Charles Blair Macdonald’s National GL, site of the upcoming Walker Cup Match, revolutionized the game and set the bar for American golf course architecture
Spectators (on the par-4 16th) at the 1922 Walker Cup saw the U.S. beat GB&I, 84, in the event’s first playing.
To know the National GL of America in Southampton, N.Y., to appreciate its singularity, one must understand Charles Blair Macdonald.
Bullheaded and irascible, visionary and loyal, Macdonald created the National, site of the first Walker Cup in 1922 and home to this year’s matches, Sept. 78. But Macdonald was much more than the man behind a seminal American course. No one did more to propel the stateside game forwardwith its Scottish roots and traditions intactthan he.
Bernard Darwin, the preeminent golf writer of the first half of the 20th century, wrote that “probably more than any other one man, [Macdonald] created American golf.”
It was an immersion in the Scottish version that set Macdonald on his way. In 1872, when he was 16, the Canadian-born and Chicago-raised Macdonald was sent by his father to live with professor William Macdonald in Scotland. The decision by Macdonald’s father to have his son educated in St. Andrews at the knee of his grandfather (who happened to be a member of the Royal and Ancient GC) was surely made in the interest of scholarship and family unity, but its repercussions on golf’s westward expansion and the very nature of the game are still being felt.
What was intended to be a two-year course of study at the University of St. Andrews became a doctorate in golf. His grandfather’s interest in the game and his membership in the R&A (C.B.’s uncle was a member as well) cemented young Macdonald to the community and the game. Reflecting the democratic nature of Scottish golf, Macdonald met and played with people from every social stratum, including the most influential man in town, Old Tom Morris. In fact, the day after he arrived in St. Andrews, young C.B. was taken by his grandfather to meet the iconic Morris in his famous shop across the street from the 18th hole of the Old Course.
The youngster was promptly outfitted with a set of clubs made by the 51-year-old clubmakerthe best known in St. Andrewsand because the R&A did not allow junior members, professor Macdonald secured a locker for his grandson in the back of Morris’ famed red-roof shop. School, of course, would not begin until fall, so after making the acquaintance of other young men in town, including Morris’ son “Young Tom,” Macdonald played wall-to-wall golf until autumn. In one of the more telling and relatable lines in his 1928 book Scotland’s Gift: Golf , Macdonald wrote, “There was nothing to do in St. Andrews but play golf and bathe.”
Macdonald returned in 1874 to a golf-less Chicago. He eventually founded and designed the course for Chicago GC in 1892, but by 1901, now living in New York City and having been instrumental in the founding of the USGA in 1894, Macdonald was unsatisfied with the quality of courses in the U.S. It was then that he read an article in the British Golf Illustrated that would echo throughout the game for centuries to come.
The writer was his old friend, Horace Hutchinson, the skilled amateur and gifted journalist. In the piece, Hutchinson asked a simple question directed at the leading British players of the day: “Which do you consider the most testing holes on any course in the United Kingdom?” Responses flooded in from a who’s who of late 1800s British golf including Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor, James Braid, John Low, Herbert Fowler and Harold Hilton. The responsesbroken down by par 3s, par 4s and par 5swere remarkably consistent. Among par 3s, or one-shot holes as they were then known, the Eden (11th at St. Andrews) and the Redan (15th at North Berwick) ruled. Among two-shotters, the hands-down winner was the Alps (17th at Prestwick). And the hole voted toughest in the United Kingdom among three-shotters was, not surprisingly, the Road Hole (17th at the Old Course, which played as a par 5 until 1964).
For Macdonald the article was enlightening, the final piece to a puzzle he had been assembling in his head for decades. He had seen the comparative void in American golf course design; he knew that genuine greatness, the kind routinely found in Scotland and England, lay in linksland. Now, with this printed compilation of the leading holes, he had cracked the code. Macdonald had a templateproven over centuries and endorsed by the game’s greatest playersfor what made an excellent course. All he would have to do now was study the “Discussion” holes and transplant themor at least their essenceto linksland in America.
With Peconic Bay a stunning backdrop, Macdonald’s National is both visually and strategically compelling.
For 400 years golf had largely been an incidental visitor treading on virgin linksland. With the National, Macdonald envisioned a revolution.
This seemingly simple bridge across time and sea marked a tectonic shift. For 400 years golf had largely been an incidental visitor treading on virgin linksland and pasture shaped not by human hands but by eons of wind and water. Macdonald now envisioned a revolution. He was about to reorder golf by introducing the human elementcreativity, intentionality, even strategyinto golf course creation. The Neanderthal had departed the cave. At the moment Macdonald nurtured the thought, he gave rise to a field that would grow, revolutionize and add immeasurable depth and texture to the game. He called it golf course architecture.
“He was essentially the first golf course architect, per se,” said the late Scottish golf historian David Malcolm. “I mean he actually designed courses. What went before Macdonald was sort of walls and fences and the occasional bunker in the middle of the fairway, but he took it to another level: shaping greens and shaping bunkers and positioning bunkers properly. He actually went about it scientifically. He thought through the various stages in making a golf hole. This is the very first time this had been done.”
It was one thing to suggest there might be patterns or principles of golf course design inherent in the great holes of the United Kingdom. It was another to suggest they could be transplanted, re-created or, better yet, improved upon; another thing to find suitable ground upon which to make this all happen; and yet another thing to do it. Macdonald, who would eventually enlist a local surveyor named Seth Raynor to help, was determined to do all of the above.
Within a year of the Golf Illustrated article’s publication, Macdonald began a tour of the world’s great courses. He conferred regularly with the game’s finest players and most knowledgeable writers. They were largely supportive, but there was also skepticism, some fueled by the sheer originality of Macdonald’s thinking and some by blind xenophobia. He was alternately praised for his vision and mocked for his naivete. His perceived attempt to “lift” the iconic building blocks of U.K. golf was derided by one critic who said Macdonald might be able to copy a hole, but the facsimile would lack “the genius of locality” and the depth of history and tradition enjoyed by the original.
From its Jarvis Hunt clubhouse to iconic holes such as Sahara (No. 2, top right) and the Alps (No. 3, below right), National reflected Macdonald’s vision for the game.
“[Macdonald] was essentially the first golf course architect, per se. I mean he actually designed courses.”
DAVID MALCOLM, GOLF HISTORIAN
After discussions with many of golf’s leading players, Macdonald wasn’t swayed and grew more certain the concept was viable. So, after spending much of the years between 1902 and 1906 abroad, Macdonald returned to New York with sketches, surveyor’s maps and notes, some drawn by Macdonald himself, others by friends such as Walter Travis and Devereux Emmett. C.B. not only studied the Alps, Redan, Eden and Road holes, he gathered files on the odd but interesting bunker or berm, tee box or water hazard and other features he thought might be put to use on his patchwork design.
Macdonald knew the National would become the benchmark, inspiring the next generation of golf course designers to think creatively while embracing classic themes. The result was a course that revolutionized the game. As he explained in Scotland’s Gift: Golf , two decades after completing the National, Macdonald understood the scope of his achievement: “The National has now fulfilled its mission, having caused the reconstruction of all the best known golf courses existing in the first decade of this century in the United States and, further, has caused the study of golf architecture resulting in the building of numerous meritorious courses of great interest throughout the country.”
A sampling of his genius:
The par-4 second hole at the National is an excellent illustration of Macdonald’s ability to draw inspiration from an existing hole while creating an interpretation wholly his own. Sahara owes its name and overall strategy to the third hole at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich (St. George’s Sahara is now a par 3.) Its essence is the breathtaking thrill of hitting into the unforeseen. The view from the tee is unsettling, particularly to a golfer playing it for the first time. There is a vast sandy wasteland capped only by horizon. The player can take it on faith that there is a green somewhere over the edge, but it is exceedingly well-protected by the oft-enlarged Sahara bunker short left, deep rough and bunkers short right, and the ever-present charming menace of the windmill. While long-hitting Walker Cup contestants should have no problem reaching this green, holding the green is another question.
The National bares her teeth at the Alps, No. 3. Inspired by the 17th hole at Prestwick, it is the toughest hole on the front nine. Many believe that Macdonald did the impossible at National by not only “copying” standout holes from abroad but improving on them. That may be true here, in that so many phases of the game come into play on the 426-yarder. Whether it is the precision required by the tee shot, the balance and focus of playing over a massive hill to a blind green; an awkward greenside chip or a delicate putt on a radically contoured green, the Alps demands it all. No wonder National’s Alps is the No. 1 handicap hole and considered by most expert observers as the finest blind approach in golf.
The heart of any Redan is the green. Tilted away from the tee and to the back left (the back left is about five feet below the right front), the fourth hole, named for an imposing Crimean War-era fortress, requires precise aim and touch allowing the ball to land softly on the upper-right portion of the green and letting the grade do the remainder of the work. Pot bunkers guard the uphill side of the green, leaving treacherous shots to a run-away surface. Another bunker fronts the landing area, and a massive, deep fronting bunker penalizes weak shots to the left.
There has long been debate about the superiority of the original Redanthe 15th at North Berwickor its National cousin. Each has its devotees, but one can count among National’s partisans none other than Ben Sayers, legendary professional at North Berwick in the late 1890s. Sayers thought the National version superior to the original. More recently Ben Crenshaw has concurred. Harold Hilton took the middle ground when he told The New York Herald in 1911, “Looking at the fourth I can see in my mind’s eyes the ‘Redan’ at North Berwick. This hole … is every bit as good a hole as the famous ‘one-shotter’ in Scotland.” The Redan is a signature element in virtually all Macdonald/Raynor designs.
No. 7 is a superb example of how Macdonald took general inspiration not specific detail from the great courses of the British Isles. Macdonald could easily have called for a faux railway shed some 150 yards off the tee. Similarly he could have replicated the infamous Road Hole Bunker, the knobby green or the road itself all to exact scale. Instead, he took the essence of each element and created an entirely new hole.
Whereas off the tee the original had drying sheds (then rail barns and now a hotel), National’s tribute has an expanse of bunkers. The pot bunker fronting National’s seventh green is more a nod to the original Road Hole Bunker than an outright imitation. The green at National is similar in size but far flatter than that on the Old Course. Yet it’s with the final element of the holethe signature elementthat Macdonald took the greatest creative license: His road hole has no road. Instead, the defense against long-right approach shots is a daunting series of ever-deepening bunkers that stretches almost 100 yards and angles in closely behind the right rear of the green. This hole features one of only two changes made to the course in preparation for the Walker Cup. A new back tee has been added here as well as at 16.
An oft-voiced argument that Macdonald’s original holes at National are even more interesting than his “copied” holes gains credence with No. 14. His introduction of the Cape hole was certainly his most creative and arguably his most lasting contribution to the golf lexicon. One early reviewer wrote in 1908 that, “in the opinion of many competent judges [the 14th] will become the greatest water hole in the world.”
Golf has always offered risky carries over harrowing hazards, but in the early 1900s the idea of a peninsula green was radical and exciting. Pairing those dynamics with the wind, the majesty of National and the tidal swath of salt water that once gurgled along the entire starboard side of the putting surface prior to the construction of Sebonac Inlet Road, it’s no surprise that Macdonald was proud of his creation. “It is today one of the most individual holes in existence,” he wrote, “and there is probably not another like it anywhere … a par four to this hole, which by land is but a little over 300 yards, is very satisfying.”
Macdonald’s forthrightness about his workand the game itselfrubbed many the wrong way. Malcolm called the burly, mustachioed course architect “a bombastic bastard” who “was the plague of changing rooms in America because of his upholding of old-world standards.” Defenders saw C.B. as golf’s noble warrior, a puritanical defender of the game’s inherent honor.
Those who knew him best saw both sides. Upon his death at age 83 from complications of kidney failure in 1939, the National’s board of governors eulogized Macdonald, acknowledging his ruthlessness and belligerence while hailing him as a leader, competitor and friend.
“There was much in Charlie of the ancient Scottish Chieftains, his forbears, of whom he was mightily proud, and whose characteristics were as evident in Charlie as in the Highlanders of old,” the club officials wrote. They added: “One of the great traits of our founder was his ability to retain the friendship and ardent support of numbers of outstanding men in the face of violent disagreement and abrupt opposition.”
Decades after Macdonald did things his way, the results speak for themselves.