H.C. Leeds, the Papa of American Golf Architecture

Kevin Mendik, p. 4

During Harry Vardon’s 1900 golfing tour of the U.S., he visited Kebo Valley and Palmetto. He remarked that the greens at Kebo were the finest he had seen in the country.[1] At Palmetto, Vardon played a match against the best ball of Leeds and H.R. Johnstone, defeating them 9 up.

Leeds also collaborated with golf professionals and architects John Duncan Dunn and Walter J. Travis to revise and expand the existing 9-hole course at the Essex County Club in 1900.[2]

Essex County Club.

The second U.S. Open contested at Myopia was in 1901, and it was the last such event where the new Haskell ball was excluded. The winning score was 331 shot by Willie Anderson; no one broke 80 the entire tournament. Mr. Anderson won the U.S. Open again the following year at Baltusrol with the Haskell ball and a score of 307.

In 1902, Leeds as the “mentor of Myopia”[3] traveled to the United Kingdom to have a firsthand look at the great Scottish links courses, which makes his pre-1900 work that much more impressive. Although this was not his first trip to the United Kingdom, it was the first time he went with an eye focused on its golf courses.

Weeks notes that Leeds’ experience in the UK in 1902 left him convinced that his design for Myopia was sound,” but that new tees and especially hazards were warranted to deal with the new livelier rubber-core Haskell ball. It is important to note that when Weeks wrote his 1975 chronicle, he had access to Leeds’ personal journals, which have not been located. Clearly, Leeds left many detailed impressions and the hope is that those journals will resurface.

Photos were likely available of courses across the pond, although their clarity may not have been ideal; other ideas could well have come from the Steeplechase, as many early American golf courses were laid out where hunt clubs existed before golf arrived. Myopia was originally located in Winchester at the current location of the Winchester Country Club, but the club moved to its present location in Hamilton as the terrain was considered better suited for Steeplechase. Turns out it also worked rather well for golf.

After his visit to the UK, Leeds continued to revise the Myopia course based on the direct influence of what he saw in the UK, with impressive results. Myopia was far more challenging than anything golfers who had not played the game in the British Isles had experienced, as expressed in a 1903 description in Golf of collegiate matches with teams visiting from the U.K.[4]

The Massachusetts Golf Association was formed in 1903 with Leeds serving as the first President. He convinced the new body to hold the first Massachusetts Amateur at Myopia, which was played that September and won by Arthur Lockwood. That fall, in the November issue of Golf, an English writer commented as follows on intercollegiate matches held that summer between teams from England and the U.S.:

‘There is little doubt in the minds of the English players that the best course on which they played was that of the Myopia Hunt Club in Massachusetts. The reason why this course proved so popular was because it presented many of the characteristics of the British links. The holes are made to fit into the natural lie of the ground, and the ground is not tortured and twisted so as to afford holes of the supposed ideal lengths. Moreover, natural hazards are made use of and brought into play wherever possible, and the greens are not banked up and made true with a spirit level, but are left naturally rolling and undulating. All this is admirable, and it proves what a great advance has been made in the American conception of a great golf course.’

According to a Boston Globe article from September 25, 1904, Myopia was the only real test of golf in the area. “Massachusetts golfers do not get enough practice on first-class courses, and when they play the links at Myopia, they find the distances longer and the problems more complex than those to which they are used.” Even with the strong southwesterly wind, the writer felt the top Massachusetts players should have done better. The Boston Journal noted that the scores “prove conclusively that no player can average better than 40 strokes on a course of over 3,000 yards.” One can easily make the case that the writer was being a bit tough on the players.

In a practice round before the third U.S. Open at Myopia to be held on September 20 and 21 of 1905, three time champion Willie Anderson set a new course record of 72. His total was 314, 17 better than his 1901 score there, but still 7 higher than his winning score from the year before at Baltusrol. The members weren’t so thrilled with the tournament that year, commenting aloud about “the 300 cars and all that mob of people.” That fall the club hosted a quieter invitational tournament for the top amateurs with Walter Travis prevailing.

The next month in Country Life in America Mr. Travis wrote about the course at Myopia:

‘Laid out originally on the long side with reference to the gutta ball, it just happened, with the advent of the rubber-core ball, to meet every requirement of the modern game by simply adding hazards where experience suggested. As a whole, it is beyond criticism, no two holes are alike, there is not a single hole which is in any way unfair or which does not call for good play. The charm of the course lies in its diversity, the excellence of the lengths of each hole, the physical characteristics, the well-conceived system of hazards, good lies throughout, tees better than most putting greens, and  putting greens, mostly undulating, which are the finest in the country, and equal to the best anywhere in the world.’

 Even the soft white sand was considered noteworthy, coming as it did from Ipswich Beach.

At Myopia today, it is not uncommon to see equestrians passing through the golf course and hear the baying of the hounds. History is omnipresent; on the walls are a number of colored plans and aerial photos which show the course’s evolution during the early part of the 20th century. To the well trained eye, the position of the 13th green has moved downhill and left from its original position adjacent to the second tee.  The 1913 map below shows alternative locations for the current #13 green; ten years later they have merged, and the 1931 aerial shows a single green located where it remains today.

 

Myopia

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1931

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Sources:

[1] See Labbance at page 127, referencing the Boston Daily Globe.

[2] Caner, George C. Jr. History of the Essex County Club 1893-1993. Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts Essex County Club:  (1995) at pages 77 and 280. ISBN 0-9641777-0-6. See also Labbance, Bob with Siplo, Brian. The Vardon Invasion Harry’s Triumphant 1900 American Tour. Sports Media Group: Ann Arbor MI (2008) at page 133. ISBN 978-1-58276-294-4.

[3] Weeks, at p.48.

[4] Golf, USGA Bulletin November 1903.