Feature Interview with Richard B. Findlay

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To be considered great, a golf course architect must build great holes. What are five of his best?

I’ll take the 9th at TAVISTOCK COUNTRY CLUB as one of my best holes as mentioned above. The 18th at BASKING RIDGE COUNTRY CLUB in Basking Ridge, NJ is just a par three, but from the beginning of the green to the back of the green you could easily use a pitching wedge to get there, don’t be fooled by this sleeper, par three is a great score here. LLANERCH COUNTRY CLUB has two of my favorite holes. A little par three 8th at 221 yards from the tips with a slopping back to front green and a huge sand bunker on the right to catch any fades or slices. Accuracy is demanded here. The 18th is wild. A very short, 296 yards par four. A little creek on the left side to force you to the right, then there is this rather large weeping willow tree that will block you if you venture to the catch area where most slicers would end up. If you decide to go short, the 2nd shot will bring terror into your life. A back to front steep slopping green, slick as glass with sand in the front. The most intimating thing about this hole is the folks in the club house, eating and drinking, who are about 25 feet from you when you are putting. It’s easy to make a fool of yourself here, but then again excellent play is rewarded at this hole also. Perhaps someone will buy the drinks afterward. One of my most favorite holes in all of golf.

GREENBRIER COUNTRY CLUB in West Virginia is where Alex built the first course at this magnificent location. Other notables have also added their signature here as well. The little par three finishing hole over a river up to the clubhouse is so picturesque. I played this hole back in the early 70’s with a caddie. He actually was Sam Sneads caddy for years. He knew every innuendo on every green. I never putted so well. GREEN POND COUNTRY CLUB in Bethlehem, PA is a great design by Alex. Not especially long or intimidating but unique in its design. Alex designed the holes to capture the late fall sun. In this way the course could stay open long after all the other courses closed for the winter. He understood that the greens would need to face to the south, so he positioned the greens to do so. One hole demonstrates his protection he had for par. Two trees would pinch the fairway down so that you would need to lay up. If you went for the green more than likely you would get caught up in the height of the trees. I’ll throw in a sixth hole. The 18th at PITTSBURG FIELD in Pittsburg, PA. It is an uphill side hill par three, heavily bunkered. Now this is a great finishing hole. Imagine the first hole with a downhill drop of probably 100-150 feet, this hole make you feel good, the last hole will test you every bit of the way as it is just the opposite of the first, up the hill we go. What goes down must come up!

In describing an AHF course one of the premier attractions of his courses are the greens. Every single green is different and we are talking thousands of greens. Alex designed every green on the day it was built. This is a secret that has never before been revealed. I like to call it GREEN CLOUDS. Alex would lay down on the ground facing up and observing the cloud formation for that day and then he would sketch the green directly overhead. When Stephen Kay worked on redesigning Llanarch Country club he obtained aerial photos of the course back when it was built in 1920 and using these photos preserved the greens as Alex layed them out. Why? To maintain the integrity of the original design. His greens are magnificent.

As I play more of his designs and talk to the pros at those courses I am sure that list will be expanded.

How strategic are his courses? What are some of the best examples of taking on hazard in order to gain an advantage for one’s next shot?

Coming from Scotland Alex had a great fondness for the links style course, that is the stretch of land between the ocean and mainland which was mostly never used for building in Scotland. He learned to play at the Royal Montrose Golf Links and belonged to the Mercantile Club. Therefore when he would design a course here it would take on the Scottish flavor with more sand than water. His use of sand is always a threat no matter where you may be on a hole. Alex was always fair about his layouts, enticing you to go for it if you are daring and the reward might be a birdie. Par was there for the good conservative player, but to excel and win you would need to stretch out of your comfort zone. As I play his courses this always comes to confront you. Now, I am not referring to a course constructed in the past few years, but one that has been tested over the past 80-120 years. One thing about good golf courses, they will stand the test of time.

Last summer I had the privilege of playing Alister MacKenzie’s 1929 design, Crystal Downs in Frankfort, Michigan as the guest of golf course architect Mike DeVries. The course stands the test of time, not long at 6500 yards but strategic shot making is essential. This course should be on your bucket list of courses throughout the world to play.

As we have seen the older courses do stand the test of time and come away as winners. Such as Aronimink Golf Club outside of Philadelphia. Of course, the original design was an Alex Findlay layout then they moved the course and Donald Ross did a magnificent job in his design as well. As you know it just finished playing host to the AT&T tournament.

What do you reckon to be the best circumstances under which he worked? That is to say, where was the best property coupled with sufficient funds and an owner who supported him all the way?

This is an easy answer. He was hired by Henry Flagler in 1895 to build six golf courses along the Florida East Coast Railroad. Mr. Flagler had plenty of funds, he built huge hotels for northerners to flock to Florida for the winters. These visitors required amusement and recreation appropriate to their standing in society. He just needed to have golf courses built and Alex was the foremost authority on golf in the United States from 1886 through the 1920’s and 30’s. Later, when Wright & Ditson hired him to promote golf, Alex began his most bountiful building process throughout all of New England.

Please tell us how his golf course construction business became a family affair.

My father Norman was born in 1904 and by the time he was 18 in 1922 he began his construction business. Alex was designing golf courses all over the country, but he always hired out the construction of the courses to someone else. When my father reached 18 he began learning the trade from his father. He actually designed a number of courses himself under the tutledge of Alex. His two older brothers decided not to take up the golfing business. My father had amassed a fortune before he was 26. Now do the math if you will. October of 1929 saw the great Wall Street collapse and the depression followed. My father and grandfather owned a number of courses at the time, including Medford Lakes, NJ and Pittman also in NJ. I hope to play Medford Lakes this summer. My father was encouraging me to do the same in golf. I was preparing to be educated on golf course architecture in the early 1960’s, but sometimes circumstances drastically change our direction. My father suddenly died in his sleep in 1963 and the next thing I know my life was turned upside down. Even though I never designed courses I certainly do appreciate the fine intricacies of course layout.

His brother Fred built Farmington CC in Charlottesville which remains one of the three or four best courses in the state. It is highlighted by great use of the rolling topography and some wickedly tilted greens. Is it accurate to call Farmington Fred’s masterpiece? How does it stack up to Alexander’s best?

My great Uncle Fred not only was a great golfer but also quite a landscaper in his own rights. I had the privilege of meeting Fred in 1963 at Farmington, he was a lovely man, sharp of mind and he loved to paint. His daughter Ruth would provide him with all the canvass he could handle and he would paint scenes from his home in Scotland, where his heart remained. I think he loved Charlottesville because it reminded him so much of Scotland. There is one of his paintings hanging in the Thomas Jefferson building at Farmington. I have played Farmington a few times and I must admit it is also one of my favorite courses in the United States. Of course, even to this day it is still very private but extremely well maintained.

When Fred came to the U.S. following his daughter in her marriage to Raymond Loving he ended up in Charlottsville, VA. He would spend the next 40 years there building golf courses throughout the mid-Atlantic states. Whereas Alex concentrated on courses north of the Mason Dixon, Fred went south. Like Alex who taught his trade to his son Norman, Fred taught his grandson Buddy Loving the business. Between the two of them close to a hundred courses were designed and constructed. As for comparing one against the other is something another person will have to do. Alex taught Fred the business and started him out building courses. They worked together and did a magnificent job in doing so. I guess when you compare Fred’s courses to Alex’s, how do they stand the test of time? Alex had two of his designs host major championships, Fred’s courses, although not hosting any majors, did host state championships as well as numerous regional tournaments. Living here in Richmond, VA, you cannot throw a rock and not hit a Findlay or Loving design. One thing about Farmington Country Club is the landscaping surrounding the course, after all Fred was equally concerned with landscaping as he was with doglegs.

Tell us about ‘The Greatest Golf Match Ever Played at Palm Beach.’

Findlay with Vardon at The Breakers

As you more than likely know, it was Alex that persuaded Harry Vardon to come to the U.S. to put on a series of matches to promote golf. The picture on my web site has Alex and Harry on the 310 yard 11th hole on the ocean course at Palm Beach Golf Links which Alex designed. The Royal Poinciana hotel is in the back ground and if you look closely you can see Henry Flagler looking on with keen interest in this match.

The newspaper article produced by the Tribune gave the headline: “The Greatest Golf Match Ever Played at Palm Beach”. “Findlay Gave Him the Hardest Kind of Struggle”. “Both Played Perfect Golf and the Findlay Article Was Just as Good as that of Vardon”.

In Bob Labbance’s book “The Vardon Invasion” many of the matches between Alex and Harry are mentioned by Mr. Labbance. But not all. I actually have additional matches not described in his book. The one thing you cannot help but see is how close theses matches actually were. Alex played more golf with Harry Vardon then any other person either before or afterwards had done. Altogether over 4,000 holes by Alex’s recollection in his own writings. Harry had a little advantage, he was 5 years younger than Alex and had never been kicked in the head to the point that doctors predicted that Alex would never survive or even walk again with his closed head injury. But he did, he rebuilt his game and basically started all over again. That is one of the reasons there is this gap between his arriving in the States and his competition play, nearly 10 years. But when he did get back to form once again he was competing with the game’s best player, probably ever. The match at Palm Beach was just the beginning of a year of thrilling golf all with the purpose of promoting this funny little game.

Was Alex a good athlete? In my research I found a little tidbit of interesting facts. As I mentioned Alex played in four U.S. Opens in Golf but did you know he also played in one U.S. Open in Tennis, all within the same time period. Has anyone accomplished that feat since?!

How do you compare the career of your grandfather to that of Tom Bendelow?

Tom Bendelow was a prolific designer of courses. I would say his forte was in the designing business rather than in the playing business. (I had to brush up on Tom Bendelow by reading Ron Whitten’s article in the U.S.G.A. Golf Journal.) What makes a great golf course architect is his understanding of the game itself. There are many folks that hang a shingle outside their door and claim to be a designer of courses. But when I play their course I immediately know that they know very little of the nuisances of the game and how it should be played. Therefore, when I play a course, I really play the architect who designed that course, what is he giving me, what are the rewards and the risks he wants me to take. A modern designer that I have great respect for is Auther Hills. His courses are not penal but fair. You can score well if you hit it good, I like that. I understand that Tom Bendelow laid out about 600 courses, many like Alex’s are no longer in existence. When a great course is laid out if it is good it will stand the test of time and it will be preserved. Why? Because folks are challenged by the architect and his creation, that’s why they continue to come back. Of course, there are many designers of the game today and many are very good architects.

Comparing Tom Bendelow to Alex Findlay is like comparing Apples to Oranges. Alex was much more than a designer of golf courses. He promoted the game like no one has ever done before, he had a syndicated newspaper column in numerous papers called Brezzy Notes (where he described new courses, walked you through each hole, he gave golf lessons and described the equipment as well as introducing all the great players and their game). He gave lectures on the game, how to play it, teaching throughout. He loved to talk, therefore he had a radio broadcast in the 1920’s. He played with 10 presidents of the U.S., played with the Kings of England. Had a regular tea time with Queen Vistoria, his youngest brother is named after Victoria’s body guard, John Brown (Findlay).  The first course designed for women, Omaha Ladies Golf Club in 1897, was designed and built by AHF and that was in Omaha, Nebraska. That state is inducting Alex into their Golf Hall of Fame this coming October. Alex played in major championships, four U.S. Opens 13th in 1898 and 11th in 1899 36th in 1903 and in between even winning the Mexico Open in 1901. He also sponsored great golfers to come to the U.S. and play this game, such as Harry Vardon in 1900 and Joyce Wethered in the 1930’s.

Any misconceptions about your grandfather that you would like to set straight?

Yes, as you know Alex never turned professional, though many referred to him as a professional. He never received a salary for teaching golf, building courses, taking prize money, promoting the game of golf to America. He worked feverishly to maintain an amateur standing. Now you have to remember that in the 1800’s there were few professionals. In the famous painting by L. F. Abbott of Francis Innis “The Blackheath Golfer” the golfer has a club in his right hand, he is the amateur. The chap holding the clubs (without a bag in 1790) was the professional, he also had the flask of Scotch in his coat pocket. I am looking at my grandfather’s Mezzotint copy of the original here in my office, amazing print. It’s been in our family for parts of three centuries. Professionals were not allowed into the club houses, they were the working class. Professionalism had a negative connotation attached to it at that time. When Alex played in the U.S. Opens he did so as an amateur. (He played in 4 U.S. Opens as an amateur). When Francis Ouimet won the U.S. Open he did so as an amateur, much like his mentor Alex. Yes they were associates and friends. It was Alex that got young Francis started into golf, got him his clubs and then introduced him to Chay Burgess the professional teacher from Alex’s home of Montrose Scotland that Alex convinced to come to the States to teach.

Interestingly, around 1916-20 the USGA was on a mission to make anyone associated with golf who was an amateur and either worked in a sporting goods store as did Francis and Alex to strip them of their amateur standing and thereafter assign them as a professional. This was a bleak dark time in American golf. The actions of the USGA adversely affected the standing of many amateurs in this country by taking them out of competition on that level. They never wanted to be professionals and most never did, just simply gave up competition. Francis and Alex petitioned for reinstatement as amateurs and both were restored as such. Nevertheless, my grandfather and the USGA had a strained relationship thereafter. Ironically, Alex was a promoter of the PGA. He worked at John Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia when the Wanamaker Cup was presented to the PGA in 1916. I have no doubt that this was the result of Alexander H. Findlay and his tireless approach to promoting the game of golf in the U.S. He also designed the Yorktown Cup for International competition in the 1930’s at the James River Country Club in Yorktown, VA. The person who assisted him in this project would be the future King of England, George VI, or as Alex referred to him, Bertie! Just like his father Prince Albert.

It was young Albert that got into a fight with Alex, both 7 years of age at the time. That little infraction led to a life changing experience for both men. But more about that story on my web page.

Your father, his son, called him the Father of American Golf. Based on the information you have presented here, that doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable claim yet, few golfers today would readily agree with that assessment. Why do you think Alex has yet to receive his proper recognition?

I would like to address the question first of all. My father Norman only parroted what hundreds of sportswriters and journalists had been saying for over 50 years, Alexander H. Findlay was the Father of American Golf. Yet, Alex never campaigned that story on his own, he left it up to others to bring it to light.

At the turn of the century around 1906 we have newspaper articles that start referring to Alex as the father of American golf. I have counted hundreds of articles that make that claim of Alex. Interestingly, most of those who refer to him as such are the sports writers of that day. When one blows their own horn it really has little impact. For instance, John Reid was referred to as the Father of American Golf; in the book “50 Years of American Golf” by H.B. Martin released in1936. When Alex received a copy of this book he immediately upon reading the book went to his own auto-biography that he was then writing and burned his work of many years. Now please remember that John Reid and Alex were very good friends, Reid being a little older. But John Reid was never interested in spreading the game of golf to another course other than his own. So when Alex read that Martin referred to John Reid as the Father of American Golf, and when he did everything to not promote the game, it upset my grandfather immensely, to the point of saying what’s the use. He lived only a few more years but the rejection he received after giving his entire life tirelessly to promote the game was a great blow to his esteem.

Now the question should be asked: “Who said that of John Reid?” Why it was his own friend and playing partner, Robert Lockhart. He also referred to Mr. Reed as the Father of American Tennis because he went back to England and brought back tennis rackets. It appears that these two men were more opportunists then legitimate pioneers in either Golf or for that matter Tennis! Interestingly, most people today have distanced themselves from this kind of venture journalism. It appears that the only ones promoting the John Reid hyperbole would be the U.S.G.A. with a rather large portrait in their museum at Far Hills, NJ. Ironically, it was the U.S.G.A. that stripped Alex of his amateur standing and the beginning of a lifetime of conflict. Do you think that the U.S.G.A. had an ulterior motive in going with John Reid?

I find, being in the journalistic field in the past, that today in the age of internet communication, most journalists concentrate on being “copy and paste” experts. What I mean is that they simply parrot what others have said. Great journalism requires digging and research.

What you have here is a great story. Who will pick it up and run with the next “The Greatest Game” or the next “Secretariat” story/movie. The story will be told, but who will tell it? I have presented this opportunity to many journalists; maybe that journalist is yet to be found. Anyone interested in a Pulitzer for their coverage of the history of the game of golf in the U.S.? A history that will change many old thoughts.

Saying you are the Father of this or that really does not make it so. A person may claim that his is the father of his children. But if he is not there during their growing years, does not support them, nourish them, encourage them and love them is he really their father? Biologically speaking you could say yes, but in all other areas everyone including the children would identify the person who nourished them as their real father. So it goes with Alexander H. Findlay. He never stated that he was the father of American Golf, his peers and contemporaries did that.

History is a funny thing. Whoever puts it down first is usually the one credited with that accomplishment. When I was growing up, my own father once told me that your Grandfather was the Father of American Golf. Now tell me what is an eight year old going to do with that new information? Why he would tell all his friends at school of course. I grew up in Philadelphia, PA and many of my dear friends growing up went to the Catholic parocholic school system. I remember that when they would ask the nuns who taught the class a question, that the nuns did not have an answer to, they would get the ruler smacked across their knuckles. When that happened two or three times, those students learned to stop asking questions. Do you see the point. My friends made fun, some bullied me and eventually I stopped mentioning anything about my grandfather. But over the years, many fearless writers have written about it, until one day I was reading Golf Magazine and I came across an article about the redesigned Breakers Ocean course at Palm Beach and it mentioned Alex as the Father of American golf. They actually have a marker at the first hole that says that. Wow, there it was in print by someone else. When my oldest brother Norman Jr. passed away back in 2003 I came into possession of many old newspaper articles and a wealth of additional information that to me was redeeming. So, a few years ago I started to put all this down and a friend of mine developed a web page for me. That web page you can pull up at www.AlexanderFindlay.com, I hope you get a chance to review it. Like my grandfather maintaining his amateur profile, I also refrain from making my site a commercial venture. I would love to keep it that way as long as I can possibly do so. My great satisfaction is hearing from the many lovers of the history of the game. Please write a little blog when you visit. I really do not mind receiving your questions and comments, please keep them coming.


At any rate it is an ongoing project. When I find the time I include little tidbits of history that I think others would enjoy reading. History is an amazing science. If you know where you come from you can see clearly where you are going. I would like to see my grandfather receive the recognition he deserves for the part he played in bringing golf to America. No more slaps on the knuckles for me. Let the facts speak for themselves. Alexander H. Findlay is the one person who should be accredited with the title of “Father of American Golf”.

I would like to have Alex inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, FL where he built his 1st Florida golf course. Perhaps you could assist me with that project. Please contact the WGHoF and make a recommendation to have Alex recognized. It would be an honor that has been in the waiting for over a century. I thank you for your interest in the game of golf. Remember as I always tell everyone, Hit the little Ball FIRST!