feast for golf architecture junkies -- and for anyone who likes a bushy golf tale. 
George, by the way, was one of the design consultants for Old Macdonald . . . more on that later.  Macdonald was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2007, and a brief version of his career is available on that site.

I've had a chance to play several Macdonald courses, and I have indelible memories of my first visit to the National.  Around the second hole, Sahara, where the blind tee shot has to be played over a huge sandy waste, I felt my face stretching into a big grin, and the grin remained long after the round.  The National may be getting on in years, but it's still more fun than just about any course on the planet.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Met Golfer Excerpt

If you want a preview of the book, hit the link on the right for Met Golfer.  Several pages from the book are included in the April/May issue, along with several of Wood's photos.  Just to whet your appetite, for the book and for the golf course, I'm including another shot of No. 7.

You'll notice first that marvelous sky that looks as though the heavens are about to make an announcement, but -- if you're thinking of playing Old Macdonald -- take note too of that bunker behind the green.  It was placed there to keep balls from rolling down toward the beach, and it is perfectly located to catch the weakly hit balls swatted down by the wind.

Book Cover

I hope it's true that a book is judged by its cover because the cover of Dream Golf is a stunning photograph of the 7th hole at Old Macdonald.

The 7th hole is one of the only seaside holes at Old Mac, and one of the most dramatic.   It didn't appear on any of the original routing plans, which had the seventh green located at the foot of the ridge.  Mike Keiser wanted to locate a turnstand at the top of the ridge to provide golfers with a view of the Pacific.  During a walk-around, he and Tom Doak walked up to the top of the ridge.  

It was a Eureka moment.  Within half an hour, the decision had been made to move the 7th green to the top of the ridge.   The oceanside 7th is one of the most photogenic holes on the course, and one of the most challenging.  In the prevailing northerly wind, the approach shot to this green is like trying to land a ball on a magic carpet as it flies by.

The photograph was taken by Wood Sabold, a Bandon resident who has been taking pictures of Bandon Dunes since the earliest construction.  Wood is a fine art photographer and many beautiful images of the Pacific Northwest -- including the majestic rock formations, or sea stacks -- are posted on his website at