A Brief History of Seth Raynor Golf Courses

If there were a Sidekicks Hall of Fame, Seth Raynor would be a first-ballot entrant. After all, for a non-golfer to eventually become known as one of the greatest architects of all time, he would’ve had to learn the craft at the side of a true master. That was precisely the good fortune that befell this Princeton-educated civil engineer, who was working as a surveyor in Southampton, N.Y., when Charles Blair Macdonald came calling. During his survey of the Sebonac Neck property—land that one day would become the National Golf Links of America—Raynor so impressed the toughminded Macdonald with his “dependability and seriousness” that a simple job turned into a career-long partnership.

“When it came to accurate surveying, contours, plastic relief models of the land, draining, piping water in quantity over the entire course…and in many instances clearing the land of forests, eradicating the stones, finally resulting in preparing the course for seeding, he had no peer,” Macdonald wrote in his autobiography. Indeed, beginning with the National, Raynor’s technical expertise played a major role in the success of all of the Chicagoan’s designs. Nearly 20 years Macdonald’s junior, by the time of his mentor’s retirement Raynor had internalized his teacher’s design philosophy and picked up more than enough expertise to continue building dozens of new courses on his own. The sidekick had become a leading man.

Sadly, Macdonald would outlive his colleague, as Raynor contracted pneumonia and died in Florida in 1926. In one of golf history’s great “what-ifs,” shortly before his passing he had received the commission for the design of the Cypress Point Club on the Monterey Peninsula. That job, of course, would ultimately fall to Dr. Alister MacKenzie, and Raynor’s plans have been lost in the fog of time.

Raynor’s style is unmistakable. Simply put, he took template-hole concepts (Alps, Redan, Biarritz, etc.) learned from Macdonald and gave them a bold spin. Some golfers find his hard lines too “engineered” in appearance, but his work always plays beautifully. He was a major earthmover, but also was capable of hiding his hand: At The Course at Yale, for example, most visitors have no idea that the stunning 7th and 8th holes play through a completely manufactured landscape. Raynor bunkers are to be feared rather than admired for their artistry. Most of his courses feature a sandy hazard that puts the golfer 10 to 20 feet below the putting surface, looking up at a sheer wall of grass and swinging away for dear life.

At its best, Fishers Island—combining glorious Long Island Sound vistas with a network of inlets and small ponds—might be rivaled only by Cypress Point for its marriage of classic strategic golf and a sublime natural setting. Raynor experimented with the templates here (the par-four 4th is a magnificent Alps/Punchbowl hybrid), but also came up with excellent original stuff, as at the 12th, a mid-length two-shotter where the side slopes of a reverse-Redan green allow clever players to feed the ball to the hole.

Raynor’s most representative work could be classic suburban clubs like Shoreacres, north of Chicago, or Cincinnati’s Camargo Club. Despite its location on Lake Michigan, Shoreacres does not trade on water views (its clubhouse very much does), instead making ingenious use of a ravine snaking its way through the parkland site. Camargo stands out for its superb collection of par threes (its Eden and Biarritz are both knockouts) set on mildly hilly property ideal for golf.

Mountain Lake, on a rolling central Florida site an hour south of Orlando, has long flown beneath the radar. But there’s something about the place—perhaps a combination of Brian Silva’s early-2000s restoration and Florida sunshine—that makes Raynor’s lines “pop.” Says one member, “It’s just a sharper image, like Raynor in HD.”

Almost all of Raynor’s designs are private, but one that’s accessible is the nine-holer at the Hotchkiss School in the Berkshire foothills of northwestern Connecticut. This well-loved prep course doesn’t have a big maintenance budget, nor would it be the recommended introduction to Raynor’s work, but the “bones” are there.

While Raynor was most comfortable working faithfully within the paradigm of classic hole-types that Macdonald imported from Great Britain, he couldn’t resist a crack at a template-style design of his own. “Raynor’s Prize Dogleg” was a bruiser in the 470-yard range that demanded successful navigation of not one but two sets of diagonal crossbunkers cutting through the fairway. The Prize Dogleg featured prominently as the 6th at the legendary, long-lost Lido Golf Club, where Macdonald assigned it qualities similar to that of the Road Hole at St. Andrews. Sadly, it’s hard to find a perfect example of the Prize Dogleg today as many Raynor clubs, having deemed the hole too difficult, eliminated some of its hazards.

Despite his significant stature as an architect in his own right, most of what has passed down to us regarding Raynor is reflected through the lens of Macdonald. In Scotland’s Gift—Golf, Macdonald writes sparingly (but glowingly) of his partner. This volume is available through Classics of Golf ($45; classicsofgolf.com). George Bahto’s 2002 biography of Macdonald, The Evangelist of Golf, contains a good deal more material on Raynor. This book, however, is out of print, and secondhand copies are nearly $1,000.