Charles Blair Macdonald
The Man Who Made America
By using the finest holes of Great Britain as templates for America’s earliest layouts, Charles Blair Macdonald became the founding father of the country’s golf course architecture. Duncan Lennard discovers how and why he did it – and how his legacy lives on.
Back in 1901, Golf Illustrated magazine asked the leading golfers of the day to give their opinion on the best holes in Great Britain. It was a poll intended to provoke interest, debate and perhaps a little controversy; it ended up inspiring the golf course architecture of an entire continent.
Each of the Great Triumvirate of Vardon, Taylor and Braid threw in their two-penn’orth; so did leading amateurs like Horace Hutchinson, Harold Hilton, Herbert Fowler and John Low. Despite the fact there were only about 400 courses to choose from, there was much variation in the responses. However, certain themes emerged. For the one-shotters, the Eden 11th at St Andrews Old and North Berwick West’s Redan 15th emerged as front-runners. Prestwick’s blind-approach Alps hole was a favoured two-shotter, while the Old Course’s 14th and 17th were the most popular three-shot options.
Following the debate with a keen eye from his home town of Chicago was a 46-year-old naturalised American named Charles Blair Macdonald. Wealthy, well-connected and forthright, Macdonald was a dominant force in the nascent American golf scene. He had been instrumental in setting up the United States Golf Association some seven years earlier. Smitten by the game after attending the University of St Andrews, he had had an illustrious career as an amateur player, even winning the first ever US Amateur in 1895. But as the years crept up on him, he found his mind increasingly turning to how he could become, in his own words, “not the game’s master but its servant”. Golf Illustrated’s poll would give him his direction.
Set against the crude and inchoate challenges that made up America’s first golf courses, Britain’s finest holes represented almost a different game, and one Macdonald wanted to establish in the States. “So I conceived the idea of building a national golf links for America,” he wrote in 1927, “constructing a course ideally built on classical grounds, trusting and hoping to be sufficiently successful so that it might lead to a better understanding of the merits of the game.”
Groundbreaking in every way possible, the course he eventually created – 1911’s National Golf Links of America – marks the country’s coming-of-age as a golfing nation. A series of homages to Britain’s best holes, its success would ensure those holes would evolve from revered recreations into trusted templates, employed regularly by Macdonald as his design career unfolded, and then by just about every designer who followed in his footsteps.
With just one course, Macdonald would assure his status as the father of American golf course design.
This rise of golf across the Pond was prompted by its social and geographical journey from the pejorative ‘Scottish croquet’ to a popular pastime for England’s middle classes. Queen Victoria’s love for the Highlands – Balmoral became a Royal seat in 1849 – had paved the way for a new acceptance of all things Caledonian. But aspects as disparate as the emergence of a cheaper moulded golf ball, the Open’s first journey south of the border in 1894, the golf-mad future prime minister Arthur Balfour and the fact two-thirds of the Great Triumvirate were English all fuelled the fire.
With golf on the march in England, it was inevitable it would make its way across the Atlantic – if not without some hiccups. When Macdonald attempted to cajole his friend Delancey Nicoll into the game, he was told: “I cannot understand how anyone having manly instinct can fritter away his time rushing around a 10-acre lot after a small pill,” a not-uncommon response that echoed the initial English discombobulation with the game. Meanwhile in 1881, an American golfing pioneer, attempting to bring in a supply of golfing equipment into the US, was stopped by customs inspectors in New York. After an hour’s debate, they concluded: “No one ever played a game with such implements of murder.” The clubs were impounded… but happily released six weeks later.
As Mike Hurdzan, a former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and co-creator of 2017 US Open venue Erin Hills observes, America’s very first courses were scarcely bespoke golfing layouts. “There was no knowledge of agronomy, construction or maintenance,” he says. “Most of the time the game was played in winter because the grass wasn’t growing. Even the St Andrews Club, established in Yonkers in 1888 and generally regarded as America’s first, was a six-holer originally on rough cow pasture, before moving into an apple orchard in 1892.”
Often courses were laid out through the estates of the wealthy. In Boston, railroad entrepreneur Horatio Hunnewell had his own track. “The course was not a bad one,” observed friend of the family Laurence Curtis. “It ran over undulating lawns and parks, and consisted of seven holes of fair distances. The holes were sunken five-inch flower pots; the hazards consisted of avenues, clumps of bushes, beds of rhododendrons, an aviary, greenhouses and an occasional drawing room window pane. And many were the narrow escapes of ladies and children on the piazzas at the hands of the enthusiastic players who were totally ignorant of the force, carry and range of a fairly hit golf ball.”
As the course became popular, the family applied to the local country club to see if a course could be laid out in their grounds. This would eventually become the famous Brookline layout. Macdonald observed these early, faltering steps no doubt with detachment, as what he was seeing had little in common with the game he fell in love with at St Andrews. Here he’d met Tom Morrises Old and Young and become intoxicated by what Alister MacKenzie would come to term the ‘Spirit of St Andrews’. “The impression of the true old game of golf is indescribable,” he wrote. “It was like the dawn or the twilight of a brilliant day. It can only be felt. The charm, the fascination of it all, cannot be conveyed in words.”
Gaining proficiency, Macdonald would eventually play challenge matches with and against the Morrises, plus the likes of Dave Strath and Tom Kidd. But his career would stall on returning to golfless Chicago in 1875. There was no place for golfing missionaries in a city reeling from the effects of the Civil War, the great fire of 1871 and the financial ‘Panic’ of 1873. Macdonald earned a living as a stockbroker for the next 17 years, his golf limited to rare trips to Europe. “It surely was the Dark Ages for me,” he would recall.
Back to the future
The new-found popularity of golf, however, would bring Macdonald out of the Dark Ages. Though the St Andrews club in Yonkers is deemed by most historians as America’s first ratified club, others including Shinnecock Hills (1891), Newport CC and the Country Club (1893) quickly followed. Macdonald ensured his home town was part of the scene. He designed his first course for the Chicago Club in 1892. A nine-holer, it sprawled across some rare, rolling farmland in Belmont, some 25 miles west of the city. Extended in 1893, it is deemed America’s first 18-hole course. Today, the site is a nine-holer called Downer’s Grove GC and only five of his original holes remain. However in one of them – the par-3 8th – there is a faint echo of North Berwick’s Redan hole, and perhaps the first example of Macdonald’s mission to imbue American golf with the essence of the Scottish game.
His design career would not really start until 1901, seven years after he helped bring those five courses together to found the USGA. Passionate to bring the classical, traditional game to America, he was also alarmed by the UGSA’s new president, RH Robertson, and his apparent desire to Americanise golf. “We are all grateful for what England and Scotland have done for us in exporting the game for our dedication and amusement,” said Robertson in 1901. “But we should guard against being too much restricted and held down by precedent and tradition. Nothing can come to America without being Americanised in character and I hope this game will be no exception to this rule. I should like to see American golf.”
Macdonald resolved to use his considerable influence to fight this, and that Golf Illustrated poll, commissioned the same year, showed him how: he would design and build the ‘perfect’ golf course, its holes based on the strategies of the classic British golf courses. Over the next five years Macdonald made several journeys to Britain and Europe to sketch, study and survey the holes he wanted to use. Here, perhaps, is the genesis of professional golf architecture.
Macdonald had moved to New York in 1900 and had little difficulty selecting his site for the course. “Long Island,” he observed, “is a natural links.” “Macdonald chose his venue wisely,” says Hurdzan. “Moving land to create golf holes was practically unheard of at the time, but necessary to recreate established designs. Among the huge sand dunes at the eastern end of Long Island you can shape the sand, move it. The undulation was already there, and if it wasn’t it was easy to create.” Understanding the need for and value of accurate construction, Macdonald enlisted local civil engineer and golfing virgin Seth Raynor. Their partnership would set both the example for and standard of golf course construction for the next two decades.
The National Golf Links of America opened in 1911. America’s first authentically strategic, full-length golf course, it remains a landmark in the nation’s golfing history. Dramatic and on a scale to match its epic setting on Peconic Bay, the course is an intense links experience without a weak spot. Even today, it is still ranked inside Golf Digest’s top 10 US courses.
Macdonald’s borrowing from Britain’s classic courses is manifest, not least in the names of the holes. The 2nd, Sahara, features a bunker modelled on the famous original at Royal St George’s; on the 3rd, Alps, the golfer must hit up and over a hill to a blind green. The 4th, Redan, is to this day reckoned to be one of the best copies of North Berwick’s 15th. Other holes feature influence from Brancaster, Leven Links, Sunningdale and of course his beloved St Andrews.
The course opened to rave reviews. “I have stood and sworn by St Andrews as the finest course as I have played on,” said North Berwick pro Ben Sayers. “But after visiting the National Course, it must now take second place. What a place!” Legendary golf writer Bernard Darwin added: “The National Golf Links is a truly great course; even as I write I feel my allegiance to Westward Ho! to Hoylake, to St Andrews tottering to its fall.”
But aside from being a great test of golf, National Golf Links also established tradition over innovation as America’s way forward. “America was in the grip of its second industrial revolution, the one that created the likes of Rockefeller and Carnegie,” Hurdzan comments. “There was massive progress everywhere, and it was part of the psyche at the time that America could do it better. With the National Golf Links, Macdonald proved that as far as golf was concerned, this was not necessarily the case.”
The success of National Golf Links left Macdonald very much in demand as a golf course builder. He saw no reason to adjust a winning formula of using classic holes as models for his designs. Smoothly, the replicas of NGL became templates on a broader scale. Ultimately, he is reckoned to have devised 21 recognisable and repeatable strategic options, from complete holes to more specific areas like double-plateau greens. He and Raynor would use these again and again on future celebrated designs like Greenbrier’s Old White (1914), Bermuda’s Mid Ocean Club (1921) and Yale University (1926). Never prolific, however, he would build just 19 courses with his last, Palm Beach, coming in 1927.
Today, Charles Blair Macdonald is ensconced in America’s Hall of Fame. He is often reverently referred to as the Father of American Golf Course Architecture or sometimes, even American Golf itself. However, the apparent altruism of his achievements should perhaps be viewed in the context of a bombastic personality, apt to self-promotion.
“There are many willing to bestow those titles on him,” says Hurdzan. “He is as well-known as any golf architect in the States, and it’s often referred to. Personally, I don’t believe that. There are others – Tom Bendelow, the Duncan brothers, Willie Park, Donald Ross – who had tremendous influence. It was those guys who bought the game to the people – Macdonald created 19 golf courses, Bendelow around 600.
“Macdonald was arrogant, not likeable. He liked class distinction. If we’d left it up to him golf would have been a royal game, not one for the public.”
Macdonald’s character is laid bare by a well-known if never quite authenticated story. His nephew, arguing the opening hole at National Golf Links was too short, bet his uncle he could drive the green. He won the bet and was promptly written out of his uncle’s will. A similar NGL story involves a member who suggested a windmill would look very well on the course. Macdonald agreed, ordered one, and sent the member the bill.
There are also suggestions that his desire to corral the early American golf clubs into a legislative body was as much to provide him with a nationally-sanctioned amateur tournament he could win as to provide much-needed central organisation. As American golf writer and historian Frederick Waterman recounts: “In 1894 Macdonald finished as runner-up in America’s first national amateur tournament, in Newport, but raged that the event was invalid because of a stone wall on the course – conveniently ignoring the existence of Scotland’s iconic North Berwick walls. He also said the strokeplay format was wrong. So they replayed the event that autumn at Yonkers – matchplay, no stone walls. When Macdonald was again runner-up, he said the result was invalid because the tournament wasn’t sanctioned by a national organisation. It became clear that a national organisation was needed to control Macdonald; there was a concern that he might go off and start his own.”
But while it seems entirely plausible Charles Blair Macdonald had at least one eye on immortalising his own name through the creation of golf’s ultimate course, his legacy remains unsullied and undeniable. His passion for classical golf did not just set the foundations for golf in the US; in protecting the spirit and traditions of the game, he created the conditions that would ultimately allow the USGA and Royal and Ancient to act as one voice, promoting the unified code so vital to today’s global game.
But further, in establishing an American standard for golf course design and creation, he woke America to the massive potential that existed. As Robert Trent Jones Snr observed, “Macdonald’s success undoubtedly encouraged other Americans to follow, and thereafter golf architecture was no longer the exclusive realm of the Scots.” Macdonald consequently eased golf into its so-called Golden Age of golf course architecture between 1910 and 1935, that has given the game so many of its best-designed and best-loved courses.
“The first great American golf course architect,” was how Darwin referred to him. And that is surely an epitaph of which he would have approved.