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Macdonald's Architectural Genius Shines at Chicago G.C. December 21, 2017 | Wheaton, Ill. By Dan Moore

Chicago Golf Club's unique features make the C.B. Macdonald design one of the country's treasured layouts. (USGA/Fred Vuich)

“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. 

C.B. Macdonald brought a touch of Scottish architecture when he designed Chicago Golf Club in the early 20th century. (Chicago Golf Club)

Other similarities to St. Andrews included a water hazard running across the first and 18th fairways like the Swilcan Burn, two short holes located in the loop at the far end of the course, and two holes of more than 500 yards. Additionally, because the land lacked natural sandy blowouts for hazards, Macdonald and Foulis adopted the geometric, penal form of cross bunkers to impose a distance penalty on mishit or topped shots.

Macdonald moved to New York in 1900 and following the formal opening of his renowned National Golf Links of America on Long Island in 1911, it became clear the course in Wheaton would soon need to be updated and modernized along modern, scientific design principles.

In a characteristically blunt letter to the club in 1917, Macdonald wrote, “I have long wondered when the intelligence of the Chicago Golf Club would realize that theirs is one of the worst courses in the country as compared with its former position. Nearly every change that has been made at the Chicago Golf Club has been for the worse and not for the better… You have got to scrap your golf course… I have today in mind the suggestions Jim Whigham and I made some years ago, and I have in mind now how I would alter the course if I were a committee of one to do it.”

Macdonald convinced the club to engage his longtime associate, the brilliant engineer Seth Raynor, to finalize a plan based on his and Whigham’s ideas. Raynor, a studious Princeton grad, didn’t know “a golf ball from a tennis ball,” but was soon Macdonald’s indispensable right-hand man. Remarkably, Raynor would soon go on to design world class courses on his own despite never having played golf himself.

After several visits by Raynor and considerable input from Macdonald, the club approved a $170,000 plan and construction finally commenced in May 1921. Raynor oversaw the two-year construction, including the design of 16 new and two remodeled greens.

The “new course” of the Chicago Golf Club is unique among the portfolio of Macdonald-Raynor courses in that it not only utilized a number of Macdonald’s template holes and features – Road Hole (No. 2), Biarritz (No. 3), Principal’s Nose bunker (No. 6), Redan (No. 7), Short Hole Green (No. 10), Punchbowl Green (No. 12) and Cape (No. 14) – but also paid homage to the 1895 Wheaton course by retaining the original designs of six holes with new bunkering and redesigned greens. Many of the Foulis brothers’ mounds and bunkers were incorporated in the design of new holes. An ingenious example was the use of the mounds on No. 17, which now served to mimic the railroad sheds on the Road Hole.

Barely altered since it reopened in 1923, Chicago Golf Club is a testament to the genius of Macdonald and Raynor, and almost 100 years later, the course remains an ideal challenge for members, top amateurs and, soon, the best senior women in the world.

Dan Moore is a member of the USGA Architecture Archive Committee. He lives in Chicago and is an avid golfer who qualified for the 2016 U.S. Senior Amateur Championship. Moore is currently working on a book, Golf Course Architecture in the Chicago District: 1892 to 1940

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