Charles Blair Macdonald: The grandfather of American golf

A profile of golf course architect Charles Blair (C.B.) Macdonald



C.B. Macdonald became America’s first golf course architect (and also coined the term) when he designed the historic Chicago Golf Club. He was also an excellent player, winning the first ever U.S. Amateur. Macdonald grew up in Chicago before attending St. Andrews University where he picked up golf, learning the game and its intricacies from Old Tom Morris, a great player and legendary course designer. Upon his return from school, he convinced his colleagues to pick up golf, at which point he founded Chicago Golf Club in 1892. The course was originally a 9-hole course in Downers Grove, Illinois but later moved to Wheaton to accommodate an 18-hole design in 1893. This move made it the first 18 hole golf course in America. Macdonald designed the course mimicking his favorite features of the courses he had played while away at school.

After his competitive playing career died down, C.B. set out to change the game with his revolutionary project, National Golf Links of America. His goal was to create “the perfect golf course”, and it has truly stood the test of time as his greatest design.

To create the perfect course, Macdonald captured design features from the greatest holes in the British Isles and replicated them in one course. The project took years during which he scouted out the perfect land and made countless trips to Europe to study and identify the strengths and weaknesses of the best holes abroad.

At National Golf Links, Macdonald met his protege, Seth Raynor, a civil engineer who he hired to survey the land. From that point on, Macdonald and Raynor built one of the best partnerships in golf history, co-designing many of America’s greatest courses.

Design Principles

During his studies of courses in Scotland, Macdonald identified 21 different hole designs or “templates” that would test a great player’s game while allowing mediocre and poor players angles and options to score well. These “template holes” are typically easy to identify after a little schooling (i.e. the caperedan, road and eden holes). While these holes are similar from course to course, they are not duplicates. Each hole has been designed specifically for the site to create a unique twist for players.

Little Known Facts

Macdonald never charged for his architecture services, primarily doing the work as a favor for his wealthy friends. When the requests got overwhelming, Macdonald stepped away and handed the business off to protege Seth Raynor.

The famous 7th hole at Shinnecock Hills is a Macdonald/Raynor design. The duo was tasked with redesigning the course before William Flynn redesigned it again in 1929-1930. It was the only hole from Macdonald & Raynor’s work that he kept.

Shinnecock's redan hole #7.

From an architect’s perspective

“When I visited NGLA and Shinnecock this spring, the superintendent at Shinnecock told us a great story about Macdonald. He was a notoriously cantankerous individual – apparently, he left Shinnecock in a huff taking “the cook and the flag [logo]” with him….he, of course, went on to build National across the street with the cook & logo on his side there.

NGLA is a museum piece of classic architectural elements. From the incredibly bold first green with the nasty little sand pits to its left to the majestic walk up the eighteenth fairway, one feels overwhelmed with all of the information that you are asked to process. The scale of the course is massive, and there are minute, fascinating details throughout. Each hole presents unique shotmaking options and strategies. You feel as though scoring well is a definite possibility, but there are places on each hole where things can go terribly wrong if you get in a bad spot. This dynamic helps create a sense of drama that stays with you throughout the day. The course is infinitely walkable, playable, and fun. NGLA has everything that I love in golf architecture: bold, quirky features that provide an indelible challenge and playing interest. It is one of the few courses in the world that you could play every day and learn something new each time around. As I write this, the memories and feelings from my day there have come flooding back. The course simply makes you want to play golf. I wish I was standing on the first tee right now.”

– Rob Collins, Golf Course Architect

Notable Courses

Chicago Golf Club, National Golf Links of America, The Creek Club, Piping Rock, Mid-Ocean Club, Sleepy Hollow C.C. – Full Listing Here.

Courses that allow public access

Old White (The Greenbriar Resort)The Course at Yale, and Downers Grove Golf Club

Close but not his

The Bandon Dunes Resort opened its Old MacDonald Course, a tribute to C.B. MacDonald and his design principles. Old MacDonald opened for play in 2010 and was designed by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina.

Check out our pages on MacDonald and Raynor’s Template Holes.