Walter J. Travis “Dropped” at National Golf Links of America
Truth or Travesty? (Part Two)
by Mike Cirba, pg. ii

During the latter part of 1905, Walter Travis (along with Garden City professional Stewart Gardner) designed nine new holes for Travis’ former home club, Oakland Golf Club. The expanded eighteen hole course opened in the fall of 1906 to solid acclaim.

In the 1905 U.S. Amateur played at Chicago Golf Club both Travis and Macdonald made it to the match play round before losing; Macdonald in the first round to eventual champion H. Chandler Egan, and Travis in the third round to H. C. Fownes, Jr. of Oakmont.

Travis and Macdonald (with Percy Pyne) enjoying some conversation at Chicago in 1905.

The year 1906 was possibly the most eventful and impactful one in golf course architectural history.

Early in the year Walter Travis was again at Pinehurst during the winter. For some years he had tried to convince Leonard Tufts, owner of the resort to toughen the infrequently played #2 course that had been laid out five years prior by Donald Ross. Tufts, thinking perhaps his vacationing golfers did not need to be subjected to such a degree of stressful challenge had balked, but over time Travis convinced him to try it.

Travis later wrote, “I knew the changes I had in mind would result in a big uproar from the start, and I didn’t feel like soldiering the whole responsibility. So I suggested that Donald Ross and I should go over the course together, and without conferring, each propose a separate plan. I knew what the result would be.”

“For some time I had been pouring into Donald’s ears my ideas; in point of fact, I had urged him to take on the laying out of courses, as with the certain development of the game a fine future was assured for one having a bent in this line. In those days Willie Dunn had ceased to figure and his successor, although credited with laying out hundreds of courses all over the country, really had no genius for the work. Donald heeded my advice … and golf has been tremendously benefited by his many fine creations since.”

“… So I felt quite certain of what would happen. Donald and I were a unit. And the course was bunkered accordingly, with one exception and that was on the twelfth hole. Here I planned three avenues of play, down the middle, narrow with a big bunker 180 yards from the tee, leaving a clear second to the green. It was quite revolutionary in those days, such a big carry, but it was decided to construct the holes as outlined. When he came to it, however, Donald’s courage failed him; he weakly compromised by making a straightaway affair of it, with a bunker at the right some 160 yards from the tee, which didn’t mean anything.”

“… What was the result of this stiffening up? Men who ordinarily did number one course in the lower 80s tackled number two. Up ran their scores into the high 90s, possibly over the century mark. Disgusted, they emphatically declared they were through – it was a course only for experts. But – and here lies the lure of the game, challenging the player to match his skill against difficulties – a little sober reflection, pique, never-say-die, or something or other rushed those same men over to number two the first thing the following day … And at it they kept day after day. Whereas the problem had been how to get players from number one to number two, now a new one presented itself – how to get them back to number one – which was finally solved in a way by stiffening up number one.”

As the late Bob Labbance pointed out in his Travis biography, “The Old Man”, both Donald Ross and Leonard Tufts were quite alive and well when Travis wrote this passage in a 1920 article in “American Golfer” and it should be noted that neither sought to refute it.

Travis also had strong architectural opinions back home at Garden City Golf Club in New York, where he had been a member since 1900. His good friend Devereux Emmet had originally designed the course back in 1897 and like nearly all American courses of the time it featured many cross bunkers and generally flat greens. What it did have as its chief attribute was a solid routing on wonderfully sandy, almost links-like soil and turf on what was known as the Hempstead Plain. Still, given the state of golf course architecture in America at the time Garden City was generally believed to be one our very best courses; one worthy of hosting national competitions as it had by that time hosted both the US Amateur and US Open tournaments.

Given that prestigious history to date, one did not make criticisms of such a course lightly. For years Travis would tell anyone and everyone who would listen at the club (including Emmet, and likely C.B. Macdonald who was a fellow member) how the course could and should be improved. After his 1900 victory at Atlantic City Travis argued for the course to be lengthened and it was for the 1902 U.S. Open. In the spring of 1906 he penned an article for “Country Life” magazine that detailed extensive proposed changes, primarily to the bunkering and flattish greens. While attempting to be politically correct in citing it as probably the best course in the country besides Myopia, Travis then proceeded to list his litany of proposed changes he felt would elevate the course to a much higher standard of interest and competitive challenge.

It isn’t difficult to imagine that such an article and the opinions it offered weren’t the source of much discussion and even possibly dissention within the club. While in retrospect we can easily see the merits of what Travis proposed (and eventually implemented) but at the time these ideas were still quite revolutionary to American golfers.

One also has to wonder about the dynamics between Travis, Emmet, and Macdonald at the time in terms of their own opinions about the course and the value of Travis’ suggestions. Again in retrospect, it seems quite believable that both men were quite supportive, as it wasn’t long before both men were employing Travis’ philosophies at courses where they had a free design hand. Whatever the case, in June of 1906 Walter Travis was elected Chairman of the Green Committee at Garden City, and the proposed changes he had advocated were approved.

Travis was not only inspired by the great links of Great Britain but also was greatly impressed by Herbert Leeds efforts at Myopia Hunt Club, near Boston, which he considered the best course in the country. In an article for “Country Life” he wrote; “As a whole it is beyond criticism. No two holes are alike, and there is not a single hole which is 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 this country and equal to the best anywhere in the world”

He continued to preach his radical (to America, at least) brand of architecture in every available forum, including various writings for publications and conversations with friends.

As mentioned earlier, in 1906 a new golf course was built by the Garden City Company, with George L. Hubbell as General Manager and the aforementioned Midland Golf Club planned to move there. Initial reports credited Devereux Emmet and Hubbell with the design of the golf course, but when the course opened in the fall of 1907 the President of the Garden City Company mentioned that it had been “laid out by the Garden City Company” and other subsequent reports like the following one from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1910 can be read to credit both Travis and Emmet with planning the course. On opening day in October, 1907 Walter Travis was asked to drive the first ball, which was then carefully preserved for posterity.

There seems little question that Travis’ good friend Devereux Emmet was the principal force with Hubbell in the creation of the Salisbury Links but it’s also difficult to imagine as Captain of the Garden City Golf Club and Chairman of the Green Committee that Walter J. Travis would not have been involved in the proceedings with the new public course being built by his friends a mere ten minute stroll away. Also recall that the new course planning two years prior had both Travis and Emmet collaborating on the design of the course that was to be used by their Midland Golf Club.

Indeed, Travis was so delighted by the golf course that he wrote a lengthy article for “Country Life” in early 1908 extolling its multiple options of play for weaker and stronger players, the variety and interest of the holes, the undulating, diversely-sized and shaped greens, all of those revolutionary things he’d been championing to anyone who would listen since 1901 when he returned from the British Isles as somewhat a lone voice in the American wilderness. He and Emmet were now clearly in lockstep.

Travis went so far in some accounts to say that the new course had the potential to even exceed neighboring Garden City Golf Club, most likely in an effort to spur his home club to implement further architectural enhancements he thought would benefit those links . (Note – A highly modified version of Salisbury Links still exists today as the private “Cherry Valley Club”.)

It should be noted that the “Walter J. Travis Society” does not believe that there is sufficient contemporaneous evidence of Travis’ design involvement to list Salibury Links as one of his courses at this time. While not entirely conclusive in terms of origin, it seems this speculation may be somewhat moot and misses a larger point. What is undisputable is that at the opening of the new course both Travis and Emmet were in close agreement as to what constituted a soundly designed golf course and those guiding principles of eliminating cross bunkers and instead fashioning “scientific bunkering” to tempt the better player, creating multiple avenues of play to accommodate all classes of golfers, and providing varied and undulating greens were the same ones being advocated by Travis since his 1901 Great Britain visit.

This is not to conclude that Emmet wasn’t similarly inspired by what he observed during his frequent travels abroad. However, it seems from the historical record that Travis was the first to take the lessons of the great historical links abroad, and the words and writings of learned men like John Low and interpret and codify them for an American audience in his writings and then sought practical applications for the realization of those principles on golf courses in the states. He also preached these innovative ideas to his friends and contemporaries at every opportunity.

It is interesting to note that at no time during this period did Travis either mention or promote his design efforts at those courses were he clearly did architectural work between 1897 and 1907, as documented herein. This omission was despite the fact that he wrote extensively for several publications during this period and authored a number of golf-related books. The only exception were those changes he was advocating for at his home club of Garden City, which would have been understandable and acceptable in his role as Captain of the club and Chairman of the Green Committee.

Although this may seem unusual today, when one considers that the USGA rules of “Amateur Standing” were so broadly construed at the time, it’s easy to see how perhaps a comped stay at the Equinox Hotel in Vermont, or rail transportation provided to the Pocono Mountains gratis, or just the loose nature of some of the financial arrangements of these large undertakings could bring one under suspicion and charges of, sin of sins, professionalism! It is also a fact that almost every golf course in America at this time was either laid out by a foreign professional or, a rudimentary affair by club members themselves to bat some balls around a field. Laying out a golf course was largely viewed as a working man’s endeavor, after all, and whether Travis felt he needed professional “cover” to maintain his unsullied amateur status at this time through collaboration with professionals like John Duncan Dunn, Stewart Gardner, Thomas Bendelow, or Tom Anderson is certainly a very real possibility.

Travis was attempting to walk a very fine line as an amateur with his unprecedented attempts to transform American golf course architecture at a time when nearly all “design” work was done by foreign “professionals” who were believed to have an innate talent for the work by virtue of their birthplace and prior exposure to the game abroad. This break from accepted tradition and even class structure was noted in the June, 1906 Brooklyn Daily Eagle” article below. (Author’s note – the article neglects the prior amateur work of men like Macdonald at Chicago, Emmet at Garden City, and Leeds at Myopia but each of those men came from an unassailable patrician background and Travis by this time had already been charged in the press with prior offenses.)

One also needs to consider that Walter Travis at this time was the greatest amateur golfer in the world and his competitive goals required him to stay an amateur. Not that there weren’t professional tournaments, but those were viewed with much less prestige and even dignity. By now Walter Travis was working for a brokerage firm in New York City, a gentleman about town, and his standing in golf needed to reflect that.

The question of amateur/professional as related to golf course architecture wasn’t fully settled until 1916, when it was determined that it was only the acceptance of money specifically for laying out a golf course, and not just the perimeter associated activities that deemed one a professional. By that time in his life, Walter Travis had given up on his competitive career, and had quit the business world, and became a professional golf course architect for the remainder of his life, along with his related golf and golf publication activities.

But the fact remains that by the end of 1906, Walter Travis had now been involved in the architectural design and planning of more golf courses and more progressively strategic golf courses than any man in America. He had studied the great courses abroad and had come back a convert and a zealot, and a preacher. His revolutionary ideas about eliminating what he saw as the evils of banal, rote golf course design and the elevation of architectural principles consistent with the great courses abroad had now gained broad acceptance from the American golf community (see April 1907 Buffalo Courier article below) and he would soon have a publication of his own to trumpet his strongly held opinions on these and other golf-related matters.

Finally, if the year 1906 hadn’t already been wonderfully eventful as a landmark turning point for golf course architecture in America, by year’s end Charles Blair Macdonald announced that he had located and secured some 200 acres of sandy wasteland in southeastern Long Island that he believed was optimal to build his dream of an “Ideal Golf Course”, and the die was cast.