The men behind Old White
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- From a historical perspective, it's hard to figure out exactly who got the better end of the deal when The Greenbrier's original owners commissioned Charles Blair Macdonald to build a world-class golf course at the resort 100 years ago.
Macdonald, often referred to as "the father of American golf architecture,'' certainly didn't need the work (he'd already turned 57) or the money (he never charged for his services).
However, Macdonald surely was intrigued by the prospect of building a links course in such a location that would not only attract the influential but also expose a wide range of people to the grand game he loved - all the more reasons to massage his own oversized ego.
Meanwhile, the owners of The Greenbrier (the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad) realized their existing nine-hole course was insufficient, and were intent on increasing clientele from northern states. Having a renowned architect like Macdonald on their side (as well as his protégé, Seth Raynor) was nothing short of a hole-in-one.
So when the Old White course opened to much fanfare in April of 1914, each side got pretty much what it wanted. The Greenbrier had a course that received national acclaim (and nearly a century later, a coveted PGA Tour event), and Macdonald could pontificate about yet another of his accomplishments.
Macdonald, who lived to the ripe old age of 83, certainly was an interesting sort.
An American of serious Scottish descent from a wealthy family, he was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, in 1855 and raised in Chicago. At age 16 he was sent to St. Andrews, Scotland, for his education - his first brush with the game of golf, which he recalled as "stupid and silly'' in his book, "Scotland's Gift - Golf.''
Charlie, as he was known, was introduced by his grandfather to Old Tom Morris of the storied Royal and Ancient Golf Club, and Morris helped develop Macdonald's game. Macdonald often played rounds with Young Tom Morris, a four-time British Open champ.
When Macdonald returned to Chicago in 1874, he went to work at the Board of Trade, became a leading socialite and often bemoaned the absence of golf in his own country. He traveled to Europe regularly to play some of the best British courses.
When Chicago hosted the World's Fair in 1892, Macdonald was asked to lay out a short, seven-hole course. Based on that course's popularity, he was asked to design two more, the latter in Wheaton, Ill., becoming the Chicago Golf Club, which opened in 1893 as the first club in the United States with an official 18-hole layout.
All the while, Macdonald maintained his interest in playing the game and was one of the country's top amateurs. After complaining about inconsistent rules and the lack of a true national governing body, he helped five prominent clubs join to form the Amateur Golf Association of the United States, which later became the U.S. Golf Association.
In 1895 at the Newport Golf Club in Rhode Island, Macdonald won the first U.S. Amateur, prevailing by a whopping 12 and 11 score in the final.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Macdonald started competing less, as he was bitten by the bug for design. A consummate perfectionist, he was determined to build bigger and better courses, including his crowning achievement, the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y., which opened in 1910.
"To call Macdonald a golf course architect would be like calling Thomas Edison an electrician,'' wrote author Jim Noyes in a 2006 article in Golf Course Architecture magazine. "He was much more than that. ... He understood that most golfers were choppers and insisted that good design offer a challenge to the scratch player and enjoyment to the others, a concept lost on many of today's designers.''
His layouts were known for modeling holes from some of the most famous European courses, which he studied extensively.
So it was in 1913, when Macdonald was retained by The Greenbrier to build a state-of-the-art course on its grounds. Old White's No. 8 hole was inspired by the Redan in North Berwick, No. 13 by the Alps at Prestwick and No. 15 by the Eden at St. Andrews - all gleaned from Scottish layouts.
Actually, Macdonald didn't do much of the heavy lifting, so to speak, in Old White's construction, deferring to his budding assistant, Raynor.
An article in GolfClubAtlas.com put it this way: "As was his custom, Macdonald . . . had Raynor perform the lion's share of both the initial work and the subsequent refinements. Macdonald was surely pleased by the prospect of building a resort course that would attract decision makers from afar.
"Along with the Mid Ocean Club in Bermuda, this creation was the only other true outpost course Macdonald designed. To its detriment, it was built on the rockiest site with which he ever worked. To its benefit, the low humidity and comfortable summer temperatures made it ideal for both growing grass and playing golf through the summer months.''
The course opened to rave reviews, and President Woodrow Wilson was one of the first people to play Old White in April of 1914.
"The New Golf Links at White Sulphur Springs are beyond a doubt one of the finest courses in the country,'' wrote author H.J. Whigham in a Town and Country magazine article.
By 1915, Macdonald was pretty much done with designing courses, and handed much of his business over to Raynor, though he remained in touch with his pupil and often offered advice.
A native New Yorker, Raynor first met Macdonald during the construction of the National Golf Links course in 1908. Macdonald hired Raynor, then an engineer, to survey the land for the layout, beginning a relationship that lasted until Raynor's death.
Raynor apparently had no qualms with Macdonald's cranky arrogance, or with doing his dirty work, as the pair collaborated on several courses over the years. When Raynor went off to design courses on his own, he used many of the same ideas he learned from working with his mentor.
"Raynor's entire understanding of architecture came from Macdonald,'' said golf journalist Anthony Pioppi in a 2010 article in Golf Course Architecture. "There is no reason to indicate that Raynor ever journeyed to Great Britain or even visited the growing array of laudable designs in the United States ... Raynor said he wished he had 'the ears of a donkey or an ass,' so as to hear every word Macdonald spoke.''
The career of Raynor was marked by its brevity, with his first solo project coming at age 38 and his 1926 death from pneumonia at age 51.
Macdonald, who died 13 years after Raynor, remembered him fondly in his book.
"Sad to say he died ere his prime . . . ,'' Macdonald wrote. "Raynor was a great loss to the community, but still a greater loss to me. I admired him from every point of view.''
In 2007, Macdonald was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., and even though it took that group 33 years from its opening to finally get around to his enshrinement, even he would approve of the first paragraph of his bio that read in part, "because of his contributions to the game, he can justly be called the Father of American golf.''
One more significant connection of Old White's journey from early 20th century links attraction to 21st century PGA Tour stop came when Lester George, a golf architect from Richmond, Va., was hired by The Greenbrier to put the layout under an extensive renovation from 2002-06.
By 2000, the course had devolved with age and become very pedestrian, and George restored the course to Macdonald's original design, with consideration given to the impact of modern equipment.
"[Time] had rendered it unrecognizable as a Macdonald/Raynor course,'' George said on GolfClubAtlas.com.
After his initial work, George returned to Old White in 2010 to tweak his refinements in preparation for the initial Greenbrier Classic. Old White, less than a year from its 100th birthday, remains the oldest course played by the PGA pros.