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C. B. Macdonald

Year of Birth1855
Year of Death1939 aged 83
Place of BirthNiagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

In 1872, aged sixteen, Charles Blair Macdonald sailed from Chicago across the Atlantic on a paddle steamer to live with his grandfather in St Andrews to study at the Auld Grey Toon’s University. He quickly became adept at the game of golf and within a year he played in matches with Old Tom Morris and his son Young Tom. His fond reminiscences are chronicled in his book, Scotland’s Gift – Golf.

He returned to Chicago in 1874 to find his homeland in financial crisis. The enduring effect of the depression curtailed Macdonald’s golfing ambitions until 1892 when a friend (son-in-law of Senator Farwell) asked him to build a rudimentary 7-hole course in the grounds of his father-in-law’s Lake Forest estate. Golf in the Chicago area was finally inaugurated, but Macdonald quickly tired of the short course and upped sticks to Belmont, where 18 holes were in play by the summer of 1893.

Today, there’s a 9-hole layout left on this site, belonging to Downer’s Grove Golf Club, and five of the original holes remain in play. One of these, the par three 8th, is a loose interpretation of the Redan at North Berwick so this is probably one of the very first instances of Macdonald transplanting a famous aspect of Scottish golf course architecture to America.

In 1894, Theodore Havemeyer and the members of the Newport club proposed that a new national championship be held on Rhode Island. “C. B. Macdonald was ecstatic,” wrote George Bahto in The Evangelist of Golf… “The opportunity to display his golfing prowess before his peers and winning America’s first championship appealed to his enormous ego.” Macdonald lost by a single stroke to W. G. Lawrence, then: “All hell broke loose. Macdonald in a childish fit of pique berated the Newport Club’s tournament committee for the manner in which the tournament was conducted… Convinced by Macdonald, or perhaps for the sake of pacifying him, the committee agreed to hold a match-play event at a new venue”

One month later, at St Andrew’s Golf Club in Yonkers, Macdonald lost the final match. “A crestfallen Charles B. Macdonald won the silver medal,” continues George Bahto, “and Larry Stoddart was awarded the gold and diamond medal as the first Amateur Champion of the United States. Wrong Again. To the dismay of everyone, Macdonald was off again on a tirade, ranting and raving, discrediting Stoddart just as he had William Lawrence… Now two championships were in a shambles from the bullish and domineering personality of this displaced Chicagoan, and something had to be done… Enough was enough, and it was evident that a strong governing body must be formed to keep order and prevent future occurrences of this nature… On December 22, 1894, less than eight weeks after Macdonald scuttled the first two events, an historic meeting was convened in New York… The core clubs at the forefront of the game in America, [St Andrew’s Club of Yonkers, Shinnecock Hills, The Country Club of Brookline, Newport CC and Chicago Golf Club] officially enjoined themselves and gave birth to the Amateur Golf Association of the United States [later renamed the USGA].”

Despite Macdonald’s hissy fits, golf was rapidly gaining popularity and the fledgling Chicago Golf Club soon outgrew its Belmont property, relocating to a site at Wheaton where a new course was laid out by Macdonald, Henry Wigham and James Forgan, opening for play in 1895, that same year Macdonald finally won the first “official” U.S. Amateur Championship at Newport Country Club at the third attempt.

Macdonald tried to compete at golf’s higher levels but didn’t win another Amateur Championship. An article in Golf Illustrated written by Horace Hutchinson of Royal Liverpool Golf Club fascinated him, entitled: “Which are the most difficult holes in the World?” Responses were received from a number of British Open Champions citing, among other holes, North Berwick’s Redan, Prestwick’s Alps and the Maiden at Royal St George’s. “These discussions certainly caught the attention of Charlie Macdonald,” writes George Bahto. “Why shouldn’t America have golf equal to that in the British Isles?”

Macdonald coined the phrase “Golf Architecture” in 1901 and proclaims himself the “Father of American Golf Architecture”. The following year, Macdonald made his first of several trips to Europe, studying and sketching Britain’s best golf holes. His plan was not just about copying the holes, but also improving them so he could construct “The Ideal Golf Links” back in America.

Upon returning to the USA in 1907, Macdonald enlisted 70 members, who each paid $1,000, and he set about purchasing a suitable site for his ideal course. First he tried unsuccessfully to buy Shinnecock Hills – much to the outrage of the members – eventually settling on an adjacent 450-acre site that fronted Peconic Bay. He then hired a local surveyor called Seth Raynor. Armed with Macdonald’s sketches, Raynor “located potential sites and elevations for greens, tees and turning points in the fairway, ” continues Bahto, “Macdonald tinkered endlessly with the routing plan. Finally, after months of planning, he was ready to move to the next step.”

Macdonald enlisted Henry Wigham (1896 and 1897 US Amateur Champion) and a number of other aids, including Devereux Emmet (another pioneering US golf course architect), to implement Raynor’s maps and Macdonald’s drawings. In 1908 the National Golf Links of America was incorporated, but it would take another three years before the course officially opened.

Macdonald and Raynor became good friends and their association lasted almost two decades before Raynor’s untimely death in 1926, aged 51. The duo collaborated on only ten other projects, three of which sadly no longer exist – Lido Club, Links Club and Ocean Links. Apart from the National Golf Links of America, Macdonald and Raynor’s most notable co-designs (which still exist) include Piping Rock and Sleepy Hollow.

Two year’s prior to Raynor’s passing, he recruited an academic called Charles “Josh” Banks to help with the burgeoning workload. At this point, Macdonald was 68 years old and his co-design with Raynor had already started in 1923 at the Mid Ocean Club in Bermuda. In 1924, Charles Banks visited Bermuda and assisted Raynor with course construction. It is thought that Mid Ocean is the only course where the three collaborated.

Macdonald continued to fiddle with the National Golf Club Links well into his 70s. In 1939, the “Father of American Golf Architecture” died in Southampton, close to his beloved links.


World Golf Hall of Fame: "Many stories abound, but the one that stands out concerns his beloved National Golf Links. When one of the members of the new club mentioned to Charlie that the club should build a windmill on the course similar to the ones that dotted that end of Long Island since the late 1600s to provide power for grinding grain, Charlie agreed and had one built. And when it was finished, he then sent the financier a bill for its construction! To this day, the handsome windmill stands between National’s second green and the 17th tee."

In a Golf World magazine profile of C.B. Macdonald in September 2019, Michael Hurdzan had this to say about the architect’s reverential title ‘Father of American Golf Course Architecture’ or even ‘Father of American Golf’:

“There are many willing to bestow those titles on him. He is as well-known as any golf architect in the States and it’s often referred to. Personally, I don’t believe that. There are others – Tom Bendelow, the Duncan brothers, Willie Park, Donald Ross – who had tremendous influence.

It was those guys who brought the game to the people – Macdonald created 19 golf courses. Bendelow around 600. Macdonald was arrogant, not likeable. He liked class distinction. If we’d left it up to him golf would have been a royal game, not one for the public.”


From The Story of American Golf by Herbert Warren Wind: “Early golf in Chicago is the story of one man, Charles Blair Macdonald, who was recognized by all who knew him, and by Charles Blair Macdonald, as a most remarkable personality. There were only two ways to take Macdonald. Either you liked him intensely or you disliked him intensely. There was no middle ground.

Endowed with massive build and great strength, his natural self-reliance bolstered by a sizeable personal fortune, stubborn, loyal, humourless, and intelligent, C. B. Macdonald swung his weight in every controversy American golf experienced until his death in 1928 (sic). To his admirers, ‘Old Charlie’ was a genius whose mind never entertained error. In the eyes of his detractors, Macdonald’s contributions were far outweighed by his marauding ego.

One reason why Charles Blair Macdonald made staunch enemies was the impression he forced on other men, used to leadership themselves and anxious to have a hand in the growth of golf, that he and he alone had been divinely appointed to supervise the spread of the game in America.

They had to admit that the big man with the big moustache played the game very well, probably better than any other amateur in the country, but his attitude towards other people’s golf upset them. Why did he insist on being such a stickler for the rules, and why did he hawk his adversaries to detect the slightest infraction of the St Andrews code?

This was America, not Scotland. Golf should be allowed to develop naturally in America, they believed, and if the personality of the game underwent moderate revisions in the new locale, it was a healthy sign. Macdonald’s blind allegiance to the way he had been taught the game at St Andrews was not going to help the sport to find its roots in America.

Charlie Macdonald was an extremely articulate man, and through the years his words as well as his acts provided ample data for those who branded him the arch-reactionary. Whenever the growth of the game bred new regulations, Macdonald let it be known that golf had been far better off in the old days when the original thirteen rules and no others governed play.

Subsequent national, sectional, and local rules only made for unnecessary confusion and were superfluous if ‘the spirit of the game prevailed.’ He was against all moves for allowing balls to be wiped on muddy greens, against ‘preferred lies;’ under any conditions. Touching the ball with the hand was anathema to him.

When the campaign to abolish the stymie was the topic of the day, Macdonald declared himself vigorously against a change that would ‘distinctly lower the morale of the game.’ He frowned upon four-ball matches as ‘a degradation’ when this form of match threatened to displace the foresome, the type of competition in which partners on two-man teams play alternate shots and drive from alternate tees.

He was saddened when the old red coat, the badge of the golfer, was replaced by the odd-jacket and eventually by the sweater. Towards the end of his life, when golfers carried as many as twenty-five clubs in their bags, he played with only six, as a protest against the excess.”


The story of Charles Blair Macdonald – The Evangelist of Golf – by George Bahto is a compelling book that delves deeply into the work of Macdonald, Raynor and associate Charles Banks.

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