Behind-the-scenes: Bandon’s Old Macdonald

Old Macdonald's seventh hole utilizes a huge dune overlooking the Pacific.

Old Macdonald's seventh hole utilizes a huge dune overlooking the Pacific.

Editor’s note

• Bradley S. Klein, Golfweek’s architecture editor, was part of a three-member team that consulted on the design of Old Macdonald, which is scheduled to open June 1 at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. As per agreement with Golfweek, he donated his consulting fee. This column offers a behind-the-scenes look at the design of Old Macdonald.

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From left, Tom Doak and Jim Urbina with consultants Bradley S. Klein and George Bahto on site at Bandon.

BANDON, Ore. – The design and development of a golf course is a long, drawn-out process. There are the occasional moments of epiphany, interspersed with cold, wet days out on the site, slogging along for hours looking, thinking and hoping for an idea to pop into your head.

With Old Macdonald, newest of the four courses comprising Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, the nearly four-year effort involved a communal program that is rare in golf and that has its own unique rewards. I have no idea how “signature designers” can think they are achieving anything but public-relations photo ops when they fly in with their entourage for a half-day of presumptive consulting. The real story, at least at Old Macdonald, is far more mundane. Mainly it entails walking and talking.

Old Macdonald is the design of architects Tom Doak and Jim Urbina. For nearly 20 years, Doak has been the lead man at his design firm, Renaissance Golf, and he has advocated a scruffy, idiosyncratic design style that evokes classic links-style golf and adapts it to a variety of sites. The approach was tied to his personality, which was that of the “boy genius” out to start something of a revolution in the 1990s. That’s when the prevailing architectural style was based on the “wow” factor. That instant memorability came at the price of aesthetic overkill. Courses were costly to build and maintain, and holes were too hard for the everyday golfer.

Bandon Dunes reversed everything. Owner Mike Keiser, a golf purist, favored the quirky old English and Scottish model in which clubhouses were sparse, conditions natural and the game played for fun. He was – and is – smart enough to know that the golf course has to pay for itself. At Bandon, he encountered a ready market among folks who love traditional golf. Keiser calls them his “retail golfers,” or those with a “seven and higher handicap who are avid, even if they are not terribly skilled.”

After adding Pacific Dunes (Doak) in 2001 and Bandon Trails (Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw) in 2005, Keiser turned his attention to what was originally a landlocked parcel on the northeast side of his 1,200-acre tract. His favorite architect, Charles Blair Macdonald, the designer of National Golf Links of America, no longer was available, having died in 1939.

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No. 7 at Old Macdonald

Keiser originally considered doing a full-scale copy of Lido Golf Club on Long Island, a monumental project that Macdonald did with longtime protégé Seth Raynor (a course that did not survive into the post-World War II era). But reproducing that long-lost gem wasn’t feasible, given the nature of the Bandon land.

Keiser turned to another idea – a course that would honor Macdonald (and Raynor) by drawing upon the great holes from which those architects had so steadily borrowed in their own design work.

That meant seeking inspiration not only from Macdonald’s own courses but also from where he got his ideas – St. Andrews, Prestwick, North Berwick and Royal St. George’s, and lesser-known gems such as Royal West Norfolk and Littlestone.

Keiser was always one to listen to input from any number of folks – visiting designers, members of his own staff, or even his friends who had come out to visit. In doing Old Macdonald, Keiser went one step further and assembled a consulting team to meet periodically on site.

The team consisted of George Bahto, who is Macdonald’s biographer; veteran superintendent Karl Olson, who had championed the restoration of National Golf Links when he was greenkeeper there from 1989-2005; and me.

Our job was to serve as advance scouts, express concerns and anticipate issues that might arise for golfers.

At our first gathering, a two-day conversation at National Golf Links in September 2006, we agreed on the basic program for the course: that it wasn’t going to consist of copied holes; that it would be big and bold and wide and fun; and that it had to differ from the other Bandon courses.

As I wrote in a follow-up memo, “This is not simply an exercise in three-dimensional design but also an effort to evoke the (volatile) personality of Macdonald. That means a firm commitment to the spirit of golf as a vigorous outdoor adventure,

and to the importance of chance, (mis)fortune and the outrageous as part of a normal round. To a large extent, what is most impressive about Macdonald’s work is that there really is nothing subtle about it.”

Over the next three years, we watched – and variously participated – in watching Old Macdonald take shape. Doak and Urbina’s routing started and ended on the east side of a big north-south dune, with the bulk of the course – holes 3-16 – ambling about a massive, natural open field. The original routing was landlocked, but that eventually changed in late 2007 when a decision was made to back the seventh and 15th greens and the eighth and 16th tees onto the dune overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Sand is an easy medium to work with. Much of the work that Doak, Urbina and their shaping team achieved was to “melt” the more severe contours and to allow the holes to settle into manageable, natural-looking land forms. But they massaged the place the whole way and made it look, at opening, as if it were 100 years old.

And did they ever make the place big. It’s wide, which it needs to be to remain playable in the midst of winds that can come from the north or the southwest. If ever there were a ground-game course, this is it, with fairways 60-70 yards across and all sorts of confounding hole locations on greens that average 14,600 square feet – three times the size of standard U.S. greens.

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No. 15 at Old Macdonald

Architecture purists who might think they know Macdonald will come away amazed at the irregular and rumpled features. The medium-length, par-3 Biarritz hole – No. 8 at Old Macdonald – with a massive crease across the middle of the 20,000-square-foot putting surface, looks nothing like any of its predecessors, most of which are symmetrical and linear.

By consensus at the outset, the design team wasn’t worried about the scrutiny of architecture scholars or course raters. Instead, the idea quickly became to create something that would hold the interest of the everyday golfer.

The hope, as someone put it during one of the many walk-throughs, was that at the end of a round, a player would walk off the 18th hole, turn to fellow golfers and simply say, “Hey, that was fun. I wonder who that Macdonald guy was.”

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