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The Many Faces of Max Behr

[from the Southern California Golf Association web site]

If Hollywood had decided to take a masculine tack instead of using Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve, it might well have turned to Max Behr (1884-1955) as the protagonist. Behr was a complex man who was, at various stage of his life, a champion golfer, magazine editor, handicap system inventor, and a man who developed his own religion.

But in Southern California, Behr is best known for a string of great golf courses which he designed over a five-year span, beginning with Hacienda Golf Club in 1922 and ending with Rancho Santa Fe GC in 1927.

Behr was born in New York City and attended the prestigious Lawrenceville School in New Jersey . Golf was in Behr’s blood. His relatives were among the founders of St. Andrew’s Golf Club in Yonkers, NY. He played golf for Yale (from where he was graduated in 1905) and was club champion at Morristown CC and at Somerset Hills CC in Far Hills, NJ (now the hometown of the United States Golf Association).

Behr’s name is inexorably linked with Jerome Travers, to whom Behr lost the New Jersey Amateur in 1907 and ’08 and the U.S. Amateur in 1908. Behr finally gained a measure of revenge when he won the New Jersey title in 1909 and successfully defending it the following year by beating Travers.

In 1914, Behr became editor of Golf Illustrated, one of America ‘s first golf magazines which lasted (in that incarnation) until the Depression. Behr moved to California in the 1920s and immediately plunged into designing golf courses. Thus, Behr became a prototype of the golfer whose fame helped open doors for his design business, a concept that would be successfully utilized in succeeding decades by (among others) Johnny Dawson, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

In his somewhat radical design philosophy, Behr didn’t believe in rough on courses, preferring instead “to use natural terrain and bunkers to defend [his] greens from every conceivable angle.”

That philosophy first appeared at Hacienda GC, Montebello GC, Rancho Park GC and Montecito GC, all of which he designed in 1922 and was fully developed in 1924 when he designed Lakeside GC and Oakmont CC. Lakeside was a landmark in that it used bentgrass greens, one of the first courses in Southern California to do so.

Behr’s work was obviously popular. He remodeled Victoria Club in 1923, Brentwood CC two years later, and in 1926 was a consultant on the remodeling of The Olympic Club’s Lake Course in San Francisco .

In 1927, Behr was paid $9,000 to design Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club in the exclusive enclave north of San Diego. That was a princely figure; Alister MacKenzie had earned only $8,000 to design Cypress Point Club on the Monterey Peninsula.

Of Rancho Santa Fe, Behr wrote, “A new principle of golf course design has been put into effect. Not a single hazard has been constructed with the idea of penalizing errors of skill. On the contrary, the hazards are located with the sole object of defending the hole.”

Rancho Santa Fe was to be Behr’s final design effort. Few courses were being built in the Depression or World War II and by that time, Behr’s interests lay elsewhere. He developed his own religion based on numbers (although he expressly disavowed any connection with numerology) and continued to write books and articles well into his 60s.

But although relatively small, his legacy of great Southern California courses will live on into the 21st century and beyond.


From Bahto’s book: In 1910 he played in an informal invitational tournament at National Golf Links [14 months before the official opening] he was the NJ State Champion and at National was the qualifying medalist with 82 [Walter J. Travis 83, C.B. Macdonald 87]

From NYT articles on play before and during Yale and 1937 article about his proposal to USGA to stop ball from going so far. Also article about runner-up to Travis in amateur 1908.


Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club, San Diego

In the early 1900’s Atchison , Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company purchased 8,796 acres on which to cultivate more than one million Australian eucalyptus seedlings for the manufacture of railroad ties. Severe drought in 1912, followed by the worst freeze in 40 years killed approximately 70% of the trees. The railway company abandoned the project after new chemicals were produced to protect railway ties from decay.

The railway company then secured rights to a water supply and through its subsidiary, the Santa Fe Land Improvement Company, financed the development of a master planned community, which would be named Rancho Santa Fe.

In August of 1927, the Santa Fe Land Improvement Company donated 219.1 acres suitable for a golf course. The Rancho Santa Fe Country Club was incorporated September 26, 1927 . Golf course architect Max Behr was hired to design and implement the construction of the golf course. Behr molded the natural contours and beauty of the terrain into a 6,700 – yard, par-72 golf course. The golf course opened June 5, 1929 .

Entertainer Bing Crosby began hosting the pro-am “clambake” in 1937. The golf event paired celebrities and businessmen with professionals for a 36-hole weekend event. The “clambake” was held annually through 1942.

Other prestigious events held at the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club include the San Diego Open held in 1954 and won by Gene Littler, and the 101st Edition of the SCGA Amateur held in 2000 and won by Scott McGihon.

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