The Links (1926)
by Robert Hunter
When Robert Hunter stood on the fabulous 16th tee at the Cypress Point Golf Club at Pebble Beach in early 1928, it is unlikely that his two companions, golfing legends Tommy Armour and Bobby Cruikshank, knew that they were in the presence of a former leader of the Socialist Party of America and a stalwart advocate of the poor and needy. Golf in 1920s America was a game for “fops and dandies”, as Hunter later wrote in his memoirs, and it was only a brave or very foolish man who would venture among the poor on city streets or public transportation dressed in “plus-fours” with a bag of golf clubs over his shoulder. As far as Armour and Cruikshank were concerned, Hunter looked the part of a golfer: He had been born in 1874 into a prosperous Indiana family, and had then married the daughter of one of the richest men in America, Anson Phelps Stokes. Stokes had amassed fortunes in mining, banking and railroads during what came to be called the Gilded Age. So Hunter was not only often on the green, he was deep in it, too.
Hunter was an accomplished amateur golfer at a time when amateurs were among golf’s most skilled players. He beat the legendary Walter Travis to win the 1915 North-South Tournament at Pinehurst and, by the time he was showing his two companions his remarkable achievement in golf course design and construction, he had also won the California “Old Guard” championship and the State’s Father and Son Tournament with Robert, Jr. But it was not as a player that Hunter made his mark on golf. It was his timeless contributions to the theory and practice of golf course design and construction that made him famous, despite the fact that he was engaged in this activity for only a brief period in the 1920s, and that he had no formal training for the work.
That day in 1928 Hunter was showing off this special spot on the beautiful course that he had just created with his partner, Dr. Alister MacKenzie. This particular hole involved a long tee shot over an inlet of the Pacific Ocean that is breathtaking in its beauty and heart-stopping for the challenge it presents to all but the most confident golfer. But as Hunter wrote in his pioneering book on golf course architecture, The Links (1926), the fascination of golf does not lie in the ease with which it is mastered but by its maddening difficulty for even its most gifted practitioners. With a passion and eloquence equal to that which he invested in his struggles against the social injustices of early 20th-century America, Hunter described the allure that golf held for enthusiasts. “What is more engaging”, he asked, “than to see how golf infuriates some big brute who can thrash anybody, ride bucking horses, shoot deer on the run and birds on the wing! What is so delectable as to see him in a nervous tremor as he stands on the tee glaring fiercely at the still, white, small, ball!”
After several decades of neglect, The Links was re-issued several times in the 1990s, sealing its status as a classic, and its author’s status as a classic course designer. It continues to serve as an indispensable text for today’s top golf architects. In his introduction to the special edition of The Links published by the United States Golf Association in 1995, John Strawn, a practicing developer of golf courses around the world and a prolific writer on course design, wrote that “Hunter’s seminal volume on golf course architecture has an exalted place in the literature of golf.” Bill Coore, another accomplished golf course architect, wrote the foreword to a 1998 edition of The Links in which he recounted having stumbled by sheer chance upon a battered copy of the original edition in architect Pete Dye’s office in 1972. Coore was just embarking on his career and had never heard of Robert Hunter, but The Links captivated him and has been by his side ever since, “not so much a collector’s item as an in-use textbook.” He added that it “became a cornerstone of my personal golf architecture education and a bond in my design partnership with Ben Crenshaw, who I later learned had begun studying The Links at approximately the same time as I did.”
The book’s unique value, according to Coore, is that it articulates “not only the basic tenets of classical golf architecture but, more importantly, accurately and stylishly explains the connection between the essence of golf and golf architecture.” This message is as true today as it was when Hunter put pen to paper eighty years ago: “Timeless insight—perhaps that is The Links’s finest contribution.” Geoff Shackelford, one of a newer generation of golf course architects and an able chronicler of his profession, simply calls The Links a “brilliant golf architecture book.”
However, Hunter was not simply an inspired theorist. During the short period in which he was engaged in golf course design and construction, he literally created or helped create, in collaboration with MacKenzie, some of the best courses in California, including the Berkeley Country Club (now called Mira Vista), the Meadow Club, and the Valley Club of Montecito. His most stunning achievement, however, was Cypress Point, unsurpassed in what it offers those fortunate enough to play its perfect links and enjoy its incomparable beauty.
Now how on earth does a rich guy who is into golf and golf course design end up in the Socialist Party? It’s not as unusual a tale as one may think.
Massive but uneven economic growth came upon the United States so quickly in the latter decades of the 19th century that at least some families waxed rich before they could forget their core Protestant values. Nor were the scions of wealthy families strangers to the American populism of the time and its Progressivist successors. For some, concern with poverty and injustice took a standard form of noblesse oblige. For others well enough endowed, it led to the establishment of great and lasting foundations, many still working today. And it spun off the occasional individual oddity, of which Robert Hunter was one.
Robert Hunter, Bobby Cruikshank and Tommy Armour at Cypress Point, 1927 [credit: Julian P. Graham]
It is ironic that at least some of the factors that led Hunter to polish his golfing skills and make his remarkable contributions to golf course design and construction can be attributed to his exertions on behalf of the most deprived and distressed members of society. A young man with strong altruistic impulses, Hunter committed himself early on to a career of helping the poor. At times, these impulses led him to act in ways that compromised his health. For example, as a teenager, Hunter attempted to live on a diet of oatmeal, since he believed that the poor were forced to survive on such meager fare. He gave up this experiment only after he became quite ill. Later, while working as a social worker in Chicago, he gave his overcoat to a beggar and chose to suffer through the bitter winter without one, once again jeopardizing his health.
This spirit of self-sacrifice continued even after Hunter had married into the Phelps Stokes family in 1903. While laboring over his classic book Poverty (1904), his health was yet again put at risk. The medical specialist he consulted warned him that he faced a complete breakdown if he did not find some way to divert his energies and emotions from his complete absorption with society’s ills and its social casualties. Vigorous outdoor activity was prescribed and Hunter initially took up riding since horses were readily available on the family farm in Connecticut.
Hunter did not enjoy riding, however. Golf proved to be a more agreeable pastime and, before long, he was in full compliance with his doctor’s directive to devote three afternoons per week to this outdoor pursuit. Since the only person available to play with Hunter on many of those afternoons was the local club professional, his skills developed rapidly. Never one to do things by half measure, Hunter was soon devoting as much energy and passion to the study of golf and the fields on which it was played as he was to speaking out for society’s poor.
The exertions on behalf of the poor that led to Hunter’s near collapse in 1904 included several years of toil in the slums of Chicago. There, while living at Hull House, the famous settlement house founded by Nobel laureate Jane Addams, he organized the country’s first municipal shelter for homeless people. His ground-breaking book on slum housing, Tenement Conditions in Chicago (1901), earned him a national reputation as an effective social reformer and led to his appointment as Head Resident (Director) of the University Settlement in New York City. While Hull House was better known than the University Settlement, the latter was older and more distinguished as a place where the college-educated children of wealthy families lived and worked in poor neighborhoods, having Rockefellers and Roosevelts among its sponsors and active participants. It was at the University Settlement that Hunter met his future bride, Caroline Phelps Stokes.
Immediately upon arrival in New York, Hunter was tapped to lead the campaign that resulted in the country’s first effective laws banning the employment of children in factories, mines and sweatshops. This was followed by the monumental effort he devoted to researching and writing his pioneering book, Poverty, in which he documented that ten to twenty million people in America were living in abject poverty during a period of unprecedented prosperity. Even more shocking than those numbers was Hunter’s conclusion that, by far, the overwhelming majority of these millions were poor through no fault of their own—the victims of an abusive economic system and an uncaring government.
Hunter argued persuasively that most of the country’s poverty could be prevented by effective government programs like workplace safety regulations, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, widows’ pensions, the end of child labor and immigration control. These were radical ideas at the time, but the first two decades of the 20th century were radical times in America, so Hunter’s message did not fall on deaf ears. Poverty, an instant best-seller that H.G. Wells said should be read by every wealthy American, made Hunter a national authority on poverty and related social problems. His advice was sought by progressive political leaders, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who invited Hunter to the White House.
Having the ear of a president, however—even one who would later incorporate many of his recommendations into his Progressive Party crusade—was not enough for Hunter. He distrusted politicians in general and certainly did not view Roosevelt, despite his decision to run against the Democratic and Republican candidates for President in 1912, as a different breed from the norm. Almost immediately after the publication of Poverty and about the time he was taking up golf as a serious pursuit, he joined the Socialist Party of America. This was a time in American history—the only time—when socialism was seen as a reasonable, if not entirely respectable, alternative to the major political parties.
Muckraking journalists, the investigative reporters of their day, were exposing the abuses of corporate and political power of such “robber barons” as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan and the violations of the public trust by corrupt politicians of all stripes. Their work led an astonishing cross-section of American society to see Socialism as an appealing alternative to the major political parties and the corporate interests that appeared to control them. Not only did the working class, trade unionists and many intellectuals embrace the cause of ordinary working people, but so did a fair sprinkling of the professional middle class and even a few “millionaire socialists” like Hunter.
Upon joining the Socialist Party in 1905, Hunter quickly rose to a leadership position, being elected twice to the National Executive Committee and running on the Socialist ticket for the New York State Legislature in 1907 and for governor of Connecticut in 1910. As an American delegate to international Socialist congresses in Europe during this period, he encountered such luminaries of the Left as Lenin and Mussolini (a socialist journalist at the time), years before they would become leaders of antithetical totalitarian regimes. (Earlier, during an 1899 trip to London, Hunter had met British Socialist leader Keir Hardie and the anarchist Peter Kropotkin.) Always the writer as well as the activist, Hunter wrote several books and articles documenting his studies of the socialist movement around the world. Most notable among these is Socialists At Work (1908), in which he stated his belief that American socialism would only succeed by using democratic political processes.
Hunter’s moderate approach to achieving the socialist dream was not shared by all members of the movement’s leadership, either inside or outside Party circles. There were those who believed that the revolution would never be achieved through the ballot box and that they should use whatever means were necessary, including violence, to achieve their goals. Conflicts over these kinds of issues took their toll on Hunter. Besides causing him to eventually give up his seat on the Socialist Party’s National Executive Committee, they drove him deeper into an intensive study of golf.
Hunter’s interest in golf course design developed soon after he took up the game seriously. In all probability, it was stimulated by his experience playing some of the best courses in the United States and his contact with their architects, including Charles Blair Macdonald and A.H. Tillinghast. His exposure to those courses and their designers led him to explore the sources of their inspiration—the links or natural seaside courses in Britain. His observations during this study tour would later form the basis for The Links and inspire his work on Cypress Point and the other California courses he helped create. However, those accomplishments would have to wait until ill health once again interrupted his toils on behalf of society’s dispossessed. As he would later write, “My interest in golf architecture led me abroad in the summer of 1912 for a six months’ study of the structure and upkeep of the championship courses of Great Britain. These were St. Andrews, Muirfield, Prestwick, Sandwich, Westward Ho!, Hoylake and Deal—all are by the sea, in links-land.”
Hunter’s six-month study tour of Britain’s links courses allowed him to distance himself, geographically and emotionally, from the internecine conflicts of the Socialist Party and other pressures inherent in his social activism. The respite it provided enabled him to return to the fray with renewed energy. Through his writings and speeches, he resumed his campaign to promote public understanding of the kind of socialism that he and his moderate colleagues like Eugene Debs, Victor Berger and Morris Hillquit advocated, and to decry the violent revolutionary approach embraced by the likes of Big Bill Haywood of the Industrial Workers of the World—the infamous Wobblies—and his allies. His books Violence and the Labor Movement (1914) and Labor in Politics (1915) best represent his view that violence was counterproductive and that, if the unions and workers in general exercised their political power effectively, they would be unstoppable.
Hunter and the moderates seemed to be winning these arguments until World War I broke out in Europe in 1914 and the Socialist Party was torn apart over disagreement about America’s proper role in that conflict. Many American Socialists, including Hunter, were disillusioned to see their European comrades take up arms against each other after repeated vows never again to fight the capitalists’ wars. Especially distressing was the fact that the powerful German Socialist Party voted to underwrite the Kaiser’s war machine. In Germany and, indeed, throughout Europe, patriotism superseded worker solidarity.
As long as the United States stood on the sidelines, debate among American Socialists about the country’s role was heated but not a mortal threat to Party unity. However, once America declared war in 1917, the stakes escalated dramatically. The Party as a whole opposed the war and many of its most prominent members were tireless in their antiwar activities, especially in their vocal resistance to the draft Congress soon enacted. These actions not only enraged patriotic Americans but led to government suppression of Socialist Party activities and harsh prison sentences for many of its leading figures, including Debs, Berger and Rose Pastor Stokes, Hunter’s sister-in-law.
On the other hand, a significant portion of the Party leadership felt bound to support the war effort, because they believed that a victory for German militarism would be a serious threat to freedom in Europe and to world peace. In essence, their view was that the Kaiser needed to be defeated before the evils of capitalism could be addressed.
The damaging conflicts that split the Socialist movement and the oppressive actions of the government during the war paled in comparison to the irreparable divisions and the harsh measures taken by the government during the postwar “Red Scare.” Thousands of suspected “Reds” were rounded up in massive government raids and many were imprisoned or deported. With the consolidation of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia by the 1920s, socialism in America was dealt a fatal wound from which it never recovered.
Disillusioned, disengaged and in ill health once again, Hunter moved to California. From 1918 to 1922, he taught courses in sociology and economics at the University of California at Berkeley, and continued to study revolutionary movements. While at Berkeley he also began to put his earlier studies of links courses into practice.
Hunter’s first project in golf course design and construction was as Chair of the Greens Committee of the Berkeley Country Club (Mira Vista). While the esteemed Willie Watson was the “name” architect and gave his seal of approval to Hunter’s plans and the final product, the records show that Hunter carried the project through from beginning to end. A similar pattern followed at the Meadow Club in Marin County, although the “name” architect in this case was Alister MacKenzie.
Hunter met MacKenzie during his travels in Britain and developed a great admiration for him. Hunter considered the Old Course at St. Andrews to be the best in the world and MacKenzie’s initial claim to fame was for his work in restoring that ancient course to its original glory. Like many other first-time visitors to St. Andrews (such as Sam Snead, who said, “Until you play it, St. Andrews looks like the sort of real estate you couldn’t give away”), Hunter was initially disappointed with what he found there. However, with each successive visit he came to love it more, writing that he would “rather play that course for the rest of my life than any other I know.” Hunter urged MacKenzie to come to California. His talents were needed, Hunter pleaded, and the opportunities for design commissions were abundant. He pressed the Meadow Club to hire MacKenzie, and eventually the two formed a partnership to take on the project, though once again it was Hunter who carried the freight.
Hunter handled the Meadow Club project from Pebble Beach, having moved there in 1922 after a fire destroyed his Berkeley home. His move to Pebble Beach put him in contact with many of the people who had resolved to make this area one of the choicest pieces of real estate in America. These included Samuel Morse, a relative of the inventor of the telegraph and the principal developer of the Monterey Peninsula, and Marion Hollins, the 1921 Women’s Amateur Champion, who developed Cypress Point with Morse’s financial backing and personal support. Hollins would later participate with MacKenzie in the design of the Augusta National course, and after that she went on to develop her own course, Pasatiempo, near Santa Cruz, in collaboration with MacKenzie and Hunter.
Hollins had originally given the Cypress Point commission to Seth Raynor, but when he died in January 1926, she turned to MacKenzie. MacKenzie agreed to take on the assignment in partnership with his friend and local resident, Hunter, who provided hands-on supervision of the project while MacKenzie maintained his involvement in his numerous projects in other locations around the world. The actual construction of Cypress Point, as golf architect and historian Geoff Shackelford has noted, was conducted “under the banner of the American Golf Course Construction Company, partly owned by MacKenzie and . . . headed by Robert Hunter’s young son, Robert, Jr.”
That the product of the MacKenzie-Hunter collaboration was masterful was immediately evident. When golfing legends like Cruikshank, Armour and H.J. Whigham saw what had been accomplished at Cypress Point, they showered praise upon the course. As the local newspaper, the Peninsula Herald, reported in 1928, all of these authorities “declared the Cypress Point course worthy of a place among the greatest links in the world.” In the almost eighty years since then, that judgment has been sustained. Shackelford calls it “the most stunning creation in the history of golf course architecture.”
Cypress Point [credit: Tony Roberts/CORBIS]
Other major design and construction projects in which Hunter was a key player included the Monterey Peninsula, Green Hills and Northwood Clubs. Two additional achievements are especially noteworthy. The first was the major reconstruction work that the MacKenzie-Hunter team did to prepare Pebble Beach for the 1929 U.S. Amateur Championship, and the other was the development of the Valley Club of Montecito, near Santa Barbara. At first, Hunter traveled from his home in Pebble Beach to oversee the preliminary planning process for the course. However, once the construction process was underway, the Hunter family moved to a new home close to the golf course, from which he oversaw its completion and became a founding member. Although he continued for a brief period thereafter to provide consultation to MacKenzie and Robert, Jr., on ongoing design and construction projects like Pasatiempo, he gradually reduced his direct involvement and soon retired completely.
Hunter may have retired from golf course design and construction, but not from political activism. When the Great Depression struck, Hunter began to re-engage in public affairs. Once again, he sought to influence social, political and economic events, although no longer in a radical direction. In his final book, Revolution: Why, How and When? (1940), which he called his “last will and testament”, Hunter cited historical evidence and contemporary developments in Russia, Germany and Italy to support his warning that the United States was in danger of repeating the disasters that had occurred in those countries. Following the instability created by war, misguided fiscal policies had led to uncontrolled inflation, ruinous debasement of the currency, social and economic disorder, revolution, counter-revolution and dictatorships of the Left or Right. He had repeatedly seen social movements on behalf of the economically and politically oppressed hijacked by self-seeking and power-hungry individuals and their cronies, with disastrous results. He believed that similar dangerous trends were evident in America in the 1930s, and he feared that democracy could be at risk. Therefore, despite the imperfections of capitalism and the continuing pain of the Great Depression, he affirmed his belief that the democratic free enterprise system held out the greatest promise for social and economic justice for all:
Democracy is a clumsy, awkward thing and capitalism is too often a game of chance in which millions lose and win. Yet with all this and much more admitted . . . those areas which have permitted democracy and capitalism to bear their fruit have given to the people of high and low degree the highest standard of living ever known to the inhabitants of the earth.
Up to the time of his death in 1942, Hunter actively propounded the message contained in Revolution and continued to express vigorously his views on how the country should be organized, politically and economically, so that the needs of its citizens might best be served without putting their rights in jeopardy.
Robert Hunter’s twin passions—golf and social justice—sit together better than they may first appear. One can easily get the impression that Hunter, always a wealthy man who never had to work, could never figure out the difference between a true avocation and a hobby. There seemed times when politics was the former and golf the latter; other times when it seemed the reverse. This is not entirely fair, for his radical impulses, even when he was enthusiastically embracing socialism, were always concerned with “leveling up” the social classes rather than being aimed at some bland egalitarianism. When asked in his early social-reform days in Chicago how a person like him, who had such an affection for marble bathtubs, could also be a champion of the poor, he replied that he wanted the poor to have marble bathtubs, too.
This same attitude was evident in his love of golf. Impressed by the mix of classes he observed playing together on the public links at St. Andrews, Hunter hypothesized that golf could be a democratizing force in America. People of all ranks and stations in life could enjoy healthy outdoor activity and amiable competition while mastering the challenges of what he viewed as the best of all games. If this could be achieved, he wondered, “Should we then have any fear of class hatred or class conflict increasing amongst us?” Hunter would be astonished and gratified to witness the degree to which his vision of golf as a pastime for all the people has come to fruition, not just in America, but in much of the world. One thing, at least, is the same: That 16th hole at Pebble Beach is still beautiful, and it’s still a real killer.