5/16/22

What to Know About Perry Maxwell

The life, work, and philosophy of the architect behind Southern Hills, site of the 2022 PGA Championship

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By 1919, Perry Maxwell was a vice president of a bank and a pillar of his community in Ardmore, Oklahoma. Suddenly, tragedy struck. His wife Ray died from a ruptured appendix, leaving behind Perry and their four young children. For years, Ray had encouraged him to cut back on his duties at the bank and take up golf course design as a profession. He did just that.

Perry Maxwell went on to join what we now call the “Golden Age” of golf architecture in America. While his accomplishments in the Midwest and Great Plains tend to be overshadowed by those of metropolitan designers like Harry Colt, Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie, Seth Raynor, and A.W. Tillinghast, Maxwell’s best work—including Southern Hills Country Club, the venue of the 2022 PGA Championship—can stand toe-to-toe with any golf course design of the era.

If you’d like to familiarize yourself with Perry Maxwell in the run-up to this week’s tournament, check out our podcast with Maxwell biographer Chris Clouser and Oklahoma-based golf architect Colton Craig.

Prefer to read? Here are five things to know about Maxwell’s life, work, and architectural philosophy:

He cut his teeth in his own backyard

When Maxwell and his wife moved to Ardmore, they purchased a large, rolling piece of land that had previously served as a county “poor farm.” At first, they operated it as a dairy farm, but in 1914, after a visit to Charles Blair Macdonald’s National Golf Links on Long Island, Maxwell decided to build a golf course on the property. This is what would become Dornick Hills Golf and Country Club.

Initially, Dornick Hills had just four holes, all of which were inspired by Macdonald’s “template” concepts. Over the next several years, Maxwell made trips to see courses in the southeastern United States and Britain. As he expanded Dornick Hills to an 18-hole layout, his work became more influenced by the naturalism of links golf. By the end of the 1920s, Maxwell’s backyard playground in Ardmore was widely considered the finest golf course in Oklahoma.

“You will never see it until you play each of its 18 holes,” Maxwell said to Bob Davis of The American Golfer in 1935, “for the very simple reason that it does not obtrude and is not an eyesore. Not a square foot of earth that could be left in its natural state has been removed. No pimples or hummocks of alterations falsify its beauty. There are but six artificial bunkers; the rest are natural. And all the driving tees are within a few steps of the putting greens. To date no man has played Ardmore in par, yet my daughter, still in her teens, has broken 100 on it.”

Last year, Dornick Hills underwent a restoration by Tom Doak’s crew at Renaissance Golf Design.

The cliff-top 16th green at Dornick Hills. Photo: Andy Johnson

He served as Alister MacKenzie’s “Midwest associate”

In 1926, the British architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie was making moves in America. He and his California-based associate Robert Hunter received commissions to build Cypress Point and Meadow Club and to complete Seth Raynor’s work on Monterey Peninsula Country Club’s Dunes Course. During this busy period, MacKenzie sent a note to Perry Maxwell of Oklahoma to express interest in forming a partnership.

Over the next several years, Maxwell served as the on-site point person for a few MacKenzie-helmed projects, most notably the gorgeous Crystal Downs Country Club in Northern Michigan. The pair also collaborated on Melrose Country Club in Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan Golf Course, and the Ohio State University Golf Course.

MacKenzie was impressed with his associate’s work. “When I originally asked you to come into partnership with me,” he wrote to Maxwell in 1928, “I did so because I thought your work more closely harmonized with nature than any other American golf course architect… I feel that I cannot leave America without expressing my admiration for the excellence of your work and the extremely low cost compared with the results obtained.” In turn, Maxwell appears to have learned a great deal from MacKenzie. Maxwell’s later designs—with their naturalized bunkers, rippling greens, and intimate, interlocking routings—carry a distinct “good doctor” flavor.

The collaboration would have no doubt continued if not for the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and, subsequently, MacKenzie’s death from a heart attack in 1934. But it was likely because of his association with MacKenzie that Maxwell was chosen to make substantial changes to Augusta National Golf Club in 1937 and ’38. Augusta National’s current seventh and 10th greens are wholesale Maxwell creations, and several other holes at the Masters venue bear his fingerprints.

The Perry Maxwell-designed 10th green at Augusta National. Photo: Andy Johnson

He was fanatical about minimalism

Perry Maxwell was as committed as any architect of the Golden Age to the idea that golf courses should disturb the natural landscape as little as possible. “It is my theory that nature must precede the architect in the laying out of links,” he told The American Golfer in 1935. “It is futile to attempt the transformation of wholly inadequate acres into an adequate course. Invariably the result is the inauguration of an earthquake. The site of a golf course should be there, not brought there.”

Maxwell had harsh words for golf architects who relied on the steam shovel, the premier earthmoving technology of the day. These more maximalist designers included his Midwestern competitors William Langford and Theodore Moreau, who, at courses like Lawsonia Links, built up green pads and bunker faces with tremendous ledges of excavator-shaped dirt. “A magnificent land has been utterly destroyed by the steam shovel, throwing up its billows on earth, biting out traps and bunkers, transposing landmarks that are contemporaries of Genesis,” Maxwell complained. “A golf course that invades a hundred or more acres, and is actually visible in its garish intrusion from several points of observation, is an abhorrent spectacle. The less of man’s handiwork the better a course.”

This devotion to minimalism wasn’t just talk; it was readily apparent in the courses Maxwell designed. At Southern Hills, for instance, the holes continually return to the most prominent natural landforms on the property. Since Maxwell preferred not to build features, he had to find them in the ground and make sure his routing maximized them. So the large hill where the clubhouse sits serves as the location of the first, fifth, 10th, and 11th tees as well as the fourth, ninth, 10, and 18th greens. This natural rise not only creates interest and challenge for the golfer but also moves water away from tees and greens. Similarly, in the lower-lying portions of the property, Maxwell sited many tees and greens near natural creeks and ditches. These waterways have funneled rainfall away from higher ground for thousands of years and continue to do so today. The result is that Southern Hills relies far less than most courses on catch basins and subsurface drainage systems to keep playing surfaces dry.

(Granted, as part of the recent renovation by Hanse Golf Course Design, Southern Hills installed Precision Air infrastructure beneath its greens, but this upgrade was less a necessity than a sign of eagerness to host major championships in spite of Tulsa’s unpredictable weather.)

Another component of Maxwell’s minimalism is that strategy is rooted in the terrain rather than artificial hazards. He often objected to the over-bunkering of golf courses. “From 20 to 25 [bunkers], plus the natural obstacles, are ample for any course,” he told The American Golfer. Of course, Southern Hills has always had more than 25 bunkers and now features no fewer than 86, but the course’s primary challenge—outside of the quick, severe greens—comes from the topography. Maxwell positioned the par 4s and 5s so that slopes and rumples intrude on the landing zones that skilled players seek off the tee. As a result, the pros at the PGA Championship will likely be more worried about uneven lies than fairway bunkers.

He had an entire genre of green contour named after him

On this week’s telecast from Southern Hills, you will probably hear many mentions of “Maxwell rolls.” This term is far more frequently used than it is understood or properly explained.

Maxwell rolls are the raised-up contours often found in the interior portions of Perry Maxwell’s greens. They have gone by a number of other names: Dunlop White, the golf chairman at Old Town Club, refers to them as “muffins”; the architect Bill Coore sometimes calls them “puffs.” They can take many different forms, from long spines to small mounds, but they are distinguished by their multidimensional structure. That is, unlike simple tiers, Maxwell rolls do not tilt in just one direction. Instead, they can send balls shooting in multiple directions, either helping or hurting. Find the correct side of the contour and get rewarded; find the other side and suffer the consequences.

Maxwell was by no means the only architect of his era to build features like these. MacKenzie filled his greens with swells and ripples, as did Tillinghast, especially at Somerset Hills and Winged Foot. But the greens that Maxwell designed—and that, it’s important to note, his associate and brother-in-law Dean Woods built—at Southern Hills, Prairie Dunes, and Old Town Club are strikingly beautiful and creative. The nomenclature of “Maxwell rolls” is well deserved.

The Maxwell roll-laden double green for Nos. 8 and 17 at Old Town Club. Photo: Andy Johnson

He reached the height of his powers during the Great Depression

The 1930s were dark years for golf architecture, as they were for most professions. Hardly any of the top American architects of the 1910s and 20s made it through the Depression with their businesses intact. Perry Maxwell was a notable exception. He had a couple of advantages over most of his contemporaries. One, he was independently wealthy, so he didn’t rely on a steady supply of commissions to remain solvent. Two, he lived in an oil-rich region that hadn’t done too badly after the stock-market crash.

So in the mid- to late 1930s, Maxwell was able to take on a trio of projects that have defined his legacy ever since: Southern Hills in 1936, the original nine at Prairie Dunes in 1937, and Old Town Club in 1939. None of these courses was expensive to build, but they were executed with a verve and ambition that had largely gone missing from golf course design during the Depression.

Shortly after this burst of brilliance, Maxwell had to slow down: the United States went to war in 1941. After World War II and before he died in 1952, he designed a handful of courses alongside his son Press, but by then American golf course design had entered an era defined by the modernist principles of Robert Trent Jones. The Golden Age was over, and this year’s PGA Championship venue turned out to be one of its last masterpieces.


A great deal of the information in this article comes from Chris Clouser’s book The Midwest Associate: The Life and Work of Perry Duke Maxwell.


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