Golf architect Perry Maxwell’s life and legacy were, and still are, filled with ironies.
You have the southern gentleman banker who moved to the dust bowl of Oklahoma during the Great Depression to raise a family. You have a man who turned to golf design almost as an accident (at the suggestion of his wife no less) and become so proficient he became partners – and I choose that word with precision - with Alister Mackenzie, building some of the most critically acclaimed bucket-list golf courses in the sport’s illustrious history. And you have Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, renovated by Maxwell – without Mackenzie – in 1937-38, and yet it’s Mackenzie’s name that gets all the spotlights and press coverage every April, with Maxwell’s name relegated to supporting cast.
Perhaps it’s because for so much of his career Maxwell was Oklahoma-centric, and not many golf fans have yet made the pilgrimage to Oklahoma to experience its rich golf treasures (and its welcoming denizens). Maybe being outshined was just an occupational hazard of working with Alister Mackenzie. Maxwell was dubbed “the Midwest Associate,” an unfortunate diminishing of his true stature in his partnership with Mackenzie.
Or maybe it’s because shortly after Maxwell’s career ended, golf architectural theory entered a doldrums era of target-style, “harder is better” designs.
Whatever the reason, the words of Alister Mackenzie in this 1928 letter to Maxwell proved prophetic, even close to a century later.
My dear Maxwell,
When I originally asked you to come into partnership with me, I did so because I thought your work more closely harmonized with nature than any other American Golf Course Architect. The design and construction of the Melrose Golf Course has confirmed my previous impression.
I feel that I cannot leave America without expressing my admiration for the excellence of my work and the extremely low cost compared with the results obtained. As I stated to you verbally, the work is so good that you may not get the credit you deserve.
Few, if many, golfers will realize that Melrose has been contrasted by the hand of man and not by nature. This is the greatest tribute that can be paid to the work of a Golf Course Architect.
Yours very sincerely,
Whatever the reason for that Maxwell’s star shines a little less brightly in the firmament of the golf design world than some of the better known and celebrated names, the return of Southern Hills to the informal American rotation of major championship venues, gives the golf world the welcome chance to give both Perry Maxwell and Oklahoma the star billing they richly deserve. Our beloved game is far richer for both of them.
Dornick Hills, Ardmore, Okla. (1913/1923)
High on a scenic plateau hilltop overlooking Dornick Hills Golf Club stands a small gated cemetery with humble markers. There you’ll find the graves of not only Perry Duke Maxwell but his wife and family. It’s a beautiful site where Perry has watched decades of golfers enjoy his first design, still scintillating after 100 years, as they pass by on the nearby seventh hole.
As his home was in Ardmore, Maxwell - just as Donald Ross did at Pinehurst No. 2 and Pete Dye did at Delray Dunes - Maxwell tinkered with his home course throughout his life. Of all his courses, Dornick is, perhaps the most varied of his designs, but that’s probably because it was a testing ground for his strategic tenets as they changed over the course of his career. And the Dornick you find today is a living, growing, playable textbook of his techniques as they developed over time. As his first design, it is also a critical mile marker in golf design history.
Maxwell’s early career was almost exclusively in Oklahoma, and it is here we still find some of Maxwell’s own template holes that he rotated in and out on various courses throughout his career, wherever they fit the terrain.
Doubtless, the most recognizable and analyzed hole is the 530-yard par-5 16th, its fairway bisected by a tall and broad rock wall. Known as the Cliff Hole, and intended to emulate the characteristics of the 14th at St. Andrews’ Old Course, and the approach over the 40 feet of sheer rock wall is meant to emulate the carry needed over the infamous Hell Bunker at St. Andrews. Far more unpredictable, frustrating and puckish than any bunker, Hell included, any ball striking the hard shale face will ricochet into who-the-hell-knows-where. Climbing up it is suicide unless you’re Conrad Anker armed with the big wall equipment he used to scale Meru, the sacred peak of the Himalayas.
That being said, is it schadenfreude to smile when someone else’s Pro-V1 catapults sideways sixty yards? Needless to say, the Cliff hole is unique in the world of golf, a strategic masterstroke (and a delightful conversation piece after the round).
Dornick still hosts one of the midwest’s great amateur events – the Oilman’s.
Twin Hills, Oklahoma City, Okla. (1920-23)
Long before Southern Hills hosted its first major championship (the 1958 U.S. Open won by “tempestuous” Tommy Bolt), Twin Hills hosted the first major held in Oklahoma, the 1935 PGA, where Johnny Revolta defeated Tommy Armour 6&5 in the match play final to hoist the Wanamaker trophy.
At Twin Hills, Maxwell showcased early in his career that even on subtle terrain, he could rout the golf course so that the camber of the fairways and cant of the greens was a strong defense, putting a premium on both distance control and accuracy, especially off the tee. Even this early in his career, Maxwell’s strategies were highly advanced and nuanced.
Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club, Oklahoma City, Okla. (1927)
Maxwell’s career can be divided into three convenient parts: 1) the work prior to his partnership with Mackenzie (1913-1924); 2) his time with Mackenzie (1924-1935); and 3) post-Mackenzie (1935-1951). OKGCC was the first major project that, according to Maxwell expert Chris Clouser, officially launched their partnership. Clouser chose the title of his Maxwell biography, “The Midwest Associate” – to highlight the irony of that moniker.
“Oklahoma City is one of the greatest courses that Maxwell ever laid out and is worthy of a complete study from the first tee though the last green,” wrote Clouser.
The course reads like a novel you can’t put down, even though when you look at the clock, it says 3:30 a.m.
It’s thought that Maxwell first studied the craft of golf course architecture at the elbow of Charles Blair Macdonald when the latter laid out his indelible masterpiece, National Golf Links of America. Time has shown there was no better course to learn from as National is the fountain from which all great American golf architecture springs. Here we find renditions of the Sahara hole (short par 4, but with deep sandy chasm), a delightful punchbowl (authentically set at the end of a par 5, and charmingly set well below the level of the fairway, again testing distance control and giving the golfer a thrilling drop shot to play).
Maxwell’s partnership with Mackenzie also began to bear fruit as some pundits believe that OKGCC was where Maxwell began using a more natural edged cut to his bunkers, rather than simple saucer shapes.
Architect Tripp Davis finished a sterling restoration last year that has all the Midwest golf intelligentsia scrambling to book a tee time.
Crystal Downs Golf Club, Frankfort, Mich. (1928-29)
“Holy whispers if you know, a footnote if you don’t” reads a notation in the margin of the Crystal Downs chapter of Clouser’s book. But because it’s so far off the beaten track (in northern Michigan on the edge of the lake), only those people looking to find it (both literally and metaphorically) will find it. Oh, but the secrets they’ll uncover.
One of the great Shangi-Las of golf, a round here is an escape from the world. The two nines feel different – the front nine more akin to wind-blasted the moors of England, with tumultuous, heaving hills to play over and around, while the back nine more an idyllic walk in the woods. At the fifth tee, you have no clue where to hit your tee shot, the epitome of the Doctrine of Deception which the architects used to such great effect throughout their careers. And on the 17th tee, there looks to be mere slivers of fairway on which to place your drive, but upon reaching the fairway and looking back, the golf finds that was all an optical illusion; the hills that claustrophobically crowded the fairway hid a much broader fairway behind them. This fairway ascends three such steps majestically culminating at a stirring skyline green. Sheer genius.
Southern Hills Country Club, Tulsa, Okla. (1935-36)
Now hosting its eighth major, the club looks to be a staple venue for both the USGA and the PGA of America. Its renovation made it versatile enough to be set up for either a U.S. Open (tighter fairways and taller rough) or a PGA (looks just fine the way it’s playing so far). But either way Southern Hills can now fill that pesky Midwest hole that the USGA couldn’t satisfactorily find for several years.
Prairie Dunes Country Club, Hutchinson, Kan. (1937)
Another Shangri-La of golf, Prairie Dunes is perhaps the prettiest, most eminently natural and relentless golf course Maxwell ever designed. Greens are often on pedestals and surrounded by deep bunkers with steep faces. Every hole seems to feature a challenging strategic angle to be negotiated, the Kansas wind makes a mockery of the already formidable yardage on the scorecard, and the Doctrine of Deception has the player struggling to maintain his focus and execution all around the course. True to its Scottish inspirations, the fairways are peppered with undulations the size of moguls on ski runs. It’s authentic a round of golf as you’ll find anywhere in America.
Old Town Club, Winston-Salem, N.C. (1939)
Maxwell built some big name university courses in his time – Iowa State, Michigan and Ohio State to name a few - but while much of his work at those places was erased by intervening designers, Maxwell’s Old Town Club survived intact.
Old Town isn’t truly a university golf course, but it is home course of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, perennially one of the powerhouses in college golf. One of the most famous golf jokes still told by golf writers is the time someone asked Lanny Wadkins, “While you were at Wake Forest, did you ever use the library?” Wadkins replied, “I used it every day. It’s the target for the blind tee shot on number eight.”
Old Town is also a mile marker in the history of golf course architecture; it is the last great design of the Golden Age. Golf design took a five-and-a-half decade turn into the Doldrums Era, a dark ages of “harder is better,” supermodel-thin fairways and ubiquitous water hazards, often in the fruitless search for hosting a major or otherwise getting on television.
Coore and Crenshaw did a phenomenal restoration around 2014 and the course catapulted into the highest echelon of magazine rankings, but more importantly we once again have a Perry Maxwell masterpiece shining brightly as any precious jewel.
Maxwell’s legacy is precious. He wrote an article crediting himself with an estimated 77 golf courses in 21 states. He got grass to grow in Oklahoma, and he had a hand in many restorations and renovations to quintessential American Golden Age classics such as Merion, Augusta National and Colonial. No study of golf course architecture is complete without a deep dive into his career and strategies.