Walter J. Travis “Dropped” at National Golf Links of America

Truth or Travesty? (Part Three)


Mike Cirba

May, 2018

Walter J. Travis and Charles B. Macdonald seated next to each other in a group photo during the July 1910 National Golf Links of America Founders & Associate Members “Soft Opening” Tournament

In the spring of 1906, Charles B. Macdonald again traveled to Great Britain, this time focused on sketching the details of golf holes and features that he might want to duplicate on his Ideal Golf Links.   During this time he was looking at three different sites but felt close to a deal.   As such, he used his good friend Walter Travis as his American conduit to keep prospective founding members up to date with his activities and progress.   This Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from March 1906 outlined the plans, which included Macdonald spending the months until June of that year abroad in detailed study and recording.

Travis, back in the states working on the extensive course changes for the Garden City Golf Club that he, Macdonald, and Devereux Emmet called home at that time had arguably the most architectural experience in terms of intellectually challenging strategic design  than any man in America.  The fact Travis was also an amateur made him the obvious choice for Macdonald to collaborate with.

At that time, Walter Travis was also still at the height of his competitive powers.   Incredibly, after winning 3 U.S. Amateurs and a British Amateur victory in the years of 1900-1904, he also was the medalist at that tournament each of the three years between 1906 and 1908, although he faded in later rounds.   Even in 1910 at the age of 48, he won 8 out of 10 tournaments he entered during one period, usually playing against men half his age.

In the fall of 1906 Charles Blair Macdonald was able to close on 200 acres of what seemed a tangled mess of brambles to less visionary observers but Macdonald was looking for rolling ground contours, generally favorable sandy soil, and proximity to the water.   The fact it abutted Shinnecock Hills Golf Club was probably a bit of annoyance to him, but here Macdonald rightly believed he could build his Mecca.

To accompany him in the work of designing and constructing the golf course, Macdonald chose the three men with the most experience in these matters in the United States.   Walter J. Travis, Devereux Emmet, and Macdonald’s son-in-law H. J. Whigham were not only experienced with course design but also were intimately knowledgeable regarding the great courses abroad.   Travis had taken things a step further with his writings and proselytizing of the gospel of strategic course architecture and “scientific” placement of hazards.   The following snippets from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and New York Sun articles in mid-December 1906 outline the anticipated next steps now that the property had been secured.  Months of architectural planning were now anticipated with a hoped for start to construction in the spring of 1907.

The following syndicated article spoke of the experience and architectural knowledge of all of the men involved in the project.

The first few months of 1907 were spent planning the holes to be created on the rugged, overgrown Southampton site.   At the end of April, Shinnecock veteran Mortimer S. Payne was hired to oversee construction.  That month the following portion of an article by Walter Travis was published in Country Life about the course to be constructed at the National.   You will note that Travis mentions that he’s already been to the site “a number of times” and each visit has revealed “additional charms” and “latent possibilities” and more opportunities for the creation of great golf holes.

Moreover the article mentions that Macdonald will still be soliciting input from some of the best minds abroad in the selection of holes to utilize but has also surrounded himself with men (like Travis) who not only are familiar with the best courses abroad but who have “a good deal of experience” with the details of course building in the United States.

Construction proved to be difficult.   Macdonald later wrote about the site, “It abounded in bogs and swamps and was covered with an entanglement of bayberry, huckleberry, blackberry, and other bushes and was infested with insects.”  Nevertheless, by September of 1907 it was reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that the construction of all the greens had been finished and that the “committee in charge of the work” was particularly pleased with the Eden hole green, although they were already finding that they would likely need to raise the Cape Hole green as they sometimes found it completely underwater at high tide.

In late 1907 Walter Travis introduced another sweeping round of changes to Garden City Golf Club, adding a significant number of bunkers while planning to turn the 18th hole into a reproduction of the famous Redan hole at North Berwick, and was rumored to be considering replicas of other classic holes abroad.  This was reportedly to provide a little “competition” to the National Golf Links which was still slated to open in 1909.   It’s not known if those plans were altered (or possibly misreported) because the eighteenth hole as exists today is more often compared to the St. Andrews Eden hole, not the Redan.

While those changes were being implemented and 1907 turned into 1908, H.J. Whigham, Walter Travis, and Charles Macdonald were taking part of a bit of holiday fun and frivolity at Garden City Golf Club, with Whigham zooming around the course in under 50 minutes with Travis following on his bicycle.

Meanwhile, back in Southampton the project continued apace.  Given the challenges of the site, construction work proceeded well into 1908 and on July 17th of that year the New York Herald posed an almost full-page article about the progress to date that included the following center photograph, seemingly indicating that Walter Travis was still part of the design/construction committee.

Of course, it might be arguable that this photograph may have been from a year or so earlier but the inclusion of a photo of Mortimer Payne and several photos of the holes in progress make it more probable all were taken during the same, more recent site visit.

The belief that Walter Travis was still fully involved with the evolutionary design and construction of the project in August 1908, almost 20 months after Macdonald initially secured the land, is buttressed with this snippet from an August 23, 1908 New York Tribune article that lists him as one of the men still involved in coming up with the design and construction ideas for the course that construction foreman Mortimer Payne was faithfully executing.

The article is notable in a number of respects that show it is not simply another retreaded article reiterating stale information.   It mentions that nearly two years have elapsed since work began (in the late fall of 1906), and that articles of incorporation have been recently taken out on the “National Golf Links”, (which took place June 29th, 1908).  It should be noted that previous to this time the course was originally to be called the “National Golf Course”, a subtle distinction that will be discussed later.  It mentions that the building that was to be used for the clubhouse, the Shinnecock Inn, had burned down the previous spring and that a new one would be built either on the original Shinnecock Inn site or over near the Peconic Bay side.

Further, it discusses Macdonald’s “constant communication” with his friend Horace Hutchinson regarding the project, and mentions that amateurs Macdonald, Walter Travis, H.J. Whigham, and Findlay Douglas have all been contributing “suggestions and ideas” that Mortimer Payne has “carefully carried out”,  and mentions Payne’s herculean work to effectively drain the swampy areas of the golf course.   Clearly it seems the collaborative design/construction effort still involved Walter Travis at this time.

As an aside, it is mysteriously interesting that not a single contemporaneous mention of Seth Raynor’s role in the building of National Golf Links has been found to date.    Why Raynor was never mentioned during construction and why Mortimer Payne was never credited by Macdonald after the fact is a source of speculation.   What is known is that the construction and grow-in process took several years, with a number of notable agronomic failures (grass growing on the greens was referred to as “cabbage”).   It took nearly three and a half years after construction began for the course to have its first soft opening for Founders in July of 1910, (the course condition being described as still rough at that time), and the course didn’t officially open until the fall of 1911, an almost five year odyssey.