Old MacDonald Golf Course Review

50 Words or Less

A tribute to CB MacDonald, Old MacDonald is a wild ride of template holes with Tom Doak’s unique twist.

Introduction

When you talk to people about Bandon Dunes, it’s almost impossible to get them to say anything negative.  The one exception is Old MacDonald.  While some people absolutely love it, others will look at you coldly and say, “I hate that course.”  In this review, I’ll discuss what makes Old MacDonald so polarizing, why I love it, and why it’s a must play.

Practice Facilities

Outside the clubhouse at Old MacDonald is one of the largest practice greens you’re likely to see.  This is appropriate, because Old MacDonald famously has more square footage of greens than any course in the world.  Getting your speed control and feel for the breaks dialed in is absolutely essential if you plan to score well.

For a full description of the Practice Center at Bandon Dunes, click HERE.

Customer Service & Amenities

Old MacDonald has a fine, utilitarian clubhouse: a snack counter, bathroom, and a selection of souvenirs that can do serious damage to your credit card.  But realistically, it can’t compete with the turn house.  Located on the Pacific Ocean, it’s only competition for views is the snack shack at Pacific Dunes.  No matter what you choose to eat, it will taste better than it would almost anywhere else.

For more on the excellent customer service and amenities at Bandon Dunes, click HERE.

Beauty & Scenery

Old Mac plays around a large ridge that separates the first three holes – plus the closing two – from the rest of the course.  You start on the inland side with views dominated by the iconic Ghost Tree.  Your third tee shot is hit over the ridge, and as you climb to the top you see the rest of the course laid out in front of you.  What’s most impressive about this view is the scale – the course stretches in every direction for as far as you can see.

Old MacDonald has a fraction of the coastline that Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes do, but Doak and Urbina use it to great effect.  The approach on #7 is played straight out to the ocean, and you climb a dune to get to the view you see above.  #8 plays downhill and inland, leaving the ocean until you return again on #15.

As is true of the other courses at Bandon Dunes, what makes Old MacDonald such a beautiful walk is the variety and rhythm of the round.  The scale is massive throughout, but by playing over the ridge, toward the ocean, inland, back to the coast, and, finally, around the ridge, your senses are constantly being stimulated with different aspects of the stunning natural beauty.

What’s a Template Hole?

CB MacDonald, one of the most influential golf course architects in history, came up with a number of templates: concepts for golf holes that he used on numerous courses.  National Golf Links of America is the most famous example, comprised entirely of MacDonald’s templates.  If you look carefully at the courses you play, you’re likely to see many template holes.

The fact that a hole follows a template does not mean that it’s a copy of another; it refers to common design and strategic elements.  Above, for example, is #18, Punchbowl, thus named for the punchbowl green situated between dunes.  Two holes could be dramatically different yet both feature punchbowl greens.  Below is the Biarritz, #8, a par 3 with a green that has a deep swale running through the middle of it.  A Biarritz green needs to have a swale, but the rest of the design is up to the individual architect.

Overall Design

Grant Rogers, Bandon’s Director of Instruction, gave me the most memorable description of Old MacDonald, saying that everything is so big that it makes you “feel like you’re 12.”  From the fairways to the greens to the bunkers, the scale of Old MacDonald is jarring, even among other big golf courses.

It’s also a course that can be severe.  Enormous greens are great, but the slopes in some spots can make you feel helpless.  The opening stretch of the back nine – 10, 11, and 12 – is as difficult as any trio on the property.  There are plenty of opportunities to make birdies and hit fun shots, but Old MacDonald balances that with serious difficulty in spots.

Tee Shots

Just like at Bandon Dunes, it’s very hard to lose a tee shot at Old MacDonald.  The fairways are massive, and the rough is virtually nonexistent.  That is not to say that you can’t get into trouble off the tee – there are plenty of fairway bunkers and many of them play as a full stroke hazard.

More than any other course at Bandon Dunes, it is critical that you use your tee shot to set up a good angle for your approach.  #16, Alps, is the most obvious example of rewarding a well-placed drive, but virtually every hole gives a significant advantage to the player who knows where to place their tee shot.

Approaches

Even if you’ve hit a good drive, getting your approach close to the flag is no easy task at Old MacDonald.  The two main challenges that you’ll face are the winds and the greens’ slopes.  I’ve discussed the role of the wind in my other Bandon Dunes course reviews, but it bears repeating: you cannot come here and expect to play your normal iron shots successfully.  Taking more or less club, flighting the ball down, and allowing the wind to move the ball right and left are essential considerations.

Knowing the contours of the greens is where your caddie will earn his money at Old Mac.  There are numerous greens that play smaller than their measured size because of false fronts (or backs or sides).  Additionally, there are greens where you’ll need to be on the right level or on the correct side of a ridge to have a realistic look at birdie.  The flip side of this challenge is that the breaks can be used to your advantage, if you’re smart and skilled enough to use your caddie’s advice.

Greens & Surrounds

The greens at Old MacDonald are literally the biggest in the world.  The smallest green on the course is 40 yards deep; the largest is 76 yards from front to back.  Interestingly, because large greens are the norm throughout Bandon Dunes, they didn’t feel that big to me.  They’re big, no doubt, but not out of proportion with the rest of the course.

In addition to being huge, the greens at Old Mac feature some punishing breaks.  Our caddie, Dane, told us that Old Mac is the most difficult course to loop at because of those breaks.  To paraphrase, “If I tell someone to hit it 10 inches left, and they hit 11 inches left, their ball might roll off the green.”  Of course not every green is that severe, and the pins aren’t normally put in the toughest spots, but you will find it hard to get through a round without a couple truly difficult putts.

The surrounds at Old Mac are a mixed bag.  Some holes have benign curves and tightly mowed grass.  Others, as you see above, have harsh elevation changes and shaggy, unpredictable lies.  Unless you specialize in high, soft bunker shots, take great care to avoid the deep green-side bunkers.  

Favorite Holes

#3 – Par 4 – Sahara

I’m a sucker for the Ghost Tree, so any hole where I can see it gets bonus points.  #3, where you get to drive past it over the ridge, gets all the bonus points.

Some people view the blind tee shot – and whatever break you get from the sloped fairway on the other side – as gimmicky, but I’m here for the quirk.

#16  – Par 4 – Alps

Many people associate the Alps template with a blind approach, which is the case if you drive it down the left or middle of the fairway (above, left).  However, a drive that goes down the right side gets a clean look at the green (above, right).  Even if the dune does block your view, there’s a generous landing area to the left of the green.

#7 – Par 4 – Ocean

The only non-template hole at Old MacDonald provides the biggest “Wow” in terms of aesthetics.  The view you get when climbing to the green is the best on the course and could be the best at all of Bandon Dunes.  In addition to the look, I love both shots on this hole: the drive looks much tougher than it is, and the approach is very demanding with its combination of huge elevation and a fairly narrow green.

Conclusion

Old MacDonald is the loud guy at the party.  Whatever it is, it is unapologetically: huge, fun, tough, and loaded with character.  And very few can be neutral about it.  Whether you love Old MacDonald or hate it, a trip to Bandon Dunes would not be the same without a round here.

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Matt Saternus

Co-Founder, Editor In Chief at PluggedInGolf.com
Matt is a golf instructor, club fitter, and writer living in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Matt's work has been published in Mulligan Magazine, Chicagoland Golf, South Florida Golf, and other golf media outlets. He's also been a featured speaker in the Online Golf Summit and is a member of Ultimate Golf Advantage's Faculty of Experts.

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