During the early 1900s, Walter Travis dominated amateur golf, and his influence as a golf journalist was virtually unparalleled. Today, one hundred years later, his legacy in golf is largely defined by the 50 known golf courses that bear his mark as either the original architect, or by his redesign efforts. Courses such as Hollywood Golf Club, Westchester CC (West course), Round Hill Club, CC of Troy, and CC of Scranton frequently appear in Top 100 or 200 classic courses in the United States. Currently, Ekwanok CC, a course where Travis worked closely with the designer, John Duncan Dunn, and Garden City Golf Club are ranked in the 2015 top 100 Classic Courses rankings by GolfWeek. In Canada, Lookout Point CC and Cherry Hill Club are consistently ranked among the Top 100 Canadian courses.
As with other golf course architects of his era, Walter Travis had no formal education or training in landscape or golf course design, and there was very limited golf course design literature available. His hands-on experience began just three years into his amateur golf career, when he worked with Scotsman John Duncan Dunn in the layout of the Ekwanok CC golf course in Manchester, VT. Given his background, coming from a family of Scottish golf course designers, Dunn likely played a leading role in developing the overall golf course plan. But, upon Dunn’s return to New York City, Travis remained to oversee the construction. Travis and Dunn collaborated on other golf course projects over the next few years.
In addition to his experiences with Dunn, the development of Travis’s golf course design concepts was greatly influenced by his observations of golf courses in the United Kingdom during an extended stay in 1900-01. He took special note of the undulating terrain of British links, their lack of trees, the numerous and strategically dispersed bunkers, and the greens defined by natural contours of the land. He wrote, “Their courses demand mastery of both scientific slicing and pulling and getting the full measure of every conceivable stroke that occurs in the game” (1901), thus producing better players.
In his 1902 seminal article, “Hazards”, Travis expounded on his opinion that bunkers “should be arranged so as to compel a player to drive both far and sure, and yet to give the weaker player a chance to avoid being bunkered, provided he can place his ball wisely”. In sharp contrast to cross-bunkers, which he deplored and which typified most American courses, he proposed that bunkers be placed aesthetically and scientifically in order to create interest and “make each hole present a new problem”. His early drawings of bunkers strategically placed along the edges of fairways represented a remarkable, innovative development in golf course design.
The Devereux Emmet course at Garden City Golf Club became Travis’s laboratory for the early development of his golf design ideas and practices. He was GCGC’s Green Committee Chairman for 10 years and, given his status as the country’s most successful amateur golfer, he was given free rein with the course. Travis filled in Emmet’s cross-bunkers, lengthened the course, installed numerous bunkers, including deep pot bunkers, and created undulating contours on the greens. His changes to the course received glowing reviews at the 1908 U.S. Amateur, and firmly established GCGC’s position among the upper pantheon of U.S. courses.
Today, there is continuing appreciation of the enduring intricacies and challenges of Travis’s well-situated and often dramatic green sites, his creative exploitation of interesting terrain features in the layout of a course, and the distinctive, rough-hewn mounding he often used to frame a hole or create a tee-shot sight-line. Modern architects marvel at his work with comments such as:
“He designed the best greens in the world” (Ben Crenshaw); “The greens….are as intricate as any I’ve played on” (Tom Doak); “He built wonderful undulating greens with fascinating pin positions” (Ian Andrew); “His greens….really showed a lot of understanding of the strategy of the game” (Mike Hurdzan); “Other architects, such as Stanley Thompson, have produced mounds nearly as imaginative and impressive, but Walter Travis’s mounds are still more grand than all others” (Ian Andrew); “I have tried to retain the contours of his putting surfaces as he had them” (Geoff Cornish); “His ability to route a golf course might have been his strongest skill” (Ian Andrew).
– Ed Homsey, Travis Society Archivist