TUCKER’S TOWN, BERMUDA – Mid Ocean is not my home club. But thanks to annual visits I make to this stylish haven in the Atlantic, it has come to feel like home to me. I love its natural beauty and the understated elegance and British Isles-like ethos of a place where some members still wear shorts and knee socks and afternoon tea is served daily in the clubhouse. And I adore the Charles Blair Macdonald-designed golf course that is its centerpiece. In fact, it is one of my favorite places on earth to play.
The course opened in late 1921, and the story of its founding begins with one of the owners of the Furness, Withy Steamship Company, Sir Frederick Lewis, looking into ways to develop what was then a British colony and hitting upon the idea that golf might be a great allure. So, he reached out to Macdonald, the noted golf impresario who had won the first U.S. Amateur Championship ever played, in 1895, and had recently founded the National Golf Links of America and then built a superlative course there. Lewis wondered if Macdonald might construct a course for him in Bermuda and asked if he would accompany him to check out some land on this fish hook-shaped collection of islands, which is roughly 21 square miles in size and located nearly 700 miles east of the North Carolina coast. According to the late George Bahto’s superb biography on the architect, The Evangelist of Golf, Macdonald jumped at the chance, in part because he was keen to take on an overseas project but also because he and his golf buddies at the National needed another place to play regularly with the 18th Amendment, which established Prohibition in the U.S., going into effect in 1920. Golf, it seems, was not quite as much fun for them without the drinks they usually consumed before and after their rounds. He traveled to Bermuda with his frequent design partner Seth Raynor, and after finding suitable land, they drew up a routing that per usual included renditions of the finest holes in the Old World. Raynor oversaw construction, and it took about two years for him to complete the course.
Thirty years later, the club asked Robert Trent Jones to update the design and make some modifications. And I think that club leaders got it exactly right when they lauded that architect’s effort in their yardage book by averring: “his restraint and good judgment did not compromise the integrity of Macdonald’s work in any way.”
Today, Mid Ocean is regularly ranked among the top 100 courses in the world, and understandably so. The first hole is a wonderful opener that takes golfer right to rocky coral cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The par-3 third, dubbed Eden, features a well-bunkered green backed by those same cyan waters, and the par-4 fifth is a sort of reverse Cape that doglegs to the left – and that is famous for being where Babe Ruth once hit 11 balls into the water as he tried to drive the green. The seventh is a classic Short, deceptively difficult hole even though it requires no more than an 8- or 9-iron most days, and the beefy Biarritz at No. 13, all 230 yards of it, is one of the best versions of this classic hole anywhere, requiring a long and accurate tee shot to clear the characteristic swale and reach the middle of the well-bunkered green. Then there is the Redan at 17, another vintage par 3 that plays just as it should, right to left with two bunkers guarding the green on the right and a cluster of six protecting its left.
Throw in near constant wind and sweeping water views, and Mid Ocean is a links golfers delight, though the Bermuda fairways do not run as firm and fast as those with fescue would. But that’s alright, for the Bermuda grass gives the course something of a tropical flavor, as do the stand of palms, the hibiscus, allspice, oleander and rubber trees and the chickens that scratch for food around the club’s perimeter.
Par is 71, and while the card says the course measures a mere 6,530 yards from the tips, the wind and the stickiness of the grass makes it play much longer. And if you doubt that for any reason, consider that it held up quite well when Mid Ocean hosted the PGA Grand Slam of Golf in 2007 and 2008. I most often opt for the blue-white combination tees that come out at 6,312 yards. Mid Ocean is still plenty of course for me from that distance, but also manageable, and I am able to hit lots of irons into greens rather than hybrids.
I don’t always play well there, but I always love playing there. Because to me, there’s no place like home.