Monday, July 09, 2007

Architect #4 Charles Blair Macdonald

Best Course: The National Golf Links of America

Other notable work: Yale, St. Louis, Piping Rock, The Creek, Mid Ocean

Overview: Charles Blair Macdonald was an outstanding player, and even managed to win the first United States National Amateur, although he made them replay the championship when he didn’t win the first time! Macdonald was an extremely wealthy man who was very well connected to the elite of that era. Macdonald was obsessed with golf from the outset and spent countless days practicing his game and visiting the great courses of the United Kingdom long before embracing on golf architecture – he even had a locker in Old Tom Morris’s golf shop at St. Andrews.

Macdonald soon became obsessed with having an American course that could compare favorably with the great links courses. He used his connections for the financial help and then toured the countryside looking an ideal site eventually settling on a property near the end of Long Island. Macdonald next traveled across the United Kingdom and touring all the great courses collecting notes on what he felt were the best holes the game had to offer. He then returned to Long Island to design a course based around the great holes, but also had the fortitude to believe he could make improvements to the basic concepts of many of the holes. He only had to find the holes on the land and adapt the concepts to the terrain and he had his ideal course.

The Cape Hole at NLGA

Praise for the work:
Macdonald once said “there are only four or five good holes in golf. The local scenery supplies the variety.” He was knowledgeable enough to collect a series of ideas from famous holes to use as a base for his design work, but smart to understand why these particular strategies were superior to most others. By understanding the strategic implications of each concept, he was then free to adapt them with ease to create the best situation for that strategy that the terrain had to offer.

His improvements, such as making the Redan downhill to make it more visible but also more viable, were dramatic improvements on the original. His own concepts and adaptations had a lasting impact on how future architects would view strategy and hole set-ups. At The National you become in awe of the rich variety of strategies, the wonderful mix of hole types, and the level of interest he manages to keep from start to finish.

The great difference between the work of Raynor and the work of Macdonald is in the greens. The is a much greater use of contour in MacDonald’s greens which infuse the design with an incredible amount of variety through pin positions. The varied pin locations means that his courses can be set up in an infinite number of ways with it unlikely that any playing experience over a week would be the same. He also used lost of fairway width to allow the player to play to a certain side or location to access certain pin positions on particular days – this also provided a great deal of playability to his layouts for lesser players. The flexibility and variety makes the playing experience at the national entertaining no matter at what level you can play the game.

The Biarittz at Yale


Macdonald was and opinionated autocrat who was overbearing and self important. While his strength and conviction was very important to the development of the National, I have often wondered if his arrogance was responsible for the continued use of templates. There is no getting around the quality of the holes and the golf experiences he provided with each of the courses he built, but you must wonder what was missed by adhering so firmly to the templates and not following more of the land. This point is made most particularly on the par threes where quite often one set blends into the next – particularly when you add in the work of his protégé Raynor.

Great Quotes: “The object of a bunker or trap is not only to punish a physical mistake, to punish a lack of control, but also to punish pride and ego”
“The risk of going into a bunker is self imposed, so there is no reason why a player should condemn a bunker as unfair.”

Favourite Course: The National Golf Links of America
The National is the best example outside the Old Course itself about the strategic freedom. The player is left to avoid or encourage risk throughout a round. The National is ripe with opportunity to encourage risky play and full of enough disaster to avoid being a push-over. It is one of the best course I have ever played and perhaps the best playing experience I have enjoyed. Each green site features so many possible interesting pin positions that you would never grow bored playing the National.

The Redan at NLGA

What I take from him:
All great architecture has roots in the great holes, seeing and understanding the great strategies is vital in creating your own great holes. Even the best architects in this series paid close attention to what others did well before them. The greatest lesson from Macdonald comes from where he made the adaptations, what he did differently and why many are superior to the source of inspiration.


Anonymous said...


You read about Raynor/CBM's relationship, and it makes you wonder how much each of them influenced the other.

In your opinion, how much of Yale is CBM? I realize its difficult to say, but in my (very) limited experience, it feels more Raynor than say, NGLA.

thoughts? anyone? bueller?

Anonymous said...

I cannot believe you think Colt is better, I am aghast...

Ian Andrew said...


I will explain my reasoning fairly soon - perhaps you will take the time to write out why you disagree with me.

I wrote out the final four at the same time - sections at a time - it offered me know reason to change my mind.

While I admire the National as a personal favourite - I don't admire the continued reliance on the template hole afterwards. They may be great strategies and great holes, but at a certain point your not pushing the art of architecture forward.

sean said...


Your line "His improvements, such as making the Redan downhill to make it more visible, but also more viable, were dramatic improvements." leaves me perplexed. I understand the "visible" aspect of the quote, though I believe that once a so called Redan is made into a downhill hole then a very important aspect of the strategy is altered - namely the ground game. I do not understand what "viable" means. Could you please explain.

Ian Andrew said...


You can tell I'm writing in a rush - I'm not self-editing right now because I can't afford the time.

Essentially being able to clearly see the strategy of the hole and visualize the ideal point of approach allows the player more ability to plan the approach shot on the redan. The old hole was blind and required an element of faith when hitting the shot.

I perfer Macdonalds version of the hole.

sean said...


Thanks for responding. I really have enjoyed the series and look forward to reading about Tillie.

You are not alone in your preference for NGLA's Redan (presumably) over North Berwick's. I think Macdonald was not in favour of utlizing blind hazards. I would counter that a significant aspect of the strategy of a Redan is that it plays slightly uphill to offer the choice of either ground or aerial game - the hole would have been considered a fairly long par 3 in its day and many could not fly the green. I don't know if the semi-blindness is a design imperative for the hole or simply a by-product of the slightly uphill nature of the original hole. In any case, I like the element of doubt presented by the original tee shot and I do think blind features can be planned for once the player knows the features exist.

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