RBC Heritage

Harbour Town Golf Links

Macdonald's Comeback

October 11, 2010

Bandon Dunes' Old Macdonald, featuring the Halloween fir on the third hole, is a tribute to C.B. Macdonald.

The fairest way to rank America's Best New

golf courses is to have a panel of experts play all of them -- that is, have everyone play every course. We'd never been able to do that because architects were stamping them out like bottle caps, one a day since the 1990s. Who could play 300 or 400 courses a year, not that we wouldn't want to try?

Now comes word that the economy has slowed down, and even golf-course developers have put their foot on the brake the last couple of years. Only 42 courses have opened since mid-2009 -- more closed in that time -- but the point is, it's now possible for one man to see everything. So our Senior Editor of Architecture, Ron Whitten, journeyed forth to play them all and tell us what he thinks.

"He was so rugged in his thinking that he probably wore his tweed knickerbockers without any underwear." Though that statement could apply to Whitten, who's from Kansas, it was actually written by our late columnist Charley Price, who observed it of Charles Blair Macdonald

. Macdonald was Whitten's surprise choice as architect of the year, notwithstanding C.B.'s death in 1939. He was best known for having designed the National Golf Links on New York's Long Island, which is widely considered the wellspring from which all American architecture derives. He was also a founder of the USGA and might well have lived up to his self-description as the Father of American Golf, despite being Canadian. You can't tee off at the National without someone pointing out that Macdonald disinherited his nephew after the young man made a bet that he could drive the first green and then did it.

Macdonald might not have appreciated Whitten the critic, either. C.B. once wrote: "Criticizing a golf course is like going into a man's family. The fond mother trots up her children for admiration. Only a boor would express anything else than a high opinion. So it is a thankless task to criticize a friend's home golf course."

Macdonald is relevant today because he has been rediscovered by modern golfers, foremost among them the greeting-card baron Mike Keiser, who commissioned Tom Doak and Jim Urbina to create Old Macdonald in homage, actually in Bandon

, Ore. It's the kind of course that makes you wish you were a long and wild hitter, so vast are the landing areas, but even short and straight will like this place.

I partnered with the USGA's David B. Fay in a member-guest this fall -- consolation-bracket winners, sixth flight -- at Newport Country Club, where Macdonald won the 1895 U.S. Amateur. Fay, an admirer, got him inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2007 with the normal amount of high-level horse-trading.

I think Celtic Manor became the 2010 Ryder Cup venue in exchange. Macdonald had strong opinions about the rules and equipment, too. "We should at once go to a floating ball and give the makers carte blanche to do what they can so long as they conform to the one restriction -- the ball must float," he wrote in 1928. Adds Fay: "If that had been adopted, there would be no 'golf ball distance' issue today. On the other hand, the number of golfers might have been more along the lines of the number of Court Tennis players."

Nevertheless, C.B. Macdonald is the architect of the year.