Hamptons | Hamptons.com | | | National Golf Links and Seth Raynor
Hamptons.com Logo

National Golf Links and Seth Raynor

Originally Posted: May 24, 2004

Mary Cummings

The 15th at National is very long and it's bordered by trouble all the way to the green. Photo: Skyshots

With the attention of golfers all over the world focused on Shinnecock Hills for the U.S. Open, the time is right for a tribute to Southampton's own Seth Raynor (1874-1926). Though the cognoscenti have always ranked him among the top golf course architects of the 20th century, until recently his fame has been largely overshadowed by that of his mentor, the flamboyant "father of golf course design in America," Charles Blair Macdonald (1856-1939).

To be sure, Raynor's extraordinary skills were put at the service of Macdonald's genius on such landmark courses as the National Golf Links, the Yale University Golf Course and the Chicago Golf Club, but Raynor also designed many courses on his own, several of which made the list of America's top 100. And while here on his home turf he was most directly involved in the design of the National, where his collaboration with C.B. Macdonald began in 1908, and with the Southampton Golf Club, which he undertook to design free of charge in 1925, he was not without connections to the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. In fact, Shinnecock Hills was redesigned in 1916 by Macdonald and Raynor and six holes of their original work, including the seventh green, remain to this day.

A more intriguing, if less significant connection was made years earlier in 1891, when Raynor's father was hired to survey acreage purchased by the founders of the Shinnecock Hills club for a course, and he went along to carry the rods and chains. He was just 17 and it was his first introduction to the world of golf, a game then brand new to America.

It might have made a better story had he been instantly smitten by that youthful exposure, but he wasn't. For almost two decades after that, golf played no role in his life. He went off to Princeton, graduated with a degree in civil engineering and geodesy in 1898, married a Southampton woman, Mary Araminta Hallock, and established himself as a local surveyor. A 1908 pamphlet put together to provide useful information for Southampton village residents offers a glimpse of the civic duties he was performing just before he and Macdonald reached their agreement and the door opened to a far more glamorous career. In his capacity as "Street Commissioner" he signed off on measurements of the village's 54 public highways, and in his role as village engineer, working with the Real Estate Association, he calculated the costs of "Lake Agawam Improvement" (excavation, bulkheading, storm sewers).

Meanwhile, he was offering his services as landscape engineer and surveyor to the public from his home/office on Bowden Square (telephone: 89-J). In his leisure time, according to oldtimers who were later asked for their reminiscences of him, he liked to follow the local sports teams, an enthusiasm he shared with Gus Hildreth, who had married his wife's sister, Gertrude Hallock. The friendship between the two men was a close one, making for a felicitous foursome whose good times picnicking and kibitzing are well documented in family photographs.

It was not surprising that Macdonald, whose lifelong passion for golf had inspired him to study and sketch the most famous holes in England and Scotland and to scour the American countryside for land that would support a course using the best of them, would turn to Raynor for help once he had settled on Shinnecock Hills as the ideal site. Raynor was at hand, well respected, educated, clearly competent in the disciplines required, and probably struck Macdonald immediately as someone who would not make a habit of challenging his authority—for Macdonald was nothing if not authoritarian. As one person who must have known him well put it, "if he hadn't been such a distinguished looking, financially solid citizen, he might have been referred to as bull-headed. As it was, he was respectfully termed opinionated."

By all accounts, Seth Raynor was the opposite, a modest man—though not lacking in self-confidence—socially at ease and well-liked wherever he went. It is no doubt his reticence that accounts for Raynor's relative obscurity, though a new book that focuses on Macdonald and his role in the evolution of golf course design, Evangelist of Golf by George Bahto (Clock Tower Press, 2002), goes a good way toward giving Raynor his due. Bahto devotes a whole chapter to Raynor, who is to be the subject of his next book.
According to Bahto, "the relationship that developed between the reserved Raynor and the volatile Macdonald was a study in contrasts, yet one filled with respect and trust—perhaps even mutual devotion." There is no question that Raynor admired his brilliant guide to golf's mysteries and felt he had much to learn from him. (Bahto reports that Raynor once said he wished he had "the ears of a donkey or an ass" so he would never miss a single word from the mouth of his mentor.)

At first, Raynor was employed only to map land and help in plotting the holes at the National, but Macdonald soon realized that he had much more to offer and made him his protégé.

"He scarcely knew a golf ball from a tennis ball when we first met," wrote Macdonald in his recently reissued book, Scotland's Gift: How America Discovered Golf (Tatra Press LLC, 2003). Indeed, Macdonald goes on, "he never became much of an expert in playing golf, yet the facility with which he absorbed the feeling which animates old and enthusiastic golfers to the manor born was truly amazing, eventually qualifying to discriminate between a really fine hole and an indifferent one." He concludes: "When it came to accurate surveying, contours, plastic relief models of the land, draining, piping water in quantity over the entire course, wells and pumps, and in many instances clearing land of forests, eradicating stones, finally resulting in preparing the course for seeding, he
had no peer."

In fact, Raynor's lackluster performance as a player seems to have caused him no embarrassment. The decision not to become a frequent player was a deliberate one, made in the fear that his course designs might start to reflect his own low level of play. The complaints of duffers distressed by the difficulties of a course are expected, even desirable, but the disdain of a pro for a too-easy course is something every golf course designer would want to avoid at all costs.

Raynor's lack of preconceived ideas about golf probably pleased Macdonald in any case and, having recognized that his talents went beyond mapping and plotting, Macdonald hired Raynor to supervise construction of the National. When it was complete, "all of golf paused to marvel at Macdonald's magnificent creation," according to golf historian Ben Crenshaw. It was a shining moment in the history of golf in America and, for Raynor, who shared that first taste of success, if not the glory, it was a turning point. From that time forward, he went into golf course design and construction on almost a full-time basis, though he continued to operate out of his Southampton home/office on Bowden Square for several years until the demands of the golf boom made a move to Manhattan necessary in the early 20s.

Work so thoroughly suited to his education and esthetic creativity had to have been fascinating for him. Nor did he have a problem dealing with the upper crust clients who were the only ones building golf courses at the time. Among the 70 wealthy sportsmen who contributed $1,000 apiece to get the National under way, for example, were many of the major tycoons of the time: W.K. Vanderbilt (railroads), Clarence Mackay (mining and telegraph), Charles Deering (farm machinery), Harry Payne Whitney (streetcars and thoroughbred racing) and Robert T. Lincoln, son of the President (Pullman cars).

Well educated and confident, with a placid demeanor that could usually be counted on to smooth feathers ruffled by the sometimes boorish Macdonald, Raynor was a social as well as a professional asset. "Dealing with wealthy clientele did not intimidate him in the least," writes Bahto. "He was quite comfortable with it."

What did make him uncomfortable on occasion was the lack of any respite from the incessant demands of the work, or more to the point, the demands placed on him—24/7 in current parlance—by C.B. Macdonald.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I note here that I am Seth Raynor's grandniece and have the following directly from his niece, my mother: She and her sister would often be dragged off to a "camp" in West Neck with her parents and the Raynors, she later recalled, so that her uncle could have a few hours of peace in a place where Macdonald could not reach him by phone. While the photographic evidence suggests that the grownups—Seth Raynor, Gus Hildreth and the sisters they married—were having a wonderful time, my mother insists she was not. It was hot and buggy and there was nothing to do but row circles out in the bay.)

But, for Raynor, leisure time was harder and harder to come by as he got busier and busier. According to David Goddard, who writes professionally about golf and its history, on almost all the golf courses attributed to Macdonald, most if not all of the design responsibility was assumed by Raynor. Even on those courses most closely associated with Macdonald—the Lido, Mid Ocean in Bermuda and Yale—Raynor still drafted the basic plans.

In 1914, when Macdonald was approaching 60, he convinced Raynor to strike out on his own. Macdonald had always been more interested in refining his favorite courses and playing them with his friends than in the nuts and bolts of building courses wherever the demand took him. So Raynor took up the torch, applying Macdonald's philosophy and putting his own virtuosic touch on the classic ideas absorbed from his mentor.
In 1915 he revised and added holes to the course that is now Gardiner's Bay on Shelter Island. In 1916, he and Macdonald worked together on the redesign of the Shinnecock, whose membership had been feeling miffed at being outshone by the National. Relations between the two clubs were understandably somewhat fraught, though many golfers, including Macdonald himself, held memberships in both. For a while good feelings apparently prevailed while Raynor's construction crews "gouged out enormous bunkers" and built up greens and Shinnecock members were welcomed next door at the National. Later, however, when Macdonald's brusque personality had brought old resentments to the surface, Shinnecock downplayed the contributions made by Macdonald and Raynor and few are aware of the extent to which the course continues to reflect their design.

In 1917, Raynor created "a gem on Fisher's Island which remains virtually unspoiled," according to Goddard. And then, as the golf boom picked up speed, so did the volume of Raynor's work. When it became overwhelming, he enlisted the help of Ralph Barton from the University of Minnesota and Charles "Josh" Banks, a Yale graduate and professor at the Hotchkiss School. "Between 1921 and his death in 1926, Raynor must have worked at a prodigious pace and made a good deal of money," wrote Goddard in a profile published in 1986 in The Southampton Press. "He criss-crossed the country by train, spent some time in Hawaii laying out two courses, designed Puerto Rico's first (Berwind), and was to have gone to Japan."

It was too much travel, too much work, too little relaxation at West Neck. Weakened by his frenzied schedule, he returned from Hawaii, and immediately boarded a train to cross the country to Florida where he was expected at Palm Beach's Everglades Club to celebrate the opening of the course's second nine. On January 23, 1926, at the age of 51, he died of pneumonia at the Helen Wilkes Resident Hotel in Palm Beach. It was an abrupt and sadly early end to a remarkable life. In his book, Macdonald marked his protégé's passing with this heartfelt tribute:

"Sad to say he died ere his prime…Raynor was a great loss to the community, but a still greater loss to me. I admired him from every point of view."

It was Gus Hildreth's sad duty to make the trip south and bring his friend's body back to Southampton. Because he could not bear to think of their separation, he arranged for a burial plot in the Southampton Cemetery where he and their wives could eventually join Raynor.
Interestingly, the foursome's nearest neighbor, buried beneath a gravestone just a few feet away, is Charles Blair Macdonald.

National Golf Links Clubhouse, 1920

Appeared In: style and living >> main articles