Good Read: ‘The Golf Courses of Seth Raynor’

  • Seth Raynor book Wolf Sitar
    Back Nine Press

    The Golf Courses of Seth Raynor, written and edited by Michael Wolf and James Sitar, was published by Back Nine Press and features photography from Jon Cavalier

  • Seth Raynor book Wolf Sitar
    Jon Cavalier/ LinksGems

    In the early 1910s, Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor designed and built Sleepy Hollow in New York

Mark Wagner
By Mark Wagner

Seth Raynor cut his teeth in course architecture and design with his father, David, at Shinnecock Hills.

The first mention of his work appears in the summer 1913 edition of The Southampton Magazine. “The surveying is being done by the late David H. Raynor, father of Mr. Seth J Raynor of this place, who has become a recognised expert in laying out links and… in carrying the rods and chains for his father over the Shinnecock Hills course.”

It’s an auspicious start for a man who would design many of America’s storied courses, all the while never picking up the sticks himself.

Raynor was an exception in another way. He left behind no writing and no interviews that explain his philosophy and that in itself is a good cause for this book which explores the spirit and history of Raynor’s designs.

Written by Michael Wolf and James Sitar, with stunning photography by Jon Cavalier, the authors note: “In the past two decades, a growing number of clubs have been willing to share images and information of their newly restored Raynor golf courses. Some have hosted televised golf tournaments, and improvements in photography and video recording. We can now see the golf course from almost every angle and in all varieties of lights.”

In 1900, there were a reported 1,000 courses in America. Many were primitive, with oil and sand greens and muddy fairways. Then came ‘The Vardon Invasion’ and the American public began to take interest. Money and resources flowed into the construction of fine courses. The years 1910 to the Great Depression have been called the Golden Age of golf architecture, when course design grew into adulthood, parented by Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie, AW Tillinghast, among others. Through these years, Raynor’s artistic merit, while working primarily alongside Charles Blair Macdonald, comes into clear enough focus for the authors to use the word ‘genius.’

What’s curious about this golden period is how ‘templates’ come into play, what Robert Trent Jones ll has criticised as ‘formulaic’ design. Wolf and Sitar point out that Macdonald and Raynor did not use the word template, but had a notion of an ‘ideal’ golf hole. Macdonald toured the UK and recorded notes on ideal designs – the Redan, Eden, Biarritz, Cape and Alps – modelled on the great holes in England, Ireland and Scotland. He returned to America with this revelation: you cannot improve on the best, so why not recreate these models for golfers’ pleasure as the country matured in its golfing tastes?

Some of the holes that shaped Macdonald and Raynor’s work include the Sahara, the third hole at Royal St. George’s in England. The Alps design is from the seventeenth at Prestwick in Scotland. The Knoll is from the fourth at Scotscraig Golf Club in Scotland. Eden along with Cape and Road are all modelled on holes (11, 14 and 17) from the Old course at St Andrews. The original Biarritz – a hole with a long narrow green with a depression in its centre – comes from the Biarritz Golf Club in France, designed by Willie Dunn in the late 19th century. Raynor and Macdonald employ the Biarritz at nearly every course they build.

It’s interesting to note that many of the holes that shape these ideals are from accessible public courses in the British Isles, while the holes built in America were often behind hedges and gates. Nevertheless, the book’s historical detail and research – and photography – reveal an expert grasp. 

Consider the book’s exploration of the Short, an ideal design Macdonald and Raynor based on the fourth hole at Royal West Norfolk in England. Wolf and Satir give us the back story, then focus on the sixteenth hole at Sleepy Hollow in New York. “Gil Hanse’s resuscitation of the hole and the rising influence of social media have combined to make this the most recognised golf hole that Macdonald and Raynor ever built.”

Last year’s Open also brought attention to the Short when, in the run up to the tournament, Royal Liverpool turned the seventeenth around and a downwind shot became an uphill battle. At 135 yards, the hole became a game changer, with the pros were hitting into the wind blowing off the Dee.

The author's focus on water has particular bearing today, when discussions of sustainability and maintaining ecological integrity have become a critical part of course design. In building the National Golf Links of America (NGLA), one anecdote recounts how, because the land was so wet, Raynor needed horses to complete his survey. Redirecting, draining and irrigation of the flow is as much a task as moving earth. On that note, the authors report that Raynor, in order to have ‘eighteen holes which constitute perfection,’ needed as many as 10,000 full truckloads of soil to complete NGLA in 1910.

A long life was not on the cards for Seth Raynor. He contracted pneumonia and passed away beside his wife at the age of 52. (They left no children). While he left dozens of courses unfinished, Charles Banks would finish many.

As testament to Raynor's partnership with Macdonald, who would outlive Raynor by 13 years, he left instructions that he and his wife be buried in Southampton Cemetery, close to the grave of his partner and friend, and near their work at Shinnecock and NGLA, routings that so many consider statements of greatness in course design.

The Golf Courses of Seth Raynor, written and edited by Michael Wolf and James Sitar, was published by Back Nine Press in 2023. The book features photography from Jon Cavalier. It is available for purchase at Back Nine Press.