The First Golf Course Architect

The First Golf Course Architect

Henry (Harry) Shapland Colt J.P. (4 August 1869 – 21 November 1951) is often recognized as the father of modern golf course architecture. He was a partner in the early 1920′s with Alister MacKenzie and Charles Alison, which added John Morrison after MacKenzie’s departure in 1923. In total, they designed more than 300 golf courses in twenty countries around the world. It is has been said that the sun never sets on a Robert Trent Jones, Sr golf course, but that expression may have been earlier coined when referencing Colt’s work.  He’s recognized as having an influential role in turning golf course architecture into a recognized profession.  Some of his more notable designs in the UK include Royal County Down, Sunningdale, Wentworth, Rye, Royal St. George’s, Muirfield, Royal Portrush, Royal Liverpool, Royal Lytham & St. Annes. In all, seven of the top 10 golf courses in Great Britain were designed by Colt. In the United States his designs inclue Pine Valley, often recognized as the best golf course in the world, Sea Island’s Seaside, Timber Point, NY, and the Highland Park muni in Bloomington, IL among 10+ others. 

He was trained as a lawyer with his law degree at Clare College at Cambridge, and captained the golf team there in 1890.  He became a founding member of both the Rye Golf Club in East Sussex as well as of the Royal &Ancient’s Rules committee.

His style introduced soft lines and visual challenges to golf course architecture,  and was dedicated to preserving, if not enhancing the sight lines to the scenery which enhances the overall golf experience.  He was more concerned about the strategy of the game, rather than creating a punitive golf experience, and was disciplined to minimizing any disturbance to the land.

Much of his work was the redesign of some of golf’s original clubs in the British Isles. One of the best examples of his work over the original masters of golf course design was his redesign of Royal Portrush, an hour north of Belfast in Northern Ireland, and the venue of the only Open Championship played outside Great Britain. The club’s original 18-hole course had been designed by Old Tom Morris on flattish and featureless land. Colt was hired 40 years later to to design two new courses in amongst the dunes and directly the Atlantic. He produced the Valley Links along the East Strand beach in the shadow of the world beater Dunluce Links, named after a nearby castle.  The creativity he employed here was to provide character to shotmaking, both off the tee and on approach to the variety of green sitings.

At Muirfield, another Tom Morris original, he created 14 new holes and routed the course so the front nine played clockwise around the perimeter while the back nine played anti-clockwise inside the outer loop, providing constant wind variation to each hole.

His involvement with Pine Valley has been hotly debated over the years as to the extent of his involvement. Philadelphia hotelier George Crump was the sole force in creating the world’s best golf course on 200 acres of sandy, South Jersey scrubland pine forest northeast of Philadelphia. It’s was Crump’s first and only design, and while he had specific design criteria, he engaged noted architects of the day for their technical expertise including George Thomas, Walter Travis, Henry Fownes, Hugh Wilson and A.W. Tillinghast. Most of the credit from Crump, who died tragically before the course opened, was to recognize Harry Colt for the implementation of the eventual design at Pine Valley. 

Colt’s overall influence on golf course architect was not one of signature features, but one of utilizing the existing lay of the land to create and interesting and varied layout, while blending into and enhancing the scenic value of the setting.  If you’ve had the luxury of playing any of Harry Colt’s designs or re-designs, you will most certainly agree!

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