Walter J. Travis “Dropped” at National Golf Links of America
Truth or Travesty? (Part One)
by
Mike Cirba
April 2018

July 1910 “Soft Opening” Invitational Tournament for Founders and Members – National Golf Links of America (Left to Right) Charles B. Macdonald (putting), Walter J. Travis, Fred Herreshoff, H.J. Whigham, and Herbert Harriman.

As an émigré to the United States in the 1800s, he was the closest thing to a golfing savant in the history of the game. In less than a year after picking up golf clubs in the fall of 1896 he was winning competitive events and soon became one of the premier amateur golfers in the country. In the earliest, formative years of the game here in the states he was a stalwart on the Rules of the game, staunch defender of its integrity, and a quick student on everything from agronomy and course construction to proper swing technique.

By the late 1890s he was designing new golf courses and in the earliest years of the 20th century he went abroad to study the classic courses of Great Britain, a trip which could be rightly described as transformative to his thinking. His writings about the game helped to change the American mindset of what constituted a great golf course and he railed against the rote, crude, cross-bunkered steeplechase golf that constituted most courses in the country at this time. His outspoken writing in several publications helped to launch an understanding of the constituents of strategic golf, and he advised and chastised a number of prominent Scottish professionals in this country to design courses here more congruent to the standards of the great courses of their homelands.

His proposed redesign of his home golf club was extraordinary and controversial in nature, yet is still acclaimed to this day as being wonderfully creative and exemplary of how to introduce challenging variety on a flattish site. On the competitive stage, by 1904 he had won the United States Amateur title three of the previous four years and in 1904 stunningly won the British Amateur, the first American to win that vaunted trophy and a unique accomplishment that would stand for over two more decades.

So when it was determined in 1906 to build an “Ideal Golf Links” in this country, one based on the best qualities of the classic courses abroad, there was no one in this country with more architectural knowledge, competitive accomplishment, and passion for the game for Charles Blair Macdonald to reach out to for assistance than his good friend and club-mate Walter John Travis.

Both men shared strong personalities with intense personal drive and ambition bordering on a sense of entitled predestination. Although their golf-related endeavors shared many remarkable parallels, fundamentally the two men came at the game with much different backgrounds and perspectives. Macdonald, coming from a long family lineage of privileged wealthy landowners had been sent to St. Andrews, Scotland to study shortly after the Chicago Fire in 1872 at the age of 16. There, he quickly became enamored of the spirit of the town and fell in love with the ancient game of golf under the wise tutelage of Old Tom Morris while attending St. Andrews University. Embracing his newfound romantic interest with the fervor of a man possessed, Macdonald was soon playing competitively against the best Scottish players, including Old Tom’s son, “Young Tommy” Morris, Jr.

At the time, Walter Travis was nine years old and still living in Australia, the fourth of what would be eleven children (seven boys and four girls, although four would die before their tenth birthday) born to Charles and Susan Travis, the family making a living through Charles’ employment in various capacities in the gold mining industry in the burgeoning town of Maldon. Young Walter was bright and energetic, but although he played competitive sports (i.e. cricket, tennis) in his teens he did not achieve much success. What he did realize quickly was a love of the outdoors that manifested itself in young Walter leaving jobs in hardware and grocery stores to become a sheepherder during his teens.

A year later tragedy struck the family when Charles Travis was killed in a mine explosion. A year later Walter lost his only surviving older brother and took on the de facto “father” role to the remaining family and soon moved to the city of Melbourne to take a job with McLean Brothers, a growing hardware and ironmongery merchant. Ambitious Walter rather quickly caught on and sent money back home to his mother and six children in Maldon. When the company opened a New York office in 1885 and a year later asked eager 24 year old Walter if he’d be interested in helping to get it established. To golf’s great future gain, Travis accepted the job and moved to New York in 1896.

At that time, Charles Blair Macdonald was in his twelfth year of what for him must have felt like banishment to the desert, his so called “Dark Ages”. Having had a glorious two year exposure to the game of golf at St. Andrews, he returned to the golf-barren Chicago where he put his nose to the grindstone and became a successful stockbroker. He fed his soul with intermittent trips abroad where he would once again immerse himself into the deep waters of golf; only to come home to what in contrast seemed a joyless existence.

By the mid 1880’s Americans began to experiment with the novel, if ancient game in remote places like Foxburg, PA and Dorset, VT, but it wasn’t until 1888 that golf became established just outside New York City and garnered wider exposure with the formation of the St. Andrews Golf Club of Yonkers, NY.

Macdonald was one of the first to sense the opportunity. By 1892 he convinced several of his associates and friends to try the game and laid out the first rudimentary nine holes of the Chicago Golf Club, the first such entity west of the Allegheny Mountains. A year later the course was expanded to what was becoming the new “standard” number of 18 holes after its adoption in St. Andrews a few decades prior. Macdonald must have felt like a man released from the wilderness, and his strong sense of purpose included strict adoption in America of and allegiance to the rules as laid down by golf’s Vatican City, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland. To Macdonald, golf was a simple game needing few rules but those that existed from the motherland were Holy Writ. It was a position he would defend through much of his life.

In the intervening decade, golf caught on and grew quickly in and around Chicago and New York City, as well as Boston and Philadelphia. In 1894 Macdonald was instrumental in the formation of the United States Golf Association which started with five charter clubs (i.e. St. Andrews, Newport, Shinnecock Hills, Chicago, and The Country Club) and was elected its Vice-President. A year later Macdonald used his greater experience in the game to win the first of the organization’s Amateur Championships by a match-play margin that still stands as a record today.

While Macdonald was busy advancing his life’s love, Walter Travis viewed its growth from his offices in New York City (and London) with a sense of marked disinterest. “I was in London in 1895-1896 and learned that the Niantic Club, a social organization in Flushing, Long Island intended starting a golf club…but the game made no appeal to me. I am free to confess that I had mild contempt for it, inspired possibly by the garb of the players…” he later wrote in American Golfer.

At the time, Travis had taken to big city life with a flourish. During those intervening years, Walter had met and wooed a wife Anne Bent in 1890 and after a short time in a boarding house in New York City they saved enough money to move to a small home in Flushing where they had a daughter and son under their roof. Despite these trappings of domestication, Walter continued to refine his affinity for cigars and whiskey. He also still pursued his hunting and tennis and passionately joined the bicycling craze that was sweeping the nation, often racing madly through the city streets to and from work, his skinny legs pumping furiously with determination. Travis’ drive and ambition was noticed within the company and he soon had responsibilities in both New York and London.

In fact, by this time Travis had begun to view America as the land of opportunity and despite his Australian upbringing began to see himself as a proud and independent American, soon becoming a naturalized citizen the year he was married in 1890. In contrast, it is arguable that Charles Blair Macdonald’s heart and homage remained in the beloved Scotland of his formative years.

The fates sometimes conspire in mysterious ways, leading to sometimes historic seismic cultural shifts. Whatever the odds of four musical lads later meeting in the seaport of Liverpool, or a young Francis Ouimet growing up right across the street from The Country Club, by the year 1900 the gods of golf determined to take these two ambitious men of vastly different backgrounds and upbringings and put them in the same city, and even the same golf club. There they would become the first two titans of the game in this country and together and separately they changed the game of golf and trajectory of golf course architecture forever.

It is argued that often great relationships start with a bit of disdainful aversion, and it was likely with some fatalistic reluctance that Travis purchased a set of clubs before leaving London during the second part of 1896 and sailed home with them to America that fall.

He later wrote, “However, I realized that I would have to sink my prejudices and start in with the rest of the Niantic boys so I equipped myself with a set of clubs and, with anything but pride, brought them over on my return. In the early part of 1896 the Oakland Golf Club of Bayside, L.I. was formed and in October I first knelt at the shrine of the Goddess of Golf…and ever since have been a devout worshipper of the Royal and Ancient game.”

…………………………………………….The Niantic Club House

If there was ever such a thing as a golf prodigy, then thirty-five year old Walter Travis was one. John H. Taylor had hired Tom Bendelow to stake out a nine hole course for his budding Oakland Golf Club earlier in 1896 and it was there that Travis first took to the game with the religious fervor of a zealot.

Near constant play, practice, and careful study quickly followed Travis’ inaugural foray, and within a month after touching his first golf club Travis won first prize in the club’s first handicap tournament with the best gross score. By the end of the year Travis also held the course record of 42 shots for nine holes.

…………………………………….Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 21, 1896

The rolling undulations of the Oakland course proved to be an excellent training ground for Travis to develop his game. Already the best player in the new club, by early 1897 the nearby Flushing Athletic Club which shared many members with Oakland determined to build a short course nearer to town that could be used by women and by members during the shoulder season. It was also apparently Walter Travis’ first venture into golf course architecture, working alongside Thomas Bendelow.

…………………………………………………..Thomas Bendelow

By today’s standards, it was hardly an auspicious debut, but does reflect the state of architectural thinking at the time. This April 11, 1897 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article describes the individual holes with fences and cornfields and roadways providing most of the hazards.

 

Through the rest of 1897 and first part of 1898 Travis expanded his reach, competing in and winning various tournaments in and around the New York City region and by September 1898, less than 2 years after picking up a club, Travis entered into the United States Amateur tournament, held at Morris County Golf Club, in New Jersey.

During those same years Charles Macdonald continued as an active national competitor and both he and Travis made it to the Semi-Finals at Morris County before losing. But Macdonald was also greatly concerned with ensuring that the rapidly expanding game in the United States maintain parochial lockstep consistency with the rules as defined by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews.

In 1896, Macdonald and Laurence Curtis of Brookline were appointed to a special USGA committee to “interpret the rules of golf and to present their report for action at the annual meeting.” Looking to his old friend Horace Hutchinson for guidance, and assistance from the R&A in settling a number of rule disagreements in the states. Hutchinson wrote in 1897, “It is not the purpose of this article, however, to put forward my own or any other individual opinion, but simply to bring to the notice of golfers the desire of golfers in the States for a community of golfing opinion and a uniformity of golfing rule.”

When the Macdonald/Curtis report was finalized later that year, they were heartened that, as Macdonald later wrote, “The five charter clubs were unanimous on one point, and that was we should play the game of golf as it was played in Scotland, as evidenced by the rules adopted by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.”

Soon thereafter the USGA was also wrestling with the question of what constituted a true “amateur” and modifications to the original definition in the 1895, by-laws were enacted in 1898 and again in 1899 and 1901 to very narrow terms. In essence, a “professional” was defined as any person “Who receives a money consideration, either directly or indirectly, by reason of his connection with, or skill displayed in playing the game of golf; who is classified as a professional in any athletic sport; who sells or pledges any prize or token obtained through connection with the game of golf; who with the intention of promoting any business, receives transportation or board, or any reduction or equivalent thereof, as a consideration of his playing golf or exhibiting his skill as a player; who has club dues or charges paid by another person, as an inducement to become a member of a club.”

While such stringent definitions may have been easily financially attainable by many of the inherently wealthy bluebloods who made up he early American game, to a climbing businessperson like Walter Travis in his mid-30s with multiple responsibilities and a wife and two young children to support it was not nearly as clear cut on how best to fund his competitive golf travels. This issue would continue to dog Travis throughout much of his playing career.

In 1899, largely due to Macdonald’s influence, the Ontwentsia Club in Chicago was awarded the most prestigious competitive event, the United States Amateur tournament. At first, Travis and some other eastern players refused to go to Chicago for the event, only to subsequently change his mind. Once again, both Travis and Macdonald made it to the semi-finals before losing, Travis both times to Findlay Douglas.

While this matter of where to host the event was settled amicably, it was the first of several very public flare-ups where the upstart agitator Travis would challenge the very structure and decision-making of the fledging United States Golf Association, and by connection, it’s most ardent official, Charles Blair Macdonald.

1899 also marked the year when Walter J. Travis became deeply involved with golf course architecture. His close friend and Dyker Meadow club-mate James F. Taylor was also a member of the Equinox Club in Manchester, Vermont and Taylor asked Travis to come up and see if a large property he was considering buying might be attractive for golf. Taylor, the son of a wealthy Brooklyn industrialist learned the game with his father during visits to Scotland and he became one of the early adopters of the game in America. Taylor possibly believed that Travis’s dazzling, virtuoso golf skills and persistent personal drive might instinctively translate into knowledge of how to design and develop a great golf course. Probably uncertain of himself, Travis asked Ardsley Casino professional John Duncan Dunn to accompany him. Dunn, the son of famous Scottish golf architect Tom Dunn had arrived in America in 1896, and took the professional job at Ardsley Casino where his uncle Willie Dunn had designed the golf course and then employing an arduous and creative construction process, eventually carved out eighteen holes on a hilly, rocky, forested site. Soon after his arrival, young Duncan Dunn was being asked to design courses of his own and modify existing ones, often in a day or two’s site visit as was the custom of the time. Dunn had previously designed a few of the earliest rudimentary courses in the Netherlands. By the year 1899, he had developed a reputation as a consummate golf professional. His early ideas on golf course architecture were reported in this Elmira (NY) Daily Gazette article published in July 1900.

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