2/26/17

H. S. Colt: The trailblazer

A profile of golf course architect Harry Colt

by

“Harry Shapland Colt is both one of the best known and one of the most underappreciated golf architects of all time. While we tend to study golf architecture by looking at individual artists and their portfolios of work, Colt stands apart in his influence over others, and in how he pioneered golf course architecture as its own discipline. Prior to World War I, Colt’s practices set the stage for the many great course that would be built in the ensuing “Golden Age.” His associates included Alister MacKenzie and Charles Alison, who in turn spread the craft to the United States, Australia, and Japan. Colt’s contributions to Pine Valley Golf Club doubtless had an impact on many of the architects of the Philadelphia School: A. W. Tillinghast, Hugh Wilson, William Flynn, and George C. Thomas. Finally, his work at Old Elm Club impressed a young Donald Ross, and his designs at Toronto Golf Club inspired a young Stanley Thompson. While Colt’s design résumé can stand toe-to-toe with anyone’s, it is his influence over others that has greater significance to the evolution of golf course architecture.”

– Keith Cutten, golf course architect and author of The Evolution of Golf Course Architecture

One could argue that Henry Shapland Colt—more commonly known as Harry Colt or H. S. Colt—is the most influential golf course architect of all time. The Englishman helped invent the profession of golf course architecture, not least through his role as a mentor. By having a critical influence on Alister MacKenzie, Charles Hugh Alison, Donald Ross and Stanley Thompson, Colt laid the groundwork the Golden Age of golf course architecture.

He also pioneered golf course architecture in many countries—including the United States, Canada, Japan, and Australia—through both his own work and that of his associates. By itself, however, Colt’s portfolio is plenty impressive. Among the world-renowned courses he designed or redesigned were Sunningdale (Old and New), the Eden Course at St. Andrews Links, Pine Valley (contributed), Royal Portrush, Muirfield, Swinley Forest, St. George’s Hill, Old Elm, Toronto, and Hamilton.

A sketch of the the Eden Course at St. Andrews. Research credit: Simon Haines

Context

Prior to the 1900s in Great Britain, the best golf courses design were almost exclusively on sandy coastline or linksland. The freely draining soils, undulating topography, natural hazards, and ever-present winds defined the original strategy and challenge of the game.

Because they lacked these elements, layouts on inland sites often fell short. The earliest architects, primarily golf course professionals, tended to focus more on selling clubs and balls than on crafting golf courses.

That changed in the first decade of the 20th century. In the heathlands southwest of London, Willie Park Jr. raised the bar for inland golf courses with his designs at Sunningdale and Huntercombe.  These courses had large greens with rolling contours and bold, manmade hazards that strove for a natural appearance. In addition, the sandy soil of the heathlands allowed the playing surfaces to achieve a links-like firmness. What was missing, however, was a notion of strategic design.

That’s where John Low came in. At the same time Park was building Sunningdale and Huntercombe, Low was assessing the design merits of Woking Golf Club, laid out in 1893 by Tom Dunn. In 1901, John Low decided to revise the 4th hole. With greenskeeper Stuart Paton, Low added two center-line bunkers and created a tilted green. These moves turned the hole into a strategic puzzle. Ultimately, the principles behind Low and Paton’s work at Woking changed the way golfers and architects thought about course design.

In retrospect, it seems inevitable that someone would figure out how to blend Park’s naturalism with Low’s strategy. Enter Harry Colt.

Background

Colt was born in Highgate, England, in 1869. As a boy, he spent summers at the Worcestershire Golf Club, where he learned the game from Douglas Rolland, uncle of the legendary James Braid. Colt became an excellent player. In 1891 and 1893, as captain of the golf team at Cambridge University, he won the R&A Jubilee Vase.

After he graduated, Colt practiced law in Hastings, and in 1884, he became a partner in the firm of Sayer & Colt.  With his upbringing, education, and burgeoning career, he seemed destined to become a normal, respectable member Britain’s upper class. But golf had a hold on him.

In 1895, Colt joined his mentor Rolland in the design of a new golf course at Rye. That same year, Colt became honorary secretary of the club. From this position, he developed his earliest philosophies of design as he gradually tweaked the course over the next six years.

In 1901, captivated by Willie Park Jr.’s work in the heathlands, Colt shifted more decisively to golf when he applied for the position of secretary at the new Sunningdale Golf Club.  Over the ensuing years, he made updates to the course, especially after the introduction of the rubber-core golf ball. He also began to build his design résumé. Soon demand for his design services grew so great that he added several associates.

Colt teamed up with Charles H. Alison in 1906. They worked together on Kingsthorpe in 1908 (9 holes), Northampton County in 1909, Denham in 1910, St. George’s Hill in 1912, and Camberley Heath in 1913.

In 1909, Colt’s masterpiece Swinley Forest Golf Club opened, immediately becoming one of England’s finest courses. In 1914, just before the start of World War I, he finished construction on the fourth course at St. Andrews, the Eden. With these successes, Colt had established himself as Great Britain’s leading golf course architect.

St. George's Hill, as pictured on the cover of Robert Hunter’s The Links

In 1907, Colt traveled to Leeds to provide a second opinion on the newly completed Alwoodley Golf Club. There he met club secretary and course designer Dr. Alister MacKenzie. Colt felt that the course embodied his own design ideals and spoke glowingly of it at a meeting with the club’s committee. His relationship with MacKenzie led to the formation of the firm of Colt, MacKenzie & Alison in 1919. After MacKenzie struck out on his own in 1923, Colt and Alison brought on John Morrison.

Colt, Mackenzie and Alison advertisement. Research credit: Simon Haines

Demand for Colt’s expertise soon expanded beyond Great Britain and Europe. In 1911, he visited North America, where he laid out the Country Club of Detroit and the Toronto Golf Club. Both courses garnered praise, and Colt’s reputation grew internationally.

In particular, Toronto GC was instrumental in Canadian golf history, as it prompted the formation of the country’s dynamic golf design trio of George Cumming, Nicol Thompson, and Stanley Thompson. Following Colt’s return to Canada in 1914 to complete the Hamilton Golf and Country Club, Stanley Thompson broke out on his own. In this way, Colt likely helped launch the career of Canada’s greatest course designer.

Similarly, when Colt designed Old Elm Golf Club in Chicago, he left plans for each hole in the capable hands of a young Donald Ross. Ross later took the same approach—making plans and entrusting them to foremen for construction—in running America’s most successful golf architecture firm of the Golden Age.

Construction plans prepared by H. S. Colt for Old Elm Club: Nos. 1, 4, and 15

The note reads: "The contour of the ground is quite delightful and the many natural features which exist in great variety have been made use of to the fullest extent. I most sincerely trust that the members of the Old Elm Club will be as pleased with the course when completed as I am with its prospects. H.S. Colt – April 27, 1913"

Finally, on a trip to the United States, Colt spent a week advising George Crump on the routing of the holes and other matters at Pine Valley. After Crump died, the club hired Colt to see the project to completion. His work at Pine Valley, as part of what many historians consider to be the most collaborative golf course design in history, likely inspired several significant American architects. Members of the Philadelphia School—from A. W. Tillinghast to Hugh Wilson, William Fownes, William Flynn, and George C. Thomas—must have gained from the experience.

Scheme for the Pine Valley Golf Course, as suggested by H. S. Colt

All told, Colt and his firm designed more than 300 courses on six continents. But the lingering effects of the World War I on Britain’s economy and society, combined with the onset of Great Depression and World War II, meant that the 1920s and 30s were slower for Colt than the 1900s and 10s had been.

In 1951, at the age of 82, Harry Colt, a giant in the history of golf course architecture, passed away deaf and lonely in East Hendred, Berkshire, England. His partners Alison and Morrison lamented that their mentor’s passing received relatively little attention from the golfing world.

Design Principles

“The designer of a course should start off on his work in a sympathetic frame of mind for the weak, and at the same time be as severe as he likes with the first-class player.”

– H.S. Colt

Unlike other greats like C. B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, Harry Colt has few obvious design trademarks. His work is intentionally diverse. In exactly this way, however, his courses exemplify his overarching convictions about variety, strategy, and playability. His and C. H. Alison’s book Some Essays on Golf Course Architecture—published in 1920 with contributions from Alister MacKenzie, Horace G. Hutchinson, John L. Low, and others—offers additional insight into Colt’s philosophy.

During the design process, Colt was methodical, making multiple trips to a site before deciding how to route the course.  This patience and attention to detail paid off, as nearly every course he worked on embodied a thoughtful approach to the different elements of design:

Naturalness & Variety

“I firmly believe that the only means whereby an attractive piece of ground can be turned into a satisfying golf course is to work to the natural features of the site in question.”

– H.S. Colt

Like his more famous one-time partner Alister Mackenzie, Harry Colt was a master of lending manmade features a natural look. He believed in disguising his craft and allowing his designs to become part of the land. Further, he suggested that an ideal golf course has had time to grow into its surroundings.

In routing his courses, Colt tried not only to blend the holes into nature but also to create great variety. He located and incorporated distinctive landforms that rendered holes instantly memorable. He strove to find par 3s of differing lengths and to avoid successive par 4s or similar length or direction.

In the end, Colt wanted the golfer to walk away not only feeling that the course had arisen naturally from the terrain but also remembering each hole individually.

Off The Tee

“Immediately when we attempt to standardize sizes, shapes, and distances we lose more than half the pleasure of the game.” 

– H.S. Colt

Colt was an early proponent of the idea that a golf course should challenge the advanced player while making room for the duffer. To achieve this, he often adopted John Low’s method: place hazards strategically to defend the ideal line of play, but leave longer, more circuitous routes to the green less guarded. Many of Colt’s holes therefore have center-line hazards with safe paths on either side, using fairway width to create angles and options. In addition, sometimes his designs employ diagonal cross hazards, where a heroic carry opens an ideal path to the green.

Colt’s ability to force decisions through the savvy placement of fairway bunkers is one of his calling cards. In that particular skill, he may be without peer in the history of golf design.

Broadstone Golf Club, remodeled and expanded by Colt in 1920

Approaching and Around the Green

At most of Colt’s designs, you will rarely find greens surrounded entirely with bunkers. Instead, you will find avenues for run-up shots, often played from and over sloping, undulating ground. This emphasis on the ground game allows inexpert players to make do with their lower-trajectory flights but at the same time requires better golfers to hit a variety of shots.

Colt’s green-side bunkers tend to be small and deep to force players to think on their approaches and to penalize them for poor planning or execution.

Harry Colt's sketch of the 9th hole at Pine Valley. Research credit: Simon Haines

Greens

On the putting surfaces themselves, variety is again the name of the game for Colt. His greens present a mixture of slopes, some severe, others more benign and subtle. These graceful contours—which both feed and reject, depending on your angle—create delicate pin positions and make for entertaining chips and putts. Specifically, Colt often used variations of the plateau-style green, which he believed rewarded an elite player’s ability to hit a high-lofted shot.

Notable Courses

Pine Valley, Sunningdale (Old and New), Swinley Forest, Rye, Royal Portrush, Wentworth (West), Toronto, St. George’s Hill, Old Elm Club, Country Club of Detroit, St. Andrews (Eden Course), Muirfield, Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Royal County Down (enhanced design), Hamilton, Royal Liverpool (redesign), Woodhall Spa


This profile was a collaborative effort by The Fried Egg and Keith Cutten. Aspects of the research came from Keith’s book The Evolution of Golf Course Design. Keith operates Cutten Golf Course Design (visit the website here) and works with many of the industry’s top architects. Keith is a Senior Design Associate with Rod Whitman Golf Course Design and has done shaping work for Coore & Crenshaw. Follow Keith on social media: Twitter and Instagram.

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