By day, George Bahto was the operator of a dry-cleaning business in Montclair, N.J. By night, he became a self-educated expert on the golf-course architecture of Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor.
After years of raising a family, running a successful business and enjoying golf recreationally, Bahto turned to classic golf design and restoration and spent the last two decades of his life devoted to it. He died peacefully March 18 after a long illness. He was 83.
Ran Morrissett, who knew Bahto well and runs golfclubatlas.com, summed it up perfectly. “Bahto did more after he was 65,” said Morrissett, “than most people do in getting to 65.”
And what he did was get intimately involved in research, design and restoration of Macdonald and his protégé, Raynor. This, Bahto once told me, all because he discovered that his favorite courses in New Jersey were done by Raynor and his former associate, Charles Banks. What followed was years of combing through dusty files and back rooms of famous courses, whether on Long Island (National Golf Links of America in Southampton), South Carolina (Yeamans Hall in Charleston) or Florida (Mountain Lake Club in Lake Wales).
After uncovering long-neglected plans, correspondence and poring through old aerial photography, Bahto immersed himself with zeal into the act of near-archaeological recovery. The result, among other writings, was the definitive design biography, “The Evangelist of Golf: The Story of Charles Blair Macdonald” (Wiley, 2002), with editorial help by Gib Papazian. Until his illness, Bahto also was working on a design biography of Seth Raynor, which now remains unfinished.
Bahto also had a hand in the design business. He worked closely with architect Gil Hanse on the restoration of Essex County Country Club (West Orange, N.J.), and three New York courses: The Creek Club (Locust Valley), Sleepy Hollow Country Club (Scarborough) and Westhampton Country Club. Bahto even landed a solo design/build project, Stonebridge Golf Links Country Club in Hauppauge, N.Y.
He collaborated closely with Tom Doak and Jim Urbina on the creation of Old Macdonald in Bandon, Ore. Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser previously had asked Bahto to visit Bandon and see if it were possible to reproduce the old lost Macdonald-Raynor gem, Lido Golf Club. When the land didn’t prove amenable, Keiser developed the idea of Old Macdonald. Bahto accompanied Doak and Urbina to Scotland and England to take notes and walk the old original holes for the subsequent versions that Macdonald (and Raynor) eventually built.
I had known Bahto for years, played golf with him and spent hours on the phone listening to him discuss Macdonald and Raynor. But it was Bandon at Old Macdonald (2006-10) where I saw first-hand the excitement, joy and knowledge that Bahto brought to bear. He knew he had a second chance at a professional life, and he took it with great commitment.
The high point of our three-day Bandon session came when the design team (where I played a secondary, volunteer role) brought out the PVC pipe to mark tees and greens. When it came to the par-3 12th hole, intended as the famed Redan hole (par-3 15th at North Berwick, Scotland), it seemed obvious to have Bahto plant the marker. He was a barrel-chested guy. Not so much gruff as entirely in the moment and not given to signs of sentimentality. Or so I thought. But when he stuck that marker in the ground at green center, I couldn’t help noticing a tear in his eye. It was a powerful moment for all of us. For George, it had to be something really special.
The beautiful thing about him is that for all the joy he took in his second career, he also knew that he had also taken good care of his family. He is survived by his wife, Shirley, four daughters (Georgianna, Debbie, Pam and Danielle), 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Plans for a memorial service and funeral are in the works.