Feature Interview with Richard B. Findlay

June 2012


The purpose of this Feature Interview is to acquaint the golfing world with my grandfather, Alexander Hamburg Findlay.

In the early 1900’s the Prince of Wales (George V succeeded his father Edward VII in England), a childhood friend of Alex and soon to be King of England, wrote a letter to Alex. He did not have his address so he just simply put my grandfather’s name on the envelope and mailed it. In a short while the letter was delivered to Alex’s home in Boston, MA. This will give you an idea of how well known Alexander Hamburg Findlay was during his life in the United States as well as Scotland and England. Imagine putting the name Tiger Woods on an envelope and dropping it into the mail. Would it be delivered? Would people recognize the name? Of course they would, he is probably the most well known athlete in the world today. Move the clock back 100 years and who do you have? Alex Findlay, one of the most written about athletes in the world at that time.

As you read through the following questions asked by Ran, I hope you will come to learn of one of the most under recognized athletes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I do think you will come away with a heightened appreciation for the game, its early pioneers and even the future of the game. Also, please visit my web site dedicated to Alex’s achievements and to the early game of golf at www.alexanderfindlay.com .

My name is Richard B. Findlay, grandson of Alexander H. Findlay. Alex was born in 1865 and died in 1942 just shy of his 77th year. Alex died just before I was born, so I never actually met him, but I have literally read mountains of articles about him and have played many of his courses. To that degree I do believe I know my grandfather. Now let me introduce you to Alexander Hamburg Findlay.

My grandfather always indicated that there is only two ways to hit the golf ball, outside in or inside out. I would like to add one additional thought to that simple premise. Hit the golf ball before you hit the ground if you would like to propel the ball with accuracy and distance. If you hit the big ball (earth) it won’t move very far but the little ball (golf ball) will go very far. So, as I always tell everyone, Hit the Little Ball First!

Why did Alex Findlay come to America in 1887?

Alex, at the age of 21, was the first of his brothers to immigrate to America. David was second followed by Fred. James did come to the U.S. but continued on his way to Australia. One of the driving forces behind this move was the death of his mother who drowned in the river near their house in Montrose, Scotland, as she was endeavoring to save another person from drowning. His mother was the driving force behind his golf. She had him make a promise to her that he would neither smoke or drink or use fowl language throughout his life. He kept that promise to his beloved mother and died never tasting alcohol or tobacco.

Alex finished his education in Ireland, posted the lowest scores in golf for the past 3-4 years, and beat everyone associated with the game at that time. His longtime friend, Edward Millar, had moved to America a short while before Alex, ending up in Nebraska and owning a cow ranch. With no more worlds to conquer in Scotland, America would be the new frontier and having an opportunity to play the courses here would be the next challenge. So off Alex went to conquer the New World in late 1886.

Tell us about his playing record both before and after coming to America.

Alex was given his first three clubs by his mother when he was just 7 years of age in 1872. He practiced and perfected his game until the early 1880’s when he entered competition. In 1883 at 16 yrs of age he won his first match and in the next 3 years he ended up beating every player he came in contact with in Scotland. He played many competitions in match play. By May 5, 1886 he played against the best known professionals and amateurs in Scotland. On August 11, 1886 Alex broke or should I say smashed the world’s record in golf in competition at Royal Montrose Golf Links by scoring the first 72 ever recorded in competition. He did this with only three clubs, a brassie for driving off the tees, a mid iron, which was used to get out of traps and approach shots to the green and his famous cleek which was used for short shots into the wind, run-ups to the green and for putting. He used the same golf ball throughout the match. Did I mention that he went around 18 holes in only 19 putts using a gutta percha ball?! His 72 then would be equivalent to a 58 today in tournament play.

At the age of 15 he was a scratch player, at 17 a plus two man. He disliked bragging about himself as he often said self-praise was no recommendation. Before reaching the age of 18 he scored hundreds of 75’s and one lone 73 all in Scotland. But he was hungry to better the 73 and he devised the scheme of inserting many small holes in the bent grass at 2” diameters as putting cups. His reason for doing so was to improve his putting and to hold his own against the other scratch men. Four of those men were hitting the 75 mark every time around the links at Montrose Golf Club. They were all closely matched in driving and iron work to the green, but, the putting was usually the decisive factor. So having studied putting most diligently for two or three seasons into those tiny holes, he quickly found improvement in his plan and was eventually rewarded for his painstaking work.

Let’s replay the match at Montrose Scotland:  Walter Reid was the favorite, and came in with a fine “76” in a stiff breeze. Alex Findlay started out with a nice “35” for the first half and only to score a “40” on the long half to beat Reid. All others were out of the running. Alex took a five to the tenth hole and a nasty six to the eleventh hole where he two putted. He was not disheartened, but the fickle crowd left him at that point, as no one could record a 6 and make good….they thought. Alex became quite lionhearted and took five consecutive “4’s” and had only two more “4’s” to tie the competitive record score. As it turned out he nailed a sweet “3” at the seventeenth. The home hole was supposed to be his waterloo; his second shot landed thirty yards of the pin on the edge of the green. A four would give him a birdie, but instead of that he landed an eagle with a 90 foot putt and the score of 72. The sweetness of that putt was never forgotten, according to Alex, it was simply delicious. The only time in his life that he ever recorded a “3” at the 18th hole at Montrose Golf Links, and with that 72 history was made. To this day the score of 72 is the goal every golfer reaches for to beat par. As Paul Harvey used to say: “That’s the rest of the story.”

A young Alex Findlay

Once living in America, did he become interested in building golf courses out of necessity (i.e. he loved the game and wanted to play it and therefore he needed to build courses upon which he could play!)?

By the year 1680 the course at Royal Blackheath outside of London came into existence. By 1859 England and Scotland had about 39 golf courses in both countries. Alex played on most of the Scottish courses and understood what made a truly great golf course.

When Alex arrived in the U.S. in late 1886-87, he inquired as to where he could play a round of golf but no one knew what even golf was nor had anyone heard of a golf course. Upon leaving New York he immediately traveled to Nebraska. He then proceeded to build a six hole course on the Merchiston Ranch and he and his friend Edward Millar played many rounds on that prairie course. Even the Indians would come and observe him playing. Such notables as Chief Rains in the Face as well as Chief Sitting Bull tried their hand at this new game. Wild Bill Hickok also tried his hand at golf but was more interested in his Wild West Show.

Alex heard they were playing golf in Denver, so off he went by train to Denver to search out that course, much to his disappointment; it was polo they were playing. Alex soon returned to Nebraska and while on his friend’s ranch he was kicked in the head by a horse. He almost died from that blow. It took nearly ten years to fully recover from the injury and to return to competitive golf (see www.alexanderfindlay.com “Ain’t that a kick in the Head” for details).

In 1895 Henry Flagler hired Alex to build golf courses along the Florida East Coast railroad, primarily to get northerners to go south during the winter. Alex designed and built 6 courses from St. Augustine to the Bahamas. In 1897/98 George Wright offered him a job with the Wright & Ditson sporting goods company. He would be their “Golfer in Chief” in promoting the golf market. All golf clubs up to this point were made in Scotland primarily. Alex started his own signature line of clubs built from all local materials. They are the A.H. Findlay clubs. Of course, now people were able to purchase golf clubs and even golf balls (Guttie Purcha), but there were only a few courses available to play on at that time. In a masterful ploy by Wright & Ditson, they had Alex travel throughout the Northeast from 1897 through the early part of the 1900s to design golf courses from Boston south to New York and up into the Adirondacks and over into Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine. Now folks have clubs to play with, balls to hit and courses to play on.

But how do you play this game? Teachers would be needed. Alex pulled up his memory and started to invite the great Professional golfers of Scotland to come to America to get in on the ground floor of this new game. Ones such as Chay Burgess, James Findlay, David Findlay and Fred Findlay to name a few. Not surprisingly, most of the pros came from Royal Montrose Golf Links, in Montrose Scotland, Alex’s home course, one of the oldest golf courses in the world.

Findlay at age 75

His first course was the aforementioned six holer at Merchiston Ranch in Nebraska in 1887. He died in 1942. What is considered his last course? During that span, how did the quality of his work change/evolve?

I grew up in Germantown, Philadelphia, PA. I do believe his last course designed by Alex and my father Norman was Walnut Lane Golf Club around 1935. A sweet little course that will tax every club in your bag. How can such a short course be so difficult? It had to be because there was little land to be used. A great little muni today.

Of course, when you play any original course in the states in the late 1800’s you no doubt were playing on a primitive course as compared to the courses we see today. Mostly packed sand greens, ruts in the fairways, mowed not very much, more of a cow pasture type layout. In those days they did not have earth moving equipment so most of the courses followed the lay of the land, like they do in Scotland. As the years evolved so did the courses, becoming more challenging. The two golf course designers at that time were Donald Ross and Alex Findlay, both golfers, both played in the U.S. Opens. Both designers understood golf, how to play the game, how to score, when to risk, when to play it safe. Not only were they great designers but also great players.

Your web site www.alexanderfindlay.com notes that he may well have designed close to 500 (!) courses. Not only that, but unlike Donald Ross, he personally visited each and every one. That is an amazing feat and your grandfather must have been one – if not the – most traveled sports person of the day?

Yes, he did travel quite a bit in his day. Although having a wife and three young children, I doubt seriously if they actually saw my grandfather very much during that time period. Importantly, you have to remember that he had access to Henry Flagler’s trains at any time he wished.

Designing golf courses at the turn of the century was not as we design and build today. Alex would stake out a course by examining the land, plotting out the ideal layout for the land and then staking out the locations of all the traps, doglegs and greens. He would leave the actually construction to others, in many cases overseeing the building project. Donald Ross was also prolific but he designed many courses without ever stepping foot on the property. On my web page I have reprinted a letter from Fred Findlay on the intricacies of golf course design and the architect’s responsibility to the course. Most revealing considering it was written three quarters of a century ago.

I just visited Fred’s course, Farmington Country Club today (May 27, 2012) and I must admit it is one of the most beautiful courses you will ever lay your eyes on. I am making arrangements for a photo shoot about Alex using the backdrop of FCC and Thomas Jefferson’s main building that is part of the compound.

No doubt he was a pioneer and did much to foster the growth of the game in America. However, was he a great golf course architect?

Was Alex a great architect? That comment is best left to others to comment on. But remember the courses built in the early 1900’s by the two most famous individuals in the business were Ross and Findlay. Donald Ross was a professional and made his living designing courses. Alex chose to remain an amateur and therefore needed to work like the rest of us just to support his golf. Take for instance Reading Country Club in Reading, PA. Alex designed the course, my father, Norman, did the construction and Byron Nelson took over the pro teaching position. Alex worked for John Wanamaker’s Department Store at that time. He received a commission for decorating the golf clubhouses from Wanamaker’s. He also fitted the Queen Mary and received a commission for that project from Wannamaker’s. All of that to maintain his amateur status. Personally, I have not played most of his courses to this date, but I am endeavoring to travel through New England this summer with the intention of meeting the people and playing as many of Alex’s courses as possible. Also, remember that most all of his existing courses were built as private clubs and they remain that way to this day. Clubs that really draw away from the public scrutiny. Those courses that hosted major championships throughout their history actually declined future events due to their desire of privacy.

Approximately how many of Alex’s courses have you visited?

I have played his courses from Florida to Minnesota to New England, and in between, how many would be a good guess. I have teed it up on about 30 of his courses I do believe. I have seen about 50 of his courses, this summer I’ll add another 15-20 on my New England swing. I have played about 1,500+ courses in my 64 years of playing golf in this country and throughout the world. My grandfather played 2,440 courses in his life throughout the world. Considering that when he came to the U.S. there were no courses, it is a most amazing feat.

What have you gleaned from studying the ones that you have seen?

Alex protected par. His courses are ingenious in that respect. Take TAVISTOCK in Haddonville, NJ. Built in 1921. One of my most favorite holes in all of golf would be the 9th. Not especially long, 357 from the back tees, but challenging to all. A little dogleg to the right at about 230 yards out. But it is the two tier green that is trapped on the middle tier and with a slopping green that rejects the balls. Now, this hole can be birdied, pared and much worse. Par wins here. Challenging is an understatement!

Geographically, how far west, south and north do his courses range?

Alex designed one course in Montana, down then to Texas to Florida and throughout the mid Atlantic and New England locations. Most of these designs were done when there were no cars to use for transportation. When Alex was given the job at Wannamaker’s in Philadelphia around 1906, it then became the center of the golfing world in the U.S. Strange as it seems, but golf was huge in the Philadelphia area at the turn of the century.

What are five of your favorite designs and why?

I’ll start with LLANERCH COUNTRY CLUB in Upper Darby, PA built around 1920 and the host to a PGA championship in 1959, great finishing hole. PITTSBURGH FIELD is unique, also a host to a PGA championship. The 18th is a par three as are many of his courses. It also has an elevator for carts, only one I do believe. It is across the river from its more famous neighbor Oakmont, both were links designs when finished and over the years have become parkland courses. Stand on the first at Pittsburgh Field and you feel you can conquer the world. There is no water on the course, just sand traps and I mean lots of sand traps. READING COUNTRY CLUB is special. My father and grandfather have their signature all over the course. It’s like they are disciplining me when I am there, most challenging. The BREAKERS at Palm Beach is always thrilling. Imagine playing where Harry Vardin and Alex Findlay began their 1900 tour to promote golf. I recently had the privilege of playing with Tim Collins, director of golf at the Breakers. Tim provided many details concerning the course. WALNUT LANE GOLF CLUB in Philadelphia, PA is a public muny. All I can say for this demuntative layout is bring all your sticks, you will use every one of your clubs in the bag. Short but challenging.