Walter J. Travis “Dropped” at National Golf Links of America
Truth or Travesty? (Part One)
By Mike Cirba, pg ii

The land for Ekwanok was purchased by Taylor in late August 1899 and in September the club was formed. With an aggressively planned course completion date of June 1, 1900, design and construction work commenced almost immediately and 42 workmen were employed until November 23rd, when work had to be abandoned until spring. By June 7th, 1900, 12 of the holes were completed and it is believed the others opened by mid-August, when a small Invitational gathering took place.

The understanding within the club is that Dunn and Travis jointly laid out the course and Dunn returned to New York but Travis visited regularly during construction to oversee matters in the fall of 1899 and spring of 1900. Dunn did return to Ekwanok in July 1900 to review progress and stayed on to play in some of the early club events. While most of the early news reports mentioned John Duncan Dunn’s direct involvement, it also seems clear that the early Ekwanok course in its first formative years was a collaborative design work, with some of the best minds in golf weighing into the final product with Walter Travis being the predominant force mentioned but over time, others like professional George Low and amateurs Charles B. Macdonald and Arthur Lockwood also advising. This from a May 1901 Troy (NY) Daily Times article:

By July 1903, this snipped from a New York Herald article expanded the listing of prominent golfers whose ideas were adopted into the course design.

On July 2nd, 1900, several days before the course opening and a week before Walter Travis won the first of his U.S. Amateur Championships, the Ekwanok Board of Governors made him its first Honorary Member. Four years later, after winning the 1904 British Amateur, then club President Robert Todd Lincoln (son of Abraham Lincoln) sent the following congratulatory note to Travis (via Garden City Golf Club) that provides the likely reason he was granted such a distinctive honor.

“The Ekwanok Country Club in annual meeting assembled sends greeting to the Garden City Golf Club upon the occasion of the complimentary dinner given to Mr. Walter J. Travis, to whom it is most indebted for the laying out and development of its course (bold emphasis by author) and who was its first Honorary Member and requests the President of the Garden City Golf Club to present to Mr. Travis the congratulations of the members of the Ekwanok Country Club upon the great victory achieved by him in winning the Amateur Golf Championship at Sandwich”.

In August of 1900, the club hosted a series of exhibition matches that pitted some of the top professionals and amateurs, including one where Walter Travis and Charles Macdonald teamed up against George Low (who had become Ekwanok’s new pro earlier that year) and Willie Davis, the professional at Shinnecock Hills. John Duncan Dunn who had returned with his new wife, an heiress of the Wilshire family of Los Angeles participated, as well.

Charles B. Macdonald driving at the 18th hole of the newly opened Ekwanok while Walter Travis looks on in foreground on August 14, 1900.

Interestingly, even though Travis did not become an “Honorary Member” until July 2, 1900, he already appeared on the club’s membership roster a month prior as the Troy (NY) Daily Times article from June 11, 1900 indicates.

Whatever the architectural relationship between Travis and Dunn, it was a friendship and working association that would continue intermittently over the next two decades. In the case of Ekwanok, they created a course that was immediately recognized as one of the premier courses in early American golf, and along with Myopia Hunt, Garden City, and Chicago Golf, was considered one of the most architecturally sound courses built in the United States prior to the opening of National Golf Links in 1910/11.

The year 1900 would be an eventful one in New York City. That year Charles Blair Macdonald left Chicago and moved to New York, that year becoming a member of Garden City Golf Club along with Walter Travis. From a competitive golf perspective, Macdonald’s career was slowly descending while Travis was nearing his peak. Although Macdonald was just shy of seven years older than Travis, it is important to consider that Macdonald was already 45 by this time.

At the prestigious Atlantic City event in the spring, Travis perhaps foreshadowed what was to come by defeating his nemesis Findlay Douglas and again at the US Amateur in July at his home course of Garden City Travis defeated Douglas 2-up on the 18th green in dramatic fashion in a violent rainstorm. Macdonald didn’t play that year, returning early to Chicago at the time to help arrange for a visit by Harry Vardon, as well as watch the United States Open at Chicago Golf Club which Vardon won.

At native Garden City, Travis’s short game proved magical, as evidenced by his recovery from very near the road on the 9th hole for a halve. “It was the greatest shot I ever saw”, said Devereux Emmet, who was following the match and had just returned from a tour of Scottish Links. Travis had quickly reached his most important goal and in terms of his limited playing experience, was venerated in the New York press as an overnight success.

During this same period it is believed by some that Travis and John Duncan Dunn (with assistance from Herbert Leeds of Myopia) were also responsible for the modification of the existing nine holes and the addition of nine new holes at Essex County Club in Manchester, MA. The construction of the new holes took place on hilly, wooded, rocky terrain that required dynamite blasting and various other extreme techniques previously employed by Willie Dunn at Ardsley Casino. Essex County’s first eighteen hole course (Donald Ross significantly changed it during his tenure there during the teens) was started in 1899 and opened in September 1900 with an exhibition featuring Harry Vardon, and then a week later John H. Taylor, so it was a course and club of some repute. Cornish & Whitten’s books list Essex County’s first eighteen hole course as attributable to Dunn and Travis (NLE), and today both Golf Digest and Massachusetts Golf Association information note the same attribution. Unfortunately, the author has been unable to find contemporaneous evidence to bolster that contention, and somewhat oddly, the 1993 Essex County Centennial History book by George C. Caner, Jr. includes this perplexing, unexplained notation;

“The architect is not recorded, but Herbert Leeds, creator of the Myopia course, John Duncan Dunn, and Walter J. Travis may all have been involved.”*

*The author welcomes any supporting or refuting sources from the club and/or interested parties and will ensure that this article is revised accordingly.

What is known for certain is that Walter Travis did make significant revisions to the Essex County course during a 1908 visit (including three completely new holes) during which he won an invitational event there. Most of his suggestions included significant widening of holes, removal of cross bunkers, and the addition of hazards that were more along the outside lines of play.

Travis and Dunn collaborated again in 1901 by fashioning a brand new nine hole golf course for the Flushing Golf Club (formerly known as Flushing Athletic Club), where Travis was also a member. Please note that this was the same club where Travis and Thomas Bendelow first laid out a modest, rough-hewn 2,300 yard nine-hole course in the spring of 1897. The new course was a whopping (for the time) 3,000 yards and the club and golf course prospered until the late teens when the course was deemed too confining due to popular growth and some members purchased nearby land for a new Devereux Emmet course in 1920. Some loyal members remained at the original course, however, expanding it to 18 holes in 1924 and it became known as the “Old Country Club”. The club did not survive the Great Depression, closing in 1936.

Earlier in 1901, Travis went on two golf vacations, both of which would have a decided impact on his development and understanding of his place in the game. The first, a winter trip south to Florida described below would soon turn into an unexpected brouhaha as Travis’s amateur standing was challenged.

The fact that the USGA’s definition for amateur violations was drawn so broadly (as mentioned earlier) brought under suspicion any player whose golf-related activities showed a hint of favor or financial advantage in any way. After the trip, an article written by Casper Whitney in Outing magazine charged that both Travis and Arthur Lockwood should be declassed as “Professionals”. The article read, in part;

“…The conduct of Messrs. Travis and Lockwood in receiving hotel board and railroad transportation this spring, during a Florida golfing campaign, makes them obviously ineligible to rank as amateurs. By the rules of every amateur game, including golf, they are professionals, for, if they did not receive money for their services as touring hotel bill-boards, they did receive its equivalent in several hundred dollars worth of board and lodging and railroad fare.”

New USGA President R.H. Robertson, a friend of Travis, rushed to his defense. Interestingly, so did John Duncan Dunn, as the following June 1901 Rochester (NY) Democrat article illustrates;

Although he said nothing in public concerning the matter at the time, C. B. Macdonald held little back when he wrote his 1928 book, “Scotland’s Gift – Golf” a few years after Travis died;

“Stringent as the 1901 definition of amateur was, many thought it did not appear to contain any specific clause which directly covered the practice which “Outing” condemned, but the former Executive Committee intended it should.”

“We all know that President Robertson had not been imbued with the ancient and honorable traditions of the game in his youth any more than Travis had been, but we thought after their spending three months together in Scotland and England during the summer they would have absorbed some reverence for these same ancient and honorable traditions. We were doomed to be disappointed. As Rider Haggard said: “Golf, like Art, is a Goddess whom we woo in early youth if we would win her.”

Even viewed retrospectively and posthumously, Macdonald’s mention of Travis’s trip abroad to see and study the courses of Great Britain seems an odd one as it happened during the summer of 1901, months after the trip to Florida. It is difficult to understand what salutary or remedial benefit his visit abroad would have had on his past activities. Perhaps Macdonald was simply trying to make a clever literary point.

At the time, however, as will be seen, Macdonald and Travis continued as competitors, and were developing a friendship. Rumors of a big 1901 Macdonald/Travis match swirled during the spring of that year and whether the match took place or was simply the New York press encouraging a battle of Titans in their district is not known.

 

What is known is that by summer of 1901, Travis sailed abroad on an extended golf vacation to see the golf courses of Great Britain. Having learned the game on what were ostensibly the best golf courses in America at that time, it was a revelation to him from an architectural perspective. This detailed account of his travels appeared in an August 21st, 1901 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article.

On his return, Travis penned an 8-page article, resplendent with illustrative photographs and drawings for “Golf” Magazine, the official bulletin of the USGA. It read, in part;

“To visit the principal links in England and Scotland is a liberal education in itself. There you have golf – Golf in its best and highest form. Added to this, I have had the pleasure of seeing some of the very finest players in the world play on their native heath. Naturally, the whole thing to me has been a source of the keenest kind of enjoyment, and, incidentally, to a certain extent, more or less of a revelation and surprise. In this country it is difficult if not impossible, for the average American player to realize and properly appreciate the existent conditions of play on the other side as exemplified by their leading links, there being such a radical difference in their physical configuration in relation to our courses. I say courses advisedly, as few, if any, are true links in the proper sense of the word. It is highly doubtful whether any verbal or written description can adequately convey any accurate idea of the beauties of the simon-pure links which abound on the other side of the pond. We really have nothing like them.”

“…Golf, with us, is mostly of a kindergarten order. The holes are too easy, and there is too much of a family resemblance all through, generally speaking. There are undoubtedly some notable exceptions which will at once suggest themselves to those familiar with the leading courses on both sides. But, speaking by and large, our courses seem to be mainly laid out not with reference to first-class play, but rather to suit the game of the average player. And what is the result? On the ordinary courses a premium is placed on mediocrity…Really good links develop really good players, a few remarkably so, while the general standard of play is at the same time very sensibly improved. This fact is meeting with increasing recognition, as is evidenced by the growing improvement of our courses in the direction of making them more difficult…”

“..It is high time we awoke to a proper and appreciative realization of what real golf is – and constructed our courses accordingly”

Travis would go on in the fall of 1901 to again win the United States Amateur tournament, this time held at Atlantic City Country Club. For the first time, Travis played with the recently introduced, rubber-cored, “Haskell Ball”, and in the second round the long anticipated Travis/Macdonald match took place, with Travis dominating 7&6.

The following account of the match from the September 12th, 1901 issue of the Chicago Tribune;

In his 1928 book, Macdonald recounted events as such;

The U.S.G.A. Amateur Championship was held at Atlantic City, September 9th to 14th. Travis had the low score, 157, and my score was 174. I won my first match 1 up, but meeting Travis in the second round I was beaten by 5 and 3. The semi-finals were most interesting, as they were between Travis and Douglas. Travis played with the Haskell and Douglas with the gutta. Travis won from Douglas at the thirty-eighth hole. My opinion is that it was the Haskell ball that won this tournament from Douglas. The magazine Golf, in reporting the semi-finals, said it was “more a case of ball against ball than player against player. There was a general impression that it was mainly to the use of the rubber-cored ball that Travis owed his victory. Douglas was playing a superb long game, the champion (Travis) would have been out-driven if he had stuck to the gutta, and he was generally outdriven as it was..” I share this view.”

The realization that perhaps his best playing days were probably behind him were significant to Macdonald in fundamental ways. Determined to stand up for what he saw as the proper and traditional values of the game as exemplified by the Royal and Ancient, Macdonald later wrote;

The years 1901 and 1902 proved memorable ones in my golfing life, for the events which occurred in the golfing world at that time awoke me from a lethargic sense of existence, and in 1902 I determined that my solace lay in giving up the struggle to become the game’s master, but should rather become its servant. I concluded that was far better than upbraiding myself with the waste of time trying to compete in a supremacy my muscles would not respond to as the years slyly stole vigor from my limbs. This was my renunciation.”

“Secondly, the events of 1901 and 1902 fortunately gave me a happy thought, convincing me as they did that I could be of some service to the game of golf in America if by endeavor I could successfully implant into the player’s mind and heart the character of the game as I knew it as a boy in Scotland, ennobling and endearing as it has always been to me. President Robertson, advocating Americanized golf, advocating changing the constitution of the U.S.G.A., speaking slightingly of traditions and high sportsmanship. For twenty-five years I have faithfully worked to this end, and, I believe, with some degree of success.”

“Thirdly, inspired by the “best hole” controversy, which London Golf Illustrated put up to the leading amateurs and professionals of the United Kingdom, I conceived the idea of building the National Golf Links, 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. Finally, in 1901 the Haskell ball became firmly established in the States and to a lesser degree in Scotland and England in 1902. These four influences reconciled me to be placed as a golfer in the “also-ran” class, and I was contented when after 1906 I was usually referred to in the reports of scratch golf event as among others “in the gallery”.

Conclusion of Part One