For hundreds of years, the words “fair” and “golf” didn’t go together. Firm, undulating ground, combined with feathery or gutta-percha golf balls struck by wood-shafted clubs and played over gnarly, undulating Scottish ground while buffeted by ocean winds, didn’t lend itself to equitable results.
Over the years, everything about the game improved, from the equipment to turf care. In the U.S., “firm and dry” gave way to “soft and wet.” Unpredictable bounces declined, and predictability brought the expectation of fairness.
The expectation of fairness in golf came about slowly, but we can trace its roots.
Ironically, Charles Blair Macdonald, possibly the most important figure in the history of American golf – winner of the first U.S. Amateur, the impetus behind the creation of the USGA, and the designer of America’s first world-class golf course, that National Golf Links of America – was a victim of those shifting tides.
In 1922, the Greenbrier resort called upon Seth Raynor, Macdonald’s course builder and heralded architect in his own right, to design a third course. That year at the resort, Macdonald’s Old White had hosted the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
Defending champion Marion Hollins was “enthusiastic over every detail,” including “the way in which the holes were designed.”
A month after the event, however, a writer in the New York Herald called for alterations: “Quite possibly the advantage of the presence of Mr. Raynor will be taken to modify certain exaggerated features of the present White Sulphur course which made themselves so manifest during the woman’s championship. This applies particularly to the mounded greens of the first, fifth and twelfth holes where in dry weather the approach becomes not only a matter of needless difficulty but almost of luck.”
Translation: When the grounds firm, there are “bad” bounces.
The Herald continued, “A scheme of bunking around these greens would no doubt appeal to the great majority of golfers as being more manifestly fair than the present arrangement where the high mounds not only greatly restrict the territory surrounding the flagpin but also tend to make a blind shot of it most of the time.”
Translation: Mounds obscure the green; sand doesn’t.
Whether the suggested modifications were ever implemented, no one knows because the course has undergone significant modifications over the years. Regardless, the barn door had been opened and the concept of fairness was on the loose.
Two year’s later, the desire for fairness doomed Macdonald’s Gibson Island design. A couple of weeks before members were allowed on the layout, The Baltimore Sun was effusive in its praise of the course.
“When the Gibson Island club formally opens its golf course the latter part of this month there will be placed in operation a rival to the most famous courses in the United States, a course that will place Maryland on the national mashie map as never before.
“Experts in the construction of golf layouts say that the Gibson Island arrangement will be in the same class as the famous National Links at Southampton, New York, the noted Pine Valley Club near Philadelphia, and the Brookline (Massachusetts) course where several national championships have been held.
“The course is designed to test every resource of the champion golfer, to bring into play his ability with every club, but so arranged as to give the player who averages around 85 a chance.”
The three-day invitational golf tournament to christen the layout was won by the best player in the field, 1922 U.S. Amateur champion Jess Sweetser.
However, just two months later, the evisceration of the course was well underway.
The Sun detailed the architectural atrocity: “Determined to bring about the speediest possible realization of the original resolve to produce a golf course equally suited to the dub, the average player and the champion (Gibson Island founder) W. Stuart Symington Jr. has actively embarked upon a campaign of thorough renovation and radical alteration at Gibson Island.
“In its present state it provides too exacting a test for the champion. For the dub or average player it is well-nigh prohibitive.” At least 10 of the 18 holes “will come in for changes of more or less a radical nature.”
The course was never the same, and within a few years, 11 of the holes had been abandoned. Some are now homes, while others are obscured by trees and undergrowth. The original holes that remain, though, are neither fair nor unfair, just wonderful.