Earlier this month I had the opportunity to play 18 at Springdale with Kevin Tylus, Bob Denby, and Dan Schneid. For me the prospect was exciting because it meant for the first time, I was going to play a course designed by the great William Flynn.
Born in Massachusetts in 1890, Flynn was a golf course designer who worked during the period some call golf’s Golden Age — from the end of World War I to the Depression, when most of the country’s most storied golf courses were built or rebuilt. Most people, if they have heard of Flynn, know of the work he did with Hugh Wilson — Princeton Class of 1902 — at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, or the redesigns he did at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts (home of Harvard’s golf teams), and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island, which hosted this year’s U.S. Open.
Which is not to say William Flynn is, or ever was, a famous man. To club secretaries of the 1920s and ’30s, not to mention every decade since, details about who designed or built their golf courses and how or when they did it would have seemed like minutiae indeed. Fires have devastated all too many clubhouses through the years, taking much history with them, and much of what hasn’t been lost is buried deep in antique filing cabinets or tucked away in dusty corners of attics. It is only recently that anyone has bothered to look.
Yet today such information, when it can be found and corroborated, is proving invaluable to clubs that are eager to connect their courses to the big picture of golf history. A club that can say its course has been designed by William Flynn or Donald Ross or A. W. Tillinghast becomes potentially more attractive to members or prospective members who are aficionados of golf course architecture.
Flynn did not design Springdale. But in 1927 and 1928 he did substantially redesign it, and it is accepted that the course that is there now is substantially his work. Specs of his design are framed and hanging in the clubhouse today.
Springdale’s connection to Flynn is a big deal. The same goes for Forsgate Country Club, in Monroe, and its Banks course, named after Charles Banks, a protege of legendary designer Seth Raynor. Raynor, in turn, was an associate of Charles Blair Macdonald, who is said to have designed the first 18-hole course in U.S. history, Chicago Golf Club, in 1893.
It’s safe to say that golf’s rise in America was meteoric. Five clubs, including Chicago and Shinnecock, got together and formed the United States Golf Association in December, 1894. They held the first official U.S. Amateur tournament the following October at Newport Golf Club in Rhode Island, and it was Macdonald who won it. In the ensuing years hundreds of new courses were built.
By November of 1895, alumni, faculty, and students of Princeton University had formed a club of their own, as had their counterparts at Yale. According to archived Daily Princetonian articles from the time, they laid out a nine-hole course that fall in a field known as Stockton Woods, west of an old race track at the southern end of Bayard Lane, and play began at the new Princeton Golf Club in February, 1896.
It was not unusual for courses to be created by local players and golf pros, and this “homemade” course sufficed until 1899, when a few of the members formed the Springdale Association and raised $25,000 to buy the 240-acre Stockton Farm, today the site of both the club and the Graduate College.
They hired a Scotsman, Willie Dunn Jr., to lay out a new 18-hole course on the present site. But by 1902 only nine of the holes were fully built and open for play. Financial difficulties associated with construction meant that this remained the case in 1909, when the club turned ownership of the land over to the university with the golf club remaining in operation as a nine-hole course.
By 1910 golf in America was a true phenomenon. The USGA had 267 members, including Princeton Golf Club; by 1932 it would have 1,138. An alumnus named Gerard Lambert, better known as the marketing genius behind the success of Listerine — his father’s invention — had the property surveyed in 1911, and using that information, laid out a second nine holes, which opened for play in June, 1915. In 1922 the club was renamed Springdale Golf Club.
William Flynn was brought in to do a redesign in 1927. It is believed that he was chosen at least in part because of his connection to Hugh Wilson, who had been a captain of the Princeton golf team. It was reported that Flynn redesigned Springdale to honor Wilson.
Flynn mostly used the playing corridors that Lambert had established, but reworked features within each hole. Flynn’s deft touch is particularly evident in Springdale’s fast, rolling greens, which are tricky but fair and which serve as an added defense for a course that, by today’s standards, is not very long.
Golden Age designers tended to favor what we call today strategic design. A good example is the 15th hole, a long dogleg right with trees and a creek down the right side. The hole demands that right-handed golfers take their tee shots as close to the trees and creek as possible, with a fade if they want a reasonably flat lie for their second shot. Golfers who stay away from the creek will have to get onto the small green with a severe uphill or sidehill lie. Just putting it in the fairway is not good enough, as I unfortunately discovered; one must find the right spot in the fairway, and not coincidentally, that spot requires a flirt with the danger of the creek.
It was in 1903 that the Class of 1886 purchased a tenant-farmer house behind what was then the second green and deeded it to the university to be used as a clubhouse. The building, which is still there, served the club in that role until 2007, when the university took it over and a new clubhouse was built. The new clubhouse necessitated that the holes be reordered. Holes 5 to 9 became holes 1 to 5, and holes 1 to 4 became holes 6 to 9. On the back nine, holes 10 and 11 became holes 17 and 18, and holes 12 to 18 became holes 10 to 16. Other than that, and notwithstanding the fact that many, many trees have been planted in the last 90 years, the course today is much as Flynn imagined it.
As we were playing the 18th hole (the 2nd in 1928), Kevin Tylus told me that Flynn had designed the hole to resemble the first hole at Merion’s famed East Course. If you look at photos of both holes you can see the resemblance. For a golfer, the connection is powerful. “The architectural and historical relevance of the course is consistent with the history of the town and so many architectural and historical aspects of the university,” Tylus says.