The Greatest Golf Architect of All Time: Harry Colt

The first significant British architect not to come from the touring professional ranks, Harry S. Colt (1869–1951)—a lawyer and former Cambridge University golf captain who left his position as club secretary of England’s Sunningdale Golf Club to become the pivotal figure in golf’s first truly global design firm, Colt, Alison, & Morrison—was a prolific force in both original design and renovation work. In the case of the latter, his was the hand responsible for bringing several Open Championship stalwarts—including Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Royal St. George’s, and Royal Liverpool—into the 20th century. The Muirfield that we know today is, for all intents and purposes, a Colt design. In the U.S., the Englishman created very fine courses for a certain class of elite, under-the-radar clubs, places like Century (New York), Burning Tree (Washington, D.C.), and Old Elm (Chicago). In short, Colt played a role, in ways great and small, in developing dozens of the world’s finest courses. It all adds up to a titanic career.

Harry Colt

Design Signature: Colt had a clear design philosophy. At the macro level, one can expect his courses to possess a meticulously thought-out routing—a critical precondition for creating memorable holes. At the micro level—the golf hole itself—he favored sand-faced bunkering (for visibility) and an asymmetrical arrangement of hazards. Colt tended not to build wild greens. “The majority of players,” he wrote, “desire to hole out in two putts on each green if they are putting well. They desire to experience some little difficulty in doing so, because otherwise they would derive no pleasure from success. Therefore a perfectly flat green would not satisfy them. On the other hand, when they have avoided the bunkers of the fairway…and have played their ball on to the putting green, they do not like to find it is lying in a severe form of hazard.” The Englishman’s consistency has had a beneficial effect on the longevity of his work. “If something looks strange or out of place on a Colt course, it’s been changed,” says Frank Pont, a Dutch architect who has restored several of the master’s European designs.

Best Course: It’s hard to argue against Royal Portrush, which features an armful of classic Colt holes in a majestic setting along the cliffs of Northern Ireland’s Antrim coast. Portrush is a perfect example of the quote above: While the greens are guarded by all manner of hazard, from steep falloffs and pot bunkers to broken ground, the putting surfaces tend to feature smoothly flowing terraces with moderate breaks and borrows. The devilish part is getting there.

Most Representative Course: Colt famously described Swinley Forest as his “least bad” course, which speaks volumes about his perfectionist mentality. All of his hallmarks—a great routing full of variety, subtle greens, a masterful set of par threes—come together at this notably hermitic club in the heathlands near London.

Sleeper: In the 1920s and ’30s, Colt and Alison regularly crossed the English Channel to develop links on the North Sea coastlines of France (Le Touquet), Belgium (Royal Zoute), and Holland (Kennemer, Royal Hague). In the Dutch interior, Colt found a swath of Surrey-esque heathland at Utrechtse Golf Club. One highlight of that course, known as “de Pan,” is the superb short par-four 10th, which calls for an approach threaded between a pair of tall, scrub-covered mounds.

Most Famous Hole: It’s unlikely that the terrifying long par-three 5th at Pine Valley ever would have existed without Colt, who was called in by George Crump early on to assist with the routing. In transferring the player from lower ground to high, it’s a key factor in the course’s smooth flow. If one wishes to call out a pure Colt design, another notoriously daunting one-shot hole, the 14th at Royal Portrush—“Calamity”—fits the bill nicely.

Further Reading: Colt and Alison’s 1920 monograph, Some Essays on Golf Course Architecture, was reprinted in the 1990s, but it’s still a rare and expensive volume, as is Fred Hawtree’s out-of-print 1991 bio, Colt and Co. More widely available is Creating Classics: The Golf Courses of Harry Colt, by Peter Pugh and Henry Lord.