Set on the northeastern tip of Bermuda in wealthy Tucker's Town, is one of the world’s finest golf courses. The “Father of Golf Architecture”, Charles Blair Macdonald and his associate, Seth Raynor, originally laid out the Mid Ocean Club course and it opened for play in 1924 adjacent to the Atlantic.
In The Evangelist of Golf, George Bahto commented as follows: “Macdonald and Raynor traveled to the island and drew up several possible routings from relief maps of the area, finally settling on one. Once the planning stages were complete, Macdonald left Raynor to attend to the actual construction, assisted by Charles Banks and Ralph Barton, a construction supervisor. It was Banks who later built the Castle Harbour course on the adjoining property.”
“When the course opened in
1924, Mid Ocean set a new standard as the finest inland course in the world.
Rather than succumb to the temptation of forcing scenic cliff-top holes at the
expense of good golf, Macdonald and Raynor showed great restraint by skilfully routing
Mid Ocean to take full advantage – first and foremost – of the natural contours
of the site.”
The Atlantic Ocean does not play a major part in the design of Mid Ocean it merely provides a beautiful backdrop to a number of holes, the majority of which are set back a little further inland among the stately pines, the pretty glades and the dramatic valleys.
The course was lightly modified by Robert Trent Jones in the 1950s when he added new tees and bunkers. Today’s layout is a stern test, especially when the trade winds are freshening, but with numerous tees to choose from it’s also a very enjoyable course for the handicap golfer. Perhaps Mid Ocean's most notable and most treacherous hole is a Cape template, the 433-yard par four 5th, with its elevated tee atop a hill with a glorious view across the shimmering Mangrove Lake.
If you are only remotely interested in golf, a walk round Mid Ocean is a joy and naturally you must wear the mandatory Bermuda length shorts. Contrary to Mark Twain, Mid Ocean is most definitely not “a good walk spoiled”, we tend to agree with Mr Twain’s alternative saying, "you die and go to heaven, I'll stay here in Bermuda".
Another MacDonald/Raynor masterpiece. As you would expect, lots of history here. Our caddie related a story of Babe Ruth dumping a dozen balls in the ocean trying to drive a par four. Easily the best course on the island.
Like its designer, Charles Blair Macdonald, the Mid Ocean Club is big and bold, built on a scale that most golf courses never achieve, the only two remotely close being Yale and Bethpage Black. Partially, I suppose this is because the course was built before the era of large earth moving equipment and Macdonald used the naturally hilly terrain to great advantage. The most memorable hole on the course is the 5th, the “Cape” hole, which plays from a high tee over water to a demanding green. A Macdonald invention that has been widely imitated in golf design ever since, the Cape Hole here is the best rendition in the world. What makes it so is that it plays from a very high tee and the fairway that you have to hit slants downhill from top to bottom the entire way. The trick, obviously, is to choose how much of the water you want to take on. Aiming left is a bold line and if you can carry your tee shot over the lake you have a much shorter shot to the green. The more timid player aims right and finds land instead of water but has a very challenging second shot on the 433-yard hole. It is classic. The 16th is a very demanding par 4, you have to hit your blind tee shot over what appears like a sheer wall of a hill, very steeply up just to reach the fairway. The short par 4 eighth plays to a sharply elevated green. The tenth hole, "Mercer Hill", has unforgiving terrain requiring skill hitting off Bermuda grass on an uneven fairway over a steep hill! The 238-yard Biarritz hole, the 13th, is a testing specimen of this variety with the requisite hollow in the middle of the large green. For those that can't get on the super-exclusive National Golf Links of America or Chicago Golf Club, playing Mid Ocean is a worthy substitute since the great man's genius shows through strongly. Unaccompanied guests can play at Mid Ocean if their round is arranged through select hotels on the island and is limited.
Fantastic layout, challenging greens. Good strategy course. Well maintained
The voyage begins to an isolated island 650 miles off the coast of North Carolina. The journey brings you to the brilliant blue waters of balmy Bermuda. Fortunately for my 3 days on the island, the weather was not ‘Dark & Stormy’ like the island’s signature cocktail drink.
Today’s golf course is approximately 400 yards longer than the course that Macdonald completed in 1921. The new tees are necessary to accommodate today’s technology and longer players. The added length, the passing of time, the growth of population and the evolution of the motorcar has all touched the presentation of this golf course. I went around the course 3 days in a row, and on one occasion, I simply walked the course without clubs to get a feel of different angles, land formations and how a hole played from different tees. Before I get into describing my experience of playing the course, I wanted to share a few observations from studying this special layout:
- A number of the current back tees were not there in 1921 (eg: 1st, 17th).
- Many of the bunkers have seriously steep faces. This summer MOC conducted a major bunker restoration program, which was a wonderful investment. Once the roots are deep enough the club have a plan in place to cut down the fuzzy grass so that balls will roll back into the bunker.
- The bunkers that are now grass bunkers on 16 were installed by Robert Trent Jones in the mid 1950’s. They were not CBM bunkers.
- Numerous characteristics from the ‘home of golf’ at St. Andrews were impressively incorporated into the design at MOC, emphasizing Macdonald’s homage to the Scottish masterpiece. In 1872 at age 16, he was sent to St Andrews University and while there he took up playing golf with a vengeance. To this day, residents of Bermuda benefit
- The interpretation and preservation of the classic template holes is a never ending evolution
1st hole – Atlantic – breathtaking view, steep climb to the diagonal fairway, a string of bunkers running down the right hand side of the fairway all the way up to the elevated infinity green. The angles, hazards and jaw dropping setting have few peers in this neck of the woods - rendering this one of the greatest opening holes around. With a handful of bunkers on the inside of the dogleg, the number of Dark & Stormy’s you have running through your system may influence how aggressive you want to be
2nd hole – Long – although just 471 yards from the back tee, this par 5 has a downhill tee shot, a tight landing area at the dogleg before climbing steeply up to the green. The steep slope adds at least 40 yards to the hole. Most strong players will catch a tailwind and quickly turn this into a par 4
3rd hole – Eden – mid range benign par 3 along the water with a generous green. The template bunkers are not too challenging except when the pin is on the right side of the green
4th hole – Mangrove – short par 4, but plays steeply uphill which makes it a tough walk and even tougher to pick a club for your uphill approach shot. Watch out for the massive bunker that sits below the green. Another example of a fabulous short par 4 that plays so much longer
5th hole – Cape – widely regarded as the best Cape hole in the world. The current blue tees are not original to Macdonald, but clearly are necessary in today’s day and age. I really hope the club finds a way to remove all the mangrove bushes that now suffocate the edge of the water all the way up and around the green. They are not original either. Watch out for the steep contour on the right side of the green, as if you get stuck on top of it, you’ll struggle mightily with your next shot.
6th hole – Brow – another short blind par 4 where club selection off the tee plays a big part to how you play the hole. Lay up to the exposed plateau, or open your shoulders to get over the brow of the hill. Both strategies have benefits, but it’s all about how comfortable you are playing into the elevated green. Huge change in elevation!
7th – Short – this is the longest “Short” hole I’ve ever played from approximately 180 yard back tees. Again, the blue and white tees are not original. The hole also is unique with how the hazards in front of the green are essentially ponds instead of being bunkers. The green slopes sharply from back to front – as to many of the greens on the front. Very tough downhill with swirling winds.
8th – Valley – downhill tee shot, steep slope down the right hand side, slight dogleg right playing to a steep elevated green heavily protected with deep bunkers. Toughest 310 yards on the course.
9th – Sound – the uphill holes are relentless, this 406 yard par 4 could visually be mistaken for a par 5 in length. Fabulous bunkering offering depth perception challenges bring you up the hill to the green that sits above the Sound. The front nine is a tough walk and you change direction at least 6 times
10th – Mercer Hill – Players face a blind tee shot over a hill which plays towards a green that is a mirror image of the Road hole green at St. Andrews. A tough green to hit in regulation as your approach shot will undoubtedly be from a hanging lie
11th – Trotts – a brilliant par 5 which doglegs to the left. With less than driver off the tee, the turbulent land prevents you from seeing the landing area. Upon reaching the dogleg, it’s a gentle rise which starts 250 yards out. Birdies will be hard earned given the dome shape contour of the green and the fact that most of the time wind makes that hole very tricky.
12th – Hillside – unquestionably the toughest hole on the course. Another blind tee shot over a hill to a dogleg left. From 200 yards out, the approach shot to the steeply elevated green is on the short list of the hardest shots on the course. Hitting the Hillside green in regulation is an epic feat.
13th – Biarritz – the original Biarritz hole was the 3rd hole at Biarritz GC in France, which is a golf course that sadly no longer exists. I personally consider the loss of Lido GC and the original Biarritz green in France, among the greatest losses in our game due to the continued influence they have on today’s architecture. Opinions suggest that the original Biarritz green had an inlet next to the ocean (eg: 16th at Cabot Cliffs), which may surprise today’s golfers playing an interpretation by Macdonald/Raynor. I support the theory that CBM designed Biarritz holes as an interpretation of the original in France next to the water, with the dip that we see today symbolizing the inlet. The downhill 13th at Mid Ocean Green displays a “fairway-dip-green” configuration. Other’s around North America still display a “green-dip-green” configuration (eg: Yale). In general with any of today’s Biarritz greens, the front plateau being fairway appears to be the best representation of the original construct. Top marks to Mid-Ocean.
14th – Leven – par 4 dogleg right with a sprawling bunker complex unlike previous straight-edge bunkers. The fairway bunkers in this part of the property visually differ from elsewhere. You may have a short iron into the green, but the slope from left to right will catch you off guard
15th – Punchbowl – a challenging par 5 that raises up to the iconic template green. The road running in front of the green is a factor for your second shot – but with a good drive, players will be tempted to go for the green. As you cross the road, the flag is barely visible due to the elevated bowl, but standing at the front of the green does not feel like you’re in a bowl. The turn for home is the beginning of a tough stretch
16th – Lookout – blind tee shot over the road to a raised plateau fairway. At the crest, you’ll see the depressions down below you to your right referenced above. The hole feels tight off the tee, but once you reach your ball, it’s just a short iron to the green. The views of the ocean return for the first time since the half-way house.
17th – Redan – the hole was 190 yards long in 1921 and it is now 203 yards. The green is as expected from a design perspective, but the sprawling bunkers left of the green will certainly catch your eye. The glorious vista makes this par 3 a sight to behold
18th – Home – a magnificent tough par 4 to finish along the coast line. Moving from left to right, using the contours of the land up the left hand side with undoubtedly put you in the best position to hit the green. Just like at the Old Course, CBM keeps golfers on their toes from start to finish.
The evolution of the Mid Ocean Club since 1921 has been an interesting journey. While gummy Bermuda grass will never be my favourite playing surface, you can’t beat this beautiful island being just a short flight from the US east coast and offering splendid hospitality with really fun golf. I look forward to a return visit, and will no doubt continue my love affair with the venue.
For today’s young gun, there’s nothing that approaches a par 5; the bombers can easily reach its longest holes in two comfortable shots. So there’s an air of cultured restraint about the place, like a suburban Surrey course, where hitting a ball too far might be regarded as a bit infra dig; not quite sporting, perhaps. It’s a course where you place the ball (if you’re good enough) where it needs to be placed to open up the second shot – for to score well you will have to be near the hole to avoid three-putting. The greens can be very difficult. It’s a fine collection of holes, a couple of relatively weak ones being overwhelmed by three terrific examples – the great 5th and 17th, and the very challenging 12th The 5th is a “Cape” hole, the 1st at Machrahanish re-visited, except that the tee is 100 feet above the distant fairway. A drawing drive, biting off what you think you can chew of the pond’s shoreline, leaves you an approach to a raised, large, sloping green tucked back towards the pond but guarded by a massive bunker. The green is lighting fast, and many a good player has putted off it, misjudging both its slopes and its pace.
The 17th is a classic Redan. You stand on the back tee about 200 yards away, taking in the view as the ocean has reappeared for the first time since the 3rd. Ahead and slightly downhill lies the green, set into a steep bank on its right side, and sloping gently away from you from front right to back left. The left side of the green is all steep bunkers. The prevailing wind is into your face. It is a classic hole, surely one of the world’s great par three holes (and streets ahead of the famous 16th at Port Royal, which is similar in concept, but too tarted-up). Good luck.
The 12th is also a very fine hole. A precise, blind drive is necessary, into an area that leaves at least a long iron to an uphill, sloping green. A very difficult shot, and I watched Zach Johnson, playing in the first Grand Slam at MOC, hitting a three wood from a steeply hanging lie, 220 yards on the fly, stopping dead, 1 foot from the pin, the best shot I’ve seen played in person in my life.
The rest of the course is pleasantly challenging, and a great day’s golf. MOC’s condition is always immaculate, and it’s, by some way in my opinion, Bermuda’s best. Scenically, Tucker’s Point and Port Royal, outmatch it. But the golfer will love MOC. It’s a private club, but visitors can access the course at certain times with an introduction from a member or a one of the Islands hotels. Carts are available, but at MOC, unlike the other two is eminently walkable, except on the warmest days. Caddies are also available. There is a fine old-fashioned clubhouse and a friendly staff. It is costly, not as anus-clenchingly expensive as Tucker’s Point perhaps, but still well up there. Probably $300 a head, with cart rental. Caddies might be more, I’ve never used one. But as a special treat, for no golfer can visit Bermuda and not play MOC, well worth it.