based on "Talamore at Oak Terrace" by Dr. James Hilty. Edited for the web site. The complete paper with references is available in our archives.
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Pine Run Country Club and Alexander Findlay -- Brushing Against Golf Immortality
Pine Run Country Club
Golf came to Horsham Township in 1923. Immediately after Henry Pratt McKean’s death, his wife and sons divided the estate, selling off Pine Ridge and 128 acres of Pine Run Farms to a group of investors headed by Ambler businessman Joseph H. Fretz, the owner of the Hotel Ambler and several commercial properties along Butler Pike and Main Street. Fretz and his colleagues established Pine Run Country Club, with intentions, according to Fretz, of offering facilities “for almost every form of outdoor sport, including golfing, polo, tennis, trap shooting, baseball, steeple chasing, horse racing, and swimming.” The 52-room McKean mansion was quickly converted into a clubhouse with sleeping rooms for members, several dining rooms, locker rooms, billiard rooms and gymnasium.
Pine Run members laid out a crude nine-hole links course within the bounds of McKean’s former pasturelands and riding trails. The roughly hewn layout obviously failed members’ needs and Fretz’s high expectations, for Fretz soon proposed a complete redesign of the existing nine holes and announced plans for construction of an additional nine. For this task he commissioned the famous Scottish golfer and architect, Alexander Findlay (1865-1942).
Introduction of Golf to the US
While Henry P. McKean had busied himself assembling land for Pine Run Farms, the game of golf crossed the Atlantic and taken firm hold, its popularity virtually exploding among America’s wealthier leisure class. In 1894 the first American interclub matches were held between The Country Club (Brookline, Massachusetts), Shinnecock Hills (New York), the Chicago Golf Club, St. Andrews in Yonkers, and the Newport (Rhode Island) Country Club. The same year those clubs formed the Amateur Golf Association of America. The next year they changed their name to the United States Golf Association (USGA), which has remained the game’s governing body in America ever since. In 1895 the USGA conducted its first U.S. Open Championship. Two years later, members of Aronimink, Merion, Philadelphia Country Club, and Philadelphia Cricket Club founded the Golf Association of Philadelphia.
The popularity of golf and its rapid development in America owed nearly everything to a group of pioneering Scottish teachers, architects, skilled professionals and promoters of the game, who immigrated to the US in the 1880s and early 1890s. The Scottish pros sought to bridge the gap between the two countries and their contrasting approaches to the game. But differences abounded.
In Scotland the game evoked a democratic atmosphere. Golf courses were established in the linkslands, or public lands on and around the coastal shores, where, with little labor, golf holes could be molded from natural terrain and then opened to anyone. The "golf club" was an organization of individuals who gathered at the public linkslands (or links) for golf matches and social events.
In America the initial expense of the game fostered class division. Most of America’s earliest golf courses were expensive man-made creations on private lands, requiring substantial labor and extensive schemes for moving and molding earth. Designing, building, operating, and maintaining American golf courses required considerable sums of money, and so American golf clubs began as private enclaves for their wealthy founders and members who shared the costs. Yet, by 1895 the US boasted 112 golf courses, which exceeded the number in Scotland, golf’s homeland.
Americans hired Scottish professionals to design and build the courses, to make and supply the golfing equipment, and to teach the game to wealthy members of the new clubs and, eventually, to a large and interested middle class. From the late 1880's into the early 1900's, thousands upon thousands of American golfers learned the game from a few hundred Scottish teaching professionals. It was a Scottish professional who taught the great Francis Ouimet the skills he needed to reorder the world's golfing hierarchy when in 1913 he defeated the redoubtable Scottish professional Harry Vardon, thus becoming the first American Amateur to win the US Open.
The popularity of golf declined during World War I (1914-1918) and its growth was slowed by a postwar recession (1919-1922), but surged during the “Roaring Twenties” and the “golden age of sport.” Each year between 1923 and 1929 more than 600 new golf facilities were built and the number would grow annually until the Depression took hold in 1931.
The Pennlyn Club
Golf had a promising early beginning in the Gwynedd-Horsham area, but it was slow to take hold. The first local attempt at organizing a golf club and building a course occurred in September 1897, when J. Waln Vaux, Henry McKean Ingersoll, and a few select friends organized the Penllyn Club. They authorized an expenditure of seven dollars -- yes, $7.00 -- to hire a landscape architect, and he laid out a five-hole course that operated until the fall of 1902. The course, located somewhere near Penllyn Pike and Gypsy Hill Road, was crudely rendered. Reflecting back, R. Sturgis Ingersoll admitted, “I suppose there had never been a worse golf course.” (You get what you pay for.) Whatever the reasons, by the fall of 1902, according to Ingersoll, the course was “returned to the cows and died.” Thereafter members of the Penllyn Club devoted their energies to polo and cross-country riding.
Gentle readers are forgiven for not recognizing Alexander Findlay, a name alien to contemporary ears. Findlay has not received near the attention he deserves. One hears more about his compatriot Donald Ross, whose revered status among golfers and course designers grows each year. Yet, Alexander Findlay's impact on the game and his place in its history are also worthy of attention, not only because of his early connection to Talamore at Oak Terrace, but also because of his many contributions to the game of golf itself, which in his day earned him acclaim as "The Father of American Golf."
To begin, Alexander Findlay ranks among the game's greatest players. Among his many golfing feats, Findlay was the first golfer in history to record a 72, or an average of four strokes a hole over 18 holes; this he accomplished in a championship match in Montrose, Scotland held August 6, 1886, when he was only twenty years old. Findlay is thus credited by golf historians with establishing the standard score for par (72) on a regulation course. Prior to Findlay’s brilliant breakthrough the standard or target score (par) for 18 holes was an average of four and one-half strokes a hole, or 81.
Findlay left Scotland in 1887, immigrating to America, taking his golf clubs and gutta-percha balls with him, finally landing a job managing a ranch in Nebraska. There, on the Merchiston Ranch, about 130 miles west of Omaha, Findlay constructed and played golf on a six-hole layout. The date was April 4, 1887, or ten months before John Reid played a round of golf in Yonkers, New York on his three-hole layout (later dubbed St. Andrews), then claimed by easterners to be the first course and the first round ever played in the United States. St. Andrews moved on four occasions before being settled in 1897 at Mount Hope, New York. Even though Reid is credited with establishing the first permanent golf club, golf historians ought to rightly attribute Alex Findlay with building the first golf course and striking the first golf shot in the USA.
Findlay's primitive Nebraska course attracted such golf acolytes as William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody and the Sioux Chief Sitting Bull. All the same, the Cornhuskers, cowboys, and Indians somehow resisted the game’s allure, and the first golf course in America survived for only a year or so. Findlay remained in Nebraska another ten years, moved to Omaha, organized and built the Omaha Golf Club, offered free lessons, and promoted the game of golf at every opportunity.
In 1897 Findlay gave up ranching, decided to make golf his profession, and moved east, where the game was flourishing. After a ten-year hiatus from competition, Findlay’s playing skills never quite returned to their prior eminence, but he competed at the highest levels, scoring well in national competitions, eventually amassing records at several hundred different courses. He also performed exhibitions, offered the earliest pictorial teaching aids, built and sold his own line of golf clubs, and became a tireless propagandist and promoter of the game. Findlay made and marketed his own line of golf clubs, “The A. H. Findlay Clubs” through Wright & Ditson sporting goods. Findlay worked in their Boston store, when he was not out demonstrating clubs, playing exhibitions, or designing courses.
Findlay sprinkled magic dust on American golf when he returned to Scotland in 1899 and persuaded Harry Vardon, then the game’s greatest player, to tour America the following year, giving exhibitions, playing in tournaments, and promoting the game. Vardon’s tour was a grand success. Vardon played eighty-eight matches, setting course records at nearly every venue and losing only once, by a 2 and 1 score to -- you guessed it -- Alex Findlay. Vardon capped off his American tour winning the 1900 US Open (despite missing a two-inch putt on the last hole). Inspired by Vardon and goaded by Findlay, Americans’ interest in golf surged. In 1913, after many years of poor health and a gargantuan struggle with the yips, Vardon returned, accompanied by his long-hitting countryman, Edward “Ted” Ray, intent on capturing another US Open title. Ray and Vardon completed 72 holes tied for the lead along with the young unheralded Massachusetts amateur, Francis Ouimet.
Ouimet defeated the two golfing behemoths in a rain-soaked, drama-packed 18-hole playoff, and in the process launched the game to unprecedented heights in America. Alex Findlay’s unmistakable aura reflected in the glistening raindrops of that soggy, yet glorious afternoon at The Country Club in Brookline, when American golf came of age. Not only had Findlay brought Vardon and Ray to America; he had also been responsible for Francis Ouimet owning his first real golf clubs. Francis's brother Wilfred sought out Findlay at the Wright & Ditson sporting goods store in Boston and, after some negotiating, traded seventy-two golf balls that Wilfred and Francis had found at The Country Club across the street from their home in exchange for an A. H. Findlay mashie and, later, an A. H. Findlay brassie.
Findlay left Boston in 1913, moved to Philadelphia, purchased a house in Germantown, and accepted a lucrative management position with John Wanamaker’s Department Store. Findlay moonlighted as a golf course designer, contributing over one hundred courses to American golf. Regarded as one of the famed “Philadelphia School” of golf course architects, Alex Findlay’s name often appears in golf histories alongside George Crump (Pine Valley), Hugh Wilson (Merion-East and Cobbs Creek), A. W. Tillinghast (Winged Foot and Bethpage-Black), William Flynn (Huntingdon Valley, Shinnecock Hills), in addition to the peripatetic Donald Ross (Aronimink, Lulu, Pinehurst No. 2) and the relative new-comers, Norristown’s George Fazio (Squires, Butler National) and his nephew, Tom Fazio (Wild Dunes, Shadow Creek, PGA National).
Donald Ross and Alexander Findlay courses bore a marked resemblance. Each designed courses to accommodate the game of golf as it existed early in the Twentieth Century, that is, a game played mostly on the ground, on shorter, tree-lined courses that placed a premium on accuracy and the player’s ability to hit run-up and pitch-and-run shots into small, heavily bunkered greens accessible from the front but not the rear or the sides. Such was the early design of Pine Run and its successors, Bankers and Oak Terrace.
Those early Ross and Findlay courses were almost immediately obsolete because of Coburn Haskell, an Akron bicycle manufacturer who started tinkering with rubber compounds in 1900 and eventually designed a new golf ball, consisting of a small, solid rubber core surrounded by tightly wound rubber threads enclosed by thin gutta-percha, and, later, a balata cover. Most players initially refused to play the “Bounding Billy,” as they called Haskell’s new ball, claiming it provided an undue advantage because it went so far. Such sportsmanlike concerns were soon put aside, as the desire, then, as now, to “grip it and rip it” soon overwhelmed American golfers almost as quickly as it overwhelmed the tiny Alex Findlay designed courses. Indeed, most of Findlay’s designs have gone the way of the feathery and gutta-percha.
A search of the Internet, golf course histories, books on golf course architecture, and sources in the USGA Library at Golf House, yields a fair idea of Findlay’s substantial influence on the game over the last century. Several of Findlay's Philadelphia-area designs are still in operation, among them the municipal courses at Walnut Lane (1930) and John F. Byrne (1940). Other Findlay courses in Pennsylvania still open for play (all subsequently redesigned, many by his son, Norman), include Aronimink (also credited to Ross), Pittsburgh Field Club, Coatesville, Reading, Centre Hills (State College), Llanerch (Havertown), and Green Pond (Bethlehem), plus several New Jersey designs, among them, Tavistock, Wildwood, Medford Lakes, and Pitman.
Findlay-designed courses can be found from Maine to Florida, Texas to Minnesota and at several of the country’s leading golf resorts. His 1894-designed Siaconset Golf Club on Nantucket has been called “a pasture golf gem,” where “true cow pasture golf” can still be played over one hundred years later. Siaconset’s unwatered fairways and tiny greens are design features members of the old Oak Terrace recall only too well.
Findlay’s other designs still available for play in the Northeast include, Granliden
The persuasive Findlay was a tireless emissary and promoter of the game. He coaxed John Wanamaker into taking up the game at age 80. Findlay even tried to persuade the Pope to play. In 1926 he traveled to the Vatican and proposed (unsuccessfully) to create a six-hole layout. Pope Pius XI apparently was no fan of the game. Perhaps his robes got in the way. In 1935 Findlay promoted an American tour of the English champion, Miss Joyce Wethered, which stimulated a spike of popularity in women’s golf. Findlay succumbed in 1942 at 75 and was buried in Philadelphia at Ivy Hill Cemetery.
Findlay was present on September 6, 1924 for the official opening of Pine Run Country Club. Philadelphia’s newspapers credit Findlay for redesigning the original links layout, although biographical sketches of Findlay retained by the USGA at Golf House do not list Pine Run among his accomplishments. One cannot be sure why that is so. Perhaps he contributed little more than his name to the project. More likely the absence of any mention of Pine Run in his portfolio is because Pine Run Country Club was defunct within a few years. All the same, Findlay gave a dedication speech that day and afterwards newspapers reported that “The Daddy of American Golf” who designed the course was given the honor of driving the first ceremonial ball from the first tee.
Newspaper reports describe Pine Run Country Club in 1924 as a “sporty” nine-hole track, with several doglegs, one water hole, and two of the greens “set back in the woods” compelling “perfect approaching.” The first hole was described as a long dogleg left and the second a short but difficult par four requiring a second shot over water. No design layouts, scorecards or other memorabilia survive. Beyond the newspaper accounts, not much otherwise may be discerned about the course. Newspapers reported that a second nine was completed and opened for play in the spring of 1925. Findlay’s plan called for pine trees to be planted along the fairways of the golf course. Some of those pines survive today and can be seen in several places at Talamore, such as bordering the left side of the third hole, which may be the one golf hole route remaining from the original Findlay design that has been continued in subsequent courses.
Reports on the size of the Pine Run Club differ dramatically. The Philadelphia North American reported 350 acres and the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin said it was 300 acres. The 1924 County tax records indicate the Pine Run Club paid taxes on 128 acres, but County real estate records show a transfer of 208 acres from the McKean estate to the club.
Whatever its size, John H. Fretz, Pine Run's president and major investor, had grand ambitions for the Club, telling Philadelphia newspapers that he eventually intended to build 45 holes of golf, 6 tennis courts, and a trap shooting range; that he intended to provide members with ice skating and skiing in the winter, a three and one-half mile steeplechase course, a polo field, an oval for horse shows, and stable accommodations for "over a hundred horses." When the club opened, twenty-five saddle horses and ponies were available for members who desired to engage in cross-country riding on the same trails used by H. P. McKean. McKean's chicken houses and cows provided fresh eggs and milk for the dining services at the club. Fretz told the press that he intended to operate the club along the lines of the Biltmore Club of New York, but with lower entrance fees and dues so as to attract "persons of moderate means."
Dr. James Hilty
Dr. James W. Hilty, retired Professor of History and Dean of Temple's Ambler campus, has written extensively about American politics, including Robert Kennedy: Brother Protector (Temple). He has provided political commentaries for various publications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and served as historical consultant to various news media, including C-SPAN, NBC News, NPR, and others. A Temple faculty member since 1970, Hilty also wrote the introduction to Marvin Wachman's The Education of a University President (Temple).