Seth J. Raynor
The course architect
At the time of his Yale course commission, Seth Raynor had already designed and/or built sixty-six courses in sixteen years, from Bermuda to Hawaii and from Minnesota to Puerto Rico — an astonishing record for someone who had stumbled into the profession by coincidence. He was not without any golfing experience when C. B. Macdonald engaged him for the National Golf Links of America in 1908. Raynor had grown up in Manorville on Long Island, and, in 1891, his father was hired to survey the land on which the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club was to be built. Seventeen-year-old Seth went along to carry the rods and chains. In 1898 he graduated from Princeton University, with a degree in civil engineering and geodesy, and he married a local Southampton girl, Mary Araminta Hallock. By 1908 he was serving as the Southampton village engineer and street commissioner. He also had a private business as landscape engineer and surveyor from his home office on Bowden Square.
As George Bahto and others have written, Macdonald found Raynor a modest and reticent man. With no preconceived ideas about golf, he was a perfect subordinate for the demanding Macdonald. And Macdonald certainly was an authoritarian. When he realized that Raynor had much more to offer than surveying, he expanded his responsibilities to supervising the actual course construction. Thus began a profitable and productive relationship of design teacher and eager and adept protégé that continued through the Yale course plans.
In 1914, as their massive Lido project began, Raynor followed Macdonald’s urging and started his own golf architecture firm. Macdonald wrote in Scotland’s Gift-Golf, “I had given him all my plans and only occasionally was I asked for advice.” Raynor closely followed his mentor’s design philosophy, while riding the new wave of popularity and demand for courses. In 1920, Raynor moved his office to Manhattan, and soon enlisted the help of Ralph Barton (Dartmouth 1903), brought in from the University of Minnesota, and Charles “Josh” Banks, Yale class of 1906. Raynor had met Banks, who was an English teacher at the Hotchkiss School, when he was supervising the construction of the school’s golf course. Banks was so intrigued by the project that he resigned his Hotchkiss position and joined Raynor’s firm. The firm often collaborated with the Olmsted step-brothers and with Frederick Ruth, who were among the most influential landscape designers and land developers of the 1920s.
The only record we have of Seth Raynor’s vision of ideal course design is from a 1918 interview that appeared in the monthly magazine of the Olympic Club in San Francisco. There he stated that the optimal course should have four short holes ranging 130 to 220 yards, six drive-and-pitch holes ranging 310 to 375 yards, and eight full-shot holes ranging 400 to 540 yards, for a total length of 6,200 yards. Throughout his career he favored the replication of the great holes that he had learned from Macdonald. That well describes the Yale Golf Course in 1926 and today.
Construction began in the summer of 1923, even as Raynor was surveying the estate. By July, the C. W. Blakeslee Company had cleared and plowed approximately 100 acres of trees, stumps, underbrush, and loose rock. Almost three-quarters of this was ledge and swamp, difficult work that required blasting, filling, draining, and recovering with sand, earth, and humus to make viable soil. Macdonald himself captured some of the difficulty:
The building of it was a difficult engineering problem. The land was high, heavily wooded, hilly, and no part of it had been cultivated for over forty years. There were no roads or houses upon it. It was a veritable wilderness when given to Yale …. When in the timber one could not see fifty feet ahead, the underbrush was so thick. However, we found on the high land wonderful deposits of sea sand, indicating that the sea must have swept the land during the glacial period. In a bog some quarter of a mile long we found deposited some four to six feet of wonderful rich black muck. These two deposits of sand and muck made it possible to build the course.
With the ponds and water courses, a total of 120 acres of the vast property was made available for the course.
Heavier construction began in April 1924, with a force of sixty laborers, which later increased to a maximum of 150. The workers were both local day laborers and men with experience in handling woods and rock who came down from New Hampshire. During summer vacations, this group was augmented with many Yale students and a few from Dartmouth. The out-of-towners were put up in three bunk houses, which adjoined a cook house and a log cabin office that overlooked Greist Pond next to the ninth green. Raynor periodically visited the construction site, but he left daily management in the hands of Charles Banks. The land clearing was managed by William Nugent, and the course construction was initially overseen by Ralph Barton. Later William E. Perkins (Yale ’17S) took over supervision.
Some of the construction details hint at the huge engineering challenge. Water was drained from the course through 3.2 miles of ditches that were dug alongside the fairways at a width of two feet and depth of three feet. Water for irrigating the greens and fairways was fed by gravity-flow through 35,000 feet of pipe that ran from a 75,000-gallon tank that was mounted atop the highest hill behind the seventh green (which abuts the present Wilbur Cross Parkway). Remnants of both the ditches and the irrigation pipes can be seen today, especially on the eleventh and seventeenth holes. After 2,850 tons of manure and 190 tons of limestone had been spread on the course and harrowed in, seed was planted on the greens and fairways in the fall of 1924. The greens were seeded with German Bent and New Zealand fescue, the fairways and tees with New Zealand fescue and Rhode Island Bent. Sheep fescue was sown in the rough.
Such a massive project required a large budget. By June 1924, the clearing alone had cost $90,000, and the Golf Committee asked Raynor for a revised cost estimate. His new figure for completing only the first eighteen-hole course was $251,000. The committee must have been concerned; it went ahead but began to develop a special fundraising membership program at two levels: “patron” ($1,000 for unrestricted lifetime access) and “life member” (lifetime access limited only by undergraduate tee time priority at $750 for those within twenty-five miles of the course and $500 for those beyond that range). Even without advertising, forty-four patrons signed on by January 1925, and the committee had hopes of eventually attracting at least 400 patrons. Success of the patron program could have financed the full thirty-six-hole plan. Unfortunately, the committee plans ran afoul of the University, which was beginning its own endowment campaign and feared the simultaneous competition. As a result, it absorbed all of the construction costs into its general budget, but this is likely the reason why the second eighteen-hole course was never begun.
A few selected alumni played the course in the fall of 1925 and gave it rave reviews. From the “Long” tees, the course played to a par 71 at 6,552 yards; from the “Regular” tees it was rated as par 69 at 6,061 yards, and par 69 from the “Short” tees at 5,548 yards. The fourth and sixteenth holes were par 5’s from the “Long” tee, and par 4 from the other tees. Today the fourth is a par 4 and the sixteenth a par 5 from all three tees, so that the course has a standard par 70. Because of the cost overruns, only a very modest clubhouse was built, with a budget of approximately $5,000. It was a “log cabin style” with two rooms on either side of a double fireplace. One side was the pro shop, and a changing room with a single shower was on the other side of the fireplace.
The committee engaged Bernard “Ben” Thomson, the professional at the Mount Kisco (New York) Club, to start his duties at Yale in March 1926, where he remained for nine months of the year. He was a Scotsman who had been wounded in World War i as a member of the Black Watch Brigade. Bill Perkins was named course superintendent and remained in that position for a quarter of a century until 1951.
Only the front nine was available for play when the course opened without fanfare on April 15, 1926. The back nine was finished shortly after, but the record is unclear about whether this was in time for the course’s first intercollegiate match, played on April 24, when Yale defeated the US Army Military Academy 9-0. Early excitement was provided by Yale freshman, George Coe Graves ii, who scored Yale’s first hole-in-one with a mashie shot on the 135-yard, number five “Island” hole.
It would be another year before an exhibition was held at Yale, when, for $1.15, anyone could follow Tommy Armour, the US and Canadian Open champion, and Johnny Farrell, holder of six major titles, as they defeated Bobby Andrew, the pro at the New Haven Country Club, and Ben Thomson, 3 and 2. After the match Armour gave a special exhibition of shot-making for the gallery and then submitted to an interview for the New Haven Register. The paper reported his view that Yale had “one of the best courses I ever played over. The greens — well, I don’t know what to say. I never saw a finer set anywhere. They are simply perfect. You know I’ve seen a few during the past 10 years.” And in 1940 Bobby Jones said, “The Yale Golf Course is a grand one all right — got every shot in the game. It certainly ought to be the best test for your intercollegiate matches.” Sixty-five years later, it is again rated as the number one university course in the country.
Sadly, the Yale course was one of Raynor’s final projects, and he never lived to see its opening. Throughout 1925, he combined periodic visits to New Haven with extensive travel to other ongoing commissions. He designed Puerto Rico’s first course at Berwind and was contracted to design Cypress Point in California. He was also spending time in Hawaii laying out two courses and was even scheduled to go to Japan. Raynor’s grand niece describes that time, “It was too much travel, too much work, too little relaxation at West Neck (his Long Island home). Although weak from his frenzied schedule, he returned from Hawaii and immediately boarded a train to Florida. There he was expected to celebrate the opening of the second nine of the Palm Beach’s Everglades Club.” Sadly, he had contracted pneumonia on the West Coast, and it had worsened by the time he reached Florida. Raynor died in Palm Beach on January 23, 1926, at age fifty-one.
In less than two short decades, Seth Raynor had designed and/or built more than 100 golf courses. At his death, he left more than thirty additional courses unfinished, which Charles Banks gradually completed over the next five years. In his own work, Banks continued the Macdonald/Raynor tradition of adapting famous holes in each project. He was known as “Steam Shovel” Banks for his use of heavy equipment in moving massive amounts of earth to create huge elevated greens and deep bunkers. This too was an engineering innovation that Macdonald and Raynor had brought to course construction in the mid-1910s. Like Raynor, Banks died tragically young of a sudden heart attack at age forty-eight. Shortly before he died he wrote detailed descriptions of each hole of the Yale Golf Course, which are reprinted in a later section, “The Course, Hole by Hole.”
At his death he left over 30 unfinished courses, which his associate Charles Banks gradually completed.