Feature Interview No. 2 with Daniel Wexler
Daniel Wexler is a Los Angeles-based golf historian and writer. His first book The Missing Links: America’s Greatest Lost Golf Courses And Holes was published in the summer of 2000. The book provides tremendous insight into the work of virtually every Golden Age architect, as regrettably they each had notable work lost with time.And again with Lost Links, published by Clock Tower Press in February, 2003, Wexler’s unsurpassed research and drawings shed further light on some of the wonderful designs that are no more or that have been significantly altered. His two books are indispensable for anyone interested in golf course architecture as well as anyone interested in how courses evolve. Formerly a golf professional,Wexler is a 1985 graduate of Middlebury (VT) College.
1. Why do another book on lost courses? Was there enough good material to fill a second volume?
I had not originally planned a second book on lost courses, figuring, if anything, that maybe we’d do a revised edition of The Missing Links at some point. But the more research I did, the more I began to realize just how many really strong courses had disappeared over the years- far, far more than had been covered in The Missing Links. So for Lost Links, I ended up highlighting 12 more courses in a manner similar to the first book, then mapping and describing 50 additional 18s and 12 more nine-holers. There’s also a section on lost holes from famous courses – Pinehurst, Quaker Ridge, Merion, etc. – which I think readers will find interesting, plus maps for eight more cities. There was so much material that in the end, we actually had to drop a few courses.
2. Which of Lost Links courses would you rank comparably to the best of the first book?
It’s tough to compare anything to The Lido, which pretty well stood by itself. But after that, I’d say there are 15-20 courses in the new book which would fall into the upper half of The Missing Links’ featured 27. Some of my personal favorites are the North course at Boca Raton, George Thomas’s lost layout at La Cumbre, and Cedar Bank, a spectacular estate course on Cape Cod. From an historical perspective, the original Tillinghast design at the Shawnee Inn (which was his first) is fascinating, as are Seth Raynor’s No.3 course at The Greenbrier, Overhills, Rockwood Hall… It’s a long list. I should also mention Billy Bell’s mysterious Royal Palms layout, located in the hills above San Pedro, southwest of Los Angeles. Royal Palms was sort of a crusade for me since the grainy old photo in George Thomas’s Golf Architecture In America made it look so spectacular, plus I live about 20 minutes from the site. Another personal favorite was the old Palm Beach Winter Club, a Seth Raynor design which I managed to rediscover quite by accident.
3. How does one rediscover a course ‘by accident?’
I was examining an early 1950s aerial of William Langford’s old Kelsey City Golf Club when I spotted another course in the corner of the picture. That’s not uncommon, but on this occasion I immediately recognized a Biarritz and a Redan, plus one or two more Macdonald/Raynor-style replicas. I did a little checking and discovered that the North Palm Beach Country Club still occupies the site, but that nine original holes are missing and the others have been altered considerably. We know from C.B. Macdonald’s writing in Scotland’s Gift- Golf that Raynor built many more courses than anyone has fully cataloged, so it was a wonderful feeling to locate one of them.
Of course, when I contacted the club, it turned out that the Greenkeeper, John Morsut, had also done his homework and was aware of Raynor’s presence as well. Our friend George Bahto is now consulting on some restorative work there, so it’s all worked out rather nicely- save the fact that at least half the Raynor holes are gone forever.
4. You’ve taken the bold step of classifying Augusta National as a lost course. On what basis does it qualify, and is there any ulterior motive to its inclusion?
Not ulterior, just symbolic.
Obviously, including Augusta might generate some publicity but it’s really there because Bobby Jones and Dr. MacKenzie took the time to document not just the original layout’s specs but also the unique philosophies behind them. Certainly other courses have been changed to a similar degree, but few have been deliberately altered away from the clearly articulated intentions of the pre-eminent architect and player of an age. You can like or dislike the modern Augusta National (to me, the relative lack of excitement at recent Masters speaks volumes) but when you consider angles of play, hazard placement, green contouring, the addition of rough and the planting of trees, it can objectively be stated that Augusta is a thoroughly different golf course from that which Jones and MacKenzie created.
5. Are there many more courses like Augusta; that is, courses that remain famous but, in reality, might be considered ‘lost?’
Many, many Golden Age courses have been altered far more than modern players (or media) realize. In fact, Lost Links includes profiles of La Cumbre, Lake Merced, Shawnee, Congressional and several others which still very much exist but bear little or no resemblance to their classic roots. But to my mind, Augusta stands relatively alone because of the uniqueness of the designers’ intent. Strictly speaking, some other extant facilities might be just as ‘lost,’ but I doubt if those losses have been anywhere near as deliberate, systematized or antithetical to the explicitly stated beliefs of a founder whom the membership claims to revere.
6. What are your thoughts having seen the 2003 Masters on television? Certainly, your comment that the 18th at ANGC has changed ‘from a potentially dramatic finisher to a drudging march of survival’ was very prescient.
But obviously that’s what the club wanted, because it doesn’t take a genius to seethat a hole of this present configuration isn’t going to yield many birdies.
Essentially, my view of the present Augusta layout remains unchanged. The question is really whether you want the event to fit our traditional idea of the Masters (with eagles, birdies, the occasional disaster and anyone within five or six shots on the 64th tee still having a chance) or this poor-man’s US Open test. I mean, this year’s event was certainly exciting, but absolutely not because anyone was making a legendary charge. It was much more a US Open type of excitement: who’ll fail to make some key pars first? Of course, we can all understand Augusta’s frustration. The USGA has abrogated their responsibilities in regulating equipment, and so Hootie & Co. feel a need to defend themselves.
Conceptually, that’s fair enough. But if I’d been in the room when all of this was planned, I’d have reminded them that St. Andrews has been torched in two of itslast three Open Championships, yet its reputation has stood up pretty well. I don’t think anyone ever judged Augusta a great course based on it ‘resistance toscoring,’ so my sense is that adding rough and planting trees to better defend parsort of misses the point of what Jones and MacKenzie were trying to accomplish.
7. Lost Links places Billy Bell’s Royal Palms among California’s best-ever oceanfront layouts and its finishing hole as one of golf’s most memorable. Please elaborate.
First we must remember that despite 400+ miles of coastline, California doesn’t have all that many oceanfront layouts. But generally I prefer the word ‘spectacular’ to ‘best’ in describing the Royal Palms, because it featured a pair of spectacular clifftop holes and several others routed through and across some seriously deep canyons. Also, the entire property was essentially a giant westward-facing hillside, so the views of the Pacific and Catalina Island must have been unbelievable. As for the 18th, it was a brute, a 442-yard par four running right along the edge of a 150-foot cliff. The trouble was primarily on the right too, making it particularly difficult for the average, slice-prone player. Given the prevailing coastal breeze, people must have racked up some big numbers there.
The remarkable thing about this place is that because it was so short-lived, it went nearly undocumented despite being located in close proximity to Los Angeles. By the way, Tommy Nacarrato gets a big assist on this one; he definitely showed some fancy footwork on the research trail.
8. You also profile Thomas & Bell’s famous work at La Cumbre. Was this course really as good as advertised?
Definitely. We’ll probably never know whose decision it was to ravage the place – or why – but that has to be one of the saddest stories in the history of golf design. The three holes routed around the lake were justifiably famous, but every hole was memorable in one way or another. And the 16th, of course, was surely among the most amazing par fours ever built. To me, La Cumbre had the creativity, the sheer originality, of Bel-Air and a lot of the challenge of Riviera or Los Angeles. Definitely a major loss.
9. How much of La Cumbre could be re-captured today if the club was so inclined? Or has housing extinguished all hope?
Maybe a little more than half. Housing or other construction has eaten up the south-central section of the course, wiping out holes like 5, 8, 9, 11, 12 & 15, plus the tiny 17th. The barranca that once flanked the property’s eastern edge has been largely filled in, so rebuilding the All-World 16th would be unbelievably expensive. Perhaps the best news is that the famous lake-encircling holes (#s 2, 3 & 4) could potentially be reestablished– but someone would have to figure a way to sink the absurd island green that’s been added to the 3rd. Talk about a hole that didn’t need ‘improving.’
10. Many private estate courses have disappeared over the years. How would you rate their architectural significance?
That varied a lot. Many estate courses really weren’t much; either uninspired designs or abbreviated three- or six-hole affairs. But Mill Road Farm, which was profiled in The Missing Links, was an absolute monster, a 7,000-yard William Flynn design that would still be capable of hosting a Major Championship today. This book has Cedar Bank, the tough, quirky clifftop layout mentioned earlier, as well as T. Suffern Tailor’s famous Ocean Links, Percy Rockefeller’s Overhills in North Carolina and James Barber’s short-lived private track in Pinehurst. These were very fine layouts built by Seth Raynor and, in the latter two cases, Donald Ross. They would certainly all be well known were they still with us today.
11. Tell us a little about Cedar Bank.
Actually Tom MacWood, the Master Researcher himself, deserves all the credit for rediscovering this one. It was located in Eastham on the property of an affluent Bostonian named Quincy Shaw. Apparently Shaw built the place on the advice of his doctor as an aid to recovering from a nervous breakdown- probably the most unique motivation in the history of golf architecture. He designed it himself and used only a handful of local laborers, so the course was exceedingly natural, and it had several major-league water holes. Not a lot of people got to play it, obviously, but Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet both did and commented pretty favorably. At first I found it remarkable that a man of Shaw’s description could create so strong a layout. But later I discovered that he was a founding member of The National and it all made a little more sense.
12. How exactly does one discover and research courses which, in many cases, have been extinct for decades?
Clearly all of us who research these things owe an immense debt to Geoffrey Cornish and Ron Whitten, as The Architects Of Golf remains a tremendous jumping-off point.
Once you become aware of a lost course’s (former) existence, the first step is to determine its exact location relative to present-day landmarks. Generally this can be accomplished by contacting local planning departments, historical societies or libraries- though possessing pre-World War II maps of major metropolitan areas can save a lot of legwork. Once you’ve got the location nailed down, then you must acquire an old aerial photo which again can be found through a variety of sources. An old scorecard also comes in pretty handy and can frequently be located through the USGA museum or the Amateur Athletic Foundation in Los Angeles, the new custodians of the Ralph W. Miller collection. If you can get all of those components lined up, you’re generally able to sort out the course’s routing/sequence of play pretty easily. Also, with the availability of U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps on the Internet, you can often get some sense of the land’s general contour- unless, of course, it’s been bulldozed into an airport.
The key, without a doubt, is developing a network of local contacts. It’s amazing how many artifacts and period news clippings some of these libraries and historical societies have, plus such small local entities tend to be extremely friendly and helpful.
13. Do you often encounter misleading or inaccurate information?
To a degree, yes. For example, on a smaller scale, I frequently find a course’s date of birth to be different from that which has been traditionally reported. Sometimes the difference is minor- little more than the time between the date on an architect’s plans and the actual course opening. But at other times it’s greater. Overhills, for example, is generally listed as 1918, though all the evidence I’ve found points clearly to 1911.
On a larger scale the occasional inaccuracy pops up, but they are less frequent and often fairly simple to sort out. It is not uncommon, for example, to find courses listed as defunct which, in fact, never existed at all. Generally this happens because a course changes its name (the early name thus seeming, without deeper research, to be a lost) or because architects occasionally listed projects planned (but not necessarily completed) upon their ledgers.
It’s been my experience that doing your homework – knowing a bit of geography, having a sense of where an architect worked and when, etc. – goes a long way towards sorting out most time-honored inaccuracies.
14. Which lost courses remain, in your mind, the most mysterious?
The handful which fall outside the answer to the previous question- those very few whose reported existence seems credible enough, but which I’ve never quite been able to confirm. My favorite example is a layout referred to as the Floridale Country Club, which Cornish & Whitten list as having been built by William Flynn in a town called Milford, Florida. Flynn certainly worked regularly in Florida (Boca Raton, Indian Creek, Cleveland Heights) but no source that I’ve located makes any mention of a Floridale. Similarly, the Florida State Library checked their ledger of incorporated or platted towns since 1900 and could find no record of a Milford. So while it certainly seems believable, did Floridale ever really exist?
Another big mystery was the Colony Golf Club in Algonac, Michigan, an uncredited layout which I’m now quite certain was built by C.H. Alison. What makes it mysterious is its apparent confusion with the Colonie Golf Club near Albany, New York, a layout which Cornish & Whitten unambiguously credit to Alison. Colony, as I say, I’m now sure of. But several of Colonie’s holes bore distinctly Alison-like attributes, so for my money he probably built both of them, with the similarity of name leading to 75 years of confusion. Colony, by the way, was another Tom MacWood find.
15. Among those profiled in Lost Links, which courses stand out as especially unique, quirky or fascinating?
Really almost all of them. I mean, there are 74 courses mapped in this book and virtually every one will be of interest to fans of classic design. But just to name a few not already mentioned… Aviation CC was a short-lived Herbert Strong design on Flanders Lake, north of Detroit. Strong built Engineers, Canterbury and Saucon Valley, but considered Aviation to be his very best. Baederwood, located just outside Philadelphia, was an amazing little track, where C.H. Alison managed to bring a creek into play on 15 holes (!) despite being saddled with a small, oddly shaped tract. Dr. MacKenzie’s original layout at Lake Merced will certainly interest most aficionados as will Flintridge, a spectacular barranca-filled designed located near Pasadena. Then there’s Donald Ross’s original Miami Shores design, likely the shortest-lived of all Golden Agers, or Prince George’s, a Washington,DC-area facility generally credited to Ross but apparently rebuilt by William Flynn. Were it still with us, it might well be the best course in the Capital area.
As for quirkiest, Ralph Barton’s lost third nine at Dartmouth College probably wins just on the strength of its closer, a tree-lined, double-dogleg par five, the first turn of which easily exceeded 90 degrees!
But really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Without trying to sound too sales-oriented, I genuinely believe that nearly every layout in this book can stand toe to toe with most profiled in The Missing Links.
16. Are there any lost courses of real importance that are destined to remain undocumented?
I guess that depends on how one defines ‘real importance.’ Among layouts that we have reason to believe might genuinely have been noteworthy, two seem to have escaped substantial documentation: the old Fox Hills layout on Staten Island and A.W. Tillinghast’s short-lived 18 at Atlantic Beach, Florida. After this we find several courses built by men like Devereux Emmet, William Langford and Donald Ross that expired prior to the advent of aerial survey photography and thus appear lost forever. Of this group, two that might stand out were Emmet’s 1922 layout at Fenway (which was replaced after only two years by Tillinghast’s present-day design) and Ross’s original course at Whippoorwill (similarly buried by Charles Banks’ 1930 rebuild). There were also a number of estate courses which, as mentioned above, may or may not have included any real gems. One which has long interested me is Babson Park, a private nine holer built in 1921 near Lake Wales, Florida. Conventional wisdom credits this lakefront design to Raynor but George Bahto once told me that it was actually Ralph Barton- hence my less-dogged pursuit.
Of course, there was an entire generation of pre-Golden Age courses built by men like Willie Dunn and Alex Findlay, many of which expired with little more than crude routing maps to record them. One that’s always interested me is Willie Park,Jr’s first American design, built in Shelburne, Vermont during the 1890s- but that’s mostly because I went to college only a few minutes away.
17. Has the work of any particular architect changed in your eyes as a result of digging more deeply into their lost courses?
In several cases, though not always for the better. I’ve discovered, for example, that several of Tillinghast’s earlier works were considerably less attractive than we’ve come to expect; really almost geometric in places. This is particularly surprising, too, when one considers that his first-ever design at Shawnee-On-Delaware (which is featured in Lost Links) was both strategic and very attractive. But there they were.
On the other hand, men like Devereux Emmet and William Langford have come to impress me quite a bit more with the depth and strategic nature of their work. Similarly Billy Bell (who I must confess to having originally dismissed as little more than George Thomas’s sidekick) stands much taller once you’ve examined courses like the Royal Palms, El Caballero, Midwick and Sunset Fields. And there’s no question that after researching Timber Point for Missing Links, I gained an entirely new sense of what C.H. Alison’s work was all about.
18. Please elaborate more on your thoughts on Devereux Emmet. The West Course at Huntington Crest Club certainly seems full of architectural merit.
So far as I can tell, Emmet was somewhat similar to, say, a Donald Ross in that he built a large number of courses, the quality of which varied greatly. Though his layouts generally weren’t too long, they frequently were poster children for the word ‘quirky.’ The better ones — of which there were many — tended each to offer several interesting, offbeat holes and some fascinating bunkering. The lesser ones tended to be a bit plainer. And I use the past tense carefully because roughly half of his original designs are gone, and few of those remaining are overly faithful to his original work. One point in Emmet’s favor: He surely took on more cramped, uninspiring sites than any other big-name architect I can think of.
19. How would you compare the merits of William Flynn’s lost North Course at Boca Raton Resort & Club to those of Seminole?
Both of Flynn’s lost Boca courses were excellent. In fact, I just don’t believe that people familiar with modern Florida golf can conceive how natural, strategic and challenging these layouts were. But the suggested comparison is problematical because Seminole enjoys that rarest of Florida traits: elevation change. If Seminole had its same basic layout on dead-flat terrain, either Boca course might measure up nicely. But Seminole has those dune ridges, and the difference is night and day.
20. How did you discover Pasadena Golf Club in Altadena, California? Based on your description as ‘laid out over rolling sandy terrain that might, to the imaginative, call up romanticized memories of Pine Valley,’ the course certainly fits the bill of a truly lost gem.
Pasadena was a neat golf course, no question about it. But the key word in the question has to be ‘romanticized’ because, as we all know, there’s only one Pine Valley. As far as discovering Pasadena, living in Southern California, I’d found numerous references to it my research, all suggesting that it had been something pretty good. Then my friends at Whittier College’s Fairchild Aerial Photo Collection produced a superb late-1920s image and I was sold. It’s interesting: Some famous SoCal courses like Riviera and Lakeside lost key elements of several holes in the 1938 Los Angeles floods, but Pasadena lost everything! I saw one post-deluge aerial and there was virtually nothing left.
21. The book’s maps are highly detailed. Are they equally accurate in terms of scale, hazarding, etc.?
Actually they’re exact- within reason. That’s because with only the very rare exception, they are scaled off of period aerial photos, so the fairways, greens, hazards and trees are all, relatively speaking, exact. Even adjacent and intersecting roads are fairly precise, though when it comes to the shape of the clubhouse or the parking lot I must admit to being generally accurate but not necessarily precise.
22. With regard to The Missing Links (pleaserefer tothis site’s May, 2000 Feature Interview with Wexler), have you received any feedback to suggest that the book has prompted a greater appreciation for the design work of the old masters?
Very much so. And that’s been extremely gratifying because truthfully, I’d originally expected it to appeal primarily to a hardcore, GCA-type audience; people who essentially knew their stuff before opening the cover. But I’ve received a number of comments suggesting a greater awareness of Golden Age design after reading it, especially from people residing in places like New York or Southern California, where so many of the deceased facilities originally resided. Of course, there have been a number of other recent books that have sparked the same type of awareness, perhaps even moreso. The Missing Links just managed to do it in a slightly different manner.
23. Finally, have you discovered any inaccuracies in The Missing Links that might be of interest to GCA readers?
Fewer than I expected, that’s for sure. But one, the inaccuracy of which I discovered myself, is the oft-stated notion that part of Trent Jones’s modern Lido course overlaps the site of Macdonald’s original. That’s what I wrote, having read it elsewhere, and the idea is so widely believed that when I eventually did an article for Golf World which stated the opposite, a local historian insisted I was wrong. But if you look at a MapQuest or Terraserver aerial and match where the old clubhouse/hotel stands with the location of the Trent Jones course, it’s really not even close.
Also, the sequence of play at William Flynn’s Mill Road Farm layout was incorrect, but I wrote at the time that I was only making an educated guess. Since the book came out, an old property map has appeared which clearly shows the course to have begun and ended away from the Lasker mansion itself. Consequently the hole that appeared on my map as #10 was actually the 18th and my 11th was hole #1.
But the inaccuracy which I find most fascinating involves Dr. MacKenzie’s famous design at Sharp Park, just south of San Francisco. In The Missing Links I repeated the standard story of the layout’s demise: that a huge Pacific storm washed much of the course out to sea shortly after its 1931 opening. But I have recently come into possession of a 1941 aerial which clearly shows the original layout to be completely intact, raising the prospect that Sharp Park’s alterations might have been deliberate and man-made. If so, then La Cumbre finally has some competition for the Golden Age’s saddest tale of woe.