Charles Blair Macdonald
The course design consultant
Charles Macdonald was born in Canada of naturalized American parents, a Scottish father and a part Mohawk Indian mother. In his magnificent biographical study, Evangelist of Golf (Clock Tower Press, 2002), George Bahto describes how Macdonald grew up in Chicago and was educated at St. Andrews University in Scotland in 1872-74, where he learned to play golf from Old Tom Morris himself. He became a successful stockbroker in Chicago but had no opportunity to continue his golf until 1892, when he and several friends built a basic nine holes in anticipation of a visiting English delegation to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Macdonald expanded it to a more substantial eighteen-hole course the following year. In 1894, he competed in two “national championships” that were held first at Newport and then at St. Andrew’s. He finished runner-up in both and created a stir by complaining vociferously about the formats and rulings. The result was the formation of a United States Golf Association at the end of the year by representatives of leading clubs, and Macdonald proceeded to win its first official US National Championship in late 1895.
However, Macdonald’s true genius was in “golf architecture,” a term first used by him, and the design of courses became his avocation. Faced with still rather crude and unchallenging courses in the United States, Macdonald’s key insight and central principle was to elevate the American game by adapting the “best holes” and best strategic elements of famous British Isles links. Several trips across the Atlantic and careful surveys allowed Macdonald to develop a course aesthetic and a design vocabulary that he applied forcefully and creatively to New World topography. In 1908, he began a project that would result in his “ideal golf course,” the National Golf Links of America on Long Island. He engaged a local Southampton surveyor-engineer, Seth Raynor, to draw up the detailed plans, which was the start of an enormously significant partnership. Raynor was a non-golfer (and largely remained so the rest of his life), but he immediately understood Macdonald’s intent and helped to devise the construction strategies to put them into effect. The National Golf Links, which first opened in 1910, and the Lido Club, which was completed in 1918 and is now defunct, were his two greatest monuments, but he was involved in the design of more than a dozen other memorable courses. He was a friend and social equal of his clients, a member of the same clubs. He staunchly believed in an “amateur” ethic and refused to accept any fees for his work. His ego was as outsized as his vision for American golf. He had a volatile temper, but no one doubted his passion for the game and his drive for perfection. There were others in that first generation of American architects who would design more courses and who are held in greater reverence, but it was he who established in America the standard that great golf demanded great courses and that the brilliance of a course was its ability to pose challenges to all who played it.