- Top 100
- Donald Steel
Donald Steel grew up as a young boy in Hillingdon on the outskirts of London during a time of bombing raids and air raid shelters. His father was a surgeon, physician and Medical Director of a large hospital and his mother was a nursing sister.
He learned to play the game as a junior at Denham, his father’s club, where John Sheridan was appointed professional in 1946. John was the son of Jimmy Sheridan, the Sunningdale caddie master, and both men served their respective clubs for more than half a century.
Cricket was Donald’s first sporting love and he played for Fettes College, Edinburgh for four years, becoming the first person from a Scottish school to play in the Public Schools XI against the Combined Services at Lord’s in his final year, 1956.
He then enrolled at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a Batchelor of Arts degree in Agriculture in 1960.
Donald knew Leonard Crawley at the Daily Telegraph from his university days and the journalist invited him to help out when the Sunday Telegraph started up in February 1961. He began as golf correspondent for the weekly newspaper on a 6-month trial period, making him the youngest specialist writer in Fleet Street at the age of 23.
His involvement in golf course design began with a story he was writing about Ken Cotton, who was building two layouts at St Pierre and Ross-on-Wye. They kept in touch and a couple of years later, Ken invited Donald to work with him in his design practice in 1965.
Donald takes up the story, in an extract from his own website: “He became a partner of Cotton, Frank Pennink and Charles Lawrie. All three were fine golfers and men of great kindness and integrity. Their help and influence provided the perfect grounding for any young protégé.
On the death of Cotton in 1974 and Lawrie in 1976, Steel and Pennink worked with Michael Bonallack for five or six years but, on Pennink's death and Bonallack's appointment as Secretary of the R&A, both in 1983, Steel's thoughts turned to the founding of his own company in 1987. It proved a roller coaster ride.
Since 1987, Donald Steel has travelled more widely than any golf course architect in the world. This has entailed two thousand flights as well as half a million miles at the wheel of his own car, rental cars or enjoying the luxury of being driven. His passport bears the stamp of 25 countries.”
Martin Ebert and Tom Mackenzie joined Donald’s practice soon after it was established at the end of the 1980s and they remained with him until he became President of the English Golf Union in 2006.
From Donald Steel's website:
On the Churchillian assumption that a man is fortunate if his work and pleasure are one, Donald Steel has had forty five years doing what he has loved best. In his chosen careers of golf writing and golf course architecture, a balance of interest has given the best of both worlds. Still does.
What is more, it has earned unprecedented recognition from his two professional bodies. He has served as President of the Association of Golf Writers (1993-98) and the British Association of Golf Course Architects (1986-89).
If watching champions and studying new land passes as work, the playing side of a varied life shows (or, at least, did) that he can practise what he preaches. Proficient enough to have taken take part in the 1970 Open Championship at St Andrews, and to have represented England at International level, he was a regular contestant in amateur championships and occasional professional events (as an amateur).
In addition, he won the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society’s famous President's Putter on three occasions – 18 years apart. Serious Fun, a phrase adopted by Steel in 1985 and used in the title of the Society’s History, rings true.
Paul Daley, who edited a scholarly appraisal of Melbourne's great Sandbelt courses as well as several volumes on golf course architecture, paid a notable compliment:
"To assist Donald in his line of work, three skills are at hand:
- playing ability
- writing ability
- ability as a golf course architect
At each of these elements, one may find others who may be more proficient. But, if you take these skills as a package and take a composite rating, Donald Steel is, in my opinion, the leading golfing personality in the world, and among the top 5 in our game's glorious history."
Arnold Palmer added spice to his indoctrination by winning the first two Open championships that Steel covered. Altogether Steel reported 32 Opens in succession. After leaving the Telegraph at the end of 1989, he continued to write for Country Life having, in 1983, become only the magazine’s fourth regular writer on golf. He followed the distinguished line of Horace Hutchinson, Bernard Darwin and Pat Ward-Thomas.
From Donald Steel's Thin End of the Wedge:
“My first ‘solo’ design was the 9-hole course for Harrow School on a piece of ground full of ups and downs – hence not much use for anything else except army exercises. Radley, Charterhouse, Bradfield and Wellington followed suit. Such courses provided something for everybody in introducing a new dimension to school activities.
Greatness in a course is the sum of its individual holes. The overall length is of little consequence. Courses come in all shapes and sizes. There are no rules or formulae relating to the sequence of their design. The land dictates. Architects are the judge and must make the best of what they are given. Nobody criticizes Cypress for having successive par fives, successive short par fours and successive par threes.
Architectural teaching has always been based on the principle that strategic architecture is more worthy than the Penal school of thought. That is why a study of the Old Course at St Andrews used to be a must. The strategic belief is providing alternatives, highlighting positional play, recognising the ability to flight the ball, encouraging guile and ingenuity, and rewarding skill. The punishment must fit the crime. Good architects tempt and tease not torment. Subtlety and sympathy are the substance of strategy.”
Aside from boasting an impressive Amateur resume, Donald Steel is a respected golf writer and historian who started in the design business in 1965 with Frank Pennink. Steel subsequently established his own practice and has since famously consulted at all of the British Open championship venues. He has also designed a number of new golf courses from scratch.
Mackenzie and Ebert worked for a Renaissance man of golf. He wrote golf for the Sunday Telegraph, a British national newspaper, for nearly 20 years. He contributed a column under the title ‘A Golf Commentary’ for the English magazine Country Life , and, his book Classic Golf Links was the first book written specifically about links golf, and it’s a classic itself. Steel is as gifted a speaker as a writer; for years, he’s been one of the most engaging and sought-after after-dinner speakers in the game.
Books of which Steel was author, co-author, editor or co-editor include.
The Golfers Bedside Book (1971)
The Shell International Encyclopedia of Golf – with Peter Ryde & Herbert Warren Wind (1975)
Guinness Book on Golf Facts and Feats (1981)
Sunday Telegraph Golf Course Guide to Britain and Ireland (1988)
Classic Golf Links of Great Britain and Ireland (1992)
The Open: Golf’s Oldest Major (2010)
Thin End of the Wedge – a life in golf (2017)