1. How did you begin your career in golf and your interest in the history of golf on the Pacific Coast?
Prior to October 1960 I knew absolutely nothing about golf. I had never played the game or visited a golf course. Capilano G&CC invited youngsters to come and caddy for members during the club’s closing day event. I played sports like basketball, baseball, and soccer in school, but I instantly fell in love with golf. From that moment until 1971 I worked in the pro shop at Capilano under the direction of the head professional Jock McKinnon. We became very very close friends over the years.
Because Jock served as a clubmaker and assistant professional at Monifieth located near Carnoustie he passed on his knowledge about the history of golf. Many members gave him various old clubs and balls. Jock could identify and date the equipment and talk about the makers. The history of golf captivated me so I started my own golf memorabilia collection.
During one of my many hunting trips for golf stuff I purchased a small privately published booklet titled: “Early Golf in Vancouver – pre 1905.” In the booklet Chaldecott, the author, claimed the first organized golf club, not golf course, was located on the Jericho Beach area in Vancouver in November 1892. Was this statement correct? Of course I turned to Jock who played the Jericho course many times. Jericho was a combination links and inland course. Most of the very wealthy golfers in Vancouver were members. When the course closed in 1942 many Jericho members joined Capilano. In fact, without realizing it, I was caddying for these former members at Capilano. Seeking to gain input into the statement, I approached them wanting input to the question. No one could definitely say this statement was correct. In fact most did not know the course was actually constructed in 1892 believing the course was built in 1905.
For the next 40 years, I strove to prove or disprove this fact. To solve this question I began an investigation to determine the opening date for every course on the Pacific Coast before 1930.
In conclusion, my research indicates Jericho was the first organized golf club west of the Mississippi.
My fifty years of research forms the basis for the Archives in the BC Golf Museum.
2. Did a particular event occur that enticed you to write the biography for A. Vernon Macan?
In 1987 because of my long relationship with the Pacific Northwest Golf Association (PNGA) and because of my research pertaining to the history of golf on the Pacific Coast, I was asked to join the PNGA Hall of Fame committee. Instantly I noticed there were no members from BC. In 1988, I sub-mitted several names for consideration for induction. Heading the list was Vernon Macan.
On a Sunday afternoon in 1991, I received a telephone call from Dominic Macan, Mac’s grandson. I was stunned because my research gave no indication of a marriage or of any children. At the conclusion of my lengthy discussion with Dominic, he asked if Mac’s daughter could call me from Greystones, Ireland. Absolutely I would be honored to speak with her.
Within the next month, Juliet called. I will never forget this conversation. In fact, I became so emotional that the tears flowed down my face after the conversation concluded. Here was a daughter who desperately wanted to know everything about her father before she passed away. I later learned she had only months to live. I promised I would compile all the information I could and write her a story about her father and his contribution to golf in the Northwest. I assured her he was not a drunkard, he was not a remittance man who lived off the family fortune, and he was adored by the northwest golfing community. He had made a major contribution to golf on the coast.
Within the next three months I presented her with a 100 page story outlining her father’s life on the coast. So many unanswered questions remained with regard to his life that I could not write a full book at this time. I promised her one day I will have all my questions answered and I will write a biography about the life of A. Vernon Macan.
As the golf historian for the BC Golf House Society, Museum, Library and Archives I have re-searched many people, courses, and tournaments, the Macan project has been the most gratifying of them all.
3. How did you decide on the title “Just Call Me Mac”? With no diaries and no personal comments, how were you able to reconstruct Macan’s life?
From 1960 until his death in 1964, I had the privilege of observing Mac from a distance at Capilano. After opening day 1937, Stanley Thompson never visited Capilano. Vernon Macan became the resident golf architect for the course. One of my biggest regrets now is the fact that I never spoke with Mac in the 1960’s. Little did I realize at that time this man’s story would consume me for almost twenty years.
By the manner in which he conducted himself and by the tweed jacket and tie with his fedora covering his head I knew this man came from wealthy roots. His strong Anglo-Irish accent implied he was well schooled. However, he always appeared as just a common fellow trying to do the best job he could. He had deep convictions about possible changes to the course. He did not always succeed. At the end of every meeting with various members he closed by commenting: “From now on please do not call me Mr. Macan, just call me Mac.” He also added a similar comment as a ps to all his correspondence. To everyone in the northwest from the early twenties until his death A. Vernon Macan became known as “Mac”.
Because Mac gave no interviews and left no personnel papers, I decided to create a diary for his life based upon news clippings. Mac first loved cricket and in 1905, he turned to golf. He actively played both sports so I created his diary using news clippings in the Irish Times, The Times(London), and various newspapers on the coast. Unfortunately when I conducted the majority of the research for this project no Internet or e-mail existed.
4. What key events occurred during the research process that helped you to keep pressing forward?
On several occasions during the research for the Macan I prepared to end the process because I did not see how I could possibly answer the fundamental questions I raised in the original incomplete manuscript. Why did he come to Victoria, BC? How did he learn to design a golf course? Did he have any mentors?
In 1993 Pam Macan, Mac’s daughter in law, donated all the contents from Mac’s office to me. His correspondence essentially described his business from 1945 until his death. For many years before my Mac project, I had been visiting the Seattle Public Library to read copies of a complete run of northwest golf magazines titled Northwest Golfer, Northwest Golfer & Country Club, and Pacific Coast Golfer, from 1926 – 1942. Because I was the only person reading these magazines in 1995 the Seattle Public Library gave me the complete run.
When I determined I must study life in Dublin and Ireland before Mac’s arrival in BC in 1912, I needed access to the Irish Times. Fortunately, a run existed at the University of Washington in Seattle. By studying every issue from 1890 – 1915 it became clear Mac was definitely a sportsman. In fact, I also learned very quickly many of the Victoria Golf Club members originated from Dublin and played the same courses as Mac. Finally in 2001 the Vancouver Public Library notified me they now provided The Times on line where I could I do a word search. I instantly did a search for “Macan”. It took me over a year to analyze all the hits. Through perseverance, I compiled about information on the entire Macan family dating back to the 1700’s.
As a corollary to the Macan search, I also learned an additional fact that I am now pursuing. Bernard Darwin published weekly columns in The Times. From 1908 – 1920, many of his articles pertained to golf course architecture. I believe Mac gained first hand knowledge regarding the “new golf architects” by diligently reading Darwin’s comments. It appears Darwin acted as mediator between the irate members of the renovated golf courses and the new architects. Darwin offered insight into the transition and in fact offered advice to the new architects.
5. Why did a Dublin lawyer come to British Columbia? Had he performed design work in Ireland?
Why did he come to Victoria? This question troubled me for many years. In my book I offer four possibilities. Like his grandson David Williams, I believe he came to British Columbia as “a golfing tourist” to visit his old friends from Royal Dublin, Portmarnock and Greystones. The Victoria GC offered surroundings very similar to Greystones and he decided to remain. Before his arrival, he had never assisted in the design of any golf course in Ireland. He was simply a Dublin lawyer who loved to play golf more than work. He traveled extensively throughout Ireland and Britain playing golf on the great courses of the British Isles.
Vernon Macan commenced his golfing life in 1905. By tracing the history of golf in Ireland, one soon discovers that a golfing boom occurred from 1905 – 1915. In fact, more courses were constructed or renovated during this period than at any other time in the history of Irish golf. Alison and Colt did much of the work. In fact, Allison lived in Dublin for several years during this expansion. Macan belonged to many of the courses these new architects constructed or renovated.
In a passing comment in one letter, Macan refers to his mentor John Low. Comparing Low’s principles and Macan’s principles one soon discovers a distinct similarity. Through the Irish Bar Golfing Society, Macan played regular matches with the Oxford-Cambridge Golfing Society. Here Mac met many of the influential figures in the new golf architecture period.
By reading The Times and by observing Colt, Alison, Barcroft and Low at work I believe Mac developed his ideas for his future architectural business on the west coast.
6. How then could he possibly design Royal Colwood, one of the Northwest’s great golf courses, without prior training?!
Mac said just before his death in 1964 that he came to the Northwest in 1912 with a set of principles and he had not changed these principles over fifty years. To understand Mac’s life one must notice that certain key events occurred that made it possible for him to become a golf architect. In 1905, he chose to become a lawyer. At that time, the Irish Bar encouraged their members to forgo cricket for golf. Mac became a plus four handicap in sixteen months. His father died leaving him as a very wealthy, single, eligible bachelor in Dublin. He could now travel to play golf. Golf course construction boomed. Low publishes his principles and the new age of golf course architecture begins. Mac arrives in BC and the BC Men’s Amateur Championship has been moved to December from the normal spring date. Macan wins the championship and now has a reason to remain in BC. The Victoria economy is experiencing a land boom with escalating land taxes. A group fears the Victoria GC could lose their site, so they purchase a new site in Colwood. Macan is hired to create a championship golf course on the Colwood property. Little did the founders of Colwood realize Macan had a set of principles to design their course under the new golf course architecture principles that were introduced into Great Britain.
7. Did any of the noted golf architects in Great Britain or Ireland particularly influence the develop-ment of his design principles?
Throughout his correspondence Mac made only one reference to a possible teacher. That person was John Low, “my mentor”. He constantly refers to Colt, Alison, Park and later Mackenzie and Jones as justification for some of his design principles. Looking at Mac’s design principles there is a definite similarity to John Low’s principles.
8. Looking at his design principles, which remain constant throughout all his designs? Which changed between private and public golf courses?
Most of the design principles I have developed for Vernon Macan are very general in nature. He would always tell his client the quality of the course would depend on the amount of funding available. He strongly believed only a trained architect would be able to walk the property and develop a routing for that particular land. Similarly he believed only an architect could locate the natural features available and construct a course that would have character and challenges for all classes of players. All his designs made certain the player saw all the difficulties in front of him. Standing on the tee, Mac challenged the player to choose the proper route to match his playing ability.
As the budget decreased Macan reduced the number of bunkers particularly the fairway bunkers. In the case of a public course, he eliminated many of the fairway bunkers. He believed the medium and high handicap had a difficult enough time getting around the course that they did not need any hazards. To reduce maintenance costs Mac installed hillocks, mounds, and different slopes around the greens to act natural as hazards.
Macan constantly stated the quality of the course rested on the quality of the greens. For low budget courses and public courses the quality of the greens definitely diminished. Unusual shapes for the greens definitely became a trademark no matter what the cost. To build a good green in the Northwest Mac constantly emphasized the necessity for drainage and more drainage in his green construction process.
9. The Northwest features a chilly, wet climate like Ireland but without the sandy soil to handle the moisture. What allowances for the weather did he incorporate into his designs?
Macan rarely installed his fairways bunkers during the initial construction process. He wanted the fairways to mature for a year. Then he would visit the layout to determine how far the ball would run during all types of playing conditions particularly during the rainy season.
Macan certainly made it clear to his clients that the key to constructing a golf course in the North-west was drainage. During the green construction period Mac concerned himself with four types of drainage: surface drainage, subdrainage, seepage drainage and carrying drainage. He accounted for all the water accumulating in the entire area of the greens including the lowest points in the bunkers. During the research many greens staff told me that Mac’s original greens that could be seventy-five years old still drained very quickly after a heavy downpour. No accumulation of water remains on the surface.
When the budget did not exist to properly drain the fairways Mac warned the club to consider this problem as a top priority in future years.
10. Macan certainly favored the run-up or the pitch and run shot. How did he design such holes in the wet climate to challenge the talented wedge player?
Mac detested the fact that a player could purchase a shot in the pro shop. He wanted all players to learn how to play a particular shot that might be required on his course. He left an opening at the front of the green for the run-up shot. He constantly encouraged the player to take additional club to play into the green by placing no bunkers past the middle of the green. If the player’s shot ran over the green the recovery shot would be relatively easy to play back to the pin. A bunker was only placed at the back of the green if the player would have a worse fate with no bunker.
For the medium and high handicap player Mac designed a route for them leaving a pitch and run or a run up for their third or fourth shot. Mac believed with practice the player could get closer to the hole with this shot rather than a pitch to the hole.
Mac constructed his greens like up side down plates with mounds and traps surrounding the putting surface. He wanted to create a situation where the percentages for success with a wedge were so low that a run up shot would more sensible.
11. Which three courses best showcase his talent as an architect and why?
This is a difficult question because many of Macan’s original designs have been altered over the years. The three courses that are essentially still intact from his pre 1930 design period include Royal Colwood, Fircrest, and Inglewood. I would also include Columbia-Edgewater in this group because of the routing. It always amazes me how Macan developed this course on essentially a flood plain with dykes for flood control. Unfortunately Alderwood no longer exits. Nevertheless, Macan believed it was one of his best designs as well as one of his most difficult courses to achieve a good score on.
For his design period after 1945, I would definitely say Shaughnessy “his crowning jewel. The course I wish to be remembered by.” The course has changed since Mac’s death. The members detested the sloping greens that required the run-up shot. At Shaughnessy Mac introduced an entirely new design technique into northwest golf architecture. He placed fairway bunkers in strategic spots near the centre of the fairway to control the distance the players were driving the ball. He placed extreme emphasis on the fact he believed the centre of the fairway was not the position for the player’s drive. Mac placed a large landing area on one side of the central bunker and a smaller more challenging area on the opposite side. If the low handicap player chose the challenging side and placed his tee shot perfectly, Mac rewarded the player by sloping the green towards the player for the second shot.
12. Besides Macan, who else primarily worked in the northwest as golf course architects? Even though Macan worked his entire life alone, did he influence these other architects in the area?
Although Mac was “a one man show” he told his clients if they could find a man “who knew how to move dirt” he would allow that person “to pick his brain.” He freely shared all his knowledge with the project construction foreman. Francis James, the construction foreman for William Tucker, worked with Macan on Fircrest, Rainier, and old Glendale. James certainly benefited from Macan’s guidance. In 1924, James began his own golf course design, construction, and renovation business in Seattle offering a total package for a golf course development. Similarly, Al Smith and George Otten benefited greatly by observing and listening to Mac during the 1920’s. Smith and Otten opened their own businesses in the late 1920’s.
There is no evidence Chandler Egan and Vernon Macan co-operated on any designs.
13. How are his designs different from those of his contemporaries in the Northwest?
In 1924 William Tucker visited Portland OR to bid on the construction of the Alderwood Golf Course. He praised Macan by saying: “ Macan is original in his ideas and has not reached the point where he has become stereotyped in his views as have many golf architects in the east. Further-more, he knows golf and the needs of the average golfer. And probably as important as anything else, he takes plenty of time on a job and gets everything possible out of the layout he is given.”
In describing his differences from other architects in the area, Mac basically reiterated these words. He promised his client he would “spend more time on the site supervising the process than any of my brethren.” Especially when it came time to constructing the greens Mac had a favorite comment. “Would an artist allow a stranger to take the brush and apply paint to the his canvas.” Similarly, Mac wanted to be present to watch the development of the green from the drainage to the finished product. Each green was his personal creation.
More than any of his contemporaries in the NW Mac designed for the middle and high handicap player. He wanted these players “to go out and have a nice day”. Even today, his designs still allow all classes of players to enjoy their time on his course.
The key to Macan’s designs were his long par four’s and his short par five’s. As far as he was concerned par was an illusion and a fraud. The handicap committee compensates a player according to the hole’s par and length. It is interesting to note Mac’s comment to the player who complained he could not reach the long par four in two. Mac consistently responded: “The stroke you are given is not for you to obtain a birdie. The stroke is for you to obtain a par. On the long par four you should comfortably reach the green in three strokes.”
Mac differed greatly from his colleagues in the number of bunkers. “Fewer bunkers were better”. Bunkers should not be used to penalize the medium and high handicap player. Bunkers should be placed out of the way for the majority of the players. Bunkers are only used to challenge and topro-vide interest to the low handicap player.
As I mentioned in Question 11, I believe Mac began to introduce another major change to golf course architecture in the Northwest at Shaughnessy when he began incorporating central fairway traps into his designs. He challenged the big hitters with these strategically placed traps by reducing the percentages for success if the player attempted to hit over the bunker.
14. Please elaborate on his somewhat confusing contention that he was not a builder of golf courses.
When a client asked Mac to provide a bid for the total golf course development, he had a standard response. “Like Colt, Alison, Low, and Abercrombie I am a course designer not a course builder. I have lost many jobs because of this.” Mac had a good knowledge of the construction costs for a golf course and frequently presented these estimates to the client. In fact, he provided drawings and specifications to a client instructing them to hire a builder. For a set fee he would make periodic visits to inspect the work.
For a quoted fee Mac supplied drawings, two or three plasticine green models, and specified the number of days for on site supervision. Then he suggested the client find “a man who knows how to move dirt and I will him instruct on my methods for constructing a golf course. I have nothing to do with the day-to-day expenses of the project. I take no commissions from suppliers.”
15. What are three of his most common phraseologies?
Mac used several common phraseologies throughout his correspondence.
“I design a golf course so that the man who pays the bills at the club, the medium and high handicap player will go out and have a nice day. But the course will challenge the low handicap player.”
“Standing on the tee the player must choose the route to the hole that best fits his playing ability. The man who know how to think will be successful.”
“ Building a golf course is an expensive business. If you like the $150 suit you’re as crazy as some will suggest you can buy one just as good for $50 bucks.”
“ If you cannot reach the long par four in two shots why do you think the handicap committee gave you a stroke? It was not to get a birdie.”’
16. Macan was obsessed by the distance the ball traveled. How did he design his courses to enable him to alter his courses in the future?
In the early 1920’s, Mac speculated if the USGA did not place controls on the distance the golf ball traveled: “I will be renovating golf courses for the rest of my life.” To assist him with future alterations Mac positioned the green and the next tee so that the player never walked backwards. Leaving the green the player walked sideways or forward to the next tee. Analyzing his original designs one constantly observes land behind the existing tees. This enabled Mac to lengthen a hole by simply moving his tees back to existing vacant land. This method also had the advantage that his fairway bunkers remained in position.
17. True or false: Macan influenced the way the game was played for fifty years in the Northwest to a degree never before seen in such a large golfing area. That said (!), how then did Macan remain such an unknown golf architect for all these years?
How could a man influence the way the game was played in region for over fifty years? From the moment the one hundred players from the Seattle Golf club visited Colwood in November 1914 Ver-non Macan presented the standard for the design of golf courses in the Northwest. He was the regions expert. All designers followed him. Colwood’s design introduced for the first time a golf course that was constructed under a set of design principles. The result was a course everyone could play and enjoy whether you were a low handicap player or a medium to high handicap player. Because of this new type of course all existing courses wanted Mac to alter their course to match Colwood.
The Pacific Northwest Golf Association (PNGA) was the controlling body for golf in the Northwest. Macan became its secretary in the 1920’s. From this position he altered golf courses so the club could host the prestigious PNGA Men’s and Women’s championships. This relationship with the PNGA continued until his death in 1964.
Prior to Mac’s death he wrote; “I have worked for every semi-private and private golf club in the Pacific Northwest except the Portland GC.” Utilizing his PNGA position and using his successful designs he became the leading figure for golf course design for over fifty years. His designs influenced the type of course where the players of the Northwest learned to play the game.
An architect gains a national reputation when his courses are used for national championships. Alderwood is the only Macan course used for such a championship; namely, the 1937 USGA Men’s Amateur Championship. As Robert Trent Jones Sr. told me: “Mac worked in the Northwest and no one knew what he was doing. If Mac had decided to live on the east coast in 1912 and started his business there he would have been just as famous as Ross, Tillinghast, Mackenzie, and Thompson.”
18. What do you hope this book will accomplish?
The book was written so the Macan family will know that A. Vernon Macan made a major contribution to the game he loved. To Macan’s relatives I wanted to illustrate Mac was not a drunkard, a remittance man or a failure. Like his relatives who contributed in the Irish arts community, Mac was an artist also. Mac’s canvas was the landscape he was given. His brushes and paints were the machinery and the soil the he moved to create some of the finest golf grounds in the northwest.
As Mac said after Shaughnessy opened: “People will not appreciate my work until I’m long under the sod.” The goal for this book is to recognize Mac’s accomplishments. The time has come to give Macan his just due.
Because many falsehoods exist on websites and in publications the goal is to set the record straight.
Today golf clubs are showing great pride in the fact their course is a Ross, Thompson, Thomas, or Mackenzie design. Now the Macan clubs have the opportunity to proudly display the fact their course is a Macan design.