Seth Raynor: paradoxical designer

Seth Raynor: paradoxical designer
Sean Dudley

Never an avid golfer, yet the creator of some of America’s best-loved courses: Anthony Pioppi profiles the short but stellar career of Seth Raynor.

In the realm of early American golf architects, Seth Raynor stands apart from virtually all his contemporaries by what he was not or what he didn’t do as much as what he created.

Raynor was not Scottish. He didn’t play golf as a young man nor did earnestly take up the sport later in life. He played his first round after assisting in the construction of four courses but never became an avid golfer.

While everyone from his mentor, Charles Blair Macdonald, to the likes of Harry Colt, AW Tillinghast, Devereux Emmet and Walter Travis talked and wrote about the world of golf course design, Raynor was all but silent. There are only a few short lines of quotes that have ever been uncovered and none in golf magazines such as Golf Illustrated.

All Raynor left behind for us to judge him and understand his theories of architecture were the golf courses that he designed, expanded or renovated. The number, now in excess of 100, continues to grow. This year, alone, two more courses he designed were rediscovered.

What makes Raynor’s career all that more remarkable is its brevity. His first solo design did not come until 1914, when he was already 38, and he died, from pneumonia, aged only 51, in January 1926 in a hotel in West Palm Beach, Florida, his wife with him, both there to attend the opening of a course.

What Raynor did share with fellow architects was the understanding that virtually all great golf holes have within them multiple strategies and options giving players with varying degrees of acumen and length more than one way to get from tee to green. Raynor sought to reveal the best player by creating some golf holes that required left-to-right ball flights off the tee or on the approach and others that insist on right-to-left trajectory for the best path to be uncovered.

His designs invariably included holes where length was rewarded. His short par fours pay off to the accurate player, while his large greens, some as big as 15,000 square feet, meant putting is at a premium. The well-defined edges of greens and the accompanying swales can direct even slightly misplayed shots into bunkers. To score on a Raynor course, adeptness with the sand wedge is a must.

Ask golfers who are only slightly familiar with Raynor’s work and they’ll tell you about square greens, deep bunkers and the massive amounts of earth moved to create courses and his redundant hole styles. It is an oversimplification.

Raynor learned his craft from Charles Blair Macdonald, the first great golf course architect in the United States and the creator of the National Golf Links of America, as well as the winner of the first ‘official’ US Amateur in 1895. Macdonald had studied at St Andrews University, played the Old Course and nearly every other great layout in the British Isles and met Old Tom Morris. He believed there were about 25 hole designs in the entire world and that the best versions of each should be used as guides when constructing a course.

On the works of Macdonald and Raynor, you will invariably find versions of the Road Hole, the Redan, Eden and others. There was nearly always a Punchbowl green. Macdonald and Raynor did not duplicate the originals, but adapted them to fit the specific site. So in some cases, for instance, what is their version of Road might have a tee shot that reminds of the original but the green is angled in the opposite direction.

True, Raynor moved more earth than almost all of his contemporaries and his layouts are nothing short of bold but his work rarely looks forced into or onto the land, or clashes with the natural surroundings. His bunkers are big and well below the green surfaces, as much as 15 feet in places like Fishers Island Club and Yale University, but they are not deep. On the contrary, the walk into the sand is rarely more than a foot down, easy to enter and exit but visually intimidating and difficult to extract a golf ball in one shot.

Raynor trained as a civil engineer at Princeton University. He brought his scientific mind to the earthmoving portion of the designs, but his creations are not geometric. In fact, he was so understated that in many instances his genius cannot be detected the first dozen or so times a hole is played. His courses are a unique balance of bold and subtle.

Take for instance, the seventh hole at Fishers Island, New York, just off the coast of Connecticut, where I caddie. Ask those who have played the course one or two times and they will list any number of holes as their favourite, invariably, the seventh will not be among those. Talk to members, especially the low-handicap golfers, and the seventh is always near the top of the list. At 363 yards it offers a spectacular view from the tee that sits 60 feet above the fairway to the green that rises some 30 feet, out to Long Island Sound, the Chocomount Light and the Connecticut shoreline.

Raynor’s real skill is that he draws the player’s eye to the picturesque green and the seemingly wide-open fairway, making it appear that the correct play is a long straight drive. In fact, that is a high-risk option. The fairway narrows at about 220 yards off the tee where a pond encroaches from the right. Those who play down the left side of the fairway and away from the pond, but overcompensate, end up in rough or a marsh. For the long drives that find the fairway, the approach is deceivingly difficult. The prevailing wind is from the left and the green is angled to the right. Often times an approach must be played out over the gigantic left bunker that sits some 12 feet below the green. Shying away from that path, a shot played too safely to the right will land on the green but end up down the far side into another bunker that is as deep as the one on the left but much narrower.

The real genius is the angle of the green, which is not apparent from the tee for even the first few times the hole is played. The axis does not point to the centre of the fairway, but instead to a landing area short of the pond. A precise layup leaves an approach of about 160 yards. The green, like almost all on the golf course, is open in front and allows for the run-up. Par is always a good score.

Raynor’s greens, too, are often judged incorrectly the first time through. Take the seventeenth at Fishers, for instance. The green site is essentially a rectangle with two spines running parallel to the line of play diving the putting surface into three sections with long narrow bunkers on the side. That is the basic view, but reality is more complex.

The green is one of the few on the course that is tilted back to front, creating the impression that it is at fairway height; it is not. The elevation is at least a half-club difference, a fact that leaves newcomers baffled when their approaches fall short. On the putting surface, the spines, although essentially the same distance from the left and right sides, are not duplicates. The left is flatter and wider, the right longer and higher. The back right hand corner of the green is bowled out and affords some diabolical pin positions. The back left is tame in comparison. The right bunker tapers off to the back of the green while the left bunker does not. That bunker has a knob running into it from the green that is nonexistent on the other side, creating a slight swale. While I am most familiar with Raynor’s work at Fishers, I’ve also seen this same intricate work at every one of the nearly 20 courses I’ve played or visited.

Seth Raynor was born in 1874 on the eastern end of Long Island where many Raynors still reside. He was not a pauper by any means, attending Princeton Preparatory School and then earning a civil engineering degree from Princeton University in 1898 at the age of 24 and went to work in his field until he met Macdonald in 1908. Macdonald was in the earliest steps of plotting the National Golf Links of America when he hired Raynor to survey the land on which the course would sit, beginning a relationship that lasted until Raynor died.

Raynor’s entire understanding of architecture came from Macdonald. There is no reason to indicate that Raynor ever journeyed to Great Britain or even visited the growing array of laudable designs in the United States, many in the Long Island and New York City area. Raynor said he wished he had ‘the ears of a donkey or an ass’ so as to hear every word Macdonald spoke.

By 1915, Macdonald was all but done with designing golf courses for his wealthy friends such as the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers (he never charged for his services). According to George Bahto, author of the Macdonald biography The Evangelist of Golf, Macdonald became fed up with his clients’ meddling and handed his business over to Raynor, to whom he would refer new customers when they came calling. Macdonald remained in close enough touch with some of the projects to be a fierce protector of his protégé.

The best example came 1921 when Raynor was hired by Chicago Golf Club to renovate its existing course, the first eighteen hole layout in the United States, designed by Macdonald and opened in 1895. Macdonald wrote to the membership and in no uncertain terms told them to leave Raynor alone.

As Macdonald’s career was winding down, Raynor’s was flourishing. Starting in 1914 and continuing until after his death, his layouts were opening at a rapid pace, mostly up and down the eastern seaboard, but also as far away as Hawaii with Waialae Country Club, which after years of reworking, retains only a modicum of Raynor’s design.

He routed the Cypress Point Club layout but died before construction began and Alister MacKenzie stepped in. In California, he drew up plans for Olympic Club that were never adopted. At Monterey Country Club, his work was embraced and the Dunes Course still exists. There were layouts in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and even Puerto Rico.

On a couple of occasions, Macdonald returned to ‘advise’ Raynor, the first time during the creation of the nine hole Ocean Links course, which no longer exists, for T Suffern Tailer on property that abuts Newport Country Club. The second came in 1923 at the Yale University Golf Course, in Macdonald’s eyes, Raynor’s crowing achievement.

It was while working at Yale that Raynor travelled some 60 miles north to the Hotchkiss School, which was closely aligned with Yale, to build a nine-hole layout. The school chose popular teacher Charles Banks, who had no golf design background, to act as Raynor’s contact person. Banks fell so in love with the work that he soon left teaching and joined Raynor and Macdonald on the Yale project.

As the Yale work progressed, Raynor was also building what are now judged as some of his finest works: Fishers Island, Camargo, Lookout Mountain and Yeamans Hall. When Raynor died, it was Banks who was left to complete over a dozen layouts, in the process establishing his own reputation as an architect. Like Raynor, his career ended with a premature passing. He died in 1931, five years after Raynor, at the age of 47. Macdonald outlived both of them, dying in 1939 aged 83.

Macdonald fondly remembered Raynor in his book Scotland’s Gift – Golf: “Sad to say he died ere his prime at Palm Beach in 1926 while building a course there for Paris Singer. Raynor was a great loss to the community, but still a greater loss to me. I admired him from every point of view.”

Anthony Pioppi is a golf journalist based in Connecticut, USA, and is executive director of the Seth Raynor Society. For more on Raynor visit the Society website at

This article appeared in issue 22 of Golf Course Architecture, published October 2010