The Early Golf Designers: The Real Golden Age

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Who designed the New course at St Andrews has been debated for years and some scholars suggest it was Hall Blyth. The official line is that: “The construction of the New Course was paid for by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, which engaged B Hall Blyth, an Edinburgh civil engineer, to plan the New Course, and entrusted the layout to Morris and his right-hand man David Honeyman”. That, of itself, seems quite clear.

The sketch below is from the Evening Times Newspaper dated 11th May 1895 of St Andrews Links:

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The first thing one notices in the sketch is how crowded the area appears with only two courses. Perhaps, what is not known is that the sale of the land for The New Course by Mr Cheape was subject to an Act of Parliament, The St Andrews Links Bill which was submitted to a Select Committee of The House of Lords on the 14th June 1894. While the R&A and Mr Cheape were in agreement on most points that the sale should be for and to the People & City of St Andrews. There were one or two minor but important differences – most important was that of the width of a footpath to the seaward side of the proposed new golf course. This held up the Act before ‘The House’ even though all was agreed, the plan had not been changed and initialled – an hour was granted to mark and sign the plan for the completion of the Act.

The plan showed the area of the course (to be undertaken by The R&A), and a line through the centre of the course to be 50 yards from the Eden Estuary, then 30 yards from the footpath back to the start of the St Andrews side of the property. It was also agreed to stipulate that the town ‘would not permit any golf hole, wicket, or goalpost to be placed seaward of the line at a distance of 40 yards along the same stretch as the footpath’. Final stipulation also required marking was ‘if a ball was accidentally driven from the new course to the east of the new course, or from the ground to the east over the ground of the new course, in either case the player might follow his ball and play it, but not lift it. Counsel added that that seemed to be discussion of trivial points, but they were matters of considerable importance.’

In other words, this drawing was not a golf course design but an accurate survey plan that was necessary for a Parliamentary Act, as evidenced by the defined areas and centre line demarcations. Hall Blyth created the requisite survey. Apparently, this confused Tom MacWood who of Blyth commented, ‘His formal plan is thought to be the first draft plan to use centerlines to indicate the proper path to the hole.’ It’s not a golf design nor the earliest centreline drawing.

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Again, I attach the comment from The Scotsman from Thursday 30th May 1889 to remind us of Mr. Blyth’s opinion and status.

The following drawing is Hall Blyth’s survey design for the New Course (courtesy of Forrest Richardson & Ass). Although it has been difficult to date this drawing, we are able to read the design sketches which are much clearer and dated.

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The above drawing denotes through colour coding the area for the proposed New Course, a survey drawing in all but name and does not denote a design within the overall area. Compared it to the sketch below from the Evening Times dated 22nd March 1894, some three months prior to the presentation of Hall Blyth’s survey to Parliament.

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The Opening of the New Course on the 11th April 1895 article from The Evening Times:

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There is no magic article that states the New Course was designed by Old Tom Morris, or is there? The article above from the Evening Times dated 11th April 1895 clearly states his involvement and if we examine The Golfers Guide from 1895-6 and it seems to jump from that page that it was Old Tom – in fact both articles seem to refrain from mention of Hall Blyth altogether – strange if he was the designer.

The Golfers Guide, relating to the New Course St Andrews, which I believe dates from 1895-6:

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My main problem with Hall Bylth: is he a Golf Course Designer? If so please settle the question does anyone actually know if Hall Bylth ever designed a golf course, and if so which one? I am not aware of any. Hall Blyth has stated in print that he believes in leaving the design to the ‘specialists,’  he clearly does not count himself as one and always believed that you got the right man to do the job and didn’t compromise. Hall Blyth had no record regarding golf course design. Why would the most important golf course construction in the land be entrusted to someone with no known designs? Hall Blyth was a man that understood the word Professional and he recommended people on that basis, he was successful because he employed professionals. It’s quite interesting that both Muirfield and the New Course St Andrews utilized the same designer, Old Tom Morris, the same contractor and both projects were led by the same man, Hall Blyth.

There is also doubt about the design of Muirfield. I believe the statement below by the late Tom MacWood in his Beyond Old Tom essay is erroneous and must be questioned.

“For many years Old Tom Morris was thought to be the architect of the New Course at St. Andrews however the R&A and Links Trust now recognizes Hall Blyth as its creator in 1895. His formal plan is thought to be the first draft plan to use centerlines to indicate the proper path to the hole. His involvement with the New should not have come as a complete surprise, he had been heavily involved in the new layout at Muirfield in 1891 (along with Old Tom). Early reports mention his name prominently during the design and construction phases of Muirfield. The Honourable Company minutes of April 1914 confirm his important involvement: “On the motion of the Captain it was unanimously agreed to record in the minutes the club’s heartiest appreciation of many services rendered by Mr. B. Hally Blyth in connection with acquisition and preparation of the course at Muirfield,” Remarkably he also designed Muirfield’s clubhouse. In addition to his design work, Hall Blyth was chiefly responsible for the acquisition of Braids Hill for the citizens of Edinburgh. Benjamin Hall Blyth died in 1917 at the family home overlooking the links at North Berwick.”

Hall Byth’s home was at North Berwick and he would have been aware of the following from The Scotsman Newspaper, which appeared on the 19th December 1876.

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Old Tom Morris loved The Old Course (TOC), he spent a lifetime nurturing it, repairing it, preparing it, re-designing it, and left it in excellent condition while nearly doubling its size. Nevertheless, Old Tom is on record as saying he preferred The New Course over The Old Course.

The Real Golden Age

Old Tom deserves his reputation, properly earned, not given for what would become known as Golf Course Architecture (GCA). We need to look at what happened to golf in the 19th century. Based on my research I can say that not much golf architecture is new and hasn’t not been tried before by those 19th century (some call it the Dark Age) designers. However, they were quite advanced and truly architects of our modern game of golf, and surely, actual golf course designers. They wrote the Rules and laid down the fundamentals of the game.  Design concepts were experimented with despite the obvious limitations of their day (no budgets or  earth moving machinery). They produced design features, holes and courses that were very much studied four and five decades later and they have been copied by architects of every generation since including the so called Golden Age (1900-1930).

I do not agree with nor believe in the 20th Century Golden Age Theory. That inappropriately detracts from what was achieved in the 19th century, the only real Golden Age of Golf & GCA –  IMHO. To substantiate my comments we need to examine the writings of those that followed, those who some denote as creating the 20th Century Golden Age. They wrote about TOC, Prestwick, North Berwick, Dornoch, Elie, Muirfield, Carnoustie, Westward Ho!, Hoylake, Machrihanish, Leven, Cruden Bay and don’t forget St Andrews Ladies course (The Himalayas). These writings clearly and emphatically detail the influence of the 19th century designs.

That aside, we should also remember how many great courses and holes were destroyed in the process of modernization by the so called Golden Age Designers. Partially on account of the refusal of R&A to control the flight and distance of the golf ball (nothing ever seems to change and lessons by our ‘Lords & Masters’ are just not learnt) many 19th century designs were altered. Today, high praise is bestowed upon many of these designers that helped to destroy much of our legacy with those alterations. We must also acknowledge that they also left behind some wonderful designs, based not upon new ideas but the original concepts from the 19th century adjusted to the equipment of the time.

Not all went that smoothly with the re-designs, quite a few courses lost their edge, lost that magic that made golfers want to come back and play them over and over again. One course was certainly  ‘The New Course’ St Andrews where Harry Colt’s redesign took one of the best courses ever designed and reduced it to ‘an also ran’. The only ones supportive of Colt’s changes was the R&A Green Committee. Frankly, in my humble opinion, they have been so consistently and appallingly insensitive to the game of golf for over 120 years, that I’m not surprised.

I  have attached articles about The New Course changes. First, the report of alterations by The Dundee Courier on the 8th November 1919, sketches of some of the changes in the Evening Telegraph on the 29th January 1920, and lastly the changes with a few comments from the golfers of the day, as reported by The Dundee Courier on the 27th April 1921.

The Dundee Courier 8th November 1919

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The Evening Telegraph 29th January 1920

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The Evening Telegraph 29th January 1920

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The Dundee Courier 27th April 1921

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The New Course, once revered by Old Tom Morris as better than The Old Course, is now relegated to the status of another St Andrews course subservient to The Old Course, which it had once surpassed.

Just what were those elements that raised Old Tom above the others? Could it possibly be that he was the Master who taught either directly or through example? That some studied under him and had great regard for him and his proven methods? Is it his students who later stepped up to the mark and became good golf course designers. I submit that it is for these reasons and more. Alas, this may not be a view shared by all. However, in the end we all have the right to make up our minds and form opinions, I just hope that my comments and beliefs have been adequately supported by articles and documents.

Not much escaped the Golfers or Golf Course Designers from the 19th century. In fact, they covered much of the design concepts that we struggle with today. Golf design began with the likes of Allan Robertson and took shape with those who followed him, most notably Tom Morris.

Throughout all my searches I have found that most courses did not materialize overnight, but took on average three months to build, often longer. Many clubs due to lack of money rented out parts of farm land and moved on or purchased more land when it became available. Courses designed and built in the 19th century where full of hazards formed by just about anything available. Yet the real underlying magic of this period was the fact that the design suited the crack player as well as the duffer/learner. Options were the byword for good design, offering up tests and challenges that golfers of this period enjoyed to fully.  This was golf; penalty was part and parcel of the game, but it worked as a two-way sword. First it questioned if your skill was sufficiently developed to try, or would you prefer to play safe? Once an option was chosen the potential penalty became operative and if the shot failed its intent, the over-confident or greedy paid the price.

A lesson hard learnt but very effective. Today we are unable to – or the designers seem to be unhappy to – wield the double edged “penal” sword preferring to be ‘strategic’ and not penal – shallow bunkers, compacted sand, easy recovery from pits and hazards to assist the players in their desire for a low score. The very heart of what golf  has been for centuries –  a testing, challenging game that requires the golfer to step up to the mark is being ignored.

The golfers and designers that the late Tom MacWood mentioned have a place in the history of the game of golf, of but do not IMHO deserve the same accolades as others. I will give you an example that many may not be happy with but is true – at least as far as the UK is concerned. Donald Ross achieved greatness in the USA but he accomplished little while he lived in Scotland even under Old Tom’s & Sutherland’s influence. The same applies to those many, like the Foulis brothers who went overseas to gain fame but did little in their native land. The only Golden Age I recognize existed from the mid 1800’s to the turn of the 20th Century, that was when the design principles, concepts and features where developed. These were new design concepts fresh and undiluted, no templates. This was real golf course architecture at its very best. I need not name the great designs and holes that have been copied and modified at courses attributed to the likes of Ross, Colt, Simpson, Mackenzie, Braid, et al. throughout the world. The works of those named  have confused some and IMHO mistakenly described the period of their work as The Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture – meaning the first 20-30 years of the 20th century.

Conclusion

Tom MacWood’s The Early Architects: Beyond Old Tom essay names many good golfers/designers but just how many were real ‘Gamechangers’? I noticed a comment that Sutherland was responsible for the Dornoch 18 Hole course but ‘Old Tom deserves credit for getting things started but without question Dornoch was Sutherland’s long term project’. Interesting, yet my own understanding is that Sutherland did continue to improve the course but based on Old Tom’s plans as the club had insufficient funds to complete it in one go. In 1891 as funds improved additional work was performed using Old Tom’s original design for future expansion. To confirm this I attach a part copy of the Inverness Courier dated 7th April 1891:

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Through his connection with Old Tom, Sutherland went on to design a few other local courses i.e. Brora GC, using the same principles that he learned at Dornoch. Does one wonder where his knowledge came from? Could it be that through his dealing with Old Tom he was able to understand the concepts of GCA and like others came to regard Old Tom with respect and reverence? In all my research I have not come across an instance of Old Tom being credited with a design he was not involved with producing.  Tom MacWood’s speculation about the origins of Muirfield and the New Course shows that one’s opinions must be based upon solid fact/foundation lest we turn history into fairy tales. I valued Tom MacWood research abilities and his depth of knowledge on the American Game of Golf, but not for the 19th century Scottish and GB game. Understandably, his access to our records was limited, as he lived and worked in America.

I have never understood why so many believe that the golfers/designers of the early 20th century are described as living in ‘The Golden Age of Golf Design’. Perhaps it’s a lack of belief that The Victorian Age produced golfers and designers the equal of those living in our current age?  To call golf or design from the 19th century ‘The Dark Ages’ is quite frankly very scary, it conveys much about our knowledge and understanding or should I say a lack of it.

I have tried to examine the game and some of its people from the 19th century, which I believe has come to be under appreciated and undervalued.  I hope that this has been constructive constructive and properly supported by drawings and articles etc., and not by unsubstantiated opinions. Without facts what good is our history?

THE END