Charles Blair Macdonald
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The Mid Ocean story began in 1913 when the Furness Withy Steamship Company took an interest in developing Bermuda and invited Charles Blair Macdonald, a leading golf architect, who was regarded as the father of American golf, to examine the possibility of building a course as an inducement to tourism. Sir Frederic Lewis diverted one of his ships, the Moorish Prince, to the Island. Also in the official party was noted architect Charles Wetmore, as consideration was also being given to the building of a hotel. Macdonald and Wetmore scoured the Island and identified 500 acres at Tucker's Town as being ideal for the project. It was estimated that the land could be purchased for between $150,000 and $200,000.
However, it proved to be far from a simple process. As Macdonald wrote later: "Practically every one of the owners who had given an option on his property went back on his contract, but finally it resulted in securing about 600 acres at a cost of about $600,000."
Design and construction were not easy, for only in the valleys was the coral rock covered with a six inch layer of soil. The area had been used for growing onions, potatoes and Easter lilies. Another difficulty was to avoid a number of steep climbs, and in the completed course only the 16th hole has a gradient to negotiate.
Charles Blair Macdonald was never, in a long and successful life, accused of being shy and retiring, yet it is hard to argue with the self-triumphant tone of his own assessment of Mid Ocean when the course was completed on December 15, 1921. The following is a description he wrote to Furness Withy: "To begin with, I doubt if there is an eighteen-hole golf course which will equal, certainly not surpass from a golfer's standpoint, this links in any semi-tropical clime, not at any health resort in any zone, for the following reasons:
"The contours of the property are unsurpassed, delightful valleys winding through coral hills from twenty to seventy-five feet in height, along the line of play; well wooded with cedars, oleanders, bougainvillea and hibiscus, lending the most fascinating color scheme to the whole. The contours are inviting to the golf architect to construct unique and scientific putting greens consistent with the length of hole demanded."
Despite the fact that Mid Ocean was a highly regarded element of Furness Withy's world-wide developments, the downturn in the global economy in the aftermath of the Second World War convinced the company that there was no future in either tourism or the cruise ship business. Faced with massive refurbishment costs, it started to divest itself of various properties, and Mid Ocean was high on the list. By an odd turn of fate, Bermudian golfers were first alerted to this development through an unguarded after-dinner conversation in London.
Harry D. Butterfield, manager of the Bank of N.T. Butterfield and Son, who was also chairman of the Transport Committee of the Trade Development Board, an advisory board to the Bermuda Government, was in London on business. He took the opportunity to spend a highly convivial evening with a long-standing barrister friend and it was while the pair were enjoying port and cigars that the legal man let slip that he had been consulted by Furness Withy to advise on the disposition of their world-wide assets, including property in Bermuda.
Butterfield, later to become Sir Harry, was not a man to let the grass grow under his feet, and he immediately set in motion a movement to raise the necessary funds to secure Mid Ocean. There are two accounts of how he set about it. One suggests that he spent lengthy hours that same night in placing a long-distance telephone call to Sir Eldon Trimingham in Bermuda. The other, that he cabled H. Jack Tucker, manager of the Bank of Bermuda, with instructions to gather subscriptions for the purchase. It is highly likely that he did both, discussing the options with Sir Eldon before committing to the raising of funds.
Sir Howard Trott and Edmund Gibbons then took the front positions in negotiations with Bermuda Development Company, the Furness Withy subsidiary which controlled Mid Ocean. They sat across the table from Lord Essington of the steamship company in discussions that lasted many months. Golf enthusiasts had by now pledged subscriptions totaling 105,000 pounds, and at the first meeting of shareholders on September 17, 1951, Sir Howard outlined the situation. The Legislature had passed a bill entitled "Mid Ocean Club Limited" authorizing a limited liability company to be formed with the power to carry on the club and course business and to purchase the property.
An agreement had been reached between the Bermuda Development Company and a small group of members to purchase the club, the golf course and the beaches, approximately 180 acres, for the sum of 130,000 pounds.
In the 1950s leading golf designer Robert Trent Jones was invited to make suggestions for improving the course. Many of his new layouts and remodeling work around the world have been dominated by big, bold statements, yet his touch at Mid Ocean was light, subtle, and restrained. Respecting the design of Macdonald, he re-worked a number of tees and bunkers, enhancing a slightly ageing masterpiece rather than indulging in invasive surgery. The result is as good today as it was then; the course now measuring slightly longer and playable between 5,045 and 6,512 yards. Some 7,000 new trees were also planted in the mid-fifties after many cedars were blighted by disease. Hurricanes and tornadoes continue to show no respect for course design and have marginally changed the playing characteristics at a few holes by uprooting mature trees, but in essence the course is still the one first built in 1921. Not so the clubhouse. The original was demolished in 1974 and replaced with a more practical and attractive design, which, in turn was completely renovated in the 1980s.
The transition from commercially owned tourist attraction to a select and discreet member's club was achieved with telling and lasting results.