WHAT'S OLD MAC IS NEW
Now it was time for our virgin run at Old Macdonald, the fourth and newest tune in Keiser’s never-ending hit parade. According to everything we’d seen and read, Tom Doak and Jim Urbina’s paean to the classic work of Charles Blair Macdonald strikes a few chords heretofore unheard on this particular parcel of modern linksland — a big-banging old-school rocker to Pacific’s rolling symphony, Bandon’s angular jazz or the multi-part opera of Bandon Trails, which we wouldn’t play on this trip, much to Darin’s dismay (the Crenshaw-Coore design remains his favorite).
We opened our ears and, under thickening clouds, headed for Old Mac’s secluded first tee, just beyond its own parking lot and small pro shop. It’s literally at the end of the resort’s paved road, and the start of a new, brilliant off-road trek for which we wisely hired single-bagging caddies. During the previous day’s interview, Ken Brooke told us he’d have the cream of his crop waiting for us. He wasn’t lying. These guys knew every fold and fall-off of this year-old track like they knew the fit and feel of their own adidas rain gear, and they wasted little time sizing up our games — though it took a true leap of faith for Mitch and Darin’s guys to dial in the whole hickory thing. In fact, every time one of them pured a shot with that distinctive old-school sound of wood on replica 1920s ball, the caddies just shook their heads and laughed.
They also got more than a few guffaws from the occasional rough-edged verbal barbs emanating from the group as our less-than-serious, small-bucks games unfolded. Mitch and Darin engaged in a head-to-head match, the second installment of an ongoing, sporadic, hickory-fueled competition they’ve dubbed MashiePalooza. Vic and Brian settled on the skins game route, which made going for broke, and birdie, paramount. Brian notched the only bird on 17, stepping on his opponent’s neck with a curling 15-foot putt to rack up four skins on top of the 11 (including greenies) he’d already pocketed. On the very same hole — a handsome 5-par with one of the largest greens on a course loaded with big greens — a tangle of rough derailed Mitch’s shot at a late-inning comeback.
And only then, with the incredible 18th hole in our sights, did we get any semblance of rain, a light squall that blew through like a wet whisper. Miraculously, it was the only on-course moisture we felt all week. Even our caddies — one of whom took a chance and wore his fair-weather whites while the other three went with their black all-weather get-ups — were amazed at our good fortune. The fact that this was the one Bandon round that remained relatively calm throughout, with just a bit of breeze down the homestretch, was, to us, equally amazing.
And Old Mac itself? In short, Keiser and Doak have done it again. The course, which starts and finishes on the east side of a huge dune, with most holes zigzagging around a big, sandy bowl west of the dune, touching the cliffs twice — at holes 7 and 15, to spectacular effect — is an undeniable blast to play. It’s also a brilliant puzzle that, from the tee, looks like a big-hitter’s pushover until you get too aggressive with an angle. Then it’s time to wither in a giant blowout bunker (some of them big enough to house a small semi truck, others so deep that it’s easy to take four shots to escape) or deal with a blind approach to a green that’s virtually indistinguishable from the fescue fairway. It’s more Scotland than Ireland in flavor.
“It’s got great risk-reward potential,” longtime General Manager and Oregon native Hank Hickox says of Old Mac. “It seems like it’s wide open, but you can get burned if you’re not careful. You can play it from a course management standpoint and score very well and come away with a good feeling, so I love it.”
Some folks don’t share Hickox’s sentiments.
“A lot of players just don’t like this course,” said one caddy as we knocked our blind drives over the heaving dune and ancient, forked tree on No. 3. “They can’t figure out the huge greens or where to hit it off the tee.”
But the overwhelming majority of Bandon pilgrims love Old Mac. It’s easily the most senior-, female- and kid-friendly course of the four, which is why you’ll see special family tees out there along with pre-teens eating up the place’s ragged beauty right next to mom and dad. Which is exactly what Keiser and his staff, including Hickox, are shooting for as an overarching philosophy: a heady mix of fun, challenge and inclusiveness.
“Every time the rankings for the courses come out, right up to the most recent ones, it ratchets up the expectations of our customers,” Hickox says. “Now and then I’ll have a sleepless night thinking about how we’re going to deliver on those promises. Working for Michael Keiser and delivering on his vision, this is really unique. Even as a resort it’s unique. There’s no real estate component. It’s very public, there’s no proprietary club. It’s very much like being overseas at some small club in Scotland or Ireland. We look across the audience every day and don’t know if someone has saved up their money for a once-in-a-lifetime experience or have just flown in on a Gulfstream that they own. They’re all the same to us. There’s no pedigree.”
St. Andrews West, anyone? Yes, and probably the closest a North America course will ever come to emulating that hallowed ground.
Wanting more Old Mac and briefly considering heading straight out again — a popular choice among Bandon’s all-in golf culture — we still had some interviews to do, a set of keys to rescue from the SUV by way of a friendly employee with a coat hanger (long story), a beer or two to sample in the Puffin and, in the end, a lovely slab of tri-tip to barbecue back at the ol’ homestead. While the beef marinated in a spicy rub, we carved out some time to head down to the beach, shots of Penderyn in hand, and toast our current lot in life among the low-tide caves and stately stone towers. Like giddy kids, plus the booze.
Then, the perfect guy-trip wind-down to a Bandon Wednesday: Medium-rare steak with baked spuds, salad and corn on the cob, a few glasses of red, Reservoir Dogs on DVD and the Big Crash into bed.
Even for the most course-savvy traveling golfers, it’s tough to imagine a better day on the links.