- Top 100
- Walter Travis
Walter James Travis was born in Maldon, Australia, the fourth of eleven children born to Charles and Susan Travis. As a child, and later in life, he was described as “slight of build, with above average intelligence”. Walter was a good student, displaying a talent for writing and a keen interest in a number of sports.
In 1885, his employers, McLean Brothers and Rigg, a hardware and construction supply firm with offices across Australia, decided to open a new overseas branch in New York. Walter was offered the manager’s position and so he set sail for his new job, never to return to his home country.
Travis loved the New York City social and sporting scene. Apart from hunting and fishing trips with friends, he also took part in competitive cycling events. He was also partial to a Ricoro Corona cigar, a dram or two of Old Crow whiskey, and evenings playing poker and billiards.
In 1889, Travis met Anne Bent, the 26-year-old daughter of a wealthy businessman from Connecticut. Apparently, he was so smitten with this young woman that he wrote more than a hundred letters to her in the first few months of their relationship.
After several months of courtship, they were married in January of 1890, with Travis becoming a naturalized US citizen later that year. They settled in Flushing, New York, where they lived until moving to Garden City, New York in 1900.
Their first child, Adelaide Augusta Travis, was born in 1891, and their second child, Bartlett Herbert Stephen Travis, appeared in 1894, just two years before Walter would get his hands on a golf club for the very first time.
He returned from eighteen months of working to England in 1896 with a set of golf clubs, taking up the game just before his thirty-fifth birthday with a round at Oakland Golf Club. Less than a month later, he won the club’s handicap competition and was well on his way to becoming a top amateur player.
Nicknamed “The Old Man,” due to his late introduction to golf, Travis was a self-taught player, adopting a baseball grip with his clubs. He didn’t possess a classic swing and wasn’t a long hitter so he soon realized his putting and overall short game would have to be in top order to compete against others.
He was narrowly defeated in the US Amateur semi-finals in 1898 and 1899 but won the event in three of the following four years. He also finished joint runner-up to Willie Auchterlonie in the 1902 US Open at Garden City before becoming the first non-British winner of the Amateur Championship at Royal St George’s in 1904.
He was declared “World Champion of Golf” in a New York Times article: “By his comparatively recent victory abroad in the amateur championship of Great Britain, Travis scaled heights once considered inaccessible to Americans, and that he will have difficulty in carrying away another American championship trophy none of us is qualified to state.
Travis owes his skill to his all-around strength. As a putter, he is at the top of the list. His knowledge of golf was not obtained from professional instructors, as is generally the case with prominent amateurs. He studied the game alone. He spent winter nights and summer days in working out the secrets of the ancient pastime. He consulted no books; he experimented.”
Travis was certainly a match-play master but he also won the Gold Medal for the best qualifying medal score at a lot of competitions and quite often he set a new course record. It’s true to say he largely dominated the amateur game until his retirement from competitive golf at the age of fifty-four in 1916.
Not that Travis was without his critics. His adherence to the rules governing amateur status were called into question from time to time – especially in regard to the likes of free hotel board and railroad transportation or endorsing the products of a particular club maker – but he was never directly accused of any financial impropriety and much of the fuss was put down to “paper talk”.
He was always looking at ways to improve his game, installing smaller diameter cups on the putting green at Garden City Golf Club, his home course, to improve his putting skills. He also played with the controversial Schenectady Putter – which was later banned by the R&A – when winning both the US Amateur in 1903 and the Amateur in 1904.
Travis was a prolific writer, writing on a wide range of golfing topics. His first book, Practical Golf, was published in 1901 and a second book, The Art of Putting, was released in 1904. In 1908, Travis founded and published The American Golfer magazine, which he edited until passing on the reins to Grantland Rice in 1920.
At the request of the new editor, Travis wrote a series of ten articles for the magazine entitled “Twenty Years of Golf: An Autobiography” . These covered his amateur career in golf, ending with an item subtitled, “ The Advent of a New Era in Golf Course Construction”. In it, Travis wrote about his role in the redesign of Pinehurst No.2 and his encouragement of Donald Ross to get involved in course design.
Travis had no formal training in landscape architecture but his on-the-job experience started shortly into his amateur golf career when he worked with John Duncan Dunn in the 1899 design of the Ekwanok course in Manchester, Verrmont.
Dunn probably played the lead role with the overall plan however, when he returned to New York City, Travis stayed on to oversee construction of the layout. Both men then collaborated on a number of other projects over the next few years.
The Devereux Emmet-designed layout at Garden City became Travis’s testing ground for his golf design ideas. He was the club’s Captain for ten years and was also appointed Greens Chairman in 1906, allowing him to oversee course improvements.
He filled in Emmet’s cross-bunkers, extended the length of the course, constructed new bunkers and re-contoured the greens. All of these enhancements received glowing praise when the course hosted the 1908 U.S. Amateur, elevating Garden City’s status in the eyes of many observers.
As Ed Homsey, Travis Society Archivist says: “Today, there is continuing appreciation of the enduring intricacies and challenges of Travis’s well-situated and often dramatic green sites, his creative exploitation of interesting terrain features in the layout of a course, and the distinctive, rough-hewn mounding he often used to frame a hole or create a tee-shot sight-line.”
All told, around fifty courses bear the architectural mark of Travis, either as an original design or as a remodelling project. He also had influence on several other top tracks, consulting with the original designers at highly regarded places such as National Golf Links of America (1910), Pine Valley (1915) and Chicago (1916).
He could be described as the first "US Open Doctor" with his redesign of the Country Club of Buffalo and Columbia Country Club courses before they hosted the US Open in 1912 and 1921 and he was active right up until his demise, inspecting the construction of the Country Club of Troy, his last layout, just a month before he passed away on 31st July, 1927.
The following edited extract is taken from Bob Labbance’s book The Old Man, in the chapter entitled ‘Design Philosophy’:
One defining feature that always shines through on any Travis course that hasn’t been modernized is his greens. ‘He really divided the greens up into small target areas by using ridge lines and valleys,’ says Dr. Mike Hurdzan. ‘And the greens are not very big either, but a lot of them were built into hills so that the ball would bounce off the hill and work back toward the green. His greens would be considered a little severe by today’s standards but considering when he did them, I think the greens really showed a lot of understanding of the strategy of the game.’
‘Every golf architect’s designs emphasize the parts of the game which he feels are most important – which are usually those at which he is the most skilled,’ writes Tom Doak, ‘So it should be no surprise that Travis’ designs are noted for superbly contoured greens and for their demand on the short game, as well as putting. The greens at Country Club of Troy, Cape Arundel and Hollywood are as intricate as any I’ve played on, and they have stayed very well preserved over the years.’
‘He built wonderful undulating greens with fascinating pin positions,’ writes Ian Andrew. ‘In my view, the only problem is with the size – many at Lookout Point are not even 3,000 square feet. His strongest feature? Lookout Point has simply the greatest mounds I’ve seen at any club to date. The mounds are very unique and are impressive in both scale and character. They are not even and round, but instead feature scallops, secondary peaks and long ridgelines.’
As much as he wanted to impress people with his designs, Travis was also a practical man. He considered the economy of proper construction and worked within the limitations that the site suggested. ‘The depth of bunkers at Garden City seems to be random. Some fairway bunkers are deep, others are not. But in trying to recreate them, we did find a method to them,’ reveals Doak. ‘The workmen simply dug down until they hit the coarse gravel subsoil! That way, they didn’t spread the gravel around and have to clean it up later. If there was two feet of topsoil, Travis built a two-foot-deep bunker. Four feet equalled a more difficult recovery.’
Although Travis was highly regarded by the other architects of the day, his star has faded in the years since. Had he lived longer and produced a greater body of work, his place in the order of merit would be higher. Andrew had a good analogy. ‘He is similar to George Thomas. George Thomas was a great architect, but if you’re not from California you will not likely be familiar with his great legacy of golf courses. Thomas was every bit as good as Tillinghast or Ross, but had much less exposure due to regional isolation. The same goes for Travis.’
From The Story of American Golf by Herbert Warren Wind:
“One day when he was remodelling some holes at the Essex County course in Massachusetts, Travis inadvertently disclosed the secret of his success as a golfer and, particularly as a putter. He and the consulting parties were discussing the probabilities of turning a stretch of land into a new short hole. Asked how far he thought it was to a certain tree, Travis estimated the distance to be between 155 and 157 yards. ‘Why not say between a hundred and fifty-five and a hundred and sixty yards, Walter?’ one of the group asked. ‘It isn’t,’ Travis answered. ‘It’s between one fifty-five and one fifty-seven.’ He hadn’t meant to be dogmatic, but he had seemed so sure of his estimate that the group decided to measure the distance and see how close the Old Man actually was. He was a little off. The tree was actually 157½ yards away. This incident impressed upon those to whom it was related a fact about Travis that they had always sensed but had never quite known: he was an infallible judge of distance, probably the greatest in this respect of all American golfers.”
Practical Golf, published by Harper & Brothers in 1901.
The Art of Putting, written with Open Champion Jack White, in 1904.
The Old Man: The Biography of Walter J. Travis by Bob Labbance, 2000.