The Colossus of Golf Course Architects & The First Golden Age of Golf Course Design
The Early Golf Course Designers: the Real Story of
Of who did what in the First Golden Age of Golf
Melvyn Morrow Hunter
We each hold strong views and feelings about whom we consider worthy of being defined as a great golf course designer. Unlike many I believe that in the 19th century there were many greats and among them perhaps one or two, that we could label as a Colossus.
Some of us struggle with the word ‘architecture’ as related to golf course design. I feel better using the word ‘design’ as it suggests the routing of a course rather than actual construction. That is how I perceive the word though you may well have a different take.
This article is not merely an extension of my original ‘In My Opinion’ piece titled The Early Golf Designers: The Real Golden Age. Rather, I sincerely hope that it will be thought-provoking and enable a more complete understanding of the very beginnings of Golf Course Architecture. I also hope to redress some misunderstandings as to who did what and when in the creation of some of the 19th century courses.
When I submitted The Early Golf Designers: The Real Golden Age, my intention was to generate an understanding that the concept of design is straightforward and that those ‘eureka’ moments were achieved rather quickly. However, I grant you that sometimes weeks could pass trying to crack a “secret code” that starts the ball rolling. My point is that a single designer, walking the course can formulate a basic design, which can be staked-out at that same moment. Assisted by those pegs (depending upon the state of the land) shots can be played to gain a feel for the design, the lay of the land. This is neither ground-breaking or startling just a golfer’s eye appreciating the land, contours, the potential natural hazards, and appropriate features. It was very common practice back in the 19th century to place pegs during the first phase of design. Later in this article I expand upon that.
As mentioned, I intend to prove that the early designers as proficient golfers were generally able to address a blank canvas without any preconceptions and could quickly form a basic design that was subsequently elaborated upon. Their brief, for the most part, was to provide ‘sporty’ and ‘challenging courses with many hazards’ on limited, poor land set aside at a corner of a farm or on the property of the Landed Gentry. Time was also a factor for these early courses, particularly when the clubs were being formed by local people who had limited disposable income. Tight finances necessitated a substantial membership (which was difficult without a course). Early on it generally took 4-6 weeks to build a course but later in the 1880/90’s the average time considered reasonable edged up over 3 months. This was a period in the history of golf course architecture when many erroneously assume that most golf courses were laid out in the morning and the Opening Match played in the afternoon. That is just simply ignorant of the design process during the mid to late 19th century.
The majority of new courses in the 19th century took up to 10-12 weeks from the initial formation of the club with agreements to source land (normally by leasing as funds available for the newly formed clubs were scant) to the Opening Ceremony. Some courses were ready in 5-6 weeks, but that was the exception. Also, it was regularly reported that the courses would not ‘come into their own’ for approximately another year of general use. So while pegs were laid in the AM and the odd ball played, that did not indicate that the course was ready, only that the initial design concept had been laid out (subject to adjustments as required).
The following article appeared in the Scotsman newspaper on the 4th August 1890, announcing the formation of both club and course:
The next entry in The Scotsman is dated Monday the 13th October 1890, which clearly states that the new 9 hole course at Whitley was formally opened on the 10th & 12th of October indicating that the course took two months to design and build. None of this peg A.M., play P.M. Here is a copy of the Scotsman article dated the 13th October 1890:
My original essay did strike a chord with some golfing historians and researchers who had previously relied too much upon the reports of that later breed of designers who have been defined as the Golden Age architects (in my opinion, inappropriately as they produced very little innovation and merely developed that which had already been laid down). I am pleased to say that today we think more highly of the 19th century designers but tend to group them together. This is a mistake as only a few were real leaders.In order to emphasize the fact that even though a course was open it would not reach the considered optimum condition for at least a year after it had been in use I attach another Scotsman article showing that the opened course was regarded as still ‘in rough condition’ but the ‘more it is played upon the quicker it will improve’.
I am trying to explain the methodology of the early designers that formed the foundations upon which the second Golden Age Designers built to take ‘designs to new heights’. Remember that to this day we praise highly golf holes dating back as far as the 1870’s, i.e. The Road Hole (TOC) and The Redan (NB) to mention but two.
In The Beginning
My original essay analyzed an amazing period in the history of golf – 1845-1900. We see for the first time a very small number of individuals actively involved in designing golf courses, not just the odd course but a series of 3 to 5 or more. The first name that springs to mind has to be Allan Robertson who was responsible for the actual design and modification of golf courses like The Old Course, Cupar and Carnoustie. He was the first of the few great Colossi of Golf Course Architecture but surprisingly despite being the first recorded multi-course designer of the modern period, perhaps the first ever, he is rarely cited that way. His designs and modifications were quite remarkable because he actually utilized design techniques within his new and modified courses, something more or less unheard of beforehand.
Pre 1850 there were just a handful of golf courses and very few new designs. However through the 1850’s we see a slow but positive movement to build and develop more golf courses not only in Scotland but throughout the Empire, wherever a Scottish community existed (Royal Calcutta 1829). Many were one-off examples and built by an unknown soldier, administer or Vicar, whose names are lost to history.
In 1851 Prestwick was formed as a new 12 hole course and brought together the cream of golfing society that later would make a stamp on not just golf course architecture but golfing history. Prestwick was the springboard that launched the modern game of golf. It was because of the enlightened members of Prestwick Golf Club that we have the modern game and the Major tournaments which bring so many to the game either as players or spectators. St Andrews may be the spiritual home of golf but Prestwick was responsible for promoting design as well the international game through The Open. Other great courses came about thanks to Prestwick Members who helped establish the game as far afield as Westward Ho! in England circa 1860.
During the 1850’s more courses were designed and built but by a very limited number of professional golfers who combined with their knowledge of Green Keeping lead the way. Other courses of the era worth mentioning are Royal Curragh, Pau, Earlsferry, Cupar and King James VI. The following Scotsman report was dated the 13th August 1901 and confirms the Earlsferry design and date.
Many early courses were often designed and built by local golfers, not ‘Gamechangers’ and their names for the most part are lost to history. Nevertheless, a few because of their understanding and knowledge went on to continue designing the odd golf course and a smaller few took the game and course design to new heights by developing the basics principles of golf course architecture. We tend to remember these few more for their achievements than for their subsequent fame afterwards.
‘Facts’ are what we should be working with, not ‘opinions’ when undertaking research. The biggest error made regarding golfing history relates to The Open. Prestwick held an open day for all the professionals in 1860 won by Willie Park Sr. and Old Tom Morris was runner up. However, this was not a true Open being Professionals only. If we are to hold research accountable then we must celebrate the first Open as being played in 1861 because it was “open” to all.
The following cutting was printed in The Scotsman Newspaper in 1860, however, it was a copied from a report in the Glasgow Herald that same year and confirms that only professionals were invited to perform.
The 1860 event should not be known as the first Open, that honour should be accorded to The Open of 1861. With this in mind, perhaps, we should re-examine the list of Professional and Amateur golf course designers to see if they warrant the publicity they have received.
The Professionals & Amateurs – whom among them are worthy of note?
The problem of where to start I feel should be left in the hands of ‘The Late’ Tom MacWood based upon his own thought provoking article The Early Golf Designers: The Real Golden Age, published in GCA’s In My Opinion archives. After all, aren’t we trying to unearth the same truth about these early designers? Let’s start with the amateurs of the period in question (pre 1900) and Tom MacWood covered the introduction of this section rather well:
“You will find one or two familiar names among these amateurs but the majority are unknown. Their anonymity is not surprising since the typical amateur was involved in only a handful of courses, if that, and in many cases just a single course. Despite their limited activity it is important we recognize these gentlemen, not only for their outstanding designs, but also for the example they set for the amateurs who followed…”
Yes, we should recognize these individuals for the service they provided for golf and even though most produced just one design or a few designs within the area they lived. Many of their designs, some only a few holes, have for the most part disappeared. We should put this in proper perspective. Did that one design send shockwaves around the game, in Scotland or GB? Were they ‘Gamechangers’? We must examine the historical records to determine what was actually achieved and balance that within the spectrum of golf course architecture of that period.
I am in agreement with Tom MacWood as to the names he listed, though more names could be added that would satisfy many of the qualities he mentioned. Would that add anything significant or really make any difference to the history of GCA? I fear not, in this period of earth shattering design developments much of what they did was not necessarily new or ground-breaking and certainly they were not ‘Gamechangers’.
It seems pointless to comment upon individuals, like Dr. W. Laidlaw Purves, mentioned by Tom MacWood as there is little to add. However, I will do so if I feel there is a reason to get the facts out in the open so we can chronicle the true history of golf and not just try to fit our own preferences/agendas. Let’s give credit where credit is due not based on opinions or agendas that seek to prove personal theories.
B Hall Blyth is the first individual I must comment on because of the way some researchers portray him. He was an influential figure and very much involved with golf in the 1880 & 1890’s is B Hall Blyth but badly understood by modern researchers. Hall Blyth was very much the Front Man of the Club or The Committee, a public front runner but not one undertaking the design and laying out of golf courses. His involvement in many projects and clubs was significant but we should be very cautious about crediting Hall Blyth with anything more than being part or speaking for the Committee.
The Braid Hills project went forward due to the work of Hall Blyth but he was only involved as a member of a five man deputation of the committee appointed by the Edinburgh Golfers. Hall Blyth was not the Secretary but acted as the spokesman for the golf committee. The reason Blair Hill materialized was due to the generosity of the Cluny Trustees at the request of Lady Gordon Cathcart, whose family owned much of the land that was required for the Braid Hills course.
This is the same Lady Cathcart who owned South Uist and contributed to Askernish and Collieston in Aberdeenshire. Braid Hills, subject to Parliaments agreement, was to be purchased by Edinburgh Council as a Public Park with a golf facility for the people of Edinburgh. The Edinburgh golfers were rather concerned about the condition of Bruntsfield Links and wanted a new golf course in play as soon as possible. See the following Scotsman newspaper report from 1889.
Hall Blyth went further and sought help from the council for both the laying out and maintenance of the Braid Hills course. Not finished Hall Blyth further recommended – and this is a very important point missed by Tom MacWood as its gives us an insight into the way Hall Blyth worked – and I quote from the Scotsman newspaper dated Thursday the 30th May 1889:
Old Tom was away in Ireland when the council suddenly required that work begin so Old Tom’s intended assistant Peter McEwan took the lead assisted by Bob Ferguson. I believe this clearly indicates the role of Hall Blyth regarding design, and there is no reason to think that it would change 15 months later regarding the new course at Muirfield.
Indeed, let’s examine Muirfield. Many like the idea that the design is by Hall Blyth, but understanding his typical involvement just a year or so earlier makes it quite unlikely. We need to look at the information on record and in the hands of the club and let’s examine that information in reverse order, beginning with the drawing or plan for the course by Hall Blyth dated December 1891. This Hall Blyth drawing is below as well as a blown-up section with his signature and date – ‘Muirfield 1891 Course Plan’.
However, the course was formally opened in May 1891, 7 months in advance of the Blyth drawing! His drawing was not the design but just the “As Built” drawing of record. The records indicate that Old Tom Morris made site visits in the latter few months of 1890 to layout the course, some 13 months prior to Hall Blyth’s dated drawing. This is verified by the comment in the attached Scotsman newspaper article.
Hall Blyth’s involvement in Braid Hills and Muirfield is not as extensive as some claim. On the Braid Hills project he clearly stated that the design should be left to ‘the experts’. This does not slight his in-depth involvement with the promotional and committee work he did at Muirfield, but alas there was no actual course design input.
The most telling article in support of Old Tom Morris as Muirfield’s designer is The Edinburgh Evening News newspaper dated the 26th February 1891. What’s is especially interesting is the attached sketch of Old Tom’s design showing the new course (those who have read my essay on Muirfield will have seen the detailed version of the full story and that essay includes a number of sketches showing the course every decade from the Old Tom design from February 1891 through to the 1948).