Formed in 1967, MacGregor Downs Country Club engaged Willard Byrd to set out an 18-hole course on the shores of Lake MacGregor. Today, the club’s tree-lined Bermuda fairways and greens are rated among the best in the Raleigh region.
Unlike many other major metropolitan areas around the country and world, there is arguably no outright “best course” in the Research Triangle of North Carolina. With excellent use of its topography and water hazards, MacGregor Downs is certainly among the 4-5 courses that could reasonably be considered in the debate.
On the surface, so many golf course raters today would automatically write-off MacGregor Downs because of its residential setting. As I discussed in my previous review for Rivermont, making such broad generalizations from a Google Maps image is damaging. First, it fails to acknowledge the win-win potential where strong architecture is prioritized and housing communities also thrive. Additionally, it also shrinks the breadth of fantastic rounds those reviewers and their fans ultimately pursue, limiting the scope of their perspective. MacGregor Downs is a Triangle golf experience not to be missed, delivering on all fronts without feeling constricted by homes.
In my opinion, the most compelling aspect of MacGregor Downs is its inherent variety. No one type of player is favored on this property, and success throughout the round will require fades and draws, bombs and careful tee placement, and virtually every club in the bag. An examination of standout holes illustrates this quality:
• #1: The opening tee shot features a massively wide fairway which seems welcoming to any long iron, metal, or driver, well-struck or even mishit. However, ensuring that you are not too conservative is critical. When the pin is in the tiny, front portion of this green, spinning the ball back into the water is a real possibility, and blindsiding yourself in any of the bunkers could spell disaster from the beginning.
• #3: Many forces are at play in the golfer’s mind at the difficult dogleg right third. The right half of the fairway presents the best angle into the green, but any shot too far right flirts with a steep drop off and bunkers, almost all of which force a lay-up. Playing out to the left lengthens an already difficult hole and makes the approach even more dreadful.
• #5: For most players, the par five fifth will not likely be reachable, but one must still make interesting decisions. The best angle off the tee is from the left portion of the fairway which is guarded by three pot bunkers. This side also lengthens the hole. The green as a pronged shape with left-to-right tilt meaning that any lay-up shot too deep through the fairway will require proper spin to hold. This quirky hole is a boatload of fun to navigate.
• #6: Pin location on this hourglass shaped green determines the best playing angle off the tee, though the somewhat wide landing area is flanked by traps on either side. The wiregrass area here and on other holes is a charming reminder that the player is just a short drive from the Sandhills.
• #7: Unlike previous holes which allow for booming drives, precision with a metal or driving iron is demanded at the seventh. Additionally, overturning the ball from right-to-left can hurt your angle into this deep green.
• #9: Tumbling straight down a steep slope, the par five ninth is both tempting and terrifying. While the green welcomes run-up shots, the often downhill lie may lead to a thin blade. That error, or even an aerial shot that hits anywhere past the middle of the green, will likely end up in the clubhouse.
• #11: Among the most handsome tee shots on the course, the dogleg right eleventh is a brute. Off the tee, players can opt for a straight metal or a curving drive. Holding the fairway in the landing zone is a challenge due to the cant away from the player. Hugging the corner as best as possible provides a superior angle into this rectangular putting surface.
• #13: The thirteenth is an absolutely beguiling hole placed at the perfect time in the round. After a pretty benign tee shot, players are faced with an uphill wedge. There is no reasonable miss, and failing to control your spin can lead to some incredibly awkward chips. This is often a turning point in a match, and I find the architect demanding a simple, controlled wedge at this crucial junction to be a wise test.
• #14: The resurgence of reachable par fours in the modern era is admirable. It is hard to fathom anyone not loving this category of hole. However, so many today have such tiny, unreceptive greens that they miss the mark on actually luring aggressive play. Not the fourteenth at MacGregor Downs. Players who lay-up may ultimately give themselves more green to work with on the approach, but it often comes at the risk of a side-hill stance, or landing in an awkwardly placed fairway bunker. The aggressive player has a solid entrance to the green if they can shape their shot properly, but any miss left or right can severely hurt the chances of an up-and-down.
• #17: The par five penultimate hole asks players to keep the ball on the right portion of the fairway for a superior angle. An aerial shot is required to land the ball on the green, and while reaching in two is a possibility, only a little room exists behind the putting surface for shots too long.
• #18: A few months ago, I saw some ‘woke’ golf architecture reviewers on Twitter poking fun at MacGregor Downs’ finisher. While this hole may have a manufactured look, I could sit there with a bucket of balls and play it repeatedly for days on end. With the fairway running perpendicular to the tee box and over the lake, the player is asked to attack one of three potential landing areas. The largest is also the closest from the tee, but leaves the longest distance into the green. The landing zone on the middle begins to shrink, but makes the approach much shorter. And, for the bomber, there is a chance to go right at the green, though this area is guarded by a massive tree. For most pin locations, keeping the ball as close to the hazard as possible is ideal, adding further depth of thought and challenge to the tee shot. As is often the case, Twitter bullies need to take a walk in their victims’ shoes. I cannot fathom anyone not loving this daring finisher if they had the chance to experience it themselves. The eighteenth at MacGregor Downs features strategy, options, and is pure fun to play. How is that not great architecture?
The diversity of MacGregor Downs’ routing is compelling. There are shots requiring precision spin control, and ones which demand bombs. On some holes one is asked to play away from a hazard, and on others they must challenge penalty areas. Throughout the property you will be equally impressed by both the natural terrain and constructed traps. You will need every club and shot in your bag to make the loop, and a spirit of creativity to achieve low scores at this perfectly manicured course. Simply put, MacGregor Downs is a delightful club which demonstrates again that win-win situations for houses and golf are indeed possible. It is among the finest courses in the Triangle and is no doubt a real jewel for its members who can get vastly varying experiences daily.