The Golden Age of Golf Course Design

Imagine that around the time of Frank Lloyd Wright and pioneering modernists such as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, there was a B.C. architect producing work of the same quality and originality. Well regarded locally, he never saw his reputation spread beyond the region, and over time a lot of his creations were altered or destroyed. Decades passed, tastes changed, and eventually he died, broke and largely forgotten.

That architect existed, except that he was a golf course architect and the masters he should be compared to are people like Alistair Mackenzie (Augusta National), Donald Ross (Pinehurst No. 2), and Torontonian Stanley Thompson (Capilano). His name was Arthur Vernon Macan, and only in the last few years has the Irish-born resident of Victoria been touched by the first pale blush of rediscovery. Courses such as Marine Drive and Kelowna Golf and Country have embarked on revamps intended to return them more closely to Macan’s original designs, and in 2011 Vancouverite Michael Riste published Just Call Me Mac, a book on his life and work. There’s even been talk of creating an official Macan Trail, not that anything should stop a person from embarking on the unofficial one.

As befits an unjustly forgotten legend, Macan led a colourful and complicated life. Born into a wealthy Dublin family, the lawyer and Ireland’s fifth-ranked golfer relocated to Victoria in 1912 for reasons that Riste can only speculate on. He soon established himself as perhaps the best golfer in the Pacific Northwest, but he lost a leg in the First World War, which ended his competitive career. After the war, though, early designs Qualicum Beach Memorial and Victoria’s (soon to be Royal) Colwood began to attract attention for their beauty, sophistication, and playability, and he rapidly established a busy practice. Altogether he would design about four dozen courses, including tracks that were considered among the best in each of San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria. At one point he could say that but for a single exception in Portland, he had worked on every significant course from Oregon north. Keep reading…

Tee Time

Over a dozen of A.V. Macan’s courses remain. Here, five that typify that Golden approach.


Macan was a hale fellow, and well liked, but also a man of mystery who refused to discuss his private life, and perhaps for good reason. In the early ’20s, his wife and young family returned to Ireland, and he never saw them again nor responded to their letters, till the day in 1964 that he died obscure and alone. One of those letters was found in his pocket.

Because Macan worked primarily between the wars, his courses are now considered remnants of the Golden Age of golf design. Why Golden? Because during the 19th century courses were mostly basic affairs, with straight fairways, square greens, and rectangular bunkers dug out to penalize errant shots. Later, in the 1950s, designers became enamoured of ultra-smooth playing surfaces, fairways framed with bunkers, and lots and lots of water hazards-in some ways a return to the idea that good shots should be rewarded, bad shots penalized.

By contrast Macan and the Golden Agers emphasized strategy-forcing the best players to make risky shots but allowing weaker ones a largely unobstructed path-while striving to make their courses as beautiful and natural-looking as possible. If a typical course from the ’60s or ’80s corresponded to a groomed suburban estate, one from the 1920s or ’30s more closely resembled untouched meadow.

By the 1990s the winds of golf design were shifting again, blowing in a new generation of architects who came to be called minimalists-not because of any connection to the minimalist architects arising around the same time but because they strived to move as little dirt as possible, in dramatic contrast to the ardent landscapers before them. Unfortunately, the global slowdown ground construction to a halt about the time this cohort rose to prominence. In B.C., where so many courses are under 20 years old, there are many that qualify as transitional, but short of a trip to Oregon’s Bandon Dunes, it’s difficult for a golfer to enjoy the full fruits of minimalism. The Golden Age that so inspired the minimalists, though, has left its mark with surprising abundance, thanks in large part to this forgotten great.