Courses & TravelMarch 9, 2010

A New Concept At Old Mac

Stephen Szurlej

OldMac_14.jpg

A couple of New Hampshirites, Arthur Little and his wife, Jann Leeming, went to Bandon Dunes a few years ago to play golf. They enjoyed their stay but they had some suggestions for Bandon brass, so they wrote a letter to the owner, Mike Keiser. The title of the message: "Your golf course is way too long."

Little says he heard back from Keiser, "Almost immediately."

The end result is something some might consider radical-Old Mac is adding a set of forward tees that will play from roughly 4,400 yards. To others, such as Arthur and Jann, it makes sense.

The first two paragraphs of Arthur and Jann's letter to Mike Keiser, postmarked in the spring of 2007, got right to their point:

*Because golf has been stagnant since 2001, the golf industry, as a matter of economic necessity, talks endlessly about "growing the game." However, it will never be successful in reinvigorating the game until it stops making ignorant decisions about golf course design and starts building or retrofitting golf courses that really fit the customers it needs to attract or retain.

Courses as traditionally and currently designed are much too long, too difficult and take too long to play. Golf course owners and designers are fixated on lengthening courses to "fit" the very best players and get on "Best Courses" lists. As a result, they are not providing an enjoyable experience for average, beginning and aging golfers. These are the people that the industry must attract and retain in order to be successful financially. The golf industry must realize that the competition for the leisure time of these players is much greater than ever before and that it must meet their needs.

Little and Leeming, who are in their mid-60s, love to play golf, love to walk but don't hit the ball very far, had the attention of one of golf's last great visionaries and someone who could endorse their ground swell of change. "I was skeptical but respectful at first," says Keiser. "Then I came to realize they speak for some larger number of us, getting older, getting weaker, and they made their case, which I'm fulfilling at Old Macdonald, for a 4,400-yard golf course."

Keiser is opening Old Macdonald in June, a fourth course at Bandon Dunes, which is widely considered the best golf resort in the country. Located on the Southwest Coast of Oregon, Bandon Dunes already has three courses in the top 14 on Golf Digest's list of America's 100 Greatest Public, multiple restaurants, watering holes and five lodging options, all within three minutes of each other. And Old Macdonald might be the most popular attraction of the bunch because the style of golf, like that of the Old Course at St. Andrews, will be fun and fast with big greens and it will be almost impossible to lose a ball.

Up to now, the knock on playing golf at Bandon is that it's too hard to get to, and by being walking-only with the potential of tough playing conditions (it's on the coast so wind is usually a factor) it's also considered too hard for the average or aging golfer. And maybe this is why Keiser had such a sensitive ear to Little and Leeming and their play to make a difference.

After repeated e-mail exchanges between Keiser and this pro-active couple, spanning more than four years, they spoke on the phone for the first time last week. Keiser told Little that he asked Jim Urbina, who along with Tom Doak designed Old Macdonald, to go back to Oregon last December and add the additional set of tees. Regardless of the condensed field of play, the par will still be listed as 71. The shortest par 3 (No. 2) will play from roughly 82 yards. The longest par 5 (No. 6) will play from roughly 410 yards.

"Every one of the teeing grounds that are for the Littles are in the fairways and are not distinguishable from anywhere else on the golf course," says Urbina. "At Old Macdonald I blended them in the fairway so when the Littles walk up there, they'll see a little disk, they'll plop their tee in the ground and they'll whack away."

Keiser said he was willing to print a separate scorecard and that he'd call the forward tees the "Friendly Tees." Little says he hated that name—too condescending—and they didn't want their own scorecard. As of last week Keiser says he's going with the "Royal Blue" tees and they will be included on the main scorecard at Old Macdonald, which is an homage to Charles Blair Macdonald, one of the original architects of golf courses in the United States. The tees at Old Mac will range from 4,400 yards to 7,200 yards. Keiser approached his staff about adding a forward set of tees at the other three courses at his resort, but they've elected to see the results of the Old Mac experiment first.

Little and Leeming have a good sense of the test. They were golf course owners in Maine for 10 seasons (1996-'05). They didn't have the room to add more sets of tees beyond 6,300 yards, so instead they added tees in the other direction, making the shortest route 4,169 yards. The concept has a track record of success. They included some data in their original letter to Keiser:

Our experience at Province Lake Golf in Parsonsfield, Maine was remarkable. In 1996, we bought a course out of bankruptcy. It was in terrible shape, located far from population centers and we needed to do something innovative to make it economically viable. We took a radical approach and built a tee system that differed from any we'd encountered.

*--We increased rounds from 8,000 to 18,000

--Women represented over a third of our play

--Junior play increased from 1.5% to 7.5%

--Our seniors moved up a set of tees and increased their play

--Speed of play increased by 15-30 minutes a round even on busy days

--We tripled our tournament and outing business

--We received recognition by Golf For Women magazine as the No. 1 course for women in New England and No. 39 in the U.S. and by Golf Inc. magazine for our family and junior programs

--Most importantly, over time, we improved our annual financial results by $200,000*

So there you have it—a match made in Bandon. Give credit to Keiser for his vision, but also for a willingness to listen.

Here's an audio clip of Mike Keiser telling me how the concept of the forward tees came across his desk. He refers to the tees in this clip as the "Purple Tees," but as of last week, they're the "Royal Blue Tees."

My Away Game about Old Macdonald will appear in the May issue of Golf Digest, which comes out the first week in April.

Golf World published an issue this week with a dedicated section on the status of golf course architecture in the Unites States. Be sure to read the article by Chris Millard.

--Matty G.

(Photograph of Old Macdonald's 14th green by Stephen Szurlej.)

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