The Designer from the Great Plains
by Chris Clouser
The vast volumes devoted to design during the Golden Age of Golf Course Design have been devoted to the greats in the field, such as MacKenzie, Tillinghast and Ross. These names dominated the field of golf course design along with the likes of Raynor, Flynn and Thompson in the 1920s until the onset of the Great Depression. For the most part these designers were without work during the Depression and the World War that prolonged that dry spell in architecture. But during that period one architect still seemed to flourish and produced some of the best work in the United States, Perry Maxwell. Maxwell was a banker who, with the help of his brother-in-law Dean Woods and later his son Press, would turn to golf course architecture after the death of his wife in 1919. Maxwell often escapes the gleam of the spotlight of the top architects from this period for many reasons. The first is that he started his trade in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and the surrounding states away from large metropolitan centers and easy publicity. The second reason is that he preferred to be soft spoken and didn’t write his opinions on design for publication much like many of his contemporaries. Truth be told, without the aid of a 1935 interview from the American Golfer, many of his ideas would still be unknown to most people who study the art and discipline of golf course architecture. In this article, Maxwell plainly states his values. To summarize them, build the golf course moving as little dirt as possible and as inexpensive as possible. In this day and age of ‘rape and shape,’ that might sound almost sacrilegious, but Maxwell held fast to those beliefs almost to a fault at times.
Maxwell was born in Kentucky and lived there until after his freshman year at the University of Kentucky when it was decided he should move to a warmer climate due to tuberculosis. He and his wife, Ray Woods, eventually moved to Ardmore, Indian Territory. This would later become Ardmore, Oklahoma once statehood was achieved. He became employed with the Ardmore National Bank and was with the bank full-time until the death of his wife in 1919. While she was alive, his wife introduced him to the game of golf, thanks to a Scribners Magazine article about the National Golf Links of America. He quickly took up the game and visited many of the top courses in the United States. After his wife’s death he toured the top courses in Scotland, including the Old Course at St. Andrews. While there he also made the acquaintance of Alister MacKenzie and arranged to form a partnership when MacKenzie moved to the US. By this time Maxwell had actually built the first 9 holes of own course in Ardmore, Dornick Hills. After his return he began designing courses in Oklahoma, with the funds of some of his contacts from the oil boom and his banking days, and refining his skills and philosophy under the radar of the national golfing public. By the time the Depression came on, Maxwell was ready to burst on the scene and become the most prolific architect of the period and actually continued his work during World War II and after until his death in 1952.
How does Maxwell’s work compare to others during this ‘Golden Age?’ What design traits did he use on his courses? Did he have a set pattern to his designs, like Raynor and MacDonald? Did his work evolve over his career? All of these are questions that hopefully can be answered in the next few paragraphs, but the best way to answer them is by examining his work. A tour of courses from all the periods of his career, if you will. Well, that is exactly what we are about to undertake. A tour of 11 courses in the Great Plains that were touched by Maxwell hopefully can shed light onto these issues. Below are the notes from a seven-day trek through the career of Perry Duke Maxwell.
The opening day consisted of visits at the Muskogee Country Club in Muskogee, the Hardscrabble Country Club in Fort Smith, Arkansas and a visit with Maxwell’s nephew, Morton Woods, Jr. The interview was full of information about Maxwell and the life on the farm in Ardmore and of Morton’s travels with Maxwell one summer in 1939. The visit at the two golf courses was enlightening to see what Maxwell’s work looked like during the early part of his career. Maxwell redesigned the course at Muskogee in 1924 into an 18-hole grass green design that was previously a 9-hole sand green course. Since then holes 3, 4 and 5 have been redesigned but the other 15 remain almost as Maxwell left them. Hardscrabble was laid out in 1926 as an out and back routing that was most unusual to Maxwell. The course changed this in 1968 by adding 5 holes and eliminating 5 of the originals. Then in 1997 Carter Moorish redesigned the entire course which included redoing all the bunkering, greens and altering the layout of two other holes. Due to this not much can really be garnered about the course at Hardscrabble except that it was routed over some extreme terrain.
The course at Muskogee was extremely interesting as an example of how Maxwell routed a course to use all the natural elements on the site. The ditches that exist on the course are now used repetitively on 4 holes, but Maxwell used them in a different manner on 3 holes than they now exist. But the front side is dominated by a series of ditches that affect the player in a different manner on each of the holes that they are used on. The backside has a dominant feature in the form of an odd shaped lake that comes into affect on 5 holes. For example, the 10th hole requires the player to carry the lake on their second, while hole 11 requires it to be carried from the tee. Then on hole 16, the green is perched hard up against the water to the right and hole 17 features the tee being out in the water. Hole 18 then has the water going along the right side of the landing zone for the tee shot. The varied use of the water and the ditches on the course along with some very interesting green complexes were a nice opening stop on the trip.
The second day was to consist of a drive from Tulsa to Ardmore, Oklahoma. But half way was a stop at the Jimmy Austin Golf Course on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman, just south of Oklahoma City. Much like the Hardscrabble course, the U of O course underwent a major redesign, but this one was handled by Bob Cupp. Going in Cupp made no statements about this being a sympathetic redesign. He stated flat out that most of the course would be changed. But the major exception is that he actually used some similar design concepts as Maxwell did in laying out the original course. Holes 13 through 18 though do use some of the original design. Hole 13 is actually the only hole that Cupp did not change. He touched up some of the bunkering, but left the remainder of the hole exactly as designed. This speaks of the genius of this hole. It is a truly wonderful hole. The tee shot must clear the creek with a group of bunkers protecting the left side of the fairway and the preferred approach into the uphill green location. Simple strategy used to it’s fullest. On the whole the course is very nice and still has that Maxwell feel. Next up is Dornick Hills.
Dornick Hills was the first course laid out and built by Maxwell. Originally 4 holes were built in 1913, but the 4th hole was eliminated when the layout was expanded to what is now the west nine by 1918. After returning from his trip to Scotland, Perry laid out the current front nine. Aside from being the first course built by Maxwell, it was also the first to employ grass greens in the state of Oklahoma. Maxwell implemented a Bermuda strain that was able to grow in the clay soil of Southern Oklahoma. The course of Dornick Hills was the perfect playground for Maxwell to use his minimalist philosophy. It was equipped with a natural creek and lake and three large hills that provided excellent elevation changes around the course. Over the years, the course has undergone some changes. Maxwell himself moved the 10th and 11th greens in 1936. Also many of the greens were redesigned due to some excessive contours that upset many of the members. Then in 1985 Dick Nugent came in and did a renovation that was labeled by a national magazine as the worst renovation of the year. Most of the work that Nugent did was aesthetic in nature, such as containment mounding. The most obvious answer is the awful mounding behind the 2nd green. He also moved the first green, sixth tee (to it’s original location) and the 10th green. Unfortunately, the club is still trying to recoup from this financially and just doesn’t have the funding at this time to remove these changes.
The layout of the course is almost identical to what Maxwell laid out by the end of 1923. The opening tee shot goes down a dramatic hill to a rolling fairway with the approach to a green perched hard against the natural lake. The next really good hole on the course is the uphill par 3 4th. A 190-yard uphill shot of 40 feet or so is required. Bunkering does not punish the player who comes up short but the player who is erratic with their shot. This same style of hole has been used by Maxwell on a number of courses. It is one of the better par 3s that Maxwell ever laid out. The 9th hole is what one person has called a quintessential Maxwell hole. It is an uphill dogleg par 4 that plays much longer than it’s yardage. The back nine though is perhaps the best part of the course. The 12th goes directly west from the clubhouse and doglegs around a group of trees, one of which is directly in the line of play if you elect to try and cut the hole on the left side. This concept was extensively used by Maxwell and may have been the influence for Press Maxwell on the 12th at Prairie Dunes. The 16th hole is the most famous on the course, the Cliff Hole. A mid-length par 5 with the green perched atop the 40-foot rock faced cliff. The approach is the key. If you get to close, as the woman in the group before us did, then you better just turn around or you could be looking at a possible hospital visit from a ricocheting golf ball. Or if you are too far away, your ball won’t be high enough to stay on the green. Beyond the 16th green is a path that leads back to the Maxwell-Woods Cemetery where Perry and his wife were laid to rest along with several other members of their families. The area is surrounded with a stonewall that Perry built and contains a monument with Grecian columns. The club refers to this as Perry’s Place and has plans to beautify the area so that more sunlight can get to it as it is currently enveloped by trees and shrubbery. That day there was a potted plant next to the stone for Perry. I watered it and left in silence from the peaceful plot.
The next morning involved a brief trip back out to Dornick Hills to take a few photos and then getting on the road to the tiny town of Lawton. Lawton is a unique little course that basically was laid out by Maxwell but was left in the hands of the members to build the course. Supposedly he went out in a jeep to the hill where the 11th tee now sits and laid out the course from this location in the late 1940s. The holes that Maxwell laid out are today’s 10th and holes 2 through 9. The 10th is a nice par 5 with some grass bunkering short of the elevated green that provide the risk-reward portion of the hole. The second was laid out with the green nestled into a small grove of trees. The remainder of the routing though not spectacular is solid, with the biggest problem being a lack of elevation changes. The greens were originally sand greens that were later seeded. They were almost all in the form of upside down saucer greens until Trippe Davis came in and did a green renovation on the course. He rebuilt every green and added Maxwell-like contouring to many of them. The course does have some turf issues, as several types of grass are prevalent on the course and even large areas of fairway that are barren. Unless you have a particular reason to play the course, it may not be worth the trip with so many top quality courses in the Oklahoma area.
Oklahoma City is the state capital and the home of two courses, which actually are bookends of the early period of Maxwell’s work in Oklahoma. Twin Hills was the first for hire design by Maxwell in 1920 and Oklahoma City GCC was completed in late 1927 or early 1928. The late afternoon was when the tour of the Oklahoma City Golf & Country Club took place. This is the country club in Oklahoma City. It is located in a part of town called Nichols Hills and is often referred to by that name locally. This is the other course in Maxwell’s portfolio to not feature a core routing scheme. But after the ninth hole one can go to a nice little halfway house located directly behind the green. The land available for the course was too narrow to really allow for a routing of two separate nines as is typical of most Maxwell designs. The course has only had three minor alterations since Maxwell constructed it. Hole 15’s green was moved due to drainage issues. A road expansion split the course into two distinct sections and shortly thereafter the holes on the other side of the road changed their sequence. The back tees on the 16th have been moved to create a tee shot over a lake. Other than that the course is as Maxwell left it. It has been written in some publications that Alister MacKenzie may have been involved with this design, but that is not the case. Maxwell was awarded this contract by a Dr. Nichols, the founder of the club, based on a relationship established years before from his banking career.
To get started this course was easily the biggest surprise of the trip. Without having any prior knowledge and no preconceived notions about it, the course proved to be an amazing layout with a vast variety of holes. The only flaw is the lack of any holes that play in the 350 to 400 range from the back tees. It is clear from the design of several of the holes on the course that Maxwell had studied the National Golf Links as many of the holes use concepts from that course. For example, the 285-yard par 4 8th hole is a miniature version of the Alps hole. For the player who wants to take the risk of driving the green, the reward can be great, but fail to clear the miniature Alps mounding in front of the green, then you pay the price. To further the problem, the green on this hole slopes away from the player. The less risky player has a lay-up into an area short of the green that will give the player a much easier uphill pitch if the sloping terrain doesn’t throw the ball into one of the bunkers or the rough on the right side. This hole along with the interesting 12th makes for a unique pair of short par 4s under 300 yards. There are also holes that involve Hog’s Back, Punchbowl and Plateau style greens. It is clear what Maxwell was using to set up his thought process on the holes for the course. The other obvious factor, especially on a day when the wind was blowing at 25 mph, is how the wind can affect play on the course. Maxwell set up all the greens on the course to receive low played shots below the wind if played from the correct spots and using the terrain correctly. Several of the greens also are setup to complicate the matter for those playing aerial approaches. Greens that play downwind were sloping away from the player and greens playing into the wind would often slope back towards the player. This is possibly the finest set of greens in the state of Oklahoma. It was also at this course that we noticed a unique characteristic about Maxwell bunkering. Much like Alister MacKenzie’s work it appears to disappear when viewing from the green on the course. After going around the course it can be fairly and confidently stated that this course may have the best variety of long par 4s and par 5s of any Maxwell design. Specific holes to note are numbers 2, 4, 5 and 9 on the front side. The last 3 holes of the course are somewhat disappointing to end the course. The par 3s are not superb, but they are not ignorable either.
After the excitement of seeing the layout at OCGCC, the trip across town to Twin Hills was one of eager anticipation. The course on paper looked wonderful and had a rich history. In person it was a good and solid course, but somewhat disappointing. This was based on the lofty expectations from research prior to the trip and with what was seen the day before. Part of the problems involved with the course stem from the maintenance the other was from some bad play. The course is being watered to death. There were several places around the course where the red clay was running in rivers along cart paths. There were also several fairways that were having turf issues. It is not known whether these two were related. The other cause for disappointment was what seemed to be a weaker layout. The course is comprised of a series of hills that provide some dramatic elevation changes. The course is made up of many solid to great holes, but as a whole it seems to be lacking in some manner. The course has over the years stayed as Maxwell left it after his final alterations in 1938. There have been a few bunkers eliminated and Mark Hayes did a sympathetic restoration in 1999 and 2000. The course is laid out on a 160 acre square piece of property in the Eastern part of Oklahoma City. Across from it on the other side of I-35 is Lincoln Park, a course where Maxwell took part in a green renovation in 1926. But what do I know. Alister MacKenzie was quoted about the course, ‘Better than the three American courses I have been hearing about all of my life; The Links, The Lido and Garden City.’
The feature hole on the front nine is the par 3 4th hole that is a version of the drop shot par 3 so popular during the period. The difficulty lies in the way the wind affects the ball. With a 140-yard downhill hole you could play anything from a wedge to a 6 iron depending on the wind. If the green was a little more undulating, this could be an excellent hole and not just dramatic. The 8th hole is a wonderful hole that has a sweeping fairway that tees off from the same elevation as the 4th. A creek runs alongside the approach and the green to the right. This was easily the best hole on the front side as it was a challenging hole of 427 yards that used the natural features to perfection. The best hole on the course is the short par 4 10th which could be even better. The terrain naturally sweeps down to the green site on the short par 4, but the area between the bunkers short of the green is now rough laden. It was formerly fairway and allowed a player to hit a daring shot over the trees that could roll onto the green. The 12th hole is another excellent dogleg hole with some a rolling fairway that uses the terrain to set up a shot into the green that is the protected by a group of three bunkers. The green runs from front right to back left. The pars 5s on the course seemed to be very similar in nature and were used by Maxwell to basically connect the remainder of the course. They almost all traverse over a hill with a downhill approach to a moderately bunkered green. The only exception was the 16th that played with a sloping fairway and for the longer hitters provided the possibility of reaching the green in two by using the slope of a hill to run the ball to the green. The par 4 holes on the course are easily the strength of the Twin Hills design and it can easily be seen that Maxwell was still refining his skills when laying out this course.
One of the courses that is considered one of his better works during this last part of his career is the Oakwood Country Club in Enid, Oklahoma just a little over an hour north of Oklahoma City. Most of the Oklahoma land is clay based soil, but in the Enid area that changes to sand based soil that is wonderfully suited to the development of a golf course. When laying out the course, Maxwell encountered two distinct portions to the land he was given to work with. One is relatively flat with only subtle movement; the other was very rolling and dramatic in nature. He did his best to balance this out, but most of the front nine is positioned on the less contoured part of the course. This is not to say the front nine is not littered with some very good holes. The 5th requires a drive to a plateau that provides a wonderful view of a green with a 30-foot drop from the plateau. A shelf on the back right provides a nifty location for a ‘Sunday’ pin placement. The strength of the course begins at the 9th though. The 9th is where we get a real taste for the elevations that Maxwell uses on the back nine. The tee shot goes out to a valley in the 250-yard range and presents an uphill approach to a green with a gooseneck fairway. The green actually slopes back to front, but an area in the back left actually provides another curious opportunity for a vexing hole location. The 10th is the best hole on the course as it winds its way between three hills and has a green that was built into the face of a fourth. With a distance of 420 yards it is meant to receive a long iron, but today still is a mean green with people playing wedges into it if they play with a tailwind. The final hole is another wonderful example of Maxwell’s ability to use the land as he swung the fairway out around the intruding hill to give the appearance of a narrow landing zone when the preferred area of approach is hidden by the hill. The hole also has a delayed dogleg and is uphill to a green that features two monster rolls at 10 and 4 o’clock in the green that really affect the strategy on the hole. The biggest problem with the course are holes 15 through 17. These holes are back in the area where the terrain flattens. Though, the feeling is not lost that Maxwell could have done something more with them. There is a natural and rather large sand hill and a natural lake that could have been used to make a more exciting finish to the course. Aside from this three-hole stretch though the course is one that builds momentum from the beginning and works its way to a dramatic finish.