Max Behr

Yale’s first graduate to design golf courses

The first Yale graduate to become a golf course architect was Max Howell Behr (Class of 1905). He was born in New York City and attended Lawrenceville School in New Jersey before entering Yale. Golf was in Behr’s blood. His Scottish grandfather and father were founders of the St. Andrew’s Golf Club in Yonkers, New York, in 1888. Before coming to Yale, he was a “scratch player” who was a medalist (though not a winner) of the President’s Cup at the Morris (New Jersey) Country Club. His pattern of doing well without winning continued at Yale. The 1902 intercollegiate championship was held in the spring, and the Yale varsity won, but Max was on the freshman team. The tournament was moved to the fall, and Harvard won in 1902, 1903, and 1904. In 1903 Behr was the only Yale player to win a match against Harvard, and, in 1904, he tied the celebrated Harvard captain, H. Chandler Egan, over thirty-six holes. Yale won the 1905 fall championship, but Max had graduated in the spring.

Leaving Yale, Behr concentrated on playing the game seriously. Again he fell short, losing to Jerome Travers (who was later the 1915 US Open Champion) in the finals of the 1907 and 1908 New Jersey Amateur and the finals of the 1908 US Amateur. In 1909 he succeeded in winning the New Jersey Amateur Championship and successfully defended in 1910 against Travers. He again bested Travers and C. B. Macdonald as the medalist in the first tournament played at the National Golf Links of America in 1910. Behr played in the US Amateur and British Open Championship in 1929, using the “floater” ball.

From 1914 to 1918 Behr was the first editor of Golf Illustrated magazine. But the untimely death of his young wife prompted a change in his life, and, at the age of 34, Behr moved to California and took up course design. George Bahto, in his Evangelist of Golf, attributes Behr’s early inspiration to his college coach, Robert Pryde, who not only taught him about the game but also “pointed out the subtle interplays of design and nature, and what worked and what did not when it came to course design and construction.”

In the 1920s, the golf boom was sweeping Southern California, and Behr arrived with somewhat radical ideas. For instance, he didn’t believe in adding rough to his courses, preferring “to use natural terrain and bunkers to defend (his) greens from every conceivable angle.” Between 1922 and 1927, about a dozen of his courses were built in California. He started with the Hacienda Golf Club in 1922 and ended with Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club in 1927. He remodeled the Victoria Club in 1923, the Brentwood Country Club in 1925, and consulted on the remodeling of the Olympic Club’s Lake Course in 1926.

Max Behr (left) and Dr. Alister Mackenzie at the Old Course, St. Andrews Scotland, 1924

Behr’s two best known courses are Lakeside in Hollywood and Rancho Santa Fe near San Diego. Lakeside Golf Club was located just across the Los Angles River from Universal Studios. It was then, and still is, a favorite of the movie colony. Bing Crosby was the 1937 club champion.

Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club (rsfgc), which opened in 1929, was the last course that Behr designed. He was recommended for the job by Dr. Alistair Mackenzie, who had had to turn down the job because he was designing Cypress Point. (He finished the work of Seth Raynor, the original designer who died unexpectedly after completing a routing plan). Behr received a fee of $9,000 for rsfgc (whereas Mackenzie received only $8,000 for Cypress Point). Behr wrote at the time that “a new principle of golf course design has been put into effect at Rancho Santa Fe which permits the average golfer, even the beginner, to enjoy the round without con­stantly being in trouble and yet at the same time offers the expert a serious and exciting test of golf. Not a single hazard has been constructed with the idea of penalizing errors of skill. On the contrary, the hazards are located with the sole object of defending the hole.” Rancho Santa Fe was the site of the first Pro-Am tournament (from 1937-42), the Bing Crosby “Clambake” that is now the National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. The 1954 San Diego Open was held there, as was the 2006 usga Junior Amateur. Golfing greats of every era, from Walter Hagen and Babe Zaharias to Annika Sorenstam and Tiger Woods, have played the course. Today it is the home course of Phil Mickelson.

The Great Depression put an end to Behr’s design business, but he continued to write about course design and con­struction and the rules of golf and to advocate acceptance of a standard golf ball that floats in water. He was last heard from at the usga annual meeting in Portland, during the Amateur Championship in 1937. There he presented a resolution to the usga advocating the “floater,” contending that “the ball manufacturers … dictate the sort of golf that is played, and … that mere brawn off the tee receives an unfair reward.” The resolution was not adopted, although similar sentiments have been advanced by Donald Ross in the same decade and Jack Nicklaus more recently.

Late in life Max Behr became outspoken in his political views, and he even devised a religion based on numbers. However, his lasting legacies remain the great golf courses he designed in southern California.

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