A look at how C.B. Macdonald unleashed his creativity across the rolling hills of St. Louis Country Club
Charles Blair Macdonald was not lacking in self-assurance. He expressed his supreme confidence through action and proclamation. The action was to create a portfolio of golf courses, topped by National Golf Links of America, that would revolutionize golf course architecture in the U.S. and spark the Golden Age. One of his many pronouncements was that the greatest ground for golf was in New York, specifically on Long Island. To go along with his healthy ego, C.B. had a coastal bias.
I fancy myself to be less egotistical than Charles Blair Macdonald, but do I share his bias? As a third coast Chicagoan, I live in the area considered by those in the East and West to be flyover country. The best of the country’s golf, the coastal players say, is in places like Long Island, Westchester, Boston, Philadelphia, Monterey, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The courses in Chicago are nice, but they don’t quite measure up. In smaller midwestern cities like St. Louis? Not even in the conversation. While I bristle at slights to my hometown, introspection reveals that coastal bias has seeped into my consciousness. Perhaps that is why I never quite believed claims made about the greatness of St. Louis Country Club.
My buddy Derek is well-traveled, and a man of typically impeccable taste. Among his endearing qualities, however, is a penchant for coming out of left field with a hot take. Many a raucous debate has arisen from this tendency. That is why, after returning from his visit to St. Louis Country Club, I was both skeptical and intrigued when he claimed it to be among Macdonald and Raynor’s very best designs. The coastal bias in me discounted Derek as temporarily insane for comparing St. Louis to The National or Piping Rock, but my inner geek hoped he was right. I resolved to see for myself, and set about making preparations.
Architectural Ideals Move West
By the time that C.B. Macdonald received the inquiry from the membership at St. Louis C.C. about designing a new course on recently acquired land in Ladue, his architectural collaboration with Seth Raynor was clearly ascendant. The pair had confirmed the merit of Macdonald’s concept of employing timeless design ideals at National Golf Links, which opened to acclaim in 1910. They subsequently proved themselves beyond one-hit-wonder status at Sleepy Hollow and were hitting their creative stride as the opportunities began to roll in. To that point, Macdonald and Raynor’s work had been largely concentrated in the Northeast. One can speculate that as they headed west to the Gateway City, coastal bias and curiosity might have been engaged in an internal tug-of-war. Would the ground be good for golf? Would the players be sophisticated enough to appreciate their concepts?
Macdonald was met with the perfect conditions upon arrival in St. Louis. The club’s original course had been designed by James Foulis, and its head professional Willie Anderson was a four-time U.S. Open Champion. The membership, with leaders like George Herbert Walker, had a solid golf I.Q. and growing enthusiasm for the game. They knew exactly what they were getting with C.B. Macdonald and desired for him to paint creatively on the canvas they provided. In The Evangelist of Golf, George Bahto describes the onset of the relationship. “Arriving in St. Louis, (Macdonald and Raynor) found the site nearly perfect, with rolling terrain and many natural green sites on which to build their trademark holes.” wrote Bahto. “Free of the kind of interference from the club’s board that they had encountered on their two previous projects, Macdonald and Raynor went right to work.”
The course that Macdonald and Raynor delivered was an adventurous and eclectic mix of their ideal holes and originals. Concepts like Road, Punchbowl, Long, Narrows and Alps were all present and accounted for, each set expertly on the land with dashes of Macdonald’s panache. The set of one-shotters was stronger than usual as well. Renditions of the Biarritz, Eden, Short and Redan were each breathtaking, but the duo did not stop there. A fifth par-3 called Crater was added to the mix, arguably the best of the bunch.
For daily play, the course provided members and guests with infinite challenges and plenty of drama. It also held up quite well as a championship test. If good design identifies the best players, one need look no further than the 1921 U.S. Amateur results to ascertain the greatness of St. Louis C.C. Francis Oumiet was the stroke play medalist. Quarterfinalists included Bobby Jones, Chick Evans, Jess Sweetser and Robert Gardner. Jesse Guilford defeated Gardner 7&6 in the final match. Among the membership and golf luminaries of that time, the quality of Macdonald and Raynor’s creation was resoundingly confirmed. Nearly a century later, visitors to St. Louis Country Club are grateful that C.B. shelved his coastal bias and boarded that train headed west.
When the Ladue course opened, St. Louis was a club in the country. Today, it is a country club embedded in a neighborhood. Driving the adjacent streets and entrance road, visitors get glimpses of features that are as bold as ever, on beautiful land with long views through the old growth woods. In 2000, the club hired architect Brian Silva to develop a master plan for retrovating the course, which had strayed a bit from Macdonald’s intent. Over the ensuing years, Superintendent Tim Burch has continued to refine with assistance from Kye Goalby. Players today find a course that is true to its roots, wonderfully presented to be precisely the kind of lively challenge that Mcadonald and Raynor envisioned.
The artistry in the shaping of the hazards and greens is such that it is easy to get visually overwhelmed playing St. Louis. Deeper reflection reveals another layer of the brilliance of Macdonald’s design. Certainly, the features that he and Raynor built are incredible to behold, but where they chose to locate the greens and hazards is what maxes out the variety. The one-shot holes are sited using valleys to increase the intimidation and drama. Longer holes are routed with the result that at no point during a round does a player have two consecutive shots over level ground. Blind shots are scattered throughout the course, and uneven lies abound. Tee to green is a thrill ride, and the putting surfaces are equally varied and engaging.
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Convention goes out the window with the first stretch of holes at St. Louis. The opener is a par-4 that plays over a rise and then downhill to a canted green. Macdonald next tests players with two consecutive par-3s. The Biarritz 2nd and Eden 3rd are both brawny, penalizing still-cold swings that produce errant shots into the deep, flanking bunkers.
The 4th is a two-shot rendition of the famous Road Hole. Macdonald used a valley that cuts diagonally across the fairway to create the strategic challenge from the tee. The green features a pot bunker front-right, a trench bunker back-left and a road back-right, all as creative nods to the St. Andrews original. The par-5 5th plays past a large, snaking bunker left and a principal’s nose complex center before arriving at the punchbowl green. Navigating these novel features in pursuit of a gettable birdie is a geeky joy.
On the par-4 6th, players have a chance to get aggressive from the tee as they play position for the approach into a green that has pronounced plateaus. Bold putting surfaces continue at the Short 7th, with its devilish thumbprint. The 8th is a downhill Cape that works right around a creek to green set beautifully in a nook below an old stone wall.
The 9th is a more conventional hole by Macdonald’s standards, but again, he uses the land brilliantly. The drive is over a hill and if not struck well, leaves a tricky decision for how to handle the creek that cuts across the lay-up zone. After a halfway house stop where lingering for a moment is encouraged, players take on the uphill par-4 10th which culminates with another heavily sloped green. The 11th comes right back with its putting surface fronted by a set of mounded bunkers that look playful, but if found, punish.
The 12th is Macdonald’s original par-3 and it is a beauty. The canted green sits across a deep valley from the tee, surrounded by mounds and bunkers. The Long 13th requires three well conceived and executed shots as the fairway runs along a ridge that falls away right with both flanking and cross bunkers. The putting surface once again features enough tilt to make short putts knee-knockers. The par-4 14th turns and heads back over the same undulating ground to an outstanding green with redan characteristics. A pot bunker behind waits to grab overcooked approaches. This stout stretch of holes concludes with the course’s final five-par. Imposing cross bunkers are built into a ridge and obscure the approach into a big green with a towering back plateau. Surviving the 12th through the 15th without disaster is no small feat.
Players cross the street to tackle the closing stretch at St. Louis. The 16th is a prototypical reverse redan with a back bunker where many a poorly judged tee shot has gone to die. The par-4 17th plays uphill to a green intimately tucked in among bunkers and mounds. Putting an exclamation point on an incredible round, the closer is an Alps-Punchbowl with a 10-foot deep bunker fronting the green.
By journeying from the coast to the heartland, Macdonald discovered just how wide ranging was the opportunity to create great golf in America. He and Raynor married outstanding land with both timeless ideals and creative flair to produce an extraordinary course that deserves to be considered among the top tier of the Golden Age. Following in Macdonald’s footsteps, I arrived at St. Louis Country Club with my bias and left having experienced something truly special. Mea culpa, Derek. How right you were.
Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf