As soon as Westchester Country Club pops onto my TV screen, I’m happy. Now THIS looks like a golf course. It’s vintage northeast: rolling terrain, huge old trees, boulders jutting out of the rough.
I like the odd cants of the fairways, the slippery slopes of the greens and I like knowing that serious golf is right around the corner, because Westchester Country Club looks like a classic U.S. Open venue and plays just about as tough. A quality field usually shows up to absorb the Open-like feel that Westchester exudes, knowing that the following week, it’s national championship time.
At this year’s Barclays Classic, serious golf fans may recall that Padraig Harrington returns to defend, after draining a 65-foot eagle putt on the 72nd hole to win. However, you’d have to be a hall-of-fame trivia king to know who designed the golf course.
One look at such an interesting, obviously Old World venue and the show of hands reveals the usual suspects. Is it a Ross? A Tillinghast? C.B. Macdonald or Seth Raynor? The answer, of course, is Walter J. Travis. Sure, most golf fans are vaguely familiar with the name, but can’t put a finger on what he actually did. Truth is, he was one of 20th century golf’s most important figures. However, it was very, very early 20th century.
A few years back, Ben Crenshaw sent journalists scurrying to the golf encyclopedias when he exclaimed after a great round, “Man, I putted like Walter J. Travis today.” Indeed, Travis could roll the rock. His putting prowess carried him to three U.S. Amateur wins, in 1900, 1901 and 1903, back when that event was as important as the U.S. Open itself. Ever the innovator, Travis briefly employed a 50-inch driver in 1905, was the first top player to abandon the old gutta percha ball in favor of the wound, Haskell ball and in 1904, alienated much of Britain with his icy demeanor, his cigar jabbed into the center of his mouth and his new putter, a center-shafted Schenectady model, which he employed to great effect in winning the British Amateur. Travis became the first non-Brit to win that hoary title.
A native of Victoria, Australia, Travis did not take up golf until he was 34, in 1896, after he had migrated to New York. Two years after he began playing, he reached the semis of the U.S. Amateur, then won it for the first time two years after that at 38. So skilled was Travis through middle age that he was respectfully referred to by the flatbellies of the day as the “Old Man.” Remarkably, in 1915, at the age of 53, he won his fourth Met Amateur, downing 28-year-old Jerry Travers, who would win that year’s U.S. Open.
Getting an interview with Travis shouldn’t have been a problem. He actually founded the leading golf publication of the day, American Golfer, where he served as editor and publisher for 12 years before turning the reins over to Grantland “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” Rice. Moreover, Travis left his architectural imprint on more than 30 courses, including original designs, re-designs and consulting efforts. Among his best-known works, aside from Westchester, are the ultra-exclusive Ekwanok in Vermont and Round Hill in Connecticut, Canoe Brook’s South course in New Jersey, used by Michelle Wie and others this week during U.S. Open qualifying and Garden City Golf Club on Long Island. Travis was among the first architects to openly do away with the preponderance of penal, perpendicular hazards that seldom bothered the good player, but terrorized the bad. The Travis design style usually included multiple chocolate-drop mounds, and small, elevated greens protected by either a slope or a bunker on one side or both.
Travis passed away in 1927 at the age of 65. For a full picture of the man and his life, check out the fine book by Bob Labbance, “The Old Man: the Biography of Walter J. Travis.” To walk in his footsteps, here’s sampling of Travis-tinged courses you can play.
Cape Arundel Golf Club, Kennebunkport, Maine
Originally a nine-hole layout built in 1896, Travis revised the existing nine and added nine new holes between 1919 and 1923. At 5,869 yards, par 69, the scorecard story is hardly a frightening tale and the modest clubhouse and facilities will win no awards, but what makes Cape Arundel a must-play is its museum-piece ambience, its quirky, mound-dotted layout and its timeless, peaceful aesthetics. Toss in the regal atmosphere as well, as it’s the home course of our 41st president, George H.W. Bush, when in residence at Walker’s Point. He frequently hosts W. himself when the younger is on summer holiday. The par-3 13th is elder’s favorite hole, a downhill thrust between trees over the Kennebec River to a well-bunkered green.
Sea Island Golf Club, St. Simons Island, Georgia
In the fall of 1926, Travis crafted the original nine holes here that now form the front nine of the Rees Jones-designed Plantation course. Jones reworked or revised many of the Travis traits, as did the team of Colt-Alison, who dismantled his chocolate drops in 1929, but plenty remains, including the par-3 7th, one of the earliest examples in American architecture of a peninsula green.
The Equinox, Manchester Village, Vermont
Travis loved Vermont and was buried in Manchester, but not before he created one of the northeast’s best resort courses. Rees Jones substantially revised the 6,423-yard, par-71 layout in 1992, with all new greens, tees, mounds and bunkers, but he changed the Travis routing not one iota. Most memorable, especially during fall foliage season, are the 361-yard downhill par-4 12th, with its 11 bunkers and a quintessentially New England vista of a white church steeple rising up through the trees, and the following hole, a 423-yard brute that heads up the same hill that 12 went down.
Atlantic City Country Club, Northfield, New Jersey
The Grand Old Man never did any design work here, but this longtime private club has opened its doors to the public for the first time in 2006-and is the site of Travis’ 1901 U.S. Amateur victory. Travis contemporaries John Reid and Willie Park Jr. laid out the earliest version in 1897 and William Flynn redesigned it in 1923. Today, Tom Doak has given the 6,577-yard, par-70 layout a retro renovation and though the Atlantic City skyline has changed since Travis’ day, he would definitely recognize the flattish, coastal terrain and the acres of salt marsh along Lakes Bay.
|Joe Passov is the Architecture and Course Ratings Editor of GOLF MAGAZINE. E-mail him your questions and thoughts at [email protected]|