Harry Shapland Colt: The Trailblazer

Harry Shapland Colt

“Harry Shapland Colt is likely the most well-known, but still underappreciated golf architects of all-time.  We tend to study golf architecture by looking at individual artists and their portfolios of work.  However, where Colt stands apart is his influence over others and in the pioneering of golf course architecture as its own discipline.  Colt’s practices set the stage, prior to WWI, for the many superlative works which would follow.  His work in the Heathlands of England set the stage for Alister MacKenzie and Charles Alison to spread the craft to Australia and Japan.  His work at Pine Valley inspired many of the Philadelphia School.  His work at Old Elm would inspire a young Donald Ross.  Finally, his work at Toronto Golf Club and Hamilton Golf and Country Club would inspire a young Stanley Thompson.  While his courses are often praised, it is his influence over others that is likely overlooked and of greater significance to the evolution of golf course architecture.”  

- Keith Cutten, Golf Course Architect    

Harry (born Henry) Shapland Colt is likely the most influential golf course architect of all-time. The Englishman played a major role in the early development of the profession of golf course architecture.  Colt’s largest influence was as a mentor.  With names including Alister Mackenzie, Charles Alison, Donald Ross and Stanley Thompson, Colt helped to shape the Golden Age of Golf Course Design.  Colt also served as a pioneer of golf course architecture in many countries including the United States, Canada, Japan and Australia through both his own work and that of his disciples.  Colt’s resume of work is quite impressive, touting world renowned courses such as Sunningdale (Old and New), the Eden Course at St Andrews Links, Pine Valley Golf Club (contributed), Royal Portrush, Muirfield, Swinley Forest, St. George’s Hill, Old Elm Club, Toronto Golf Club and Hamilton Golf and Country Club.

A sketch of the the Eden Course at St. Andrews Photo Credit: Simon Haines

Context

Prior to the 1900s, superlative golf course design in Britain was limited almost exclusively to sandy coastlines or links land.  The well-drained soils, undulating topography, naturally occurring hazards, and ever-present winds advanced the original strategy and challenge of the game.  However, layouts on inland sites often fell short of their coastal cousins due to the absence of these same elements.  The earliest designers, who were primarily golf course professionals, were more concerned with selling their clubs and balls than crafting golf courses.  Further, these simple layouts were seen as a way to increase the popularity of the game and improve their sales.      

In 1901, in an area called “the Heathlands” located southwest of London, Willie Park Jr. increased the standard for inland golf course architecture in Britain when he opened both Sunningdale (Old) and Huntercombe to rave reviews.  These two courses had large greens with rolling contours and bold, man made hazards which appeared to be natural.  For the first time, an architect chose an inland site based on the quality of the material underneath – sand – and used this medium to enhance the design.  However, what was missing was the emerging idea of strategy.  

At this same time, John Low was assessing the design merits of each of the holes at Woking, which had been laid out in 1893 by Tom Dunn.  In 1901, John Low worked with Woking’s greenkeeper Stuart Patton to revise the 4th hole.  The pair added two central “Principal’s Nose” style bunkers, reminiscent of the 16th hole at the Old Course, and created a tilted green.  Low and Patton would continue to rework Woking throughout the early part of the 1900s.  Their efforts became the toast of London’s golfing community and their principles were well published by the likes of Horace Hutchinson and Bernard Darwin.  Further, in 1903, John Low would publish his avant-garde book Concerning Golf.  

However, what had not been accomplished was the blending of both the natural with the strategic… enter Mr. Colt.

Background                      

Harry Shapland Colt was born in Highgate, England in 1869.  As a young boy, Colt spent summers at the Worcestershire Golf Club where he learned the game of golf under the mentorship of head professional and greenkeeper Douglas Rolland, uncle of the legendary James Braid.  In 1891 and 1893, Colt won the R&A Jubilee Vase when he captained the golf team at Cambridge University, where he studied law.

Upon graduation, Colt began working at a law firm in Hastings and in 1884 was made a partner in the firm of Sayer & Colt.  While his upbringing, education and career would have made him a respectable member Britain’s upper class, Colt was drawn to a future in golf.  In 1895, Colt joined his mentor Douglas Rolland in the design of a new golf course at Rye.  That same year, Colt was made honorary secretary of the club.  It would be from this position that he would develop his earliest philosophies on design, as he slowly tweaked the course over the next 6 years.  Further, in 1897, Colt became a founding member of the Royal and Ancient Rules of Golf Committee.  Colt likely became a member of the Royal and Ancient through John Low, a friend who was a year ahead of Colt at Cambridge.     

In 1901, captivated by the works of Willie Park Jr. in the Heathlands of England, Colt made a more serious shift to golf when he applied for the position of secretary at the new Sunningdale Golf Club (Old).  At Sunningdale, Colt was on hand as the course was praised for its natural charm.  Over the years, Colt continued to make updates to the course, especially after the introduction of the rubber core golf ball, while also beginning to add to his solo design resume.  Colt’s first solo project was near London during the early 1900s, but this quickly lead to more.  Demand for his design services soon became so great that he required the addition of several associates.  

Colt’s first associate was Charles H. Alison who started assisting Colt with the design and construction of golf courses in 1906.  During the construction of Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire, Alison was made secretary of the club.  Colt and Alison continued in their duties as secretaries while simultaneously growing their business in golf course design. While secretary at Stoke Poges, Alison assisted Colt in the creation of many courses, including 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, one of Colt’s many masterpieces, Swinley Forest Golf Club opened, quickly becoming one of England’s finest courses.  In 1913, pressure from play on the Old, New and Jubilee courses was so much that a fourth course was commissioned at St. Andrews Links.  In 1914, just prior to the start of World War I, Colt finished the design and construction of the Eden Course at St. Andrews Links.  With these successes, Colt had cemented himself as Britain’s leading golf course architect.

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

In 1907, while still working as club secretary at Sunningdale, Colt was requested to provide a second opinion on the newly completed Alwoodley Golf Club in Leeds.  It was there that he would meet with the Club Secretary and course designer, Dr. Alister MacKenzie.  Colt felt that the course was an extension of his own design ideals and provided a glowing review of the course at a meeting with the club’s Committee.  This relationship would lead to the eventual formation of the London firm of Colt, MacKenzie & Alison in 1919.  MacKenzie went out on his own in 1923, and Colt and Alison brought on John Morrison.

Colt, Mackenzie and Alison advertisement. Photo Credit: Simon Haines

Demand for Colt’s expertise soon began to reach past the British Isles.  In 1911, he took his maiden trip to North America where he laid out the Country Club of Detroit and the Toronto Golf Club.  Each course was soon praised as one of the finest in their respective countries, and Colt's reputation grew internationally as the top golf architect in the world.  The Toronto Golf Club was especially instrumental in Canada’s golf future, as it led to the establishment of Canada’s dynamic golf design trio of George Cumming, Nicol Thompson and Stanley Thompson.  Eventually, following Colt’s return to Canada in 1914 to complete the Hamilton Golf and Country Club, Stanley Thompson would break out on his own.  Colt’s influence on the young Stanley Thompson likely started the career of Canada’s greatest course designer.  

Similarly, before the outbreak of the First World War, Colt worked to design Old Elm Golf Club in Chicago.  Here, he completed plans for each hole before leaving the construction of the course in the capable hands of a young Donald Ross.  Ross would later employ the same practices (using plans and trusted foreman for construction) in the establishment of America's most successful golf architecture firm in the Golden Age.

Construction plans prepared by Harry Colt for Old Elm Club – Holes 1, 4 and 15.

Handwritten note from Harry Colt

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 one visit to the United States, Colt spent a week advising George Crump at Pine Valley and assisted with the routing of the holes, amongst other matters.  Following Crump’s passing, the club hired Colt to oversee the completion of the project.  His involvement at Pine Valley, in what most historians consider to be the most cooperative golf course design in history, likely inspired many of the most significant architects of America’s Golden Age of Golf Course Design.  The Philadelphia School of Design was the by-product, and architects like Tillinghast, Hugh Wilson, William Fownes, William Flynn, George C. Thomas and Perry Maxwell would have all gained from the experience.

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

In 1922, Colt was hired to design and construct a second course, referred to as the “New” course, at Sunningdale.  During his career, Colt and his firm designed more than 300 courses on 6 continents.  However, the lingering effects of the First World War in Britain, combined with the onset of Great Depression and the Second World War, meant that Colt and his Company never quite achieved the status they had reached in the pre-war era.  Hence, in 1951 at the age of 82, Harry Colt passed away deaf and lonely in East Hendred, Berkshire, England.  His partners Alison and Morrison lamented how their mentor, an innovator for golf architecture, was given very little attention by the golfing world at the time of his passing.

Design Principals

“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 such as C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, finding commonly used design principles and characteristics in Harry Colt’s courses is difficult as Colt’s work is intentionally more diverse.  Instead, his courses exemplify his overarching design beliefs of variety, strategy and playability.  However, from his book titled Some Essays on Golf Course Architecture, published in 1920 with co-author C.H. Alison and with contributions from Alister MacKenzie, Horace G. Hutchinson, John L. Low and others, some additional understanding of his design beliefs can be distilled.  

During the design process, Colt was known for being a little bit more methodical compared to his peers making multiple trips to a site before deciding on how to route the golf course.  This attention to detail showed as nearly every course he worked on became revered.  Let’s take a look at how Harry Colt approached the different aspects of a golf course.

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

Much like his more famous one-time partner Alister Mackenzie, Harry Colt was a master of creating a natural look to his manmade features.  In fact, he was likely the first to combine naturalness with strategic options and the idea of infinite variety.  Colt represents a style of architecture that is both challenging and accommodating, where depending on the game the player has that day, they can either add or reduce risk accordingly.  Along with the concept of the golf course blending and growing into its natural landscape, Colt believed in creating great variety within his designs.  He strived to have par 3’s of differing lengths, and rarely have similar par 4s in succession or a series of holes playing into the same direction.   

Colt favoured distinctive features that would encourage a golfer to walk away remembering each hole individually.  He believed in discussing his designer hand by making manmade features appear natural.  Colt believed that his courses should be part of the land, residing in them rather than on them.  He suggested that courses should be given a chance to grow into their surroundings and become part of the landscape itself.  Having had the opportunity to play a few of Colt’s designs, it's clear that he was one of the most balanced and skilled architects of the Heathland and Golden Age eras.

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 believed in providing options.  He was one of the first proponents of the idea that golf should challenge the advanced player, while making room for the duffer.  Colt would challenge great players by strategically placing hazards to defend the ideal line of play, but would allow longer routes to the hole to be less guarded.  He used central hazards with safe paths down the sides.  Width in the fairway was always employed as a tool to create angles and options.  Colt disliked blind shots, though he realized they were sometimes unavoidable.  He was a proponent of the diagonal cross hazard, where a heroic carry was rewarded with an ideal angle into the green and a safer option was always available.  His ability to force decisions has allowed many to conclude that Colt’s use of bunkers in the fairway is without peer.  

Broadstone Golf Club, remodeled and expanded by Colt in 1920.

Approaching and Around the Green

Colt’s strategic beliefs were rooted in angles.  He believed the best way to challenge a great player was to force them to play to particular areas of a hole in order to have the best chance at scoring.  While challenging the great player, Colt’s design strategy would always yield a path for the lesser player.  At most Colt designed courses, you will find avenues to run shots up onto greens, rarely surrounding the entire green with bunkers.  Colt believed that “hummocky” ground or mounds and hollows provided difficult stances and lies.  Colt placed a heavy emphasis on the ground game to showcase a world-class player’s ability to hit all the shots.  His bunkering style tended to be small and deep around the greens to penalize players who found the traps.  However, he realized these shots were shorter and the added depth could be justified.  

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

Green Complexes

Again, variety was the name of the game when it came to Colt’s green complexes (a great guiding principle that seems to have been lost in the modern era!).  He believed in having a mix of slopes with some being severe and others being more benign and subtle in nature.  Colt’s greens often feature wonderful rolling contours full of delicate pin positions and feeding slopes that make for entertaining putting throughout.  One of Colt’s favorite design tendencies was to use plateau style greens.  He believed that this would place an emphasis on a world-class player’s ability to hit a high-lofted shot.

Notable Courses

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

 

This architect profile was a collaborative effort between the fried egg and golf course architect Keith Cutten.  Parts of this research were distilled from Keith’s upcoming book The Evolution of Golf Course Architecture.  Keith operates his own company, Cutten Golf Course Design (click here to visit his website), through which he works with many of the industry’s top designers.  Keith is a Senior Design Associate with Rod Whitman Golf Course Design and has completed shaping work for Coore & Crenshaw.  For updates on Keith’s book please follow him on social media - Twitter & Instagram.

 

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