AV Macan: Canada’s democrat of golf

AV Macan: Canada’s democrat of golf
Jeff Mingay
By Jeff Mingay

Jeff Mingay profiles the little-known designer of many of western Canada’s best courses.

With a treasure-trove of fascinating historical information available these days, there’s so much to learn about golf’s legendary course architects and their revolutionary works. Yet, we still know too little about too many pioneer golf course designers.

Take Arthur Vernon Macan (1882-1964) for example. An Irish immigrant to Canada, Macan revolutionised golf architecture in the Pacific Northwest region over a career which spanned five decades beginning during the pre-World War I era.

Working almost exclusively throughout the Pacific Northwest, Macan’s pioneering efforts are relatively unheralded these days, principally because his work is so regional in scope.

Macan’s architectural career was launched in earnest when his 1913 design at Colwood (now Royal Colwood), in Victoria, British Columbia, hosted the 1922 Pacific Northwest Golf Association championships. Reportedly, Colwood was a hit among competing golfers. Soon after, Macan was accepting offers to design courses throughout the region.

Between 1922-25, Macan – who lost his left leg from the knee down, at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, during the First World War – was busy laying out new courses in Washington, Oregon, California, and British Columbia.

During this period, he created Inglewood, Fircrest and Broadmoor near Seattle; Alderwood and Columbia-Edgwater in Portland; and Marine Drive and Langara in Vancouver. These trailblazing designs set a very important architectural standard for the Pacific Northwest, at a time when golf was in its infancy in the region.

Sadly, Alderwood and Langara no longer exist; most other Macan-designed courses have significantly deteriorated as well. Trees have been planted and grown to constrict corridors of play; fairways have narrowed as a result; putting surfaces have shrunk; bunkers have been added and removed. Many of Macan’s most daring green designs have effectively been erased.

Indeed, custodians of Macan-designed courses have not been diligent at preserving his original works; which provides another reason for his relative anonymity these days.

Born into a relatively privileged life in Dublin, Ireland (his father was a famous physician), Macan learned golf at a young age. He developed into a proficient player, too. While studying law at Dublin’s Trinity College, Macan competed in top-flight championships throughout the British Isles. Such experiences permitted him to visit many of the best courses in England, Scotland, and Ireland, prior to immigrating to Victoria with his young family, in 1912.

Shortly after his arrival in Canada, Macan won the British Columbia Amateur championship at Victoria Golf Club (where he was a member until his death in 1964). The following year he repeated as BC champion and also captured the prestigious Pacific Northwest Amateur.

Macan’s golfing prowess quickly earned him reputation as an authority on ‘all things golf’. Including course architecture, apparently, for it was also in 1913 that he was presented with the opportunity to layout his first eighteen hole course at Colwood.

A knowledgeable, educated man, with an extreme passion for golf, Macan was a relatively prolific writer. He frequently penned articles on many aspects of golf throughout his remarkably long career and was often quoted in newspapers and magazines, speaking about his golf course design projects.

In turn, there’s a wealth of historical materials available to ascertain Macan’s architectural ideals. One specific quote, published three years before his sudden death, is particularly telling.

Asked about Oakland Hills Country Club’s infamous South course, in suburban Detroit – which played host to the United States Open that year – the 79-year old Macan responded: “This course, the very essence of penal trapping from the tee, is certainly no pleasure to the ordinary member.”

Originally designed by legendary golf architect Donald Ross, Oakland Hills-South occupies an expansive, rolling property, nearly ideal for inland golf. Ross’ course was an appropriately broad layout when it opened for play in 1917. However, in preparation for the 1951 US Open, Oakland Hills-South was significantly reworked by Robert Trent Jones.

Most notably, Trent Jones narrowed the course, creating many wasp-waisted fairways pinched by bunkers, left and right, at calculated distances off the “championship tees” specifically to challenge the era’s best players.

In contrast to Ross’s original, democratic design – which presented golfers with optional routes and encouraged them to choose their own paths from tee to green – Trent Jones’ South course at Oakland Hills is very dictatorial. The architecture at Oakland Hills-South is penal, mapping out a definite route, down skinny swaths of fairway bordered by long grass and sand.

As a golf architect who consistently aimed to design courses “to enable the man who pays the bills to enjoy his day,” Trent Jones’ Oakland Hills-South was not Macan’s cup of tea.

Macan concluded his remarks on Oakland Hills-South, saying: “I could only suggest that all golf course architects read, mark, and inwardly digest the philosophy of Bob Jones outlined in chapters 19 and 20 in his autobiography with regard to his and Alister Mackenzie’s desires at Augusta.”

A fascinating piece of advice, which when taken a step further, greatly assists with developing a clear understanding of Macan’s architectural ideals.

In his 1959 autobiography, Golf Is My Game, Jones eloquently describes the design philosophy behind creation of Augusta National: “Our overall aim at the Augusta National has been to provide a golf course of natural beauty, relatively easy for the average golfer to play, and at the same time testing for the expert player striving to better par figures.”

Drawing specific inspiration from the Old Course at St Andrews, Jones’ and Mackenzie’s Augusta National was an extremely broad layout featuring startlingly few bunkers (reportedly 22 in total when the course opened for play in 1933).

Jones and Mackenzie ‘tightened up’ Augusta by ‘increasing the difficulty around the hole.’ Indeed. Augusta National continues to feature some of golf’s most fearsome and challenging greens.

“The players of today are about as accurate with medium or long irons as with their pitching clubs,” adds Jones, in Golf Is My Game. “The only way to stir them up is by the introduction of subtleties around the greens.”

Augusta National is one of the most influential golf course designs in history. Curiously, Vernon Macan was employing a design philosophy nearly identical to Jones’ and Mackenzie’s at Augusta National more than a decade before construction of this infamous course, which annually hosts the beloved Masters Tournament, began.

Macan consistently created wide corridors of play. He tended to prefer very few sand hazards as well. And, his green designs are notorious throughout the Pacific Northwest. Featuring steep slope and bold interior contour, Macan greens consistently present challenging approach and recovery play, and demand deft hands on the putter. As at Augusta National, Macan’s highly-spirited green designs permit effective use of width as a means to allow “the man who pays the bills to enjoy his day” and still present better golfers with dilemmas to solve.

Macan arguably reached the pinnacle of his lengthy architectural career during the late 1950s when he was commissioned to design Shaughnessy, in Vancouver. Approaching his eightieth year, Macan had been designing golf courses for nearly half a century by this time. He was reportedly given a freehand and a hefty budget at Shaughnessy as well. Not surprisingly, the course appears to have been the embodiment of Macan’s architectural ideals when it opened for play in 1961.

Laid-out over a spacious tract adjacent to the Fraser River, some 10 kilometres south of downtown Vancouver, Shaughnessy was a broad layout, featuring a dearth of bunkers. “I didn’t build many traps,” said Macan, explaining his design. “North American courses generally have too many of them and they just serve to guide a player down the fairway and onto the green.”

Shaughnessy featured a number of bunkers within the margins of a few fairways though. This particular design feature, derived from many classic links throughout the British Isles, was almost immediately scrutinised.

“St Andrews is plastered with central bunkering,” Macan quipped, in response to his critics. “There is in the golf architectural world too much of the very best authority for me to have to make any apology for advocating centrally located bunkers.”

Shortly after Shaughnessy was complete, Macan was also forced to defend an adventurous and varied collection of greens; most notably those putting surfaces which featured an unconventional tilt from front to back. This type of green design was one of Macan’s favourite tricks, aimed to encourage old-fashion terrestrial approach play.

“Today, the uninformed believe a green should be constructed with the slope from back to front, so that it will retain the ball,” explained Macan. “In brief, this suggests the shot should be a mechanical operation and the result a mathematical certainty. This is not the game of golf. Golf was not conceived as a mechanical operation but rather full of fun and adventure. Many things could happen to the ball after it pitched on the green. The ill-happenings were not regarded as ill-fortune or ill-luck, but part of the adventure, and the more skilled found methods to overcome the risks of ill-fortune.”

Macan’s golf course designs were strictly inspired by the old-fashion game played over the classic links throughout Great Britain and Ireland. He always attempted to adapt links principles and characteristics to inland sites whether laying out a course across a hillside in Seattle or over a floodplain in Vancouver.

And most important, he always designed golf courses with the average golfer in mind.

Speaking about his 1924 design at Fircrest Golf Club in Tacoma, Washington, Macan explained: “My idea was to design a golf course that while being a fine test of the game and calling for all the skill of the Hagen’s and Sarazen’s and the Barnes’ would at the same time provide a satisfactory test and full measure of enjoyment for the less skilled… yes, even for the dubs.” This idea – which Macan persistently described as “the ambition of modern golf course architecture” – represents his legacy.

Arthur Vernon Macan’s work throughout the Pacific Northwest provided a simple, yet extremely important illustration of how a golf course should look and what a golf course should play like during the early part of the twentieth century. As a result, the game prospered in Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and elsewhere throughout the region.

Jeff Mingay is a Canadian golf architect currently working at restoring Vernon Macan’s original works at Victoria (BC) Golf Club and Overlake Golf and Country Club in Seattle.

This article was initially featured in the January 2010 issue of Golf Course Architecture.