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- Seth Raynor
Long Island-born Seth Raynor graduated in 1898 from Princeton University with a degree in Engineering and Geodesy and subsequently went on to run a successful landscape and surveying business in Southampton.
“His introduction to golf design came quite by accident,” wrote Geoff Cornish and Ron Whitten in The Golf Course, “when he was hired by Charles Blair Macdonald in 1908 to survey the property that would become The National Golf Links of America. Raynor so impressed Macdonald with his engineering knowledge that he was hired to supervise construction of The National. Once it was completed, Raynor went on to construct several more courses for Macdonald, including Piping Rock, Sleepy Hollow, The Greenbrier, and Lido.”
“He scarcely knew a golf ball from a tennis ball when we first met,” wrote Macdonald in Scotland’s Gift – Golf, “and although he never became much of an expert in playing golf, yet the facility with which he absorbed the feeling which animates old and enthusiastic golfers to the manner born was truly amazing, eventually qualifying him to discriminate between a really fine hole and an indifferent one.”
“Unlike the wealthy Macdonald, who never accepted a fee for his work, Seth had to run his business to earn a profit.” Wrote George Bahto in The Evangelist of Golf. “C.B. was usually fortunate to have selected the land himself. Raynor, on the other hand, was obliged to use what each club gave him. Often that land proved to be a trying challenge.
It was here, in difficult circumstances, that Raynor’s brilliance shone brightly. On courses like Chicago’s Shoreacres, his gift for visualizing routings and adapting classic strategies on awkward terrain helped create some of his most enduring work.
If any observation can be made on the differences between a Macdonald and Raynor course, it would be that their tendencies mirrored their personalities. Many of Raynor’s interpretations of Redan, Alps, or Cape were more understated, with a smoother and less of a defiant appearance.
When the volume of work became overwhelming, Raynor enlisted the help of two academicians, Ralph Barton from the University of Minnesota and Charles “Josh” Banks, a Yale graduate and professor at the prestigious Hotchkiss Preparatory School where Raynor was designing a course.”
“In 1926, Seth Raynor died of pneumonia,” wrote Cornish and Whitten, “leaving his assistants Charles Banks and Ralph Barton to complete his in-progress projects and to carry on the Macdonald tradition.”
In the book The Evolution of Golf Course Design, author Keith Cutten has this to say when profiling the architect: “Seth Raynor was an engineer-turned-designer, whose exposure to golf course design through Charles Blair Macdonald provided an ideal foundation. Macdonald averred that around [only] twenty-one designs of golf holes existed throughout the world; and that the best variations of each should be used to guide the creation of the ideal course. This logical approach to design must have struck a chord with Raynor’s engineering mindset, allowing him to balance form and function. Template holes, used frequently by both Macdonald and Raynor, include the Redan, Alps, Biarritz, Road, Short and Leven.”
Macdonald affectionately recounts his partnership in Scotland’s Gift – Golf: “Raynor built courses in every climate, in Puerto Rico, the Sandwich Islands, three or four in Florida, two in California and numberless elsewhere. He was a world builder. I had given him all my plans and only occasionally was I asked for advice.
Sad to relate he died ere his prime at Palm Beach in 1925 while building a course there for Paris Singer. Raynor was a great loss to the community, but a still greater loss to me. I admired him from every point of view.”
From an article in issue 22 of Golf Course Architecture, October 2010, by Golf journalist Anthony Pioppi: “In the realm of early American golf architects, Seth Raynor stands apart from virtually all his contemporaries by what he was not or what he didn’t do as much as what he created. He didn’t play golf as a young man nor did he earnestly take up the sport later in life. He played his first round after assisting in the construction of four courses but never became an avid golfer.
While everyone, from his mentor Charles Blair Macdonald to the likes of Harry Colt, A.W. Tillinghast, Devereux Emmet and Walter Travis, talked and wrote about the world of golf course design, Raynor was all but silent. There are only a few short lines of quotes that have ever been uncovered. All Raynor left behind for us to judge him and understand his theories of architecture were the golf courses that he designed, expanded or renovated.
What makes Raynor’s career all that more remarkable is its brevity. His first solo design did not come until 1914, when he was already 38, and he died, from pneumonia, aged only 51, in January 1926 in a hotel in West Palm Beach, Florida, his wife with him, both there to attend the opening of a course.
What Raynor did share with fellow architects was the understanding that virtually all great golf holes have within them multiple strategies and options giving players with varying degrees of acumen and length more than one way to get from tee to green. Raynor sought to reveal the best player by creating some golf holes that required left-to-right ball flights off the tee or on the approach and others that insist on right-to-left trajectory for the best path to be uncovered.
His designs invariably included holes where length was rewarded. His short par fours pay off to the accurate player, while his large greens, some as big as 15,000 square feet, meant putting is at a premium. The well-defined edges of greens and the accompanying swales can direct even slightly misplayed shots into bunkers. To score on a Raynor course, adeptness with the sand wedge is a must.
Ask golfers who are only slightly familiar with Raynor’s work and they’ll tell you about square greens, deep bunkers and the massive amounts of earth moved to create courses and his redundant hole styles. It is an oversimplification.
Raynor learned his craft from Charles Blair Macdonald, the first great golf course architect in the United States and the creator of the National Golf Links of America. He believed there were about twenty-five hole designs in the entire world and that the best versions of each should be used as guides when constructing a course.
On the works of Macdonald and Raynor, you will invariably find versions of the Road Hole, the Redan, Eden and others. There was nearly always a Punchbowl green. Macdonald and Raynor did not duplicate the originals, but adapted them to fit the specific site. So in some cases, for instance, what is their version of Road might have a tee shot that reminds of the original but the green is angled in the opposite direction.
True, Raynor moved more earth than almost all of his contemporaries and his layouts are nothing short of bold but his work rarely looks forced into or onto the land, or clashes with the natural surroundings. His bunkers are big and well below the green surfaces, as much as 15 feet in places like Fishers Island Club and Yale University, but they are not deep. On the contrary, the walk into the sand is rarely more than a foot down, easy to enter and exit but visually intimidating and difficult to extract a golf ball in one shot.
Raynor trained as a civil engineer at Princeton University. He brought his scientific mind to the earthmoving portion of the designs, but his creations are not geometric. In fact, he was so understated that in many instances his genius cannot be detected the first dozen or so times a hole is played. His courses are a unique balance of bold and subtle."