The Colossus of Golf Course Architects & The First Golden Age of Golf Course Design
The Early Golf Course Designers: the Real Story of
Of who did what in the First Golden Age of Golf
Melvyn Morrow Hunter
We each hold strong views and feelings about whom we consider worthy of being defined as a great golf course designer. Unlike many I believe that in the 19th century there were many greats and among them perhaps one or two, that we could label as a Colossus.
Some of us struggle with the word ‘architecture’ as related to golf course design. I feel better using the word ‘design’ as it suggests the routing of a course rather than actual construction. That is how I perceive the word though you may well have a different take.
This article is not merely an extension of my original ‘In My Opinion’ piece titled The Early Golf Designers: The Real Golden Age. Rather, I sincerely hope that it will be thought-provoking and enable a more complete understanding of the very beginnings of Golf Course Architecture. I also hope to redress some misunderstandings as to who did what and when in the creation of some of the 19th century courses.
When I submitted The Early Golf Designers: The Real Golden Age, my intention was to generate an understanding that the concept of design is straightforward and that those ‘eureka’ moments were achieved rather quickly. However, I grant you that sometimes weeks could pass trying to crack a “secret code” that starts the ball rolling. My point is that a single designer, walking the course can formulate a basic design, which can be staked-out at that same moment. Assisted by those pegs (depending upon the state of the land) shots can be played to gain a feel for the design, the lay of the land. This is neither ground-breaking or startling just a golfer’s eye appreciating the land, contours, the potential natural hazards, and appropriate features. It was very common practice back in the 19th century to place pegs during the first phase of design. Later in this article I expand upon that.
As mentioned, I intend to prove that the early designers as proficient golfers were generally able to address a blank canvas without any preconceptions and could quickly form a basic design that was subsequently elaborated upon. Their brief, for the most part, was to provide ‘sporty’ and ‘challenging courses with many hazards’ on limited, poor land set aside at a corner of a farm or on the property of the Landed Gentry. Time was also a factor for these early courses, particularly when the clubs were being formed by local people who had limited disposable income. Tight finances necessitated a substantial membership (which was difficult without a course). Early on it generally took 4-6 weeks to build a course but later in the 1880/90’s the average time considered reasonable edged up over 3 months. This was a period in the history of golf course architecture when many erroneously assume that most golf courses were laid out in the morning and the Opening Match played in the afternoon. That is just simply ignorant of the design process during the mid to late 19th century.
The majority of new courses in the 19th century took up to 10-12 weeks from the initial formation of the club with agreements to source land (normally by leasing as funds available for the newly formed clubs were scant) to the Opening Ceremony. Some courses were ready in 5-6 weeks, but that was the exception. Also, it was regularly reported that the courses would not ‘come into their own’ for approximately another year of general use. So while pegs were laid in the AM and the odd ball played, that did not indicate that the course was ready, only that the initial design concept had been laid out (subject to adjustments as required).
The following article appeared in the Scotsman newspaper on the 4th August 1890, announcing the formation of both club and course:
The next entry in The Scotsman is dated Monday the 13th October 1890, which clearly states that the new 9 hole course at Whitley was formally opened on the 10th & 12th of October indicating that the course took two months to design and build. None of this peg A.M., play P.M. Here is a copy of the Scotsman article dated the 13th October 1890:
My original essay did strike a chord with some golfing historians and researchers who had previously relied too much upon the reports of that later breed of designers who have been defined as the Golden Age architects (in my opinion, inappropriately as they produced very little innovation and merely developed that which had already been laid down). I am pleased to say that today we think more highly of the 19th century designers but tend to group them together. This is a mistake as only a few were real leaders.In order to emphasize the fact that even though a course was open it would not reach the considered optimum condition for at least a year after it had been in use I attach another Scotsman article showing that the opened course was regarded as still ‘in rough condition’ but the ‘more it is played upon the quicker it will improve’.
I am trying to explain the methodology of the early designers that formed the foundations upon which the second Golden Age Designers built to take ‘designs to new heights’. Remember that to this day we praise highly golf holes dating back as far as the 1870’s, i.e. The Road Hole (TOC) and The Redan (NB) to mention but two.
In The Beginning
My original essay analyzed an amazing period in the history of golf – 1845-1900. We see for the first time a very small number of individuals actively involved in designing golf courses, not just the odd course but a series of 3 to 5 or more. The first name that springs to mind has to be Allan Robertson who was responsible for the actual design and modification of golf courses like The Old Course, Cupar and Carnoustie. He was the first of the few great Colossi of Golf Course Architecture but surprisingly despite being the first recorded multi-course designer of the modern period, perhaps the first ever, he is rarely cited that way. His designs and modifications were quite remarkable because he actually utilized design techniques within his new and modified courses, something more or less unheard of beforehand.
Pre 1850 there were just a handful of golf courses and very few new designs. However through the 1850’s we see a slow but positive movement to build and develop more golf courses not only in Scotland but throughout the Empire, wherever a Scottish community existed (Royal Calcutta 1829). Many were one-off examples and built by an unknown soldier, administer or Vicar, whose names are lost to history.
In 1851 Prestwick was formed as a new 12 hole course and brought together the cream of golfing society that later would make a stamp on not just golf course architecture but golfing history. Prestwick was the springboard that launched the modern game of golf. It was because of the enlightened members of Prestwick Golf Club that we have the modern game and the Major tournaments which bring so many to the game either as players or spectators. St Andrews may be the spiritual home of golf but Prestwick was responsible for promoting design as well the international game through The Open. Other great courses came about thanks to Prestwick Members who helped establish the game as far afield as Westward Ho! in England circa 1860.
During the 1850’s more courses were designed and built but by a very limited number of professional golfers who combined with their knowledge of Green Keeping lead the way. Other courses of the era worth mentioning are Royal Curragh, Pau, Earlsferry, Cupar and King James VI. The following Scotsman report was dated the 13th August 1901 and confirms the Earlsferry design and date.
Many early courses were often designed and built by local golfers, not ‘Gamechangers’ and their names for the most part are lost to history. Nevertheless, a few because of their understanding and knowledge went on to continue designing the odd golf course and a smaller few took the game and course design to new heights by developing the basics principles of golf course architecture. We tend to remember these few more for their achievements than for their subsequent fame afterwards.
‘Facts’ are what we should be working with, not ‘opinions’ when undertaking research. The biggest error made regarding golfing history relates to The Open. Prestwick held an open day for all the professionals in 1860 won by Willie Park Sr. and Old Tom Morris was runner up. However, this was not a true Open being Professionals only. If we are to hold research accountable then we must celebrate the first Open as being played in 1861 because it was “open” to all.
The following cutting was printed in The Scotsman Newspaper in 1860, however, it was a copied from a report in the Glasgow Herald that same year and confirms that only professionals were invited to perform.
The 1860 event should not be known as the first Open, that honour should be accorded to The Open of 1861. With this in mind, perhaps, we should re-examine the list of Professional and Amateur golf course designers to see if they warrant the publicity they have received.
The Professionals & Amateurs – whom among them are worthy of note?
The problem of where to start I feel should be left in the hands of ‘The Late’ Tom MacWood based upon his own thought provoking article The Early Golf Designers: The Real Golden Age, published in GCA’s In My Opinion archives. After all, aren’t we trying to unearth the same truth about these early designers? Let’s start with the amateurs of the period in question (pre 1900) and Tom MacWood covered the introduction of this section rather well:
“You will find one or two familiar names among these amateurs but the majority are unknown. Their anonymity is not surprising since the typical amateur was involved in only a handful of courses, if that, and in many cases just a single course. Despite their limited activity it is important we recognize these gentlemen, not only for their outstanding designs, but also for the example they set for the amateurs who followed…”
Yes, we should recognize these individuals for the service they provided for golf and even though most produced just one design or a few designs within the area they lived. Many of their designs, some only a few holes, have for the most part disappeared. We should put this in proper perspective. Did that one design send shockwaves around the game, in Scotland or GB? Were they ‘Gamechangers’? We must examine the historical records to determine what was actually achieved and balance that within the spectrum of golf course architecture of that period.
I am in agreement with Tom MacWood as to the names he listed, though more names could be added that would satisfy many of the qualities he mentioned. Would that add anything significant or really make any difference to the history of GCA? I fear not, in this period of earth shattering design developments much of what they did was not necessarily new or ground-breaking and certainly they were not ‘Gamechangers’.
It seems pointless to comment upon individuals, like Dr. W. Laidlaw Purves, mentioned by Tom MacWood as there is little to add. However, I will do so if I feel there is a reason to get the facts out in the open so we can chronicle the true history of golf and not just try to fit our own preferences/agendas. Let’s give credit where credit is due not based on opinions or agendas that seek to prove personal theories.
B Hall Blyth is the first individual I must comment on because of the way some researchers portray him. He was an influential figure and very much involved with golf in the 1880 & 1890’s is B Hall Blyth but badly understood by modern researchers. Hall Blyth was very much the Front Man of the Club or The Committee, a public front runner but not one undertaking the design and laying out of golf courses. His involvement in many projects and clubs was significant but we should be very cautious about crediting Hall Blyth with anything more than being part or speaking for the Committee.
The Braid Hills project went forward due to the work of Hall Blyth but he was only involved as a member of a five man deputation of the committee appointed by the Edinburgh Golfers. Hall Blyth was not the Secretary but acted as the spokesman for the golf committee. The reason Blair Hill materialized was due to the generosity of the Cluny Trustees at the request of Lady Gordon Cathcart, whose family owned much of the land that was required for the Braid Hills course.
This is the same Lady Cathcart who owned South Uist and contributed to Askernish and Collieston in Aberdeenshire. Braid Hills, subject to Parliaments agreement, was to be purchased by Edinburgh Council as a Public Park with a golf facility for the people of Edinburgh. The Edinburgh golfers were rather concerned about the condition of Bruntsfield Links and wanted a new golf course in play as soon as possible. See the following Scotsman newspaper report from 1889.
Hall Blyth went further and sought help from the council for both the laying out and maintenance of the Braid Hills course. Not finished Hall Blyth further recommended – and this is a very important point missed by Tom MacWood as its gives us an insight into the way Hall Blyth worked – and I quote from the Scotsman newspaper dated Thursday the 30th May 1889:
Old Tom was away in Ireland when the council suddenly required that work begin so Old Tom’s intended assistant Peter McEwan took the lead assisted by Bob Ferguson. I believe this clearly indicates the role of Hall Blyth regarding design, and there is no reason to think that it would change 15 months later regarding the new course at Muirfield.
Indeed, let’s examine Muirfield. Many like the idea that the design is by Hall Blyth, but understanding his typical involvement just a year or so earlier makes it quite unlikely. We need to look at the information on record and in the hands of the club and let’s examine that information in reverse order, beginning with the drawing or plan for the course by Hall Blyth dated December 1891. This Hall Blyth drawing is below as well as a blown-up section with his signature and date – ‘Muirfield 1891 Course Plan’.
However, the course was formally opened in May 1891, 7 months in advance of the Blyth drawing! His drawing was not the design but just the “As Built” drawing of record. The records indicate that Old Tom Morris made site visits in the latter few months of 1890 to layout the course, some 13 months prior to Hall Blyth’s dated drawing. This is verified by the comment in the attached Scotsman newspaper article.
Hall Blyth’s involvement in Braid Hills and Muirfield is not as extensive as some claim. On the Braid Hills project he clearly stated that the design should be left to ‘the experts’. This does not slight his in-depth involvement with the promotional and committee work he did at Muirfield, but alas there was no actual course design input.
The most telling article in support of Old Tom Morris as Muirfield’s designer is The Edinburgh Evening News newspaper dated the 26th February 1891. What’s is especially interesting is the attached sketch of Old Tom’s design showing the new course (those who have read my essay on Muirfield will have seen the detailed version of the full story and that essay includes a number of sketches showing the course every decade from the Old Tom design from February 1891 through to the 1948).
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
The Evening Telegraph 29th January 1920
The Evening Telegraph 29th January 1920
The Dundee Courier 27th April 1921
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.
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:
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?