The Golden Age of golf design lives on

Thanks to devoted admirers, the work of a bygone generation of course architects is being preserved and celebrated by societies and associations bearing the designers' names

It's hard to tell, but Vaughn Halyard is probably only joking when he says prospective members of the Donald Ross Society — and those planning on playing in society events — should come prepared for a long and exhaustive discussion of Ross’ architecture and lifetime.

“Folks should be forewarned,” he adds with a sheepish smile. “Yes, we visit a lot of outstanding courses, but if you’re not willing to chat about the arcane details of Ross features, his course-routing acumen, his train travel, his prowess with hickories as a player, his roots in Dornoch and emigration to the U.S. and Massachusetts, and a litany of other things Ross or golf course architecture or history-related, then perhaps you shouldn’t come.”

Halyard, a Grammy Award-winning producer, says his own immersion into Ross culture is a relatively new phenomenon, but admits that the pull of Ross-chat with like-minded souls now goes far beyond mere geekery. It all began in 2011 when Cedar Rapids Country Club embarked on a major course project and hired Ross specialist Ron Prichard to restore the Ross features lost over time.

 Pinehurst No. 2 | Hole 10
While Donald Ross' work was vast, Pinehurst — and No. 2, in particular — was his home base.

Halyard was a member of the green committee but, in his own words, "largely illiterate with regard to course architecture." In an effort to better understand Prichard's proposals, be a more useful part of the conversation and help his home club realize its full potential, Halyard thought it prudent to become a member of the Donald Ross Society. "I sensed we might benefit from affiliation with the Ross architecture brand and got a crash course on Donald Ross," he says. "I subsequently became the golf and green chair at the club, and the Ross Society has been an invaluable resource and supporter of our project."

Make no bones, membership of a society dedicated to the safeguarding and promotion of a certain (dead) architect’s work is really only for the truly obsessed, the utterly pre-occupied, the genuinely fixated and the helplessly spellbound.

Take Brad Becken Jr., author of the encyclopedic “The Golf Architecture of Donald Ross” published last November, as an example.  

The Donald Ross Society’s president since 2018, Becken has played every single one of the 370 Ross designs that remain in the U.S. and Canada and says that, while the 600-strong roster (members renew dues every year) does include clubs, 99% of the society’s members are individual enthusiasts. Becken says the Ross Society, which holds several events at Ross designs every year, has been a significant player in the course-revival movement since being founded in 1989.

“We were established at a time when the restoration and renovation of courses from the classical era (Ross, A.W. Tillinghast, Alister Mackenzie, etc.) was gaining momentum,” he says. “The objective was to undo the damage done to so many courses by subsequent architects and green committees as well as unfortunate maintenance practices.”

To date, the Donald Ross Society has consulted on 125 course restorations at no charge to the club. “It continues to be particularly gratifying to see recent restorations of such prominent courses as Oakland Hills, Inverness and Oak Hill,” says Becken, adding that he is in contact with Ross-designed courses every day, especially now as a number are currently celebrating, or are about to celebrate, their centenary.

At age 34, the organization devoted to Ross is the eldest of the architect societies and remained alone in the field until 1994 when it was joined by the Walter J. Travis Society, whose mission is to “Promote the legacy of Walter J. Travis, America’s foremost amateur golfer of the early 1900s, golf journalist and publisher, turfgrass expert, golf course architect, and one of the great pioneers of golf in North America.”

While Jerome Travers, who won four U.S. Amateur Championships to Travis’ three — Travis also won a British Amateur — might take issue with the first part, the rest of the statement is undeniably true. Fans of the Australian native, who arrived in the U.S. at age 23 and didn’t start playing golf until he was 34, seem especially loyal to the man who would design or remodel 50 or so courses before his death in 1927.

Because so few of the courses attributed to him are publicly-accessible, Travis remains something of an unknown quantity, but Travis Society members will tell you his original designs at Ekwanok Country Club, Cape Arundel Golf Club, Country Club of Troy and Westchester Country Club, and redesigns of Garden City Golf Club, Hollywood Golf Club, Sunningdale Country Club and Columbia Country Club are as good as anything from the Golden Age of Golf Architecture.

Like any good architect society, Travis’ group of admirers keeps in close contact with Travis-designed clubs and maintains a comprehensive collection of Travis memorabilia. The roughly 100-strong membership — as well as 22 clubs — of the 501(c)(3) public charity also boasts an impressive list of accomplishments, which include establishing and organizing the annual interclub Travis Cup, verifying the accuracy of Travis’ World Golf Hall of Fame database, and establishing and underwriting a scholarship for students pursuing a career in the golf industry.

After the Donald Ross Society was formed, it took nearly five years for other architect societies to appear, but, following the arrival and early success of the Walter J. Travis Society, new groups came on the scene fairly regularly. The Alister Mackenzie Society was officially formed in 1995 though it had been operating informally since 1987 when Meadow Club member Gary Nelson organized a two-day event involving friendly competition and much Mackenzie-related discussion that was attended by three other California Mackenzie clubs — Green Hills Country Club, Pasatiempo Golf Course and the Valley Club of Montecito.

Cypress Point — Hole 16 — MacKenzie
Course architect Alister MacKenzie on the 16th hole at Cypress Point Club, which he designed.

In 1994, Pasatiempo member Barry Staley, who had become an important figure in the increasingly active, though still as yet unincorporated, organization, took a phone call from a gentleman named Ray Haddock, who was Mackenzie’s step-grandson. Haddock had recently taken up golf and wanted to ask Staley how he might get access to some of his famous grandfather’s designs. Staley and Haddock had a game at Pasatiempo during which Staley explained the Mackenzie enthusiasts’ aspirations and desire to collect as much relevant and historical material as possible.

Haddock returned home and located an old cedar chest that had belonged to his father — Mackenzie’s stepson and secretary, Tony Haddock. Inside was a document Mackenzie had written with Tony Haddock’s assistance, but which had remained untouched for 50 years or more. The manuscript was published in 1995 and "The Spirit of St. Andrews" quickly became a must-own book for golfers and golf historians, selling 25,000 copies in one day during the week of the British Open at St. Andrews. Ray Haddock was there to sign copies of the book and he generously donated the proceeds to the now officially-recognized society for the establishment of a competition in which contestants submit their design of a single hole. The Ray Haddock Lido Prize remains one of the most notable aspects of the Mackenzie Society, which now consists of 15 member clubs from seven different countries — Argentina, Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, New Zealand and the U.S.

The legally separate, but philosophically linked, British-based Alister Mackenzie Society (founded in 1999) operates differently to the U.S. society in that it welcomes individuals from its 64 member clubs to become members.

The year after the Mackenzie Society was established in the U.S., Britain’s first architect society — the James Braid Golfing Society — formed with Australia’s Peter Thomson, who like Braid was a five-time British Open winner, playing a significant role in its creation. The society operates fairly informally compared with, say, the Donald Ross or Alister Mackenzie societies, holding events a few times a year with the main event always at Brora Golf Club, 20 minutes north of Royal Dornoch and one of Thomson’s favorite courses.

In 1998, two more societies incorporated, the Toronto-based Stanley Thompson Society honoring Canada’s greatest ever architect, and the Tillinghast Association, whose membership currently stands at “around 3,000” says vice president and co-founder Stuart Wolffe. Tillinghast-devotees pay once for a lifetime membership, so that figure represents the total number of Tilly fans who have joined the association over the last 25 years. Wolffe, a member at Baltusrol Golf Club, says the association was instrumental in nominating Tillinghast for the World Golf Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 2015.

“We also assist Tillinghast courses in researching their history, and have been guest speakers at several including Winged Foot and Baltimore Country Club,” Wolffe says.  

It's likely the Tillinghast Association has the most members of any architect society, though it will be interesting to see how many the newly-proposed Harry Colt Society attracts. The great English architect, who contributed significantly to the design of George Crump’s Pine Valley, performed masterful remodels of Muirfield, Royal Portrush Golf Club and Sunningdale Golf Club (Old), and designed the superb Swinley Forest, St George’s Hill Golf Club and New Course at Sunningdale. He was previously celebrated by the Colt Association based at Stoke Park, located west of London and where 007 James Bond took down shameless cheat Goldfinger. The association was owned by businessman Hertford King, but disappeared when the King Family sold the 300-acre estate to Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani for $70 million in 2021.

The new Harry Colt Society is being planned by author Adam Lawrence and Jasper Miners of evalu18.com, and will be launched alongside Lawrence’s forthcoming biography of Colt, "More Enduring Than Brass."

The Harry Colt Society may not be the only architect society born in 2023. Twenty-one years after first announcing his idea of a William Flynn Society, Flynn expert Wayne Morrison is finally poised to realize his dream.

“The concept has languished for a long time,” Morrison admits. “But I’m working with two young computer geniuses from Richmond, Virginia, who are helping me start the Society that will be interestingly differentiated from other societies, particularly with respect to historical assets, data analysis, and AI applications.” Morrison hasn’t indicated when the new organization will be up and running, but urges Flynn fans to “stay tuned.”

The Devereux Emmet Society, meanwhile, is being revived by Emmet aficionado Mark Chalfant after it faltered in 2019 following a nine-year run. The website DevereuxEmmetGolf.com has already launched. Chalfant, who plays at the Emmet-designed Cape Cod Country Club in Rockville, Massachusetts, is planning two or three member outings this year at Emmet courses located in either Long Island or Connecticut.

Tom Simpson
Golf course architect Tom Simpson's drawing of Royal Porthcawl Golf Club in Porthcawl, Wales.

Fans of Robert Trent Jones, Tom Simpson, Seth Raynor, Wayne Stiles, William Bell and Perry Maxwell also have societies in which they can commemorate the work of their design heroes and, though it’s not a society as such, a coalition of sorts exists to spread the gospel according to Mike Strantz.

Five years ago, childhood friends Landon Owen and Brett McNamara began a golf crusade to play 1,000 courses and somewhere along the way focused their attention on their love of Strantz courses, becoming known as the ‘Strantz Fantz.’ To share their love of his seven original designs, they organized an event called the Iron Maverick, which was touted as "Half Mike Strantz tribute, half golf Ironman, 100% fun." The first event was played at Royal New Kent in 2019, the second in 2021 at Caledonia, True Blue and Bulls Bay — a South Carolina extravaganza that went on sale nine months before the first round and sold out within 45 seconds. While 88 alert, quick-typing golfers guaranteed their places, 200 got added to a wait list.

It's doubtful even the Donald Ross Society has experienced a rush for event spots quite like that, and yet it's not unreasonable to suggest it remains the gold standard of architect societies. Former Donald Ross Society board member Mark Larson says it’s the most active and engaged of the societies and even has a foundation that raises money to support its mission.

“The Tufts Archives in Pinehurst and municipal Ross courses have been beneficiaries of this activity,” he adds. “For example, Mill Creek Park in Youngstown, Ohio, has received grants of over $40,000 in the last four to five years to help with their two 18-hole Ross municipals.”

Halyard, who has accepted an invitation to join the Board is pretty bullish about his chosen society.

“The events are phenomenal,” he says. “There is a strong sense of community between Ross club members, public players and historians. We’re also blessed with a philosophical home base at Pinehurst and a tremendously well-run repository of Ross information at the Tuft’s Archives in Pinehurst’s Given Memorial Library. I’d say that, amongst the community of dead architect societies, we’re definitely the clubhouse leader.”

But Halyard is also a realist.

“The Mackenzians are blessed with an outstanding rotation for their annual event which includes Meadow, Crystal Downs, Valley Club, Cypress Point, and Royal Melbourne. So really, they don’t care what the Ross Society thinks.”