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The Golf Rum Diaries - The Bermuda Triangle of Golf

By: Jay Flemma


I learned something interesting from Bermuda tourism P.R. maven Lauren Pike: John Lennon got the idea for calling his seminal solo album "Double Fantasy" while visiting Bermuda.

Mid Ocean's Famous Cape Hole

"A double fantasy is actually a flower," she explained. "It's indigenous to the island. That's where Lennon got the title."

Well done, Lauren! As a music lawyer, it will be good to have that arrow in my quiver should a discussion of "Double Fantasy" ever come up with my clients or colleagues. Pretty cool.

That being said, Lennon's "Double Fantasy" is too preachy for my taste. If anything surpassed Lennon's stratospheric talent as a musician it was his insufferable ego. For example, he insisted the double fantasy flower he saw in Bermuda was a freesia (a particular genus or species of the flower), when subsequent research has proven it to be a form of hibiscus. But you couldn't tell Lennon that. He insisted. He always knew better. Kinda like Tiger Woods, but I digress . . .

"John Lennon, you're a swine," his manager would repeatedly chide at him, and from most film clips of Lennon I've seen, it could be true. After all, Lennon boasted that the Beatles were "bigger than Jesus" and he did tend to believe his own press clippings to a shocking degree. It led him to behave, occasionally, in a most disagreeable and egotistic manner, and "Double Fantasy" at times reflects that in its lack of realism. (Hence the name is actually quite appropriate . . . "Double FANTASY.")

While I admit the work is transcendent and that album is one of his masterpieces, hippie-dippy kumbaya is not my cup of tea. I much prefer the dark, brooding angst and gnawing, growing sense of tragedy of "Quadrophenia," the infectiously joyous World Beat groove and genius social commentary of "Stop Making Sense," the primal yet spiritual purity of "Exile on Main Street" and of course the soaring, passionate, rocking awesomeness of my boys Phish. Nevertheless, like Lennon, I too found a double fantasy of my own in Bermuda - Mid Ocean Club and Tucker's Point. Together with Port Royal, home of the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, they form a Bermuda Triangle of golf all connoisseurs must play at least once in their lifetime.

The Mid Ocean Club

"There are no more beautiful golfing vistas in the world than those from the National Golf Club unless it be those from Mid Ocean Club in Bermuda," wrote C.B. Macdonald in his book "Scotland's Gift Golf," high praise indeed, as all study of golf course architecture in America must begin with National, the course where Macdonald bragged he was going to show everyone the best of world-wide golf course architecture, then delivered big time. As always, Macdonald talked the talk, but also walked the walk, and he's right: Mid Ocean makes a perfect bookend to National.

Macdonald further explained that, "When the 18th amendment was passed and the 19th hole abolished," he discussed with a number of friends the propriety of having a golf course in Bermuda. So Macdonald took the ship Moorish Princess across the ocean and sought the perfect site to build a proper rejoinder to National: a course where, if you left New York by ship at noon on a Saturday in the dead of winter, you could be teeing off by 10:00 a.m. Monday in 70-degree sunshine.

Along a wild stretch of coastline, amidst heaving and tumbling hillocks framed by stands of fragrant Bermuda cedars, oleanders, bougainvilleas, stately Bermuda palms and colorful hibiscus - a vibrant, variegated palette of pink, white, orange and green - Macdonald found a 600-acre parcel with 1,500 feet of oceanfront cliff-top property that his investors purchased for $600,000, and he set to work.

"The contours of the property are unsurpassed, delightful valleys, one to two hundred yards in width, winding through coral hills from 20 to 75 feet in height," wrote Macdonald, and he used those valleys like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to complete an ingenious routing. At Mid Ocean, the seaside opening holes are connected to the inland stretch by playing through these valleys, as well as up and over two hills - once at the fourth hole, and again at 16 - in order to return to the clubhouse for the closing two. True to its links roots and architectural brethren, Mid Ocean plays out and back, not in two nine-hole loops.

Happily, although Robert Trent Jones, Sr. did some work at Mid Ocean around 1953, he did not homogenize the golf course (or, worse still, force one of his penal redesigns onto it), and by the time Tom Doak got to Mid Ocean in the 1980s he found the course much the same as Macdonald had left it in 1921.

The Biarritz at Mid Ocean's 13th

Doak was enjoying the heady, halcyon days of his post-college career, spanning the globe and playing the greatest courses in the world. Traveling with his girlfriend (who ultimately became his first wife), it's clear Doak became enamored with the course from his first look at the property. When I asked him what holes he thought were the best, he instantly answered "Number 1 . . ." - there wasn't even a heartbeat of hesitation.

"It's one of the great opening holes in golf," he beamed, and he's right. High on a bluff overlooking the ocean on one side and with the Bermudan jungle bordering the other, "the second shot is one of the scariest second shots in golf, especially into the wind, playing back up to that cliff with the ocean roaring beneath you," Doak noted. "It's a bit of a skyline green even though you're not below it that much. But you have nothing to judge the distance visually, and the first time I played it I hit over the green and off the cliff!"

Doak basically supervised the transition of the greens from Bermuda grass to TifEagle, bringing the green speeds from 6 on the Stimp to close to 10. He did have to soften some of the greens' tilts, most notably at the par-4 fourth, where he lowered the back portion by a good foot-and-a-half; eight, the Valley hole, with it's green high atop a windswept hillock with a broad vista 360 degrees around several holes; and at 16. But besides those small nips and tucks and a few bunkers being reworked, preservation was more the order of the day rather than drastic change. After all, changing Macdonald's work here would be tantamount to signing the Mona Lisa with a spray can and calling it art. (That's more what Roger Rulewich may have done to Tucker's Point, but we'll get to that in a moment.)

After a stirring opening three holes playing along the south shore of the island, including perhaps the only ocean-side Eden hole in the world, the fascinating par-4 fourth climbs the hill leading inland to Mangrove Lake and the famous Cape hole at No. 5. Four is interesting for many reasons, not the least of which are its slightly crowned fairway and its spectacle bunkers fronting the green like an alligator lurking beneath the surface of the swamp with only its hungry eyes and the top of its head above the water, stalking its prey, waiting for the right time to strike. (There's also a deep fairway bunker guarding the right side of the fairway, a certain half-stroke lost, if not a full. Avoid it at all costs.

"That approach shot reminds me of the 10th at St. George's in lower England," confirmed noted golf design expert Rodney Zilla. "There, too, you must avoid the spectacle bunkers, like Darren Clarke did with his seeing-eye ground ball out of the rough that miraculously avoided the bunkers en route to his winning the British Open in 2011."

The Cape hole fifth follows, and is one of the great holes in golf, with it's diagonal carry over mangrove Lake and its approach to a teacup green, which is also guarded by the lake.

The Opening Hole at Mid Ocean

"That's the famous hole, the one everyone looks forward to, and it lives up to its lofty reputation," stated Doak. "From all the descriptions I'd read before I played it, I still didn't know I was teeing off a mountain, and it is a big carry. It's also one of the wildest greens I've ever seen. When we rebuilt the fourth green, we would watch everyone play five."

Rather than taking slope out of the par-3 seventh hole, a "Short" in the Macdonald-Raynor-Banks lexicon, Doak actually thought about adding contour. This version of the "Short" lacks the usual trademark thumbprint or horseshoe as an internal contour. One reason could be its unusual length - most "Short" holes don't exceed 150 yards, but this can stretch back to 170 if needed (it's also downhill, playing over a pair of ponds).

"Seven may have had more slope or contour in the green originally and I know they had trouble growing grass on that green because of its location on the property and the amount of sunlight it gets, so it could have been redone by someone in the intervening years. We thought about putting more contour in the green, but we didn't have info on what it might have been like, so we didn't," Doak affirmed.

The other two par-3s are the typical Macodnald-Raynor-Banks choices - a Biarritz (the 13th) and a Redan (the 17th).

As you know, the defining characteristic of the Biarritz (besides its remarkable length for a par-3) is the deep swale, and there are two types: 1) where the swale is part of the green itself (Yale, St. Louis, Forsgate); and 2) where the swale is placed before the green (Knoll (West), Creek Club, Essex County CC, Piping Rock and here at Mid Ocean). Almost all the classic features of the Biarritz are here - extreme length (in the old days it was meant to require driver or 3-wood), strip bunkers framing both sides, and the deep swale defending the green.

Now I had the good fortune to play Mid Ocean on the same day as Malcolm Gosling, a purveyor of both fine rums and crisp iron shots. (He's quite the stick, you know. He shoots in the 70s regularly.) His world-famous Gosling's Black Seal is the quintessential ingredient in the Dark and Stormy - not only the Bermudian national drink, but one of the island's greatest contributions to world cuisine.

"I want you to write in your article that they ought to restore the 13th green so that the front of the swale is green too!" opined the jovial Gosling, and I was glad to heartily agree with him. After all, Stephen Kay's successful restoration of Forsgate's 17th hole by returning the front of the swale to actual green (rather than fairway) made that Biarritz one of the world's great golf holes. Besides, most golfers find it more fun with the swale in the green, so they can try to putt through it. Practically buoyant after my talk with the affable Gosling, and just as desirous to see a green restored to its former Golden Age glory, I gleefully promised him I'd address the idea with Tom Doak.

Malcolm, there's just one problem . . .

The Spectacle Bunkers at Mid Ocean's No. 4

"The earliest aerial photos we have show that the front of the swale was NOT green," Doak replied.

Balloon . . . meet pin.

"We've been checking, believe me," confided Doak, "but we haven't uncovered anything to indicate to us that the front was ever green."

A core sample might confirm this. After all, many Raynor/Banks greens are built on a layer of charcoal ash. That's how Kay confirmed that the front of the swale at Forsgate was actually green, lost over time by lazy maintenance practices and tight budgets. But Doak is nothing if not thorough. If he had reason to tell the club to restore something worthy of restoring, you know he'd have brought it up. Disappointing? Yes, but hey Malcolm, it's nothing a few Dark and Stormies can't fix.

Even so, the Biarritz is still a museum piece, as is the Redan at 17, the last of the usual par-3 quartet the Bloodline liked to reproduce. It's a classic example of the template with a severely fall-away in back. With the prevailing wind howling in the golfer's face, it can play long.

There are many other outstanding moments as well. The hilltop eighth green at the Valley hole commands wide vistas across the property and is one of the most exciting approach shots of the day. The 10th green, benched precariously beneath Mercer hill is a stirring sight. And when one crests the hill at the 16th hole and beholds the green silhouetted against the Atlantic, it takes your breath away. Moreover, all those approaches are treacherous as there is so much movement in the terrain from 75 yards in. There is a premium on accurate approach shots, and greenside the golfer will need to be creative and patient as he'll encounter any number of uneven lies, quirky humps and bumps, and deep bunkers.

The other great defense to the golf course is the wind. Stephen King once wrote that the wind can imitate all ranges of human voices, from a bare whisper to a banshee shriek. It was the latter that faced me on the day I played: loose clothing flapping like the Union Jack in a maelstrom, tempest raging all around us.

In other words, it was perfect links golf weather - "Nae wind, nae golf!" - and members travel from the four corners of the world since, as Macdonald put it, "the course will stand in golfing circles as an achievement in a semitropical climate as great as the National Golf Links of America has been in the temperate zone."

Indeed, Mid Ocean has its place in history, having been the venue for significant summit meetings between the world's most renowned and powerful leaders. In 1953 President Eisenhower met with Winston Churchill there. He returned four years later. Many other heads of state have played Mid Ocean as well, including George Bush 41 and the Duke of Windsor.

"It's a special place, better still since it's more accessible to the public," said Doak. "It's private, but resort guests can get on it occasionally. Most people will never get a chance to play National Golf Links of America, and most of Macdonald and Raynor's work is private, so this is their best chance to see that style of architecture. Plus it really is beautiful."

He's got that right. And whether your day is bright and sunny or dark and stormy, you'll still treasure it as one of those rounds that stays with you for the rest of your life. You can even toast both Macdonald and Malcolm Gosling at the 19th hole. After all, they have both made monumental contributions to Bermuda. ***glasses clink*** "Thank you, Malcolm." "You're welcome, Jay."

Tuckers Point - Great Terrain for Golf

Tuckers Point

The work of the great Macdonald-Raynor-Banks Bloodline came to a rousing conclusion in the United States in 1931 at fabled Forsgate Country Club. Eden, Hog's Back, Punchbowl, Knoll, Reverse Redan, Short and one of the greatest Biarritz holes ever built - there'll all there, a grand summation of the work of Banks and his predecessors.

But Banks came back for one final curtain call, an encore so to speak, albeit in Bermuda. With Mid-Ocean right next door - a course Banks helped build - he knew he'd have to follow up Act I with a rousing reprise.

The result was Castle Harbour, a 6,022 yard par-71 course that ended on a par-3, quite possibly a Biarritz, and had a number of other of the usual Macdonald Bloodline templates such as a Cape, a Punchbowl, an Eden, a Valley and a Hog's Back.

Over the years many people had a hand in making changes to the golf course. When a new clubhouse was built, the course was completely re-sequenced. Others may have had a hand in adding and removing bunkers, changing mowing patterns and other alterations. Even the original out-and-back routing was reconfigured into two loops of nine. In 2002, Roger Rulewich redesigned several holes dramatically, narrowing fairways, adding penal bunkering and modernizing the course more in the flavor of his mentor, Robert Trent Jones, Sr.

The original routing of the course remained roughly the same, however. And happily, director of golf Paul Adams has engaged architect Mark Fine to create a master plan to bring back as much of the original Banks design as possible, while recreating Banks's style where necessary.

"The object is to restore whatever we can, and renovate the rest so that the entire course will be in the style of Banks," Fine stated. As such, fairways have been widened to their original widths. ("Wider fairways means more playing angles," said Fine.) They removed a large number of trees. ("Now the wind whips through like it should, adding a defense to the golf course . . . so that extra width comes in handy," adds Fine. "Besides, people come to Bermuda to see the turquoise waters, not the back of some pine tree.") And they removed bunkers that did not reflect the strategic nature of the original design. ("We took out any bunkers that were architecturally insignificant or didn't look anything like Banks would have designed," Fine concluded.)

It's been both a walk in golf history and a labor of love for both Fine and Adams.

The Narrows Hole - No. 17 - at Tuckers Point

"We're dedicated to recovering the covering the look, feel and playing angles of the 1932 design. We want to preserve and promote that heritage," Adams stated energetically. "It's been tough for us since no one is left alive from when the course was built, but we have uncovered a lot of our rich history, and been able to start to translate that to the golf changes. Happily, we really need only cosmetic changes. The bones of the course are still the same as when Banks laid it out."

Like Mid Ocean, Tuckers has terrific vertical movement in the terrain, a tremendous wide sweep of its fairways, and excellent green contours. Along with the fickle ocean winds those are all excellent defenses to the golf course. From the first shot of the day, you know you're in for a special round as the rolling, tumbling terrain and ocean views are a summation of what you'll face all day.

Not all of the Banks attributes were erased over the intervening decades, and you'll find several of the Bloodline's design concepts still in existence. There is a marvelous saddle fairway at the par-5 third hole, leading to a green benched onto the hillside, while the par-4 fifth has as perfect a Lion's Mouth green complex as one will find anywhere in the world, an almost perfect copy of the one at Country Club of Charleston. Hopefully, the club will extend the wings of the green so that they wrap around the sides of the center-line greenside bunker and add some contour to the back. That way they can place the pin on the wings and golfers snookered by the bunker can spin their putts from one side to the other, as was intended in the original hole.

The rest of the front side is equally good. All the angles are present for the restoration of the par-4 sixth to become a true Road hole, while the Valley hole at seven need not be touched at all. While the par-3 eighth is not a Biarritz, it's still one of the highlights of the golf course, with it's a long carry over a yawning chasm.

The 10th hole takes to the ocean, with its green perched on a bluff overlooking the harbor. A long Reverse Redan (to some, a "Nader") follows.

"(No.) 11 is a solid hole. Long, but with the kick-plate on the left to bounce balls onto the green," explains Fine. "One of the changes we had to make was to get rid of a left-side bunker that was completely superfluous. It not only erased the entire strategy of the hole, it made it almost impossible. Now it plays like a Redan again."

There are also Banks footprints at the Eden hole at 14 (which seems to be untouched from 1932) and the 17th, which appears to be a "Narrows," with the ocean jealously guarding the entire left side.

Among the few drawbacks that must be addressed, the finish needs to be stronger. The 90-degree dogleg 16th is a strange hole, with its mushroom-shaped tree in the fairway, and 18 needs to be more of a summation of all that came before. There are also some long walks between greens and tees on the home half.

Nevertheless, with Adams and Fine stewarding the course, preserving and promoting its Golden Age heritage, this already solid course will return to its former glory. It's not so much "back to the future" as it is "forward to the past," and when the work is done Tucker's Point will be not so much a little sister to mighty Mid Ocean, but a bookend, the other half of the "Double Fantasy," so to speak.

The Wonderful Lions Mouth at
Tuckers Point Will be Fully Restored

Port Royal

Designed in 1970 at the height of the "harder is better" golf design doldrums era, Port Royal looks great but plays only okay. Yes, there are greens on cliff-tops. Yes, the conditioning is pristine. And yes, the pros play there for the annual PGA Grand Slam of Golf. But why do the pros play there? Because it's the hardest course in Bermuda and looks the best on TV. But too much penal architecture, too many 90-degree doglegs, too many severe uphill approaches, and cookie-cutter 5 o'clock-7 o'clock bunkering make it a strategically uninteresting course. It's center-line Doctrine of Framing golf, requiring little to no thinking to play.

As we have learned time and again over the last 15 years through the rise of the strategic school of architecture and the rise for minimalism: It's not how a golf course looks that matters, it's how a golf course plays.

As we have further learned, harder is not better - wider is better.

That being said, tourists and the "play where the pros play" crowd will love it. Port Royal is pretty, pristine, predictable. They can just hit it down the middle, hit it on the green and try to make a putt. But woe to anyone getting in those bunkers, they're murder.

There are a fistful of good holes, most notably the par-5s at seven and 15. (Both are really par-4.5s, a good thing!) The two cliff-side par-3s at eight and 16 are good too.

Thankfully, the club cut down a thousand trees so that instead of the course resembling the Black Forest in Germany people can actually see the ocean and tell they're in Bermuda.

"There is one reason why Port Royal is near and dear to my heart," admitted Robert Trent Jones, Jr. "My mother and father honeymooned in Bermuda by taking a ship across the ocean in the old days. It brings back fond memories for us. And I do remember being there with Dad while it was being built. I love Bermuda, it's totally British, classy in every way."

That's a fair comment - there's no question you get the white-glove treatment Bermuda is so famous for and what sets it apart from any other U.S. offshore destination. You'll get treated like a tour pro when you visit Port Royal, and you'll get plenty of great photo ops. But when it comes to ranking golf courses, the experience of playing a course touring pros play does not trump the critical importance of strategic architecture that allows all levels of golfer a fighting chance of playing a hole without a penalty because they are not laser accurate. Port Royal does not have the playing angles or the width necessary to be considered among the world's great golf courses.

Still, while in Bermuda, give it a play and cross it off the list, so that you can say that you've seen it for yourself.

Epilogue

So as the island recedes from our sight like a reverie in the mist and our jet wings us back to mainland USA, there's a gnawing sadness that comes over the traveler. One can't help falling in love with Bermuda. It's completely civilized. Like an elixir, it refreshes and invigorates the visitor, restorative both in body and spirit - there is a place not completely overrun with commercialism, celebrity and crassness - the vices that have poisoned America of late. You can see why it helped John Lennon break out of his "writer's block" funk that gripped him before he visited and penned "Double Fantasy."

Now golfers have a double fantasy of their own, along with a pretty good side dish as well. And best of all, with this double fantasy you don't have to deal with Yoko Ono telling John he'd be better off kicking Paul McCartney to the curb. But hey, at least we got Band on the Run out of the deal. So I guess that's something.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.