Jim Noyes tells the story of the father of American golf.
While golf's annals are filled with esteem for its early architects who were more than pleased to make livings and reputations recreating Scotland's untidy pastime as a worldwide pandemic, Charles Blair Macdonald stood apart.
First, he was an American – of serious Scottish descent, but nonetheless a bloody American – raised in Chicago where there weren't even any golf courses. Second, he never made a dime designing golf courses; actually putting his personal stamp on but a dozen or so. Third, he was a pompous, arrogant, silver-spooned aristocrat who could not fathom taking direction from clients or other mere mortals.
To the casual observer of golf history, Macdonald remains a relative unknown. MacKenzie, Tillinghast, Ross, Colt, Braid, Morris, Raynor; these are the revered ghosts of fairways past. So, how is it that Macdonald came to be known as 'the father of American golf architecture' or 'the father of American golf ' as suggested recently by Tom Doak?
Well, young Charlie had quite an apprenticeship. At age 16, he was sent from Chicago to St Andrews for a proper education. His first sighting of gawfers, resplendent in their odd red jackets, was not auspicious. In his must-read for any golf history buff memoir, Scotland's Gift: How America Discovered Golf (1928), Macdonald recalled "It seemed to me a form of tiddle-de-winks, stupid and silly."
Then Charlie was introduced to Old Tom Morris by his patient and understanding grandfather, a member of the R&A. Old Tom outfitted young Charlie with some sticks and took him under his wing, nurturing him through adolescence, swing mechanics and course management. As 'playmates', Charlie often teed it up with Young Tom Morris who went on to win four consecutive Open Championships before tragically dying at 25, going to his grave as arguably the finest golfer ever. It's not clear how proper Macdonald's classroom education was, but in just a couple of years he became widely recognised as a very fine amateur golfer amid a stable of Scottish thoroughbreds.
Macdonald returned to Chicago in 1874, worked at the Board of Trade, and constantly moaned about the absence of gawf in his own country: no courses, no equipment, no players. Only travel back to Europe on a regular basis kept him in the game.With family wealth garnered in part by ownership of some 500,000 acres of prime Mohawk Valley, upstate New York, real estate, and his own not insignificant business success, Macdonald became a fixture amongst Chicago's titans and socialites.
It wasn't until the World's Columbia Exposition of 1893 that Macdonald got a chance to kindle some real interest in gawf. Chicago was anxious to strut its stuff and it was deemed essential that golf be made available to the visiting dignitaries from Great Britain. Hence,Macdonald's first course was born in the spring of 1892 – a virtual pitch-and-putt of seven holes, laid out quickly on the grand lawns of US Senator Charles Farwell in Lake Forest. Macdonald took little pride in this, but budding interest inspired him to kick it up a notch, twist some arms, pass the hat, rent some farmland in the western suburb of Belmont (now Downers Grove) and by the summer of 1892 he'd laid out a nine hole golf course, to which he added another nine the following spring, chartering the Chicago Golf Club on 18 July, 1893 as the first club in the United States with an official eighteen hole golf course.
Still not satisfied,Macdonald was determined to build a course that would measure up to the game's Scottish legacy and be suitable for world-class competition. He didn't simply design a course. He financed the development, purchased 200 acres of farmland in Wheaton (about 30 miles from downtown Chicago and near a train station), built a grand house adjacent to the course for himself (which still stands today), recruited the membership, and oversaw every aspect of the course design and construction in 1895. He borrowed heavily from his experiences playing the great courses of Europe, including a Muirfield-like circular routing with the anti-clockwise back nine nested within the clockwise front nine – perfect for Macdonald's only apparent weakness, the errant fade. The Belmont course was simply abandoned as were most of the original members who failed to embrace Macdonald's grandiose vision, but by this time Macdonald had no difficulty attracting Chicago's titans to a game that was beginning to explode.
Macdonald was certainly as much interested in the game as he was architecture, the latter simply enabling he and his well-heeled friends to play the game in the way Macdonald insisted it must be played…like it was in Scotland. He was a founding officer of the USGA (née American Golf Association) in 1894 and won the first official US Amateur in 1895 at Newport. He competed at the highest levels of amateur golf (at that time far more prestigious than professional golf) and moved his family to New York City in 1900.
Shortly thereafter, Macdonald decided he was too old to compete as a top amateur and focused his passion on creating the perfect golf course. For the better part of five years, Macdonald took extended trips to Europe to study the great golf courses. He didn't just play them – he sketched them, measured them, walked them, discussed them with other kindred spirits and created a vision for what really made great golf holes and world-class courses.With that knowledge, Macdonald went on to spend 1907-1911 building the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, NY, much in the same way he did Chicago Golf: buying the land, recruiting the members and overseeing every facet of the course's design and construction. It opened to massive acclaim, even from reluctant Scots across the pond. Today, both the National and Chicago Golf are considered amongst the world's greatest classic courses, appropriate testimony to Macdonald's genius.
For readers wanting in-depth architechnical insight as well as some wonderful golf history, George Bahto's The Evangelist of Golf; The Story of Charles Blair Macdonald (2002) is marvellous and this writer owes George a large debt of gratitude for having done all the extensive research and for inspiring an interest. For those wanting only a chip shot, Macdonald was all about links golf, where wind, sand and huge, hard, beguiling greens made you a good putter or a drunk! He understood that most golfers were choppers and insisted that good design offer a challenge to the scratch player and enjoyment to the others, a concept lost on many of today's designers.
On one hand a purist and a traditionalist, Macdonald was also practical. If you didn't have links to build a course on, then you damn well did your best to make whatever you built on look and feel like a links.Witness Chicago Golf which was built on a farm a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. Witness the Lido which was engineered on a landfill. He innovated with irrigation systems, soil, turf and machinery. He freely advised others as to what proper design should be and frequently documented this advice for publication. He sat on the R&A Rules Committee 1908-1926, lobbying strenuously for the maintenance of golf 's traditions and railing equally strenuously against slow play, too many clubs, medal scorekeeping instead of match play, lawyers and rule books. In the end, modernisation left Macdonald behind, a tired ram braying in the distant rough.
To call Macdonald a golf course architect would be like calling Thomas Edison an electrician. He was much more than that – interested primarily in advancing the game and its course design principles, content to let others execute those principles. His protégé Seth Raynor, whom Macdonald hired in 1907 as a surveyor and in whom he entrusted all his experience and wisdom, went on to be one of the most prolific designers in the country from 1911 until his early death in 1926.
While most old, classic courses today have undergone reconstructive surgery, facelifts, boob jobs, tree eradication and gastric bypasses we still like to refer to them affectionately as a MacKenzie, a Ross, a Raynor, a Colt, or a Tillinghast. Oddly enough, you'll find but a few noted as Macdonalds, because he had no interest in commercialising his gift. He gave his vision free of charge, steeped albeit in a smidgen of pontification, but a vision that still stands today as an essential element of golf 's very foundation.
Jim Noyes is a retired CEO turned freelance writer and golf nomad. He carries a ten handicap at Chicago Golf Club which won him the esteemed Senior Net Championship (2004), the Raynor Trophy (2005) and a few $1 Nassaus. He claims composite ancestry including Scottish, Irish, English and German. He honed his game while at Stanford Business School.
This article first appeared in issue 3 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2006.