Charles Blair Macdonald: The Evangelist of Golf, a Review
by Bob Weisgerber
There are remarkable people, and then there are geniuses. Often, those geniuses have personality traits that seem extreme in one way or another. Often they are intensely focused on a particular activity. They may become so deeply involved that the activity becomes an obsession--over time an overly large ego may result. Charles Blair Macdonald was one of those extraordinary people who saw something he liked, promptly turned it into a lifetime quest, then he led his nation into the same love affair. Golf was his love.
Macdonald was a keen observer, quick learner, and extraordinary golfer. He developed these skills as a 16-year-old after being sent by his wealthy father from Chicago to his grandfather in St. Andrews to get his education. And what an education he got. Most of it revolved around golf.
Arriving in Scotland with a dim view of golf, a view shared by large numbers of the uninitiated then (and now), Macdonald was quickly seduced by the challenge of the game, and by observing the Scots who played it and the golf course they played it on. The game took hold of him and shook him.
Taking advantage of the long summer days in Scotland, Macdonald took up the game with a vengeance. Given a locker in Tom Morriss shop and the St. Andrews Old Course as enticement, he was such a quick learner he was invited to play in matches with the best players of the time, including Old Tom Morris, Young Tom Morris, the Dunn brothers, Willie and Jamie, and David Strath.
When he returned to Chicago in 1874, he arrived during a desperate depression, where the thought of playing games instead of tending to work was unthinkable. For the next 17 years, Macdonald had to forgo his favorite game, except when he traveled to Europe. But eventually, with his desire to bring the game to America still undiminished, Macdonald found the time was right.
While the east already had its Apple Tree Gang in Yonkers and a short 9-holer to play on, Macdonald now conceived and constructed The Chicago Golf Club, the first 18-hole club in America. The original routing, as shown in The Evangelist of Golf, was tough on hookers, for the left side of the first seven holes was out of bounds--off the course!
An aside--a number of years ago, this writer had the good fortune to play the Chicago Golf Club and the memory is still vivid. As evidence of the shot-making skills required to play well there, I offer this tidbit. There were only three levels of cut to the grass; greens, fairways and, just off the edge, knee-high grasses. The rough was so deep you couldnt visually mark where your ball went in. Further, the local rules excluded the driving of carts into the rough, with the result that the rough was consistently tall, like a field of grain. Losing your ball was a cinch.
As an adult, Macdonald could be described as opinionated, irascible, willful, yet talented, determined, smart and visionary. He happily embraced the concept of a national championship--believing he was the best player and therefore would be the winner. Wrong. He finished second twice. Each time he blew his top and raised so much hell about the way each competition had been conducted that it was not recognized as a national championship. Finally, after the United States Golf Association was formed by five leading golf clubs of the time, an official championship was held. Macdonald came through, winning the initial U.S. Amateur Championship. Ah, the best man won at last. Interestingly, almost as an afterthought, the national championship for professionals was held the following day.
Macdonald showed his determination when he decided to design and build a golf course in the United States that would stand favorable comparison to the classic courses of Scotland, he ultimately succeeded emphatically on Long Island. He was motivated by a survey of the great players of the period (all from Great Britain) regarding the best and most difficult holes they had ever played. This resulted in a kind of laundry list of holes that Macdonald realized had special merit for incorporation in his own planned masterpiece.
Macdonald traveled across the pond to systematically study the best features of the best courses. This resulted in a priority list of golf holes that he planned to recreate in the United States. In the process, his concept of course design changed. As described in Bahtos wonderful book, Macdonald developed a quantifiable theory for laying out a championship course. He assigned merit percentages of importance to various essential characteristics and was guided by them in his thinking about the lengths and sequence of the imported holes for The National Golf Course of America.
This was easier said than done, of course, since the ideal holes had to be adapted to fit the existing terrain on Long Island, where The National was to be built next to Shinnecock Hills (another great course). Nevertheless, as is explained in a most fascinating way in The Evangelist of Golf, The National came to fruition and very quickly became known as the best course in America. Holes like the 4th hole Redan, modeled after the oft-copied 15th at North Berwick, may be even better than the original.
For students of golf architecture, the fifth chapter, a detailed presentation of the Nationals 18 holes depicted then and now and accompanied by lengths and drawings of each hole, is worthy of careful study and reading over and over again.
How good was The National? Bernard Darwin, the leading golf writer of the time, was duly impressed. He said, If there is one feature of the course that strikes one more than another it is the constant strain to which the player is subjected to; he is perpetually on the rack, always having to play for the flag itself, never able to say to himself that anywhere in the bunker will do. It figures. Macdonald believed that the tougher the course the better. (A larger than life standing statue of C.B. Macdonald in the library of the clubhouse provides tangible evidence of a monumental ego even today.)
In spite of its obvious qualities as a test for champions, Bahto points out that the most important tournament ever held there was in 1922, when the inaugural Walker Cup was played there--the Americans won. Six years later an invitational for pros was held there and with three U.S. Open Champions and one British Open champion competing along with many other big name players, the scores were high--as in HIGH!
Bahto includes a marvelous story about a bet between Macdonald, and his grandson Peter Grace (Grace Steamship Lines). Grace said he could drive The Nationals first hole, Macdonald denied it, and the $20 bet was on. Id love to tell you the incredible outcome, but youll be buying the book, so you need to find out for yourself.
For many, the most memorable single feature of The National is the 50-foot high windmill atop a high ground. It stands out in full view from many holes on the course. In fact, it was a water tower that was covered up with a windmill at the suggestion of a member and the approval of Macdonald. Macdonald then billed the member who had suggested it!
Macdonald was smart in selecting Seth Raynor for a working partner in golf course design. Even though Raynor lacked prior experience suiting him for the task (he was a civil engineer) he became an apt and trusted assistant. Indeed, Raynor applied Macdonalds design ideas and embellished them in many more courses than Macdonald himself ever could or would have undertaken. Raynors untimely death precluded his finishing a course that he hoped to design--Cypress Point, in Pebble Beach, a fact that ultimately worked to Dr. Alister MacKenzies clear advantage.
Chapter 12 in this finely produced book concerns The Lido Club. This is an especially interesting course for a number of reasons. First, it is no longer in existence, even though when it was completed many people thought it was the finest course in America. Bernard Darwin pulled no punches saying, It is the finest course in the world.
Second, it included a slightly modified version of Dr. Alister MacKenzies famous winning hole design that won first place in the 1914 Country Life architectural competition. At the Lido course, it was the 18th hole.
Third, it cost a fortune to build. Macdonald intensely disliked the site, beside the shore, and initially refused to be involved, claiming the terrain was unsuitable. When the developer promised that whatever was needed would be supplied, Macdonald conceded. There followed huge amounts of trucked-in sand, soil, bents and rushes. Artificial hazards were constructed and, combined with the effects of sea winds and adorned by a deluxe hotel, the course earned a deserved reputation.
In that latter respect, the Lido was a precursor to many modern day courses, where unusable ground is reclaimed and made good for golf through Herculean efforts and plenty of bulldozers.
Bhato shares with us, in Chapter 15, the sad saga of C.B. Macdonalds Links Club. An ultra-exclusive club, it died due to its own restrictive policies when only 13 members remained after 66 years of its existence. Quality didnt make up for snobbery.
Finally, we are told about the Yale University Golf Course, another Macdonald marvel. This writer played it some years ago on the personal recommendation of Ben Crenshaw. It was both awesome and scary.
Awesome in that it demanded constant attention to planning and execution. Scary in that hole after hole called for do-or-die shots, with some holes bordering on madness for those who missed the required shot. Among the amazing holes is #9, a par 3, which is all carry across a large pond to narrow green, that stretches yards and yards and yards, from front to back, and is bisected by what appears to be a shoulder deep trench (left over from the war perhaps?) that will absolutely drain the resources of a player who finds himself or herself on the wrong end of the green.
Enough. By now you should get the idea that this book is extraordinary. If you decide to buy it, you wont be sorry!
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