2005: Walker Cup - Architect of Change
Monday, September 19, 2011
He built the first 18-hole course in America and helped start the organization that became the U.S. Golf Association. He also won the nation’s first U.S. Amateur Championship in 1895 and tirelessly spread the gospel of the royal and ancient game in the New World.
Tall and sturdy with a bald pate and a bushy mustache, Charles Blair Macdonald founded Chicago Golf Club, site of next week’s Walker Cup Matches, in 1892.
He later laid out the National Golf Links of America, a Long Island masterpiece that opened in 1911 and lifted golf architecture in the States to a new level as he incorporated his design ideas with those of the visionaries who had created the great tracks overseas.
But his contributions to golf do not stop there, because Macdonald also was a pioneer of agronomy, experimenting with various grasses in his greenhouse. He persuaded the USGA to adopt the Rules of Golf as set forth by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and spent 18 years as a member of the USGA Rules Committee. In addition, he set a powerful precedent for club management, running the retreats he started in the U.S. as autocracies.
Obstinate yet charming, Macdonald grew painfully impatient with people who did not see the game as he did and was especially intolerant of those who wanted to buck the traditions of golf and “Americanize” the sport. He almost always played wearing a tie, and had the ability to dominate a conversation or a room. He possessed a knack for befriending pillars of high society such as Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, either collaborating with them to build courses or enticing them to join the clubs he was starting. And he often displayed an ego as oversized as some of his greens.
It mostly was that ego that led the man to regard himself as the first American golfer, and he was not entirely inaccurate in that assessment. Macdonald also merits a title of weightier proportions – the George Washington of golf, the father of the game in this country.
If Macdonald is regarded as the patriarch, then Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton, Ill., is his Mount Vernon. Chicago Golf Club was where he launched his inspired promotion of the game in America and first displayed his skills as a course designer. It also is a spot at which Macdonald’s spirit continues to burn brightly long after his death in 1939, from the statue that stands outside the club’s pro shop and the oil portrait that hangs in the grill room to the sight of his old home just left of the 14th tee.
“He was a know-it-all who truly knew it all,” says George Bahto, who recently published a comprehensive volume on Macdonald titled “The Evangelist of Golf.”
“He was super-opinionated because he felt most Americans didn’t understand golf the way he did.”
He also was one of the game’s great characters. Legend has it that he once settled an argument over marksmanship in the bar at The Creek Club on Long Island by shooting a pistol slug into the eye of a painted duck that is part of a wall mural.
A prodigious drinker, he helped give the original red brick clubhouse at Chicago Golf Club a reputation as a wild roadhouse where he and his fellow members regularly partied through the night. It frequently is suggested that Macdonald went to Bermuda in the early 1920s to build the Mid Ocean Golf Club largely because Prohibition laws in the U.S. had made it increasingly difficult for him and his friends to frolic with their usual abandon at National Golf Links, and they needed another place to gather.
His temper also was legendary. If a member of one of his clubs came with a rake to smooth a bunker after a shot, Macdonald confiscated the rake – and oftentimes threw out the member – because he believed hazards should be exactly that and should look like a herd of elephants had gone through them. And he became so enraged at his grandson, J. Peter Grace of Grace Steamship Lines fame, for teasing him about the first hole at the National being too short – then driving the green on a $20 bet – that Macdonald removed him from his will.
The eldest son of Gordon Macdonald and Mary Blackwell, Macdonald was born Nov. 14, 1855 in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and not long afterward moved with his family to Chicago. At 16, “Charlie” went to study at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He was met at the train station by his grandfather, William Macdonald, who had a Scottish estate and was a member of the R&A. A day later, the elder Macdonald took his grandson to Tom Morris’ golf shop across the street from the Old Course, bought Charlie several golf clubs and balls, and secured him a locker.
Macdonald took to the game in a hurry, soon becoming good enough to compete in matches on a regular basis with Old and Young Tom Morris and other members of St. Andrews’ golfing elite, including Davie Strath, Tom Kidd and Jamie Anderson. He also visited – and played – other courses in the British Isles, fortifying even further his golf lexicon and his passion for the game.
He completed his studies in two years and, in 1874, left what he called “the dearest playground” to return to the States. He became a stockbroker on the Chicago Board of Trade and rarely played golf for the next 17 years, a period he frequently called the “dark ages.” That’s largely because golf was unheard of in most of America, and no courses existed in the Chicago area.
Dark as those days may have been, Macdonald never gave up the game entirely, thanks mostly to business trips that took him back to the British Isles and the links courses he liked so much. Conditions began to brighten when it was announced that the World’s Columbian Exposition would be coming to Chicago in 1893. A delegation from Britain arrived two years before the fair’s opening to set up its pavilion, and several members of the group were avid golfers. They happily extolled the virtues of the sport at many social functions surrounding the event, echoing the praise Macdonald had bestowed on the game since his return from Scotland almost two decades before.
Their chatter resonated with Chicago’s upper crust, and a friend of Macdonald’s asked him to lay out a few holes at his father-in-law’s Lake Forest estate. Crude as it was, the course kindled enough interest that many players began talking about forming a golf club.
Macdonald seized upon this opportunity in 1892 and built a nine-hole track in the farm town of Belmont. An additional nine holes were added the next spring, and in 1893, the charter of the Chicago Golf Club was granted.
Macdonald convinced the group to acquire 200 acres in the nearby town of Wheaton so he could design a better track. Play began there in 1895, with 18 holes that roughly corresponded to the length of the holes at the Old Course of St. Andrews, which measured about 6,200 yards.
Now that he had a club and course, Macdonald quickly regained his stroke. He traveled to Newport, R.I., in 1894 to compete in a two-day invitational designed to determine the best amateur player in the land, and he was a favorite. But he faltered on the second day and lost, in his view, because of a controversial ruling that cost him two strokes.
Macdonald complained so voraciously that another amateur championship was held that year, at St. Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers, N.Y. He made it all the way to the final of the match-play event, but he struggled in that match as well, largely because of his carousing almost the entire night before in New York.
It also didn’t help that he had taken several strychnine pills the morning of his semifinal match, then drank a bottle of champagne with his lunch before the final. He lost on the final hole and quickly began protesting again. This time, it was about the inanity of different clubs holding different championships, and because both clubs declared their winners as national champions, Macdonald suggested that only a confederation of clubs could set a true U.S. championship.
That, of course, led to the founding of the USGA in December 1894, and Chicago Golf was one of five charter members. Macdonald won the first Amateur Championship the association sanctioned, held at Newport the following year.
Playing dominated much of Macdonald’s golf life in those years, even after he moved in 1900 from Chicago to New York, where he became partner in the brokerage firm C.D. Barney & Co., a predecessor to Smith Barney. But in the early part of the 20th century, he began to work more on course design. His mission was to ensure not only that superior golf layouts were built in America but also that people respected the spirit and traditions of the game.
The result of those compelling motivations was the construction of National Golf Links in Southampton, N.Y. It was a labor of love, with many of the holes inspired by ones Macdonald had played during his time overseas, such as the Alps (Prestwick), Redan (North Berwick), Eden (St. Andrews), Narrows (Muirfield) and Sahara (Royal St. Georges). It ushered in what historians believe was a golden era of course design, and Macdonald liked it so much that he built a home there that he dubbed Ballyshear, after his grandfather’s estate in Scotland. The house overlooks the course to this day and is visible from the 11th tee.
“What Macdonald did with his building of the National was bring golf from its home in Scotland to the United States,” says architect Steve Smyers, who has designed or revamped 40 courses around the world. “He demonstrated some very dynamic design concepts that are followed to this day.”
Macdonald, who was married and had two daughters, acquired tremendous acclaim as an architect in the years to come, mostly for the quality, not the quantity, of his work. According to Bahto, he was involved in the creation of only a half dozen or so layouts that remain more or less unchanged today, among them the Mid Ocean Club in Bermuda and St. Louis Country Club. He collaborated with Seth Raynor on several other tracks, most notably Yale, the Creek Club and Piping Rock.
But his work made such an impact that it raised expectations of what golf – and golf courses – could be in the States. He further made his mark by mentoring two talented associates, Raynor and Charles “Steamshovel” Banks, who would go on to create some of the finest layouts in the land by borrowing heavily from Macdonald’s vision. In addition, Macdonald’s 1928 book, “Scotland’s Gift – Golf” remains a must-read classic for those interested in the game.
Macdonald’s reputation for being critical and demanding was well-earned, but he held himself to equally high standards. Evidence of that is found in a letter he wrote in fall 1917. “I have long wondered when the intelligence of the Chicago Golf Club would realize that theirs is one of the worst courses in the country as compared with its former position,” he opined, urging the membership to “scrap” his original design with one that would bring the track to a higher level. That they eventually did, hiring Raynor to complete a redesign in 1922, six years before it played host to its only other Walker Cup.
Macdonald was similarly critical – and vigilant – about his design at the National, constantly tinkering with the layout until the day he died. While he was clearly a man who loved what he did, he was never completely satisfied, not even with himself.