Set on the northeastern tip of Bermuda in weathly Tucker's Town, is one of the world’s finest golf courses. The “Father of Golf Architecture”, Charles Blair Macdonald, originally laid out the Mid Ocean Club in 1921 adjacent to the Atlantic.
Mid Ocean is totally unique with much of the course routed across glorious undulating ground. 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 amongst the stately pines, the pretty glades and the dramatic valleys.
The layout was modified by Robert Trent Jones, in the 1950s and 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 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".
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 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 motor car have all impacted 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 (not criticisms) from studying the layout:
- Many of the current back tees were not there in 1921 (eg: 1st, 17th). While this is not the surprise, their location often sit behind many public roads which now cut through the course.
- The roads occupied with cars and tourist buses were once dirt tracks with little to no traffic. Now you have cars impacting play on holes 1, 4, 13, 14, 15 and 16. The most intrusive is on the par 5 15th hole where the road is in front of the green.
- I learned about how different it is today for players to get from the 16th green to the 17th tee. Back in the golden age, players would leave the green on the right hand side and simply proceed straight to the visible 17th tee box without distraction. In today’s layout, the new back tee on the first hole sits just a few yards behind the 16th green, accompanied by a large turning area for carts, and a hedge blocking a cart staging area. Hence, to get to 17th tee, you now have to wait for people to tee off on number 1, walk around the first tee, cross a road and then follow a path.
- The black tarmacadam paths running around the course are not attractive, and if I’m being honest, when you stand on the gorgeous clubhouse balcony and look out at holes 1, 17 and 18, the amount of black cart-paths make you wonder if you’re actually at a racetrack; which I felt significantly takes away from the vast beauty that surrounds you. The terrain at Mid Ocean Club is very steep in places, and many golfers have no choice but to take a cart – so it’s completely understandable why they exist. But when you have long walks back and forth to a cart parked on a path on every hole, it significantly slows down play.
- Many of the bunkers have seriously steep faces. While this is not a negative – the issue I observed is that on many of the bunker faces, the superintendent has let the dense leafed Bermuda grass get a few inches long. This has numerous implications. If a golfer doesn’t have the skill to quickly get the ball airborne and high enough to get over a 6 or 7 foot lip, then too often the ball will get stuck in the Bermuda grass face and not roll down into the sand. Similarly if your approach shot doesn’t stay on the green and rolls half way down a bunker face, this situation is a little unreasonable. While golf is not always meant to be easy and perfect conditioning is not at all expected, I still think you should consider the demographic of players at the resort when you have such steep bunker faces.
- If you’re paying close enough attention to the terrain, you’ll notice on the far right hand side of the 1st and 16th fairways, that there are depressions in the ground that appear to be old bunkers that were filled in, or possibly the result of removing a random tree. Looking at old aerial photos of the course from the 1930s era, they would at least suggest that the two depressions sunken down in the hollow of the 16th fairway were indeed bunkers that Macdonald created. Today they are presented as filled in with grass. While I’m not at all an expert, my observation on these two holes was to challenge the club’s overall intention as to how they want these presented. Either you fill them in completely, or you make them a bunker which will come into play. Maybe the club has a different philosophy, but right now they appear to be somewhat indecisive.
- 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 and white 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 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. Green slopes sharply from back to front – as do 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. Toughest 310 yards on the course. The bunkers here suffer from long Bermuda grass on the bunker faces.
9th – Sound – the uphill holes are relentless, this 350 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 – a longer version of the 6th hole. Blind tee shot over a hill which plays towards a raised shallow green. 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. It’s narrow all the way, but another par 5 that will surrender plenty of birdies.
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.
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 – the bowl is not immediately obvious, and the road running in front of the green is disappointing as it’s directly in play for your second shot. Due to the risk of hitting a car, players will choose not to go for the green in two. So the road is hugely impacting the strategy of the hole. 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 template is not significantly pronounced and, overall, it’s a substandard par 5.
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 – first timers may struggle to the find the tee box, but upon reaching it, you’ll find a variety of teeing grounds. The current white and blue tees are not original and add ~35 yards to the par 3. The green is as expected from a design perspective, but the sprawling bunkers and racetrack cart-path left of the green will certainly catch your eye.
18th – Home – a glorious 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.
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 glorious hospitality with really fun golf.
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.