After helping establish the U.S. Golf Association and winning the first U.S. Amateur in 1895, Charles Blair Macdonald bemoaned the state of American golf at the start of the 20th century: few players and even fewer courses, of inferior quality than those in the British Isles. A man of big ideas, Macdonald conceived a simple solution: Start building.
His resulting masterpiece, the National Golf Links of America, a world-class links featuring adaptations of Britain’s greatest holes on the sandy soil of eastern Long Island, opened in 1911 and ushered in the Golden Age of golf course architecture, an era that would never be matched in the number and quality of courses.
Francis Ouimet spurred the growth of the Golden Age with his victory at the 1913 U.S. Open. Over the next 20-plus years, more than 5,000 courses opened in the U.S. Included were some of the game’s grandest cathedrals—Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pine Valley Golf Club, Augusta National Golf Club, Pinehurst No. 2 and Los Angeles Country Club still reign atop golf’s A-List.
“The Golden Age was a rare and fortuitous coming together of circumstances, talent and ideas,” says golf course architect and historian Bill Coore. “These guys were brilliant engineers and designers, but they also understood the psychological elements. They dared and tempted golfers.”
There is no better example of the spirit and philosophy of the Golden Age than Pine Valley. Carved out of New Jersey pine scrub, this layout lures the golfer to its edges with the prospects of more inviting angles and better scoring opportunities. Greed, however, can exact a high price.
The sole course attributed to George Crump, who died before construction was completed, Pine Valley actually benefited from a “dream team” of Golden Age designers who walked and worked the grounds.
Englishman H.S. Colt often receives a co-designer credit, but most of the major architects of the day lent a hand. A.W. Tillinghast, who created Winged Foot and Bethpage Black, inspired the infamous “Hell’s Half Acre” bunker on the par-5 seventh. Budding architect and charter member George C. Thomas spent much time on site. So did Alister Mackenzie, who went on to co-design Augusta National. William S. Flynn, a protégé of Hugh Wilson (who designed Merion) completed the construction of Pine Valley following Crump’s death.
“After Pine Valley, anything seemed possible,” says Golden Age scholar Mark Fine. “You had all these great architects working on all kinds of properties. Seaside sites. Mountain sites. Meadows. Deep forests. They applied the strategic tests of the great links to this wide range of topography. Their genius was a sense for how the land moved, and they put golf on top of it.”
While most historians mark the end of the Golden Age in 1936 with Perry Maxwell’s Southern Hills Country Club, the principles that guided that generation are at the fore of a renaissance movement today. Coore and partner Ben Crenshaw, Tom Doak, Gil Hanse and others have turned back the pages with courses like Sand Hills Golf Club (Coore and Crenshaw) and Pacific Dunes (Doak), which reject the heroic and penal styles that dominated post-World War II projects.
“The things that make golf fun haven’t changed much,” Coore notes. “Golden Age designers studied the great links courses and applied those same natural and strategic characteristics in their own work. That golfers still love those old courses today says a lot. And I think modern architects are listening.”
After an apprenticeship with Old Tom Morris, Donald Ross visited America in 1899 and forever changed the face of American golf. A railroad warrior, Ross crisscrossed the country to draw up design plans and inspect projects under construction. The sheer magnitude of his work—more than 400 courses bear his name—leads many experts to believe he visited only about half the courses he designed, making him the original “signature” architect. Along the way, he has influenced generations of designers.
Experts consider his routings to be the greatest of his numerous strengths. His courses tend to be compact, with short distances between greens and tees, and frequent crossover areas to ensure variety of direction and terrain. Ross also worked especially well with sites that provided a diversity of uphill, downhill and sidehill lies. He frequently positioned his deepest bunkers at the corners of doglegs, punishing the golfer who dared to bite off too much. He also employed cross bunkers to add character to long par 4s or par 5s, and offered alternate approaches to most putting surfaces to reward imaginative play.
Finally, his push-up greens challenged the best players in the game by forcing them to consider all options around the putting surfaces. Even today, the “inverted saucer” greens of Pinehurst No. 2 vex golfers of all skill levels.
Pinehurst Resort & C.C. (No. 2),
Pinehurst, N.C. (1907)
Wannamoisett Country Club,
Rumford, R.I. (1914)
Oakland Hills Country Club,
Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (1917)
Toledo, Ohio (1919)
Seminole Golf Club,
Juno Beach, Fla. (1929)
Hailing from England, Dr. Alister Mackenzie trained as a surgeon and was a camouflage specialist during the Boer War. His military background turned out to be a good fit for his later calling when he created hazards that were virtually indistinguishable from the natural features of the site.
After arriving in the U.S. in the early ’20s, Mackenzie became one of the most sought-after architects in golf. At Cypress Point, he blended the course seamlessly into dunes, forest and cliffside environments. His work there and at nearby Pasatiempo caught the attention of Bobby Jones, who later tapped Mackenzie to work with him on Augusta National.
Golf’s first global designer, Mackenzie workedin Australia and South America, re-designed the Old Tom Morris course at Ireland’s Lahinch and studied the Old Course at St. Andrews, which he considered the wellspring of all design elements.
Royal Melbourne Golf Club,
Black Rock, Victoria, Australia (1926)
Lahinch Golf Club,
County Clare, Ireland (1927)
Cypress Point Club,
Pebble Beach, Calif. (1928)
Augusta National Golf Club,
Augusta, Ga. (1933)
Crystal Downs Country Club,
Frankfort, Mich. (1933)
Growing up wealthy in Philadelphia, Albert Warren Tillinghast bounced from school to school and pastime to pastime, living hard until discovering his calling at age 32, when a friend invited him to build Shawnee-on-the-Delaware.
His fascination with the design process—and the success of that initial 1907 effort—launched Tillinghast’s career. After crafting classic layouts at San Francisco Golf Club and Somerset Hills, he received his breakout assignment: Baltusrol.
Tillinghast worked from the green back. He believed each green should be well defended, and many of his bunkers cut right into the putting surface, where he built bold and demanding contours. The sloped greens at Winged Foot’s West Course, for example, are among the most feared in golf.
A strong player, Tillinghast understood that equipment would continue to evolve. He built low-profile teeing areas—often several on each hole—to provide a variety of playing angles and challenges for play ranging from recreational rounds to championships. Tillinghast reveled in tempting the strong player, placing heroic hazards—such as the cross bunker on the 5th hole at Bethpage Black—in positions that greatly rewarded a successful bold play.
Tillinghast was also a prolific writer who left behind volumes of tournament accounts, golf-related fiction and architecture documentation. His career ended badly, however, plunging into bankruptcy during the Great Depression and never recovering.
San Francisco Golf Club,
San Francisco (1915)
Brook Hollow Golf Club,
Baltusrol G.C. (Upper & Lower),
Springfield, N.J. (1922)
Winged Foot G.C. (West & East),
Mamaroneck, N.Y. (1923)
Bethpage State Park (Black),
Farmingdale, N.Y. (1935)
George C. Thomas Jr.
George C. Thomas also grew up in Philadelphia and studied course design with other members of “The Philadelphia School,” which included Tillinghast, Hugh Wilson and William Flynn. Thomas got his first high-profile job when his parents donated the land for Whitemarsh Valley Country Club outside Philadelphia in 1908 on the condition that their son lay out the course.
Following a tour as a World War I aviator, Thomas moved to Los Angeles to pursue another passion: hybridizing roses. There he joined Los Angeles Country Club and became involved in the re-design of the club’s South course and the design of its North.
He then began a partnership with architect and construction foreman Billy Bell, working in Southern California on what would become some of golf’s most legendary courses, including Bel-Air and Riviera. Thomas could design more daring routings and utilize dramatic site features, knowing Bell would be able to integrate the natural and man-made elements during construction.
Holes like the 315-yard 10th at Riviera showcase Thomas’ brilliance. By setting the green at a severe angle, Thomas baited long hitters to try a heroic shot while frustrating them with a nearly impossible pitch if they failed. Although few examples remain, his trademark was a ragged bunkering style that enhanced both the visual and functional aspects of the hazards. He was also known for providing split fairways and multiple options on holes.
Whitemarsh Valley C.C.,
Lafayette Hill, Pa. (1908)
Los Angeles C.C. (North),
Los Angeles (1921)
Ojai Valley Inn & Spa,
Ojai, Calif. (1925)
Bel-Air Country Club,
Los Angeles (1927)
Riviera Country Club,
Pacific Palisades, Calif. (1927)
C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor
The Visionary and the Shaper
Charles Blair Macdonald may have honed his game as a student at the University of St. Andrews, but his legacy is his place in the history of American golf. He won the first U.S. Amateur and designed Chicago Golf Club, widely regarded as the first 18-hole course in the United States.
Macdonald’s long partnership with Seth Raynor began in 1908, when he hired Raynor to survey land prior to construction of the National Golf Links of America. Macdonald drew inspiration from the great holes of the British Isles. His courses include versions of the Redan (based on the par-3 15th at North Berwick’s West Links) and the Road Hole (inspired by the 17th of the Old Course at St. Andrews). Macdonald’s daring “Cape” hole—with a fairway running diagonally along a dramatic hazard—at the Mid Ocean Club in Bermuda has become an architectural hallmark.
Raynor went on to design a number of courses on his own, including Fishers Island, Camargo and Yeamans Hall.
National Golf Links of America (Macdonald), Southampton, N.Y. (1911)
The Greenbrier (Old White),
White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. (1914)
The Mid Ocean Club,
Hamilton, Bermuda (1921)
The Course at Yale,
New Haven, Conn. (1926)
Fishers Island Club (Raynor),
Fishers Island, N.Y. (1927)
In the early 20th century, a group of gifted visionaries produced designs that remain the gold standard of golf course architecture
By: Tom Ferrell