The Man Who Brought Golf to Chicago and America

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

IN THE CLOSING CEREMONIES at the 2012 Ryder Club held at Medinah Country Club, it seemed as if everyone in Chicago was thanked for staging, attending and promoting the sports event in Illinois. But, in my opinion, perhaps the most important person in Chicagoland golf wasn’t even mentioned at any of the ceremonies, though he had a direct connection to 1) golf in Chicago and 2) Scotland, the site for the 2014 Ryder Cup to be held at Gleneagles.

The Man Who Brought Golf to Chicago and America 1
Charles Blair Macdonald

Not only did this man first learn the game as a teenager at golf’s historic St. Andrews, he was the person most responsible for the game being played in the Midwest before the turn of the last century. His name was Charles Blair Macdonald.

Macdonald was born in 1855 and raised in Chicago, but he learned the game as a student at St. Andrews University in Scotland. He was, in fact, taught the game by Old Tom and Young Tom Morris. Later, in the early 1890s, he would help organize the Chicago Golf Club, the American Golf Association, and in 1895 win the first official U.S. Amateur Championship. He is rightly claimed as the father of American golf architecture. Indeed, “golf architecture” was a term coined by Macdonald.

Macdonald was the son of a wealthy Chicagoan. At sixteen he was sent to Scotland to earn his college degree. There, his grandfather introduced him to Old Tom Morris, bought him a few hickory clubs, and got him a locker in the pro shop as juniors (like the golf pros) were not allowed inside the Royal and Ancient clubhouse.

Soon Macdonald was spending all his time in the Morris’s pro shop, listening to tales told by the pros, and playing the game with seven woods and four irons. He carried a driver, a grass club, the middle spoon, a short spoon (a baffy), a wood niblick, a mid-iron, a lofter, an iron niblick, and a wooden shafted putter.

Macdonald’s years at St. Andrews were filled with school and golf—the university is less than a wedge from the club house—but when he returned to Chicago in the fall of 1875 there was no golf; no place to play. Once, when a Scottish classmate visited they started to talk, as all players will, of matches played and won, and then hunted up some of Charles’s old clubs and went out onto an old Civil War campsite, and as Macdonald wrote, “we cut in a few holes and utilized some old tin cans left behind by the troops years before.”

Macdonald was only able to play golf on a real course when he traveled on business to Europe, but in the coming years that would change. Macdonald would see to it himself, first in Chicago and later far beyond the Midwest.


John Coyne is a bestselling author whose latest golf novel is The Caddie Who Won the Masters. Learn more at John Coyne Books.

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Neil Sagebiel

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