Old Macdonald: The Most Misunderstood Course at Bandon Dunes
On paper Old Macdonald sounds like the perfect course. I mean almost literally.
Look at it on paper…
It’s an homage to C.B. Macdonald complete with 18 template holes. All the greats are there: redan, biarritz, cape, short – and so on…
It was created at what is arguably the greatest all around pure golf resort on the planet, Bandon Dunes.
And it was designed by Tom Doak, one of the most celebrated modern architects in the game.
But after 3 rounds at Old Macdonald over 5 years, why haven’t I enjoyed it?
For me personally, something got lost in translation about the course, and I just never gravitated to it.
Old Mac is easy the most polarizing course at Bandon Dunes.
We all know one of the great things about Bandon, is that if you ask 10 people to put in order their favorite courses there, you’ll have 10 different answers.
But more often than not, you’ll find that in those lists Old Macdonald will either be first or last. A recent Instagram post also confirmed this.
It truly is a polarizing course that most either love or hate.
I’ve always been on the latter end of that spectrum.
My 4th and most recent round at Old Macdonald was the first one where….I got it.
I still think there are some serious quirks, and elements of the course that I struggle with, but I have a newfound respect for it – and I’ve cracked the code a bit on how I believe it’s best experienced for maximum enjoyment and appreciation.
More on that in a minute.
A Beautiful Opening
Each of the first three times I’ve played Old Macdonald, I was encouraged after the first three holes.
The first, “Double Plateau,” is everything I personally enjoy in an opening hole.
It’s short, it’s wide open, and as Donald Ross would say “it’s a gentle handshake” to start the round.
You’re introduced to the massive greens at Old Macdonald, which are among the largest in the world, and it’s a hole that’s forgiving and can help inspire some confidence.
The Double Plateau happens to also be one of my favorite templates, and I still consider the 9th at Fishers Island to be one of my 10 favorite greens in the world (I think that might need to be a blog post).
The second is a very enjoyable Eden hole, featuring a “Strath” bunker short right and a larger bunker on the left.
This hole plays very different depending on pin locations, and is another one where you can gain some confidence to start the round.
Finally, the third hole is Old Mac’s rendition of the “Sahara” template.
You stare at a giant sand ridge with the courses’s signature ghost tree looming over you.
You have to hit to a blind fairway, and it’s one of the most fun tee shots at the resort. (You don’t need to go as far left as you think!)
Each time I play this course, after the first three holes I say “Man, this is great, why didn’t I enjoy this course more the previous times I’ve played.”
Then you hit 4, and it all comes flooding back.
Why I Haven’t Always Enjoyed Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes
Up until the Sheep Ranch opened up, Old Macdonald was the most exposed of all the Bandon Courses.
Once you cross over the dune on hole 3, you’re pretty out in the open until you hit 16 green.
We all know, it can get windy at Bandon Dunes – and the wind will play in different directions depending on when you visit.
This can make certain holes feel very long. Very, very long.
The par 4, 4th being the first of those holes.
From the green tees (which are the most commonly played tees at the resort), it measures a stout 472 yards.
Old Mac has some excellent shorter holes, but you pay the price with a handful of brutally long ones as well.
If you’re playing into the wind, this hole can feel like a par 6.
Let’s jump ahead for a minute and elaborate on this.
When people ask me why I don’t like Old Macdonald, my typical answer is “9-12”.
The course was designed around the typical “summer wind” coming out of the North. All four times I’ve played it, I’ve done so in the off season, with winds out of the South.
These holes are right in the middle of the course, and all feel long.
When the wind is blowing from the South, 9, 10 and 12 are all into the wind – just like it was on 4.
This makes already difficult holes much more so.
To make matters worse, 11, which would be playing downwind in these conditions has one of the coolest, yet most insane greens I’ve ever seen.
It’s shallow and shaved down on all sides, making it very hard to hold in anything but perfect weather.
So by the time you get through 12, you’ve had 5 holes on the course give you a solid beating. If the weather is bad on top of this? This is where I start to understand where my distaste for Old Macdonald stems from.
It should come as no surprise that my first three rounds on this course over the years have always been when there was a wind out of the South.
2 of those were also the 2nd round of a 36 hole day.
It adds up to an exhausting experience.
A Fresh Perspective on Old Macdonald
On my most recent trip to Bandon I played the course for the 4th time, and it was under very different circumstances.
It was my first round of the day, and while it was still “Winter wind” it was very light throughout the day.
Naturally after the first 3 holes, I felt the same way: “this is great!”
Four is still feels longer than it should be, but despite my double bogey, I didn’t despise it as I had in the past.
5, the “Short” template, is fantastic. It’s a chip shot to one of the widest greens in existence, and often has some great “hole in one” locations.
The par 5, 6th “Long” is the longest hole on the course.
It was reachable in two on the day we played it, making it feel much easier than it typically would.
The “Hell Bunker” modeled after 14 at St. Andrews (more in placement rather than appearance) is massive and one of the most prominent features on the course.
Advice: Don’t go in it. Seriously. Just don’t.
Seven gives you a crazy steep uphill tee shot which adds some nice variety to the round, and gives you one of your only ocean views on the course.
Eight is a fun biarritz. While it’s not on the same level as, say Yale, it’s cool downhill tee shot, and one of the better opportunities for public golfers to play such a unique template.
Then you hit 9.
My Least Favorite Stretch at Old Macdonald
I was dreading heading into these holes, because up until this point I’d thoroughly enjoyed the course – much more so than I had previously.
The “Cape” template is one of my favorite templates. The fairway is set at a 45 degree angle from the teebox, and you get to choose how much you want to bite off.
Often the best Cape holes, like the world class 5th at Mid Ocean Club, have lots of elevation change.
The 9th at Old Macdonald is dead flat, and uses sandy bunkers and waste area to form the hazard for the hole.
At 352 yards from the green tees it isn’t as long as I remember it, and under benign conditions I enjoyed the hole more than I ever had.
Even with wind, at that distance, it certainly wasn’t as long as I’d remembered it being. But if you end up in some of those bunkers, it could still make for a very long hole (and high score) for you.
10, the “Bottle” template which uses fairway bunkers to bottle beck the driving zone, forces you to hit a well executed drive.
440 yards with a narrow fairway to an uphill green, in stout wind? Yeah that’s going to be rough.
As I mentioned earlier, I think the “Road’ template 11th has one of the coolest greens I’ve ever seen.
Photos don’t do it justice, but it’s very shallow, and is shaved down on all sides.
With no wind I found the hole to be a ton of fun. In anything more than a light breeze? This green will put up big numbers.
Similar deal with the redan 12th. 205 yards. Crazy green slope. Holding it is a ridiculous feat, and it’s why you often hear complaints about this hole.
All of that said I am absolutely no expert, these are just my opinions after playing the course four times.
And after the most recent round? I enjoyed this stretch of holes more than I ever have.
Are they perfect? Absolutely not. But under these circumstances, I was able to appreciate each one much more.
The Closing Stretch at Old Mac
From there you’re treated to another excellent stretch of 6 holes.
13 and 14 are both shorter, par 4s with uphill approaches and are a nice change of pace after a relatively flat stretch of holes.
15 is a sweeping, beautiful par 5 that plays back up to the ocean-top ridge near 7 green.
16 is an Alps hole that looks like it was built a hundred years ago. You simply never see blind approaches like this one any more, and it’s one of the features that makes Old Mac truly unique – right down to the bell you have to ring after exiting the green.
17 presents an interesting risk reward option for people who want to try and make the long drive over the pond, for a chance to get home in 2.
17 isn’t necessarily my favorite, as at times it can feel like a long hole with a bunch of random bunkers strewn about just to make you mad.
18 is the venerable punchbowl which makes for an excellent conclusion to the round.
How to Get the Most Enjoyment Out of Old Macdonald
My 4th round at Old Macdonald was the first time I really enjoyed the course. There are a few very specific reasons for this.
If you’re on your first trip to Bandon, or if historically you haven’t enjoyed the course, here’s what I’d do:
Make it Your First Round of the Trip
First off, I’d make it your first round of the trip.
I think it’s safe to say Old Macdonald is the least scenic, and least dramatic of the Bandon courses.
When you play it first? You’re just stoked to be there, and you know the best is yet to come.
Don’t Make it Your Second Round of the Day
If you’re unable to make it your first round of the trip, at least make it your first round of the day.
I’ve always had a tough time when it’s my second round of the day. It’s a difficult course, and can be a long slog through the elements if the wind is up, making it less enjoyable than if you played it in the morning.
Besides the sunsets on Bandon or Pacific will be much better, and Bandon Trails is the most protected, making afternoon winds less problematic.
Play it in the Summer (or on a benign Winter day)
I truly believe if your only experience playing Old Macdonald is in even mild to moderate Winter winds, you’re going to struggle to enjoy this course to its full potential.
It was designed around Summer winds, and you should do your best to play it as such – especially if it’s your first time. Same goes for those of you who previously haven’t enjoyed the course.
Final Thoughts on Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes
I’ll be honest, I still have Old Macdonald at the bottom of my list of courses at Bandon Dunes.
However, with fresh perspective, this isn’t a slight to Old Mac. Rather, it’s a testament to how good the other courses are.
Previously I never looked forward to playing the course.
However on my next trip? Assuming we play it early in the trip, and not in brutal Winter winds, I’ll be eager to get out on the course.
My guess? I’ll enjoy it even more than I did last time.
This is a course that you need to play a few times to understand.
But it’s truly unlike any course I’ve ever played. And to bring in the history of these hole designs at a place as accessible as Bandon Dunes? It’s the perfect compliment to the perfect golf resort.
If you historically weren’t a fan? Do yourself a favor and give it another shot based on the parameters above.
And if you do love the course? Well, then after 7 years I can finally say: I get it.