Feature Interview with Daniel Wexler
Daniel Wexler is a Los Angeles-based golf historian and writer. Formerly a golf professional, he is a 1985 graduate of Middlebury (VT) College and author of The Missing Links: America’s Greatest Lost Golf Courses And Holes.The book, published by Sleeping Bear, is due out in early July.
1. Can you explain the genesis of a book on lost American golf courses?
The idea was sparked by a telephone conversation that I had several years ago with the late Dave Marr. We were discussing various classic courses and when the Lido’s name was mentioned, he became very enthusiastic, saying that Claude Harmon had once told him that it was ‘the greatest golf course ever.’ That set me to thinking and pretty soon I was compiling a list of deceased courses built by the great Golden Age architects. I wasn’t familiar with very many of these layouts but when the list quickly grew beyond 100, I began thinking in terms of a book.
2. Give us a feel for the format of book, its graphics, etc.
Since these layouts obviously can’t be visited or researched on the internet, I wanted to present them in depth, to provide as complete a picture as possible of their layouts and history. To that end, I selected 27 to profile thoroughly, with each receiving its own chapter featuring a color map and scorecard, photos and diagrams, and text that includes both history and something of a hole-by-hole tour. I also added my thoughts on how each layout might stack up in today’s numerical ratings game, a subjective area which will probably generate some discussion among readers. Finally, I included secondary chapters for each of the great architects summarizing their other lost works, plus an appendix and maps locating New York, Chicago and Los Angeles’s most significant lost layouts.
3. What types of sources did you use in researching The Missing Links?
Anything I could find. There was a wide range of difficulty involved in the research. Certain courses (generally those which hosted major events or were frequently profiled in period publications) were relatively simple to piece together. Other more private layouts could be quite difficult.
Obviously the location of an aerial photograph was important in nailing down the particulars of any facility. Between the National Archives and local planning departments and historical societies, I did pretty well in that regard. The old magazines, Golf Illustrated and The American Golfer primarily, were invaluable sources, as were a variety of old scorecards, maps and promotional pieces. As always, the USGA library in Far Hills was extremely helpful. But more than anything, I am very fortunate to live within driving distance of the Ralph W. Miller Golf Library here in Southern California, a place which truly deserves some form of landmark status for all of the information it contains.
But those, relatively speaking, were the easy parts. It was the location and contacting of so many local sources that consumed the most time.
4. What was the hardest lost course to track down? The easiest?
The hardest, easily, was Mill Road Farm, located in Lake Forest, Illinois. It was the private estate course of a famous advertising executive named Albert Lasker and was seen by very few people outside of Lasker’s inner
circle. In fact, it seemed so obscure (and was so short-lived) that I initially thought about skipping it entirely. The problem was that it was built by William Flynn, it measured roughly 7,000 yards (enormous by 1920s
standards) and was cited by people like Bobby Jones, Johnny Farrell and Grantland Rice as being among the best and toughest layouts in America. In any case, after striking out with a number of potential sources, I was bailed out by the local planning department who managed to produce one very good aerial photo from before WWII. Even so, I had to measure the hole yardages by scaling them from the frequently-published 7,000-yard total. All in all, a tough find but definitely worth the trouble.
The easiest was probably Fresh Meadow, an old A.W. Tillinghast layout in Queens, New York. It opened to a great deal of publicity, then hosted the 1930 PGA Championship (won by Tommy Armour) and the 1932 US Open, which Gene Sarazen won with a record final-round 66. Given all of the associated publicity, not much was left to chance.
5. Were the courses of any particular architect harder to find than others?
Not significantly. The degree of difficulty was generally tied to an individual courseÃ‚¹s geographic location. Those built in major population centers tended to be easier, those situated in rural areas more difficult. By that measure, some of Donald Ross’s lost works perhaps posed a bit of a challenge as he seems to have built (or at least drawn plans for) a greater number of far-flung layouts. One disappointment, for example, was my
inability to produce solid routing maps for the Country Club of Havana and the Havana Biltmore Yacht & Country Club, both of which disappeared following Castro’s rise to power in Cuba. But generally the big-name architects
followed the money which meant they were all building courses in the same large markets.
6. Did any particular architectÃ‚¹s lost courses reveal anything new or different about his style?
Not in dramatic ways, but there were all sorts of smaller things worth noting. I was fascinated, for example, to discover some very rudimentary designs done by A.W. Tillinghast in his earlier years. His first course, at
Shawnee-On-Delaware, Pennsylvania was so interesting and his most famous creations – the Winged Foots, Baltusrols and San Franciscos – are so obviously sophisticated that I’d always assumed his style to have been relatively consistent. But his early work at St. Petersburg Country Club in Florida, for example, was extremely basic: straight, flat holes, round greens, geometrically-precise crossbunkering. Nothing like the varied, artistic work which we associate with him today.
I was also impressed by some of William Flynn’s lost layouts. Previously I’d thought of his Philadelphia-area parkland work as being his ‘style,’ with Shinnecock Hills being something of an aberration. But after seeing his lost courses at the Boca Raton Hotel and the old waste-area-strewn holes at Atlantic City Country Club, I came to view him much more as an architect capable of working wonderfully with the natural aesthetic of the land.
7. Which state has lost the most gems through time?
New York, by a mile.
Actually, the New York City area by itself has probably lost more really fine courses than most states have ever had! Here’s something that absolutely amazed me: Before WWII, just the borough of Queens and its very immediate environs featured courses designed by Dr. Alister MacKenzie (Bayside), A.W. Tillinghast (FreshMeadow and St. Albans), C.B. Macdonald (The Lido), Seth Raynor (Oakland) and Devereux Emmet (Pomonok, Queens Valley, Hillcrest, etc.), NONE of which still exist today.
Then you move slightly east, onto Long Island and the high-profile losses continue. A top-flight Macdonald/Raynor layout at Deepdale, another of their collaborations at the Links Club, some really good Devereux Emmet designs at Old Westbury, the Meadowbrook Hunt Club, the Huntington Crescent Club and his five course (!) facility, the Salisbury Country Club. And, of course, one of the really amazing pre-war layouts, C.H. Alison’s Timber Point.
8.What made Timber Point so special? Where would it rate today against the finest courses on Long Island?
Aside from being immensely difficult from the back tees (6,825 yards, par 71, in 1925), Timber Point probably offered about as much terrain-oriented variety as one could imagine. It’s front nine initially ventured near the ocean, then proceeded back inland through a series of British heath-like holes, then across some Pine Valley-like sandy terrain. The inward half, which was largely constructed on reclaimed marshland, included several of the boldest holes of my acquaintance, including the 460-yard par-four eleventh (featuring three distinct driving areas), the 470-yard par-four fourteenth and the 205-yard into-the-wind fifteenth, modeled after Dr. MacKenzieÃ‚¹s famous Gibraltar hole at Moortown, England. The sixteenth and seventeen were true seaside holes and the 510-yard eighteenth, one of the few holes routed with the prevailing breeze, offered the aggressive player a chance to close in style.
Timber Point does still exist, but in a heavily-altered state since its present owner, Suffolk County, long-ago turned it into a 27-hole facility. Were its original design still intact, it would surely rate very near the top
of Long Island’s best. Perhaps not as highly as the National, Shinnecock Hills or the Lido, but certainly comparable to Garden City, Bethpage (Black) , Maidstone, etc.
9. How would you compare the design quality of the Lido to Timber Point?
It’s a tricky question since they were really like apples and oranges. Timber Point was built upon a very large tract of land with a variety of natural settings and features. The Lido was shoehorned into a much smaller site which, prior to massive shaping, offered virtually no features. This discrepancy certainly gave C.H. Alison more freedom in his routing with the result being a layout that offered starkly contrasting backdrops, a bit like Cypress Point’s mix of seaside, forest and sand dunes. The Lido, on the other hand, looked and surely felt rather uniform from start to finish.
In terms of strategy, however, the Lido was clearly the better golf course. Nearly every hole offered what today’s P.R.-minded architects like to call ‘risk/reward’ situations, especially at the celebrated fourth and eighteenth holes, but also nearly everywhere in between. This is not meant to imply that Timber Point was especially lacking in this regard. But I am of the school that believes it’s much easier to build great strategy into shorter holes where simply reaching the green in regulation is not the player’s primary concern. The well-conceived short par four is my favorite hole in golf, and is rather conspicuously absent from Timber Point’s design.
There’s no doubt that Timber Point was the grander, more spectacular layout, but I think most knowledgeable observers would agree that the Lido was, on the whole, noticeably better.
10. How would the work of Colt & Alison be perceived if Timber Point were still here today?
That’s an interesting question. First we must remember that H.S. Colt really did very little work in the United States in the first place. Therefore, with the exception of his initial involvement at Pine Valley and a handful of other pre-1915 solo projects, we’re really only talking about Alison’s work on this side of the Atlantic.
I am in no way an Alison expert but relative to his layouts which I have studied, Timber Point strikes me as a bit of an anomaly. It was longer and tougher, essentially put together on a larger, more ambitious scale. That’s not to say that it was unique, however, as several of its holes appear (sometimes in slightly different forms) in many of Alison’s other designs. But Timber Point’s site and conception were unique, making it difficult to effectively compare it with the rest of his domestic portfolio.
To answer the question directly then, I suppose if people saw Timber Point and were inspired to seek out the rest of Alison’s American work, they might have come away slightly disappointed.
11. Who deserves more credit for the Lido, Macdonald or Raynor?
There’s little doubt from all the available evidence that this was one job C.B. Macdonald truly took an active role in. Indeed, he withdrew from designing the Blind Brook Club so as to concentrate his energies more fully upon it. Yet in a pre-construction article outlining the Lido’s various holes, Macdonald spoke of the sixth as being a reversed replica of the Road hole at St. Andrews (ie. bunker positioned front-right) when in actuality, it turned out as a version of Raynor’s Prized Dogleg, an entirely different sort of hole featured in several of Raynor’s solo designs. The message, I suppose, is that despite playing second fiddle, Raynor enjoyed quite a bit of autonomy in the field.
But was the Lido his golf course? I tend to fall back on a clip from a Raynor obituary which read: ‘According to Mr. Macdonald the Lido links, built on sand pumped out of the ocean, will stand forever as a monument of Mr. Raynor’s constructive skill.’ Taken literally, this suggests to me that it was primarily Macdonald’s design, and I leave it at that.
As an aside, I just flew over the old Lido site this week and found it both thrilling and sad to view the modern golf holes that partially occupy it, and to think about what once was.
12. Were Alister MacKenzieÃ‚¹s Bayside Links and Sharp Park as good as their reputations?
Sort of and yes, respectively.
Bayside was in many ways a testimonial to MacKenzie’s considerable skills because he fashioned an interesting, highly-maintainable public course on a none-too-exciting site. It also featured some impressively-contoured green complexes, some of which may have approached the famous Sitwell Park photo so frequently reproduced. As its chapter in the book illustrates, however, Bayside was hardly on par with the Cypress Points, Crystal Downs and Pasatiempos of the Doctor’s portfolio.
Sharp Park, on the other hand, was every bit as spectacular as it was short-lived. Seaside holes, alternate fairways, highly-strategic bunkering and a beautiful California setting. It’s tough to imagine a municipal golf course anywhere in the country coming anywhere near it. The vastly-altered layout that occupies the site today doesn’t even pretend to approximate the original so it shouldn’t be held up for comparison.
13. Which of his courses do you think George Thomas would most like to see brought back to its original design?
Oddly enough, Bel-Air. It still exists, of course, but Dick Wilson’s early 1960s modernization ruined several of the very best holes on what originally was one of the world’s truly interesting and unique layouts. It certainly wasn’t Thomas’s toughest creation but it probably was, once upon a time, his most interesting.
After that I’d guess La Cumbre in Santa Barbara, which is the Bel-Air situation multiplied several times. Thomas and Bell rebuilt an ancient Tom Bendelow layout and created all sorts of unique holes including the celebrated, over-the-canyon par-four sixteenth. Not much of their work remains identifiable today.
Among Captain Thomas’s truly lost courses, he’d probably wish to bring back Los Angeles’s Fox Hills. It wasn’t quite on par with Riviera, Bel-Air and Los Angeles Country Club, but it was pretty darned good.
14. What three holes do you most wish were still with us to this day?
Limiting it to three is not easy.
First, I suppose I’d pick the fourth or Channel hole at the Lido, a famous short par five which is likely America’s best-chronicled lost hole. It was spectacular, daunting and yet as strategic as it gets.
One could easily select two more from the Lido but in the interest of fairness, I’ll opt for the ninth at Gibson Island (in Maryland) and the seventeenth at William Flynn’s old South Course at Boca Raton. The Gibson
Island hole was a 330-yard Macdonald/Raynor design that was built on a narrow peninsula of land sticking out into a sizable body of water called the Magothy Narrows. The hole was so spectacular that we used it as a back cover photo for the book. Boca Raton’s seventeenth was a 570-yard version of one of Flynn’s personal favorites, the Hell’s Half Acre at Pine Valley. My guess would be that Flynn felt he was improving upon the original by angling the second-shot carry bunker and opening up the front-right of green a bit, creating additional strategy. Either way, the hole was frequently cited among the country’s best prior to WWII.
15. What was the biggest surprise in your research?
The sheer number of lost courses that used to dot the American landscape, a great many of which went thoroughly undocumented. It seemed as though every time I’d look at a new aerial of one of the layouts I was researching, I’d spot at least one other unknown course located somewhere nearby. Some of these were private estate courses, others nondescript nine-holers that were probably laid out by amateurs in some farmer’s field. In the end, I doubt that I overlooked anything truly noteworthy, but there are several million acres of American suburbia that I’ve never seen old aerial photos of. Far more than enough to make one wonder.
16. Is there a particular design feature that has been lost through time that you would like to see brought back?
But if you’d prefer a more concrete answer, I suppose I’d say the inclusion of replica holes. Macdonald and Raynor were famous for them of course, but men like MacKenzie and Tillinghast also went in for the occasional Redan or Eden. It’s not that one advocates simply copying someone else’s work in place of creating something original, but the inclusion of such holes adds a marvelous thread of tradition to what is, after all, a highly traditional game. Besides, though they may rely on conceptual similarities, few of the really good replicas represent anything even close to exact copies. Compare, for example, Raynor’s Biarritzes at Fishers Island and Yale. Their differences are in many ways more interesting and instructive than anything I see in the vast majority of new designs being built.
17. Time has treated which architect’s courses the worst?
That depends upon how you define ‘worst.’ Donald Ross and Devereux Emmet have surely lost the largest number of designs, but not all that many of those deceased courses would be household names today. C.B. Macdonald had the very heart of his portfolio cut out with the loss of the Lido and Deepdale, but at least The National still stands. Doctor MacKenzie was a staunch advocate of quality, affordable public golf and as such, is likely rolling over in his grave at the loss of Bayside and the original Sharp Park. But all things considered, I think George Thomas has been dealt the cruelest blows. Of his roughly 15 documented projects, only Fox Hills, Baldwin Hills and nine holes at Saticoy (Ventura, CA) are truly gone. But when one examines what remains of the rest, only Riviera has not been substantially altered to its detriment, and even its design integrity appears to be gravely in danger.
18. Is there any particular event that continually re-occurs that accounts the most for the loss of such great courses?
Overdevelopment spurred by population growth. It’s true that the Depression and WWII caused the economic downfall of many fine courses but in reality, the suburban expansion brought on by post-war affluence was responsible for many, many more. Land that once was inexpensive and remote became coveted as the automobile rapidly expanded the radius in which one could live and commute to the city.
In the big picture, such unchecked growth certainly has far wider-reaching ramifications than are relevant simply to golf. But within the rather limited boundaries of our little game, their effects have been catastrophic.