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 http://www.woodsabold.com/