Joshua Crane In The Golden Age, Part I
by Bob Crosby

Three men met in St Andrews in the summer of 1929. They were antagonists in one of the most remarkable debates in the history of golf course architecture. One of the men was Alister MacKenzie, the best known golf architect of the era. MacKenzie was there with his friend Max Behr, heir to a paint fortune (the company still bears the family name) and a first rank amateur player. Behr had once been the editor of the US version of Golf Illustrated but was now working as a golf architect in California. A picture of the two men striding down the first fairway of the Old Course that summer shows MacKenzie, the shorter of the two, wearing a rumpled hunting jacket and vest. Behr has removed his cap for the photographer. He has a movie star’s good looks and is wearing a zippered, modern pullover.   

Max Behr and Alister MacKenzie at the Old Course, 1929

Max Behr and Alister MacKenzie at the Old Course, 1929

The third man in St Andrews that summer was Joshua Crane. A wealthy Bostonian, Crane had been a star running back on the Harvard football team, a world class tennis player, polo player and yachtsman. Now some twenty-five years after his athletic triumphs Crane was still thin and fit. His decision to take a flat in St Andrews that summer had raised eyebrows in the world of golf. Several years earlier Crane had rated fourteen prominent British courses and the Old Course had finished dead last. It had all caused quite a stir. Bernard Darwin noted at the time that if Crane’s rankings really reflected his views, deciding to spend his summer playing golf in St Andrews was an odd choice indeed. 

 Joshua Crane at the International Seniors Match, 1928
Joshua Crane at the International Seniors Match, 1928

We don’t know exactly what the three men said to each other that summer, though MacKenzie recounted some of their conversations in The Spirit of St Andrews. Their earlier exchanges on golf architecture in the pages of the most prominent golf magazines of the time had gone from polite, to acrimonious, to personal. The devolution in tone might have been predicted. All three were supremely confident of their views and had little patience with misbegotten souls who might disagree with them. So it seems likely that their conversations that summer were, as they say, animated. Nor did their meetings in St Andrews resolve their differences, though their fracas was to have a surprising final act five years later.

Their disagreements exemplify the unsettled state of things in the Golden Age. The period was not, as its name suggests, a time of harmony and good feelings. To the contrary, people argued about virtually everything. They fought about amateur standing, stroke and distance penalties, the stymie, the rubber core ball and steel shafts. And, of course, they argued about golf architecture. There was little consensus about the criteria for good golf course design. The length of holes, how and why different bunkering schemes ought to be used, blind shots and other issues were hotly debated. Part of the turmoil was due to the fact that the basic vocabulary for the “new art of golf architecture” was just being worked out. Architectural concepts we now take for granted were still unresolved and people argued over them, often bitterly.  

And something else was going on. It had to do with golf’s uneasy relationship with other sports. Joshua Crane was one of the great sportsmen of his generation, among the first of the type in the United States. Along with other wealthy sons of the Gilded Age, it was a point of pride for Crane and his circle to compete in a wide variety of sports, golf being prominent among them. But Crane thought golf presented unique problems. He worried that too many golf courses failed to assure competitive “fairness.” If golf courses were to function as venues for true sporting competitions, he thought it important that the linkage between golf shots and their outcomes be as rational and predictable as possible. Why, Crane asked, shouldn’t concerns with competitive equity that were so important in other sports apply with equal force to golf? 

Views similar to Crane’s had been around for a while and they had co-existed peacefully with other, conflicting ideas about golf design. Crane ended that peaceful co-existence, however, and brought long-standing differences to a head. He did so in three ways. First, Crane got everyone’s attention by claiming he had unmasked serious deficiencies in the Old Course and other historic links courses. Crane then claimed that the methodology he used to obtain such results was “objective” and the standard against which the quality of all golf courses should be measured. Finally he suggested that courses that didn’t satisfy his objective standards were not suitable venues for true sporting competitions. Crane framed disagreements about golf design as a pass/fail test. Among the courses that failed his test were the most beloved golf courses in the world.

Crane’s controversial course rankings were reported in all of the major golf periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic and they triggered a number of battles. Those battles have much to teach us. The best of them forced the antagonists to examine basic concepts in golf architecture with a thoroughness that has never been equaled. Neither before nor since have so many articulate, well-informed commentators engaged in a point-counterpoint public exchanges over foundational issues in golf architecture. Both sides thought that the future of golf architecture was at stake and their passion still leaps from the page. Perhaps that is why they drilled down to the central issues in golf architecture more perceptively and more honestly than any public debate about golf architecture before or since.

Crane’s Course Rankings

Joshua Crane was an unlikely protagonist in an acrimonious public debate about golf architecture. In his youth his sporting interests were with tennis, polo, yachting, football and track. Crane was a gifted athlete and he participated in all of those sports at high levels in national and international competitions. Though he did not take up golf until adulthood, Crane quickly became a very good player. He captained five Lesley Cup teams from Boston and played regularly in amateur tournaments in Britain and the US. After World War I Crane began spending more time at his residence in London. While there he toured the famous courses of England and Scotland, keeping detailed records of their physical features and conditioning. Those records became the raw data on which Crane based his initial set of course rankings of fourteen British courses. Crane published those rankings and  explanations of his rating methodology in Field, Britain’s pre-eminent “Gentleman’s Weekend” magazine, over a three year period beginning in April, 1924 and continuing into the summer of 1927. 

Crane’s initial ranking of British courses was probably the first course ranking that claimed to be more than a simple popularity contest.[1]

That would have been controversial enough. But Crane went further, claiming that his rankings weren’t just his personal opinion of the quality of the fourteen courses considered. To the contrary, Crane presented his rankings as “scientific.” Assigning values to a multitude of carefully measured physical features of each course and then cranking those values through a complicated weighting formulae, Crane believed he had generated an “objective” ordering of the courses under review. With the result that Muirfield and Gleneagles were found to be two best courses in Britain. The two worst, by wide margins, were the Old Course and North Berwick. Crane’s first full course ratings went as follows:

Muirfield            86.5
Gleneagles         84.6
Prince’s               83.8
Troon                  83.0
St. George’s       82.1
Hoylake              81.5
Walton Heath   80.4
Sunningdale      80.1
Turnberry          79.9
Deal                       79.1
Prestwick            78.1
Westward Ho!   75.3
North Berwick  72.6
St. Andrews       71.8

Crane wrote frequently for Field, setting out his rankings, his rating methodology, hole-by-hole analyses of each of his ranked courses and responding to his critics. In the late 1920’s he expanded his rankings to include Pine Valley, National Golf Link of America, The Lido and other US courses. Crane also identified a course composed of his “ideal” holes, eventually applying his rating system to a hypothetical course made up of those holes. During 1926 and 1927 Crane authored several articles and lengthy letters in Country Club & Pacific Golf and Motor Magazine, most responding to Max Behr in a furious debate they carried on in the pages of that magazine. Crane’s writing on golf went beyond golf architecture, however. He also wrote on handicap systems (rather than stroke adjustments Crane advocated the use of different tees, an idea that spurred a response by Bernard Darwin in The Times), rules interpretations, the golf swing, and putting.

Crane’s final, composite ranking of British and American courses, including his hypothetical ideal course, as it appeared in 1928:

Ideal US course 95.9
Muirfield               86.5
Gleneagles            84.6
Prince’s                  83.8
Troon                     83.0
The National       83.0
Merion                  82.6
St. George’s         82.1
Hoylake               81.5
Pine Valley        80.9
Lido                      80.7
Walton Heath   80.4
Sunningdale      80.1
Turnberry          79.9 
Kittansett           79.4
Deal                       79.1 
Prestwick            78.1
Myopia                 77.7
Essex                     75.6
Westward Ho!    75.3
Essex                     73.5
North Berwick   72.6
St. Andrews        71.8

The detail that went into Crane’s course evaluations is mind-boggling. Equally mind-boggling were the elaborate weighting formulae used to assign values to each measured feature. Those values were then tallied to generate an overall “objective” rating percentage for a course, which percentage indicated the degree to which the course fell short of Crane’s ideal for design, conditioning and other matters. Crane published his full checklists in the US Golf Illustrated in 1925:

3

The data Crane collected on course conditioning was equally detailed:

4

When Crane did his actual rankings he relied most heavily on his Design and Layout data. He was concerned that the data he had gathered on Conditioning and Upkeep was out of date and likely to be inaccurate by the time his final rankings appeared. As for the methodology itself, it’s not clear how a number of categories are supposed to interact. For example, how Crane distinguished “quality” from the “condition” and “drainage” of various features is not elaborated. Indeed, how a number of categories interact with each other is not well explained. Also to be noted is Crane’s curious addition of rating categories for things like caddies and course surroundings, things that might make sense in most rating systems, but not one that purported to be objective.

First Responses

Crane’s rankings evoked a range of responses that played out over several years. The very idea of a course ranking on based solely on design quality was novel, and some commentators thought that any such program was misguided from the outset. Compounding things was the low ranking Crane gave to the Old Course and other historic links courses. Anyone ranking golf’s sacred sod at the bottom of the heap should have expected strong reactions. But to then pour gasoline on the fire by claiming your rankings were “objective” and “scientific” was what it meant to go cruising for a bruising.

And that’s what Crane got. The initial responses to his rankings were almost universally hostile. Charles Ambrose, a frequent contributor to the Field and Golf Illustrated, wrote about Crane’s ranking of the Old Course that “So far there is not one single hole which escapes Mr. Crane’s strictures. The imagination fairly boggles at the thought of the spectacle the poor Old Course would present after Mr. Crane had flattened it out to his liking.”

Crane shot back that Ambrose had attacked him personally and failed to address the merits of his rankings:

“[Ambrose’s] type of mind is that of a believer in spiritual mediums, who when a calm scientific investigation has been undertaken with a view of proving or disproving facts…, and the medium has been detected (as they all have been sooner or later) in fraud, rushes to the defense by claiming that the investigating committee was to discredit the medium…”

Crane didn’t publish his full hole-by-hole analyses of the Old Course and Muirfield (the worst and the best courses in his rankings) until more than a year after his first essay on his methodology had appeared in Field in 1924. When his analyses for those courses did finally appear, there was another surge of criticism. But it wasn’t all just shouting and hand waving. Crane’s ideas were thought important enough for Field to get reactions to his rankings from Harry Colt, J.R. Abercromby and MacKenzie. Ambrose conducted the interviews and introduced them as follows:

Muirfield has been placed by Mr. Joshua Crane as the head of British golf courses. (Field, September 24th, 1925, February 4th, 1926) and St. Andrews (November 19, 1925) considerably below it. St. Andrews is very much what it has always been as a Championship course, except for minor alterations. Muirfield has been within the last year or two overhauled and reorganized by Mr. H. S. Colt, the golf architect. Clearly it would be of interest to ask Mr. Colt if he had any plan which would bring the Old Course at St. Andrews to the scientific level of the new Muirfield.

Colt and MacKenzie, contra Crane, thought that no changes should be made to the Old Course and that it remained a model for good design.[2] Colt’s response was particularly interesting because his “up-dating” of Muirfield had deeply impressed Crane and received his highest rating. Crane often referred to Muirfield as the model for how older links courses ought to be “modernized.” Colt, however, did not think such ideas had application to the Old Course:

… I think that the Old Course is so unique that any attempts to graft on new ideas would never be a success. It has served its purpose for centuries by providing healthy exercise and enjoyment to vast numbers of people, and at the same time a test for Championship golf.

MacKenzie echoed Colt’s views, stating that “I don’t think anyone has studied the Old Course at St. Andrews more than I have, and the more I reflect the less inclined I am to alter any of the holes.”

Down the street at the British Golf Illustrated Harold Hilton dismissed Crane as an American expatriate with no business ranking Britain’s historic courses. The US Golf Illustrated reproduced some of Crane’s articles first published in Field, including Crane’s description of his ranking methodology. The editors of the US Golf Illustrated were less hostile than their British counterparts to Crane’s project, publishing not only his detailed ratings of a number of US courses, but also his rating data checklists and two pieces written by Crane on his ideal holes.

Alister MacKenzie had just finished his extraordinary map of the Old Course when Field began to roll out of Crane’s rankings. The map had been a labor of love for MacKenzie, taking him more than a year to complete. It was his lifelong conviction that the Old Course was the standard against which all golf courses should be measured. It would be expected, then, that MacKenzie would be upset with Crane’s findings:

I have recently seen an article by Joshua Crane on the rating of famous golf courses. It is difficult to read the article without a feeling of intense [irritation]… He rates Muirfield as the best and poor old St Andrews as the worst of our famous golf courses, whereas any architect in Britain or America who has achieved any marked success in creating popular courses will reverse his rating.

MacKenzie concluded acerbically:

…it is a great pity that a gifted and talented golfer like Joshua Crane has written these articles on the grading of golf courses. They have excited much attention in Britain, and are likely to give the impression that Americans lack the adventurous spirit of the true sportsman, whereas the contrary is the case, and I may say that in an extensive tour from East to West, I have not met an American golfer of any prominence who does not whole-heartedly condemn Mr. Crane’s revolutionary views.

All of this attention made Crane something of a celebrity in the world of golf. George Girard wrote in the US Golf Illustrated:

The way of the pioneer is hard. A number of leaders in golf movements are finding this true. It has always been so, and will probably continue. Among those who find this true are… Joshua Crane of Boston … and a few others I could mention.

….Now about Joshua Crane’s troubles. Mr. Crane has worked for several years on a plan to accurately chart or rate golf courses. It is a pure labor of love. After spending the summer on the links and courses of Scotland, he gave a brief summary to The Field [sic] of London. In this summary St Andrews was twelfth [sic]. Wow! Mr. Crane’s ratings came in for less discussion than himself, at least so it seemed. Leading golf publications have had letters, editorials and articles on the subject, although none took exception when Golf Illustrated published the first article outlining the plan; in fact it looked good and interesting. When the measuring rule was applied, however, something happened and more is bound to come. It will be interesting. Mr. Crane does not seem to be worrying, as he is on his yacht off Jekyl Island probably rating Prestwick from his notes.

Where Crane went and what he did were noted regularly by golf periodicals and in the sports sections of major newspaper of the day. The US Golf Illustrated published pictures of Crane competing in senior tournaments, referring to him as a “famous golf expert and writer.” Bernard Darwin mentions Crane’s views several times, taking special note of Crane’s surprising sojourn to St Andrews in 1929. On other occasions Crane is referred to as a “well known golf authority.”[3] Crane’s scores in tournaments were reported in the sports pages of the New York Times, Boston Globe and other newspapers. The caption to a photo of the modified 13th at The Country Club in the US Golf Illustrated praised the hole as one that “approached Joshua Crane’s ideal,” deference that signals Crane’s standing at the time. An article in the US Golf Illustrated from 1933 described Crane as one of the great sportsmen of the 1920’s (others included Crane’s friends Jay Gould, Devereux Milburn and Payne Whitney). The author went on to note that:

Now…[Crane] is engaged in the rather futile attempt to prove to the Royal and Ancient of St. Andrews, using clever diagrams and arguments, – that some of the holes of the classic old courses were wrongly conceived, lacking the proper finesse and antiquated, in which contention he is undoubtedly correct.

Crane published his proposed revisions to the first four holes of the Old Course the next year in the British Golf Illustrated.[4] As will be discussed later, a decade after his rankings first appeared Crane was still in full combat mode. His proposals in 1934 for changes to the Old Course make for a surprising final act to a long debate.

Crane is largely forgotten today, but during the Golden Age he was a very controversial figure. His rankings were savaged by almost everyone and Crane responded in kind. But the controversy wasn’t just over where a given course ought to be slotted in his pecking order. Reactions to Crane’s rankings were inseparable from reactions to his rating criteria and the design philosophy that underpinned those criteria. In the end it was his design philosophy that garnered the most attention and that is the reason why the debates that Crane stirred up are worth revisiting today.

A Short Life of Joshua Crane

Joshua Crane was born in 1869 into an old line and very wealthy  New England family. He was a gifted athlete, playing running back for both the Harvard and MIT football teams (he received a masters in engineering from MIT). He won the United States court tennis championships four years in a row from 1901 to 1904 and participated on national track teams as a sprinter and a high jumper. He was a world class polo player and yachtsman, designing and building many of his own yachts[5]. Crane coached the Harvard football team in 1907, but was dismissed after a single season for reasons that remain unclear.[6]

Though Crane took up golf relatively late in life (Crane jokingly called it “an old man’s game”), he advanced quickly to the top rung of New England amateurs. His wealth made it possible for him to travel to tournaments in the United States, Great Britain and France. His best finish was as runner-up in the 1928 US Senior Open. Francis Ouimet beat Crane handily in the first round of the 1930 British Amateur (won by Jones in his Grand Slam year). After the drubbing he gave Crane, Ouimet joked that he might not be able to face their many mutual friends back in Boston. Crane donated what is now called the Crane Cup to Carnoustie for local amateur competitions and other cups for amateur tournaments on the French Riviera and at Dedham Polo and Golf Club, one of his clubs in Boston.[7]

The brash, outgoing Crane was a prominent figure in New York and Boston social circles, counting among his friends the most famous sons of the Gilded Age, including Jay Gould, Averill Harriman, Payne Whitney, Devereux Milburn, Harvey Firestone and John Widener[8]. These young aristocrats competed regularly in polo, tennis, yachting, squash, billiards and, of course, in golf. Befitting his social status, Crane was a member of a number of exclusive golf and polo clubs in the Boston area. Notably, Crane was also a member of  the famous Conversation Club. Comprised of prominent men with a shared interest in conservative politics and golf, the club’s members included a former Canadian Prime Minister, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a couple of US congressmen, Harvey Firestone and other important industrialists. A Yale literature professor served as the club’s recording secretary. The “King” of the club until his death in 1927, was Walter Travis.

Members of the Conversation Club wintered every year at the Bon Air Hotel in Augusta, Georgia. Their daily routine was to meet for “conversations” in the mornings and play golf in the afternoons at either Forest Hills (Donald Ross) or at one of the two Augusta Country Club courses.[9] The Bon Air Hotel was also where Bobby Jones spent his winters in the 1920’s, playing golf at the same courses in preparation for the coming summer competitions. It was at the Bon Air Hotel that Jones first met Clifford Roberts, another regular visitor and the man who would later join with Jones to found the Augusta National Golf Club. Several members of the Conversation Club went on to become founding members of Augusta National. It seems likely that Jones and Crane got to know each other during these winter visits.[10] Certainly Jones knew “King” Walter Travis. In the winter of 1924, after club members had attended an exhibition match between Jones and Arthur Havers, Jones credited Travis with giving him a putting tip that Jones believed was one of the keys to breaking his “Seven Year Drought” and eventually winning the Grand Slam.

Crane was noted for his use of an 18 inch putter that he believed helped him with the yips.[11] But more than just a good amateur golfer, Crane was also a free lance inventor, obtaining more than a dozen patents covering everything from automobile universal joints, to dry shaving machines, to carburetor parts, to men’s support socks (yes, you read that correctly).[12] Crane was a world class bridge player and in 1923 wrote A Common Sense Approach to Contract Bidding, a book that became a best seller in both Britain and the United States. As an internationally recognized expert, Crane wrote on bridge in British and American magazines for more than three decades. In 1950, the year he turned 81, Crane wrote How to Grow Old Comfortably, a collection of bromides about aging. His last book, The Impeachment of Roosevelt (A Phantasy), a novel about a fictional impeachment of Franklin Roosevelt, was published in 1953. Crane detested Roosevelt, convinced to his dying day that Roosevelt had betrayed his class and that The New Deal had caused great and irreparable harm. Crane died in 1964 at the age of 95 at his winter home in Lakewood, Florida.

Joshua Crane and his toothpick putter, 1929.
Joshua Crane and his toothpick putter, 1929.

[1] As early as 1906 John Low, editor of Nesbit’s Golf Annual, conducted a vote among selected British golfers as to their favorite courses. In each year that a vote was taken, the Old Course won by a wide margin.

[2] Still intrigued by Crane’s ideas, several weeks later MacKenzie sent to Ambrose drawings of proposed changes to the 1st and 18th at the Old Course. MacKenzie’s letter (written on the boat taking him to the United States) and his sketch that accompanied it were published in Field. The proposed changes, MacKenzie noted, assumed the opening and closing holes were “found in the middle of the course.” As opening and closing holes, however, MacKenzie continued to think them to be “ideal”. A drawing of proposed changes to the 1st and 18th at the Old Course by A.C.M. Croome, also inspired by Crane’s rankings,  was published in Field several months earlier. 

[3] Some commentators, convinced that Crane was on to something, took the trouble of suggesting improvements to his rating system. A. J. Hills, for example, called Crane’s ratings a “splendid basis for comparison,” and in the US Golf Illustrated suggested a number of changes that Hills thought would improve the accuracy of Crane’s calculations.

[4] Only Crane’s proposed revisions to the first four holes at the Old Course were published, though he suggests in his introduction that he had completed proposed revisions to all eighteen holes.

[5] The Crane Catboat, a 15′ sailboat, is still raced today.

[6] Harvard won its first six games that year. There was talk of another national championship. But the team lost their last three games (which included losses to Princeton and Yale) to what were considered inferior squads. Accounts hint at team dissension at the end of the season. In any event, Crane was dismissed and a new head coach was hired. The new coach, Percy Haughton, ushered in what is now called the Golden Age of Harvard football.

[7] A sidebar to Crane’s competitive career was his disqualification from the 1928 Open at Sandwich for using steel-shafted clubs. While steel shafts had been approved by the USGA at that time, Crane was apparently unaware that they had not yet been approved by the R&A.

[8] John Widener is perhaps the least well known of the group. In memory of his son’s death in World War I, Widener donated funds to Harvard University to build what is now called the Widener Library, the largest private library in the world.

[9] The Augusta Country Club had both a Donald Ross course and a Seth Raynor course at the time. The Raynor course, however, did not survive the Great Depression.

[10] Given the small, elite group that gathered there, it’s hard to imagine that Jones was unaware of the kafuffle Crane had stirred up. Indeed, given Jones’ native intelligence and interest in golf architecture, it is hard to imagine that Jones and Crane didn’t talk about the issues raised in those debates which were then at their height. Jones’ writings on golf design suggest that he was both familiar with Crane’s ideas and strongly opposed to them.

[11] Crane’s “toothpick” or “vest pocket” putter received considerable attention. Crane putted with it by bending over and using only his right hand, which seemed to steady his stroke. A 1929 newspaper account of his putting noted that “his toothpick putter is not such a silly instrument as many golfers hold. He missed only one putt he should have sunk and holed two long putts, including a thirty footer that flabbergasted his opponent.”

[12] I can’t resist noting the sensation caused by the discovery in 1926 of runic letters carved in a rock on No Man’s Island off the coast of Chilmark, Maine, an island owned by Crane. The carvings were first believed to be evidence that Leif Eriksson had preceded Columbus as the first European to reach North America. Later research determined that the carvings were probably a hoax. There was no evidence that Crane was involved in the hoax. In fact he pleaded from the beginning that no conclusions should be drawn until there had been a full investigation. Nonetheless the carvings on Crane’s island are still referenced now and again by historians trying to establish that Eriksson was the first to make landfall in North America.

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