The Evangelist of Golf – Charles Blair Macdonald

The subtitle of the book reveals the man behind the provocative title, “The Story of Charles Blair Macdonald.” Is it a stretch to put Macdonald in a lofty group with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as the title implies? As someone who fell in love with the National Golf Links the first time I played it, I think it is not a stretch. Macdonald was indeed an evangelist for the game of golf. The term “Evangelist of Golf,” comes from Macdonald’s obituary written by H.J. Whigham, his son-in-law and two-time U.S. Amateur winner.

Published 74 years after Macdonald’s Scotland’s Gift, The Evangelist of Golf was published in 2002 by Clock Tower Press. It was the last  of a trilogy of works published by Clock Tower about important and influential architects that covered Alister Mackenzie (The Life and Work of Dr. Alister MacKenzie, featured in our November 2009  newsletter), Donald Ross (Discovering Donald Ross, featured in our November 2011 newsletter) and C.B. Macdonald.

The book is organized into twenty-two chapters and covers important courses built by Macdonald including the Mid Ocean Club, the St. Louis Country Club, Sleepy Hollow, the Chicago Golf Club, Piping Rock and the Greenbrier Resort. The most important and longest chapter is of course devoted to The National Golf Links of America. Bahto does a deep dive on the course and devotes 74 of the  books 280 pages to the National. He goes through a hole-by-hole analysis which includes a picture, a topographical sketch drawing of each hole and his analysis of how and why the hole is strategic and should be played.

One of the best views in golf, from the 17th tee at National Golf Links

One of the best chapters in the book is dedicated to a full description of the many prototype holes used by Macdonald and his protegé Seth Raynor. He includes a Punchbowl, Sahara, Redan, Road, Eden, Alps, Biarritz, Leven, Double Plateau, Bottle, Hog’s Back, Short, Knoll, Channel, Long, Cape, Punchbowl, Sahara, Valley, Garden City and a Strategy hole! This gives you some example of the depth and variety of work that Macdonald and Raynor used and allows the reader to truly understand what makes these holes work and discusses their origins. This chapter has turned The Evangelist of Golf into a reference book in my library, referred to often, to get a better understanding of how and why these prototype holes work.

What Bahto has a gift for is to take something that isn’t entirely obvious, but which is familiar, and gives a clear explanation on why it works. For example, Bahto explains that the 17th at National Golf Links is a “Leven” hole, modeled after the 7th hole of the Leven Links in Scotland. A “Leven” is a short par 4 with a fairway or waste area that challenges the golfer to make a heroic carry for an open approach to the green. A less courageous line from the tee leaves the golfer with a semiblind approach over a high bunker to the short side of the green.

Another important chapter is devoted to the now defunct Links Club, which Macdonald designed on Long Island in 1919.  The club “opted to die by its own hand,” in 1985 when it was sold to a real estate developer. Another course that no longer exists, the Lido Club, also on Long Island has a chapter devoted to it. The club was compared to Pine Valley in its day and Bahto includes a nice illustration and mockup of its famous Channel hole.

Depictions of the Channel hole at Lido Golf Club

The Evangelist of Golf used to be a moderately priced book. The opening of Old Macdonald at the Bandon resort has created a resurgence of interest in Charles Blair Macdonald. As a result, the book has become quite pricey. This isn’t particularly surprising  since with a Macdonald replica course now available to the unwashed masses, demand for knowledge about Charlie Macdonald and his original genius creation is likely to remain high for a long time.

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Valuable Book Group specializes in rare, collectible and valuable golf books. We are avid collectors ourselves obsessed not only with playing the game, but also its history and the literature of the game.
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