From The Golf Journal Archives - Charles Blair Macdonald

Oct 01, 2010

He was demagogic, dogmatic and conceited, but left a lasting impression on the game.

By Robert Sommers

(Note: This article originally appeared in the June 1975 issue of Golf Journal.)

Whenever Chicago is mentioned in connection with golf it is impossible not to include the name Charles Blair Macdonald. Although not a native of Illinois, Macdonald spent most of his early years in Chicago and was a true and imposing pioneer of golf in America. He had a more profound influence on the game in its formative years in this country than any other man.

Without his stubborn refusal to accept defeat gracefully the USGA might not have been formed at the time and in the manner it was. He was demagogic, dogmatic and conceited, but he knew golf and he understood and worshipped its values. He left his imprint on the game in many areas.

Evangelist: He was the Pied Piper of golf beyond the Alleghenies. He played a rough form of golf around Chicago as early as 1875, and when the game made some headway on the east coast in the 1880s, he was the man behind the first club in the Chicago area.

Player: He won, in 1895, the first Amateur Championship conducted by the United States Golf Association.

Historian: His book Scotland’s Gift – Golf, although largely biographic, was the first study of golf in the United States.

Organizer: His refusal to accept the validity of two amateur golf championships of the United States led to the formation of the USGA in 1894. He maintained that individual clubs were impertinent to believe they could determine the champion and that an association of clubs must be formed to hold championships.

Defender of the faith: Macdonald learned to play golf at St. Andrews, and for the rest of his life he considered any rule that allowed one to touch his ball between tee and cup only slightly less objectionable than the Spanish Inquisition. He campaigned for adoption of the Rules of Golf as they were laid down by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. Anglophile though he was, however, he did not bow to everything British. When the R&A banned the Schenectady putter after Walter Travis had used it in winning the British Amateur in 1901, Macdonald objected and saw no reason why it should be barred in the United States. The Schenectady is a mallet-headed putter with the shaft attached to the head somewhat forward of the heel and Macdonald claimed that this sort of club had been used in Britain since the 1870s.

Architect: Here we touch on what was probably the true genius of the man. He designed only a few courses but they were landmarks. The National Golf Links of America, on the eastern tip of Long Island, was the first golf course in America with a strategic concept. Some call it the first modern course built in the western hemisphere, but Oakmont predates it by about five years. Oakmont, however, is a penal rather than a strategic course.

Innovator: He is generally credited or damned for having brought the concept of out of bounds to golf.

Rules-maker: Macdonald was the first representative of the USGA to take part in a discussion of the Rules of Golf with the R&A, in 1908.

Macdonald was imposing – tall, big-boned, with a glorious brush moustache and a regal bearing that told you he was to the manor born. He was wealthy and surrounded himself with Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Worthingtons, Judge Morgan J. O’Brien, Robert Todd Lincoln, Findlay Douglas and, almost ironically, William D. Sloane. Ironically because the building that now houses the executive offices, museum and library of the USGA was once owned by the Sloane family. Macdonald knew everybody in golf – the Morrisses and Straths of St. Andrews; Horace Hutchinson; Coburn Haskell, inventor of the wound rubber ball; architect A.W. Tillinghast; George Crump, who gave us Pine Valley; Devereaux Emmet, another gifted golf course architect, and every golfer of championship caliber from the beginnings in America until his death at 83.

He was absolute monarch at the National Links. Nothing happened without Charley’s approval. When a member suggested that a windmill would look nice on the hill over-looking the 16th green, Macdonald agreed. He found out how much a windmill would cost, had it built and sent the bill to the member.

But he was not without a sense of humor. Harold Salembier, a member of the National, remembers meeting him at the age of 12, and recalls that he was called “Charley” – “but only by very close friends.” Peter Finley Dunne, the creator of Mr. Dooley, walked into the Links Club on 63rd Street in Manhattan one evening and spotted Macdonald sitting at the bar. Dunne had an acerbic wit with the added cushion of having known Macdonald for some years, and said loudly, “There sits Charles Blair Macdonald, who says ‘I don’t know what I am talking about, but listen to me anyway!’ ” Macdonald laughed.

Macdonald was in the investments business and had a desk in a New York brokerage office, but he was strictly a freelancer. He was an amateur in all his golf affairs. Although he designed some of our finest golf courses, he never accepted a fee; perhaps a life membership for himself, but never money. He was in the game for another objective – the sheer joy of it.

Born in 1856 in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Macdonald was a descendent of a British family of some renown. One of his ancestors, Sir William Johnson, who died in 1773, had owned, Macdonald claimed, the entire Mohawk Valley from the Hudson River to Lake Oneida. Eventually the Macdonalds moved to Chicago, where young Charles grew up. When he was 16 Charles was sent to St. Andrews to live with his grandfather, William Macdonald of Ballyshear, and attend the University. Thus Charles was introduced to golf. He was not impressed by the game the first time he saw it and in his late years he confessed he thought it was some silly kind of tiddly-winks. Nevertheless, his grandfather decided that young Charles should play the game while he was there, and so the day after his arrival he took Charles to the shop of Old Tom Morris and bought him some clubs and balls. That same day he played his first round and became addicted.

Through perseverance, Charles became a good player. He played quite a few rounds with David Strath, Tom Kidd; Jimmy Morris and Young Tom Morris, who won four consecutive British Opens before he died at 24. Macdonald revered Tom, and even after living through the eras of Vardon, Taylor and Braid and the eras of Hagen, Sarazen and Jones, he died in 1939 unconvinced he had seen a better man than Young Tom. Jones may have been as good, but not better.

Back home again in 1875, Macdonald had to look for other games because golf had yet to win a bridgehead here. From then until 1892 Macdonald only played when he went abroad, and that was infrequently. The world’s fair came to Chicago in 1892 and Sir Henry Wood was appointed England’s commissioner general to the fair. He was bringing a group of college men who had played golf at their universities and wanted to play here. Hobart Chatfield Chatfield-Taylor (believe it or not!) knew of Macdonald’s enthusiasm for the game, and he asked Charley to lay out a course on the estate of Senator John B. Farwell, Chatfield-Taylor’s father-in-law, at Lake Forest, north of Chicago. Macdonald agreed and produced seven holes. The longest hole wasn’t more than 250 yards, and four others were from 50 to 75 yards. It was hardly real golf, but it was a start. By then golf was being played on the east coast in New York, Newport and Boston.

The little venture at Lake Forest breathed fresh vigor into Macdonald’s dream of playing golf steadily and so he passed the hat around the Chicago Club. Twenty or so friends contributed $10 each and armed with little more than $200 he laid out a nine-hole course on a farm in Belmont, III., about 24 miles west of Chicago. There was no clubhouse – only a barn for shelter – but it was better than anything else in the West.

This was the first Chicago Golf Club. In 1893 Macdonald added another nine holes, and from this the Chicago Golf Club bases its claim of having the first 18-hole course in the United States. Then, in 1894, the game had become so popular that the members determined to build an even better course. Macdonald designed it, and from this grew one of the legends of our golf folklore.

Macdonald played with a magnificent slice, but it was predictable enough that he was, despite this curse, quite accomplished. Others, however, hooked, and so when Macdonald planned the routing of the holes, he had the course play in a clockwise direction. Whenever one of his slices misbehaved, it would simply go deeper into the golf course; whenever a man lost control of his hook, it went off the course. This was the birth of the out of bounds rule. There have never been serious accusations that Macdonald devised the out-of-bounds to take advantage of anyone, but it was not beyond him.

Macdonald was the best golfer in the West, which was to be expected since for some time he was the only one. In 1894 the call went out twice for a competition to determine the best amateur golfer of the land. Twice Macdonald answered that call, first at the Newport Golf Club, where a stroke-play tournament was played, and later at St. Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers, for a match-play affair. Macdonald won neither. He lost the first when his ball rolled against a stone fence that sliced across a fairway, costing him two strokes. He lost the second when he spent a goodly portion of the night before the semifinal and final match behaving as if he had already won.

Each time he lost Macdonald had a complaint. First, stroke play was no proper way to settle a championship; everyone knew that the true test is match play as it was played in Scotland. That, in itself, was bad enough, but then to have a stone wall right across a fairway was preposterous! No, that tournament at Newport couldn’t possibly be considered the national championship. When he lost at match play later, you’d think he would have some trouble dismissing it, too. But a man does not become so successful as Macdonald by giving in. He jumped this time on the fact that the tournament was sponsored by only one club, St. Andrews. To be a national championship, Macdonald reasoned, a competition must be supported by an association of clubs.

By now everyone was a bit weary of Macdonald’s complaints, so in December 1894 H. O. Tallmadge of St. Andrews invited representatives of five clubs to a dinner at the Calumet Club in New York to form an association to govern golf in the United States. Thus was born the USGA. Macdonald was there as a delegate from the Chicago Golf Club. The next year he must have had a smug self-satisfied feeling when he won the Amateur Championship. In the final he annihilated Charles Sands, who had taken up the game only three months earlier, by 12 and 11. Sands was never heard from in another national competition, nor was Macdonald to reach such heights again. He lost in the first round the next year, and then for the next three years he was beaten in the semifinals.

No longer able to keep up competitively, Macdonald was not ready to give up the game completely. His attention turned to other phases of golf, and for the rest of his days he was a forceful voice in its affairs. He fought against standardization of equipment, endorsed the Haskell rubber ball with enthusiasm, fought against banning the Schenectady putter, and battled the Western Golf Association when it threatened to establish its own set of playing rules early in the century.

Most significantly, however, he turned to architecture and became our first accomplished designer of golf courses. These are his works: The National Links, Piping Rock, Yale, Mid-Ocean, Lido, Sleepy Hollow, St. Louis Country Club, Links Golf Club, Greenbrier, Gibson Is-land, The Creek Club and Deepdale.

Some were remarkable achievements, principally the Lido. Built on marshland on the south shore of Long Island, over 2,000,000 yards of soil were brought in and the ground was shaped to suit the contours Macdonald wished to achieve. The cost was staggering – $800,000 in 1913-14.

He did not limit himself. The National Links is a seaside course, Mid-Ocean was built on headlands above the Atlantic with some holes routed through sub-tropical valleys; Yale was built on rocky soil and through forests. In each of his creations he tried to adapt features of the great holes of Britain. The 17th at Mid-Ocean for example, is one of his versions of the 15th at North Berwick, the Redan. The huge chasm that separates two segments of the ninth green at Yale must be Macdonald’s adaptation of the Valley of Sin, the deep depression at the front of the 18th green at St. Andrews.

Forget the other courses though; the National is his finest creation. Great courses are not built all at once; the best of ours have been refined as they have, been played. Macdonald built a home adjoining the National and spent the late years of his life refining it, changing it from a modest course of little more than 6,000 yards, into a more sturdy test of 6,600 yards. It was his pride, the course he loved above all others.

His nephew, Peter Grace, learned just how unpopular one could be for showing Macdonald he was wrong about National. According to legend, Grace told his uncle that, after his first visit to the golf course, he was not overly impressed. “Take that first hole,” Grace supposedly said. “It’s a par four, but you could reach the green with a good drive.” Macdonald was aghast. “No one has ever done it,” he said with confidence. “We’ll see,” Grace answered.

He walked to the tee, played a beautiful shot that carried the series of bunkers in the elbow of the slight right-to-left dogleg, watched the ball drop short of the green and then roll on. If he expected congratulations from his uncle he was disappointed. Macdonald didn’t say a word; he turned quickly and headed for his home. Grace learned later that Macdonald had written to his attorney and stricken Peter’s name from his will.

Macdonald had been a frequent visitor to Bermuda, and when the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, Bermuda seemed like the ideal place for a golf course where you could have a drink after a round. It was also a time of increasing prosperity and of heavy speculation in resort areas. Macdonald was asked to design a course on the island, and he found a location near Tucker’s Town. This was Mid-Ocean, now one of the more beautiful courses in the western hemisphere.

The fifth at Mid-Ocean is one of Macdonald’s finest designs, a 430-yard par four calling for a tee shot across Mangrove Lake. It’s a dogleg left, and, as with any well-designed strategic hole, it allows you to cut off as much of the lake as you dare; the more of the lake you bit off, the shorter the approach to the elevated green. Babe Ruth, for instance, once pounded 11 balls into the water before he was able to carry to the fairway.

When the course was first finished, the Governor General of the Island, Sir James Wilcox, and an Admiral Packenham asked to look over Mid-Ocean. When they came to the fifth tee, the Admiral allowed that he didn’t believe anyone could drive across the lake. Macdonald said it could be done, and the Admiral said, “Let’s see you do it.” Macdonald teed up a ball and the Admiral asked where he was aiming. At that moment two dogs were prancing along the fairway, and Macdonald said he would drive where the dogs were. “Which one?” asked the Admiral. “The second,” Macdonald replied. Macdonald hit the dog in his rear end! He was one of those infuriating people who could back up their bragging with performance.

In summing up, Macdonald’s two lasting contributions to the game were these: His churlishness over those early amateur competitions led to the formation of the USGA; his vision and thoroughness gave us some of our finest golf courses.

Charles B. Macdonald (USGA Museum)

A member of the National Links thought a windmill overlooking the 16th green would be attractive and he suggested the idea to Charles Macdonald. Macdonald had it built and then sent the member the bill. (USGA Museum)