“The Evangelist of Golf.” That is how two-time U.S. Amateur champion H.J. Whigham described Charles Blair Macdonald in his 1939 eulogy, noting Macdonald’s instrumental role in introducing and fostering the growth of golf in America.
As a player, Macdonald won the inaugural U.S. Amateur in 1895. He was also a driving force behind the formation of the USGA and served as the Association’s first vice president. But it was in his role as a golf course architect that Macdonald made his biggest contribution to the game.
In July, the best players in senior women’s golf will gather at one of Macdonald’s gems – Chicago Golf Club – for the first U.S. Senior Women’s Open Championship. To understand the historical significance of this course, it helps to know the backstory of Macdonald’s introduction to the game and his philosophy on course design.
To escape the chaotic aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire in 1872, Macdonald’s parents sent him to Scotland at age 17 to live with his grandfather and attend the University of St. Andrews. The day after his arrival, Macdonald’s grandfather took him to meet Old Tom Morris, who provided the teenager with a few clubs and a locker in his shop. Over the next two years, Macdonald spent numerous hours on the St. Andrews links and developed his golf skills to a level where he could compete with the best golfers of St. Andrews, including Young Tom Morris.
His two-year education in St. Andrews would not only prepare him for a highly successful business career, but
also instill in Macdonald a passion to transport the game he called “Scotland’s Gift” from the sandy dunes of St. Andrews to the fertile prairies of Chicago.
Macdonald’s desire to import golf to Chicago was finally realized on the eve of the 1893 Columbian Exposition with the arrival of Sir Henry Wood, the British representative to the Exposition. Wood was accompanied by a number of young men from Scotland and England who were keen to find a place to play their favored game while stationed in Chicago.
Among these young men was Whigham, Macdonald’s future son-in-law. Staying in Chicago after the Exposition ended, Whigham would win two U.S. Amateurs, including the 1897 championship, the first of eight USGA championships played at Chicago Golf Club between 1897 and 1912.
Macdonald’s first course design was in Lake Forest, Ill., a primitive affair staked out in an afternoon in April 1892 amid the formal gardens of Senator John Farwell’s estate “Fairlawn” on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Macdonald later described Fairlawn as “little more than an extended putting green.”
His second course in Belmont, Ill., another short course intended to introduce the game to novice golfers, was the home course of the Chicago Golf Club in 1893 and 1894. Macdonald eventually extended it to 18 holes, making the Belmont course the first 18-hole course in America.
It quickly became apparent to Macdonald that the short links at Belmont were far less than ideal. In January 1895, the club purchased the 200-acre Patrick Farm in Wheaton for $28,000. Macdonald hired 22-year-old James Foulis from St. Andrews as the club’s professional and greenkeeper. Foulis arrived in March 1895 and was joined by his brother David the following year.
The Foulis brothers were responsible for building the bunkers, mounds and greens of the course. Macdonald’s goal in designing the Wheaton layout was to build a course “comparable with the best inland courses abroad” with “eighteen well-laid-out holes, the length of which more-or-less corresponded with the length of holes in St. Andrews.”
Using the Old Course as his template, Macdonald designed the course with an out-and-back routing that featured holes located side-by-side with a loop at the end where the course reversed direction. Like the Old Course he played in the 1870s (when it was played in the reverse of today’s direction), the Wheaton course proceeded up the left side with an out-of-bounds fence on the left and returned on the right side.