Date: Wed 03 Apr 2013

The design mystery of the Mayfair Golf Course of Sanford, Florida

By Paul R. Dunn, former Historian of the Pinehurst Country Club, and co-author of Great Donald Ross Golf Courses You Can Play, Derrydale Press, Lanham, Maryland, © 2001.

Mayfair sign

In doing research for the book, Great Donald Ross Golf Courses You Can Play, my wife Betty Jane Dunn and I identified 336 golf courses in the United States, Canada, Nova Scotia and Cuba that have been ascribed to Donald Ross for architectural design, and/or original construction or subsequent remodeling. All were contacted by us and many visited and played. One of them is the Mayfair Country Club, (formerly known as the Sanford Golf Club) located on land owned by the City of Sanford, Florida.

We discovered the legacy of Donald Ross, the famed golf course architect, soon after moving from Greenwich, Connecticut to the scene of much of his fame, Pinehurst, North Carolina. When we learned that most members of the Pinehurst Country Club had little knowledge of where Ross’ courses were located, we decided to produce a book that would illustrate Ross’ courses, advise the reader where they were located, provide an historic overview and current score card information. We proposed what would ultimately become a 291-page book to three well-known publishers of golf books, and were pleasantly surprised when a publisher with no history of printing golf books offered to publish our tome. When asked why he’d offered to do so, the answer was, “because I’m a golfer and I love to play Donald Ross courses.” Enough said.

We elected to limit the edition to just 100 locations that were either semi-private, public or resort courses. In other words, courses open to public play. No private courses were included.

A small Directory of Golf Courses Designed by Donald Ross, compiled by W Pete Jones and published by Martini Print Media, Inc of Raleigh, NC, served as a starting point in developing our book. It was in its 13th edition and was sold at the Tufts Archives located in Pinehurst. A search of myriad golf history resources, including period newspapers and magazines, provided additional information. We discovered that several of the courses listed by Jones had not been designed by Ross. It is possible that when Jones did his research those venues may have been improperly advertised as Donald Ross courses. We failed to include Ross’ 1931 Jeffersonville Golf Municipal Golf Course located in Norristown, Pennsylvania, which only came to our attention after publication date.

The Tufts Archives hold extensive correspondence between Ross and Tufts family members who owned and managed the Pinehurst Country Club and Resort, including several hundred architectural drawings of his courses. Although there are countless letters and memos covering roughly 50 years between Ross and the Tufts, almost every bit of correspondence between Ross and the owners or managers of the courses he designed were burned after he died by Ross’ personal assistant, Eric Nelson. Richard Tufts, former President of the USGA and General Manager of Pinehurst, wrote to Nelson criticizing his destruction of those priceless Ross records. The loss of that correspondence has made it difficult for golf historians to fully understand the historic record related to his master works. No correspondence or architectural drawings related to the Sanford or Mayfair Golf Club of Sanford, Florida have been found at the Tufts Archives

Seminole County Historical Commissions sign which is located in front of the club house at Mayfair. The message lists Donald Ross as course architect.

Seminole County Historical Commissions sign which is located in front of the club house at Mayfair. The message lists Donald Ross as course architect.

In order for a golf course to qualify for consideration as a Ross design in our book we required prospective courses to provide answers to a detailed questionnaire, which included public availability of play, description of the course by hole, facilities available to the public, history of the course (including names of famous people and golfers who’d played the course), and the identity of those holes which, “remain the same today as when Donald Ross designed them.” We asked if the course was advertised as a Donald Ross course and details of any prominent tournaments held. Quotes from famous players, score card information and current and historic photos were provided, including releases for their use. Copies of architectural drawings were occasionally provided. A certification from club management that it was a Ross course was required.

The Mayfair Country Club of Sanford, Florida, which the lease holding operators listed as a Semi-private course, was conceived by Syd Chase, a local citrus grower in 1920. Accompanying the certification from Mayfair’s General Manager were two color photographs showing a large two-sided metal sign which was erected on the site by the Seminole County Historical Commission in 1998. It reads in part, “The City of Sanford bought 152 acres in 1922 and hired noted golf architect Donald Ross to design an 18-hole municipal golf course, which opened in October 1922 as the Sanford Country Club with only 4 holes completed. In September 1924 the entire course was opened with greens fees of $1.00 a day for visitors, $.50 for city residents and 30 daily tickets for $10.00.”

No other course that we contacted reported having a sign on its property from an historical commission attesting to its provenance. When I sought to interview the three commissioners who had determined that the Sanford course had been designed by Ross, I discovered that all three had died. Unfortunately the commission did not keep records providing the basis for its findings. But it may be significant that when the commissioners reached their conclusions on the provenance of Mayfair they had access to Architects of Golf, (©1981 and 1993) by Ron Whitten and Geoffrey Cornish, which had attributed Mayfair’s earliest design to Cuthbert Butchart. (born 1876 Carnoustie, Scotland, died Ossining, NY, 1955). If the commissioners had read that claim, they did not heed it because they credited Ross with the course design.

I consider the Seminole County Historical Commissioner’s sign significant for several reasons: it was erected roughly 76 years after the course was first built. Thousands of locals and visitors had played Mayfair as club members, guests and later as public course players. If it had not been known locally as a Ross course, there would have been a hue and cry when the sign was erected by all who had long believed it to be a Ross design. Research has not discovered any public comments criticizing the commissioners for reaching the conclusions they did about Mayfair’s provenance. It is also hard to comprehend why three members of an Historical Commission would falsify the provenance of a course. When I contacted George Thomas, a 30-year member of the Historical Commission about the Historical Commission’s sign he stated, “We also have many long term residents who have played or managed the course who will swear it is a Donald Ross course.”

Richard Cleary, then the course General Manager, reported that Mayfair (formerly Sanford) had a distinguished history. It was a former professional tour stop from 1958 to 1961 with an open event held annually. It attracted top players of the day, including Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Julius Boros, Don January, Doug Ford, Tony Lema, Moe Norman and Gene Littler. Cleary quoted Moe Norman saying in 1992 that Hole #7 was, “the best par 3 in Central Florida.” In 1953 the course was leased to the New York Giant’s baseball farm team, which conducted spring training there until 1965. The team has kept no records related to the leasing or the operation of the course.

Cleary indicated that in his opinion most of the holes at Mayfair remained largely unchanged from when Ross had designed them. The fact that the course had attracted so many top golfers was an indication of a notable design pedigree.

In our book we indicated the number of times that Donald Ross courses had been selected by the USGA for open tournament play. As of 1999 there had been 100 US Open Tournaments held. (None were held during World Wars I and II). Ross courses had been selected 20 times, and several times since.

When Mayfair, then called Sanford, was designed and built, Donald Ross was at his busiest in the state of Florida. (He ultimately designed 30 courses there). One in particular, Timuquana Country Club in Jacksonville is noteworthy because Joshua Chase, a member of its board of directors when it was built, was the brother of Syd Chase, the owner of the citrus grove property upon which Mayfair would be built. In correspondence that has survived, Joshua Chase wrote to his brother Syd Chase singing the praises of the designer of Timuquana who happened to be Donald Ross.

Much of Syd Chase’s correspondence has been preserved in the files of his corporation, Sunniland. It includes letters to several course architects Chase considered as possible course designers over a period of several years. Had Butchart designed the course there would have been no reason for such correspondence. And important to note, there is no correspondence in Chase’s records between Chase and Butchart.

Many discussions I’ve had with Mayfair course employees confirmed that they believed the course was a Ross venue and more importantly, that residents who belonged to the course shared that belief.

Hole # 1 green looking back to the club house

Hole # 1 green looking back to the club house

Over 20 years ago, Ron Whitten, noted course architect and golf writer at Golf Digest magazine, credited the design work at Sanford to Scottish golf professional Cuthbert Butchart, who had been a contemporary of Ross in Scotland. They both competed in the British Open. Whitten reiterated that claim again February 9, 2009 in an edition of GolfWorld.com, writing “We think the confusion occurred when the course was renamed Seminole and sold to the owner of the New York Giants baseball team. When the Giants left for San Francisco, the course was sold again, and the new owner started advertising that he had a Donald Ross design. Ross did design Seminole, but its farther south in Juno Beach. We’ve played that Seminole. We’ve played Mayfair. Mayfair is no Seminole.” The next operators of the course were the Whelchel family and according to Mike Whelchel they always believed that Donald Ross designed Mayfair.

In October of 2011 Rene Stuzman of he Orlando Sentinel quotes Whitten as saying, “The mix-up about Ross probably happened because for a time Mayfair was called the Seminole Country Club, and Ross had designed a course with a similar name – Seminole Golf Club in Palm Beach in 1929.” I’ve found no references to the Sanford Golf Club ever being called the Seminole Golf Club. Cecil Tucker of the historical commission advises that the course was never called “Seminole.” It is hard to imagine that the Seminole Golf Club, which was Ross’ second greatest design achievement; (right after Pinehurst No. 2) would have quietly assented to another Florida course adopting its famous name.

Having played the course, I find it not unlike many Ross venues laid out on relatively flat ground. As a matter of fact, in the book, Golf Has Never Failed Me, Sleeping Bear Press, 1996, Ross is quoted, “I have come to the conclusion that I prefer to lay out a course on level ground. The Seminole Course, near Palm Beach is an example of what can be done with that type of terrain.” To my eye Mayfair looks and plays very much like many other Ross courses I’ve played, particularly those located in Florida and the Carolinas.

After the First World War, Cuthbert Butchart, who had been interned by Germany, came to America as the resident golf professional at the Westchester-Biltmore Country Club. He wintered in Florida, including a brief visit to Sanford in 1921. A Sanford Weekly Herald of March 18, 1921 headline reported, “Sanford Golf Links Have Been Laid Out by The Great Butchart, Who is the Best in Europe and America.” Butchart is quoted, “Sanford is fortunate in the location of the new 18-hole golf course. The land has the right gradients, every hole will be first-class and the green will be one that can well be styled unique in the golfing world.” The reporter noted that Butchart had “laid off property at the direction of J.D. Hood for the new Lakefront Hotel Company at Crystal Lake.” The reporter writes, “The new links are situated on the shores of Crystal Lake and will rank with the best in the country and will soon become the favorites with the enthusiastic golfers, especially those in search for the best.” Never modest, Butchart claimed to have “laid off 2000 greens in all parts of the world and they will compare favorably with anything in Europe…be equal to any in America…and better than any in Florida.”

My belief is that Butchart spent no time at the then future site of Mayfair, or visited with Syd Chase. What he apparently did was stake out a course for J.D. Hood and the operators of the Lakefront Hotel Company at the shores of Crystal Lake, an orange grove site approximately one mile from Mayfair’s location. The investors listed in that enterprise did not include Syd Chase, the owner of the land on which the Sanford course was ultimately built. (Cecil Tucker doubts the Lakefront course was ever built and I’ve found no press reports connecting Butchart with either the Mayfair course or to Syd Chase.

Mayfair - unidentified hole

During this period Syd Chase was writing to many prominent and not so prominent golf course architects, including Tom Bendelow, for advice before selecting one to design Sanford. Bendelow had been asked to give Chase his opinion of Cameron Trent, a man who had applied for the job as course builder. Chase writes him on March 22, 1922, “The Sanford Golf Club is just organizing for the work of laying out the golf course and making the greens.” Bendelow, who knew the younger Trent, warned Chase that, “Trent works best following someone else’s plans.” A week later Bendelow writes Chase, “I know Mr. Cameron Trent very well and he has taken charge of simple golf course construction, after the course has been laid out and plans given. As to whether he is able to lay out a golf course I cannot say. I do not believe he has ever done it before. He is a very nice young man. Were you to build anything, house or factory, I do not believe you would go about it this way. Get a man whose business it is to lay out golf courses, and when you get his plans get anyone you can to work with them, then you’ll have something you can depend on. It may cost you a little more but it will be according to your finances and will have a prestige about it that otherwise you won’t get.” (Bendelow’s business records reveal he never did any design work in Sanford.)

A March 15, 1922 letter to Syd Chase from his brother, Joshua advises that, “The golf expert laying out the new country club is due here in the next few days…will see him about taking the Sanford job. Mr. John Roe, the President of the new club, (Timuquana Country Club in Jacksonville) considers him the best golf course engineer in the country and by spending a day with you he could map out the work to be done on a nine-hole course and also map out the additional nine holes which could be worked on later, and would do this at a very moderate charge.” The course architect Joshua Chase was referring to was Donald Ross, who was at that time the designer of Timuquana.

An important fact: almost 13 months after The New York Times announced that Butchart had “laid out a course in Sanford,” we find that Syd Chase has received a letter from his brother indicating the “Sanford job was yet to be filled.”

The same month a letter received by Syd Chase describes the talents of “William Langford, a Yale graduate who has taken up golf engineering and landscape gardening.” Chase had written to Langford asking for terms to design and build a course at Sanford. Walter Fairbanks is also written to by Chase as a possible architect candidate.

A March 27, 1922 letter from Syd Chase’s secretary to William Langford of West Palm Beach reads, “Your name was given to me by Mr. Walter Fairbanks who thought possibly you might be interested in mapping out a golf course in Sanford. A number of leading people in this place have recently purchased a tract of land which is to be developed into a Country club and Golf Course. They wish to begin construction in the near future of a nine-hole course and will want someone to lay this off, having in mind nine additional holes at some time in the future. In the event you would be interested in taking this matter up, will you kindly write upon receipt of this to S.O. Chase…stating terms, etc for a visit to the place, a survey, with a map showing the greens, hazards, and full instructions to be followed in getting the course in shape in event you were not in position to give it your entire supervision until completed.”

Mayfair - unidentified hole

On April 20, 1922 the Sanford Herald reports the Sanford course is being constructed by Cameron Trent. It states, “There are now 50 men and teams clearing the fairways…the first five holes are practically completed. Many of our local people are members of the club. Practice expected in May.” The reporter noted, “Present plans are but for a nine-hole course. An 18-hole course will gradually be built when finances permit.” Syd Chase is reported to be “energetically working to complete this project, which he fathered as Chairman of the Golf Course Committee of the Sanford Chamber of Commerce.” No correspondence or news reports identify the architect of the project at this stage of development.

On February 1, 1923 Syd Chase wrote W.H. Adams of Jacksonville, Florida advising, “We have laid out a very attractive course, renovated the old residence, and rapidly approaching a finished condition, not only as regards to grounds but as to the house.”

The April 20, 1924 Sanford Journal reports, “The original nine holes were practically obliterated and Sanford now possesses an entirely new course.” The obliteration is not described. It could be a reference to possible hurricane damage or to changes ordered by course management or by a newly appointed architect. Checks of the 1923 and 1924 Hurricane seasons show frequent tropical storms and the occasional hurricane, but none are reported to have caused extensive wind damage to northern Florida. Storm flooding could have occurred requiring amelioration by the ground crews. What may have happened is that when the last nine holes were added the architect in charge made changes to the original nine holes to give it more unity of design.

On September 27, 1924 the Sanford Herald reports, “18-hole course to open to public play first time tomorrow.” No mention is made of the course architect. It does cite W.E. Clark who was “secured by the city authorities to supervise the layout of the links and advises Clark was retained by the City of Sanford as “Supervisor of the Links.” No copies of the following newspaper edition have been found, so there’s no way to know who attended the opening day events, including famous players if any, or the course architect if one had been specifically hired for the job.

In later years the reputation of the course grows: The American Golfer Magazine for January, 1926 reports, “Sanford has a fine course to offer.” March, 1926, Golf Illustrated Magazine reports, “Johnny Farrell won the Central Florida 72-hole medal play golf tournament at Sanford beating Walter Hagen by one stroke.” March, 1927, The American Golfer Magazine in a photographic article “What Ponce de Leon did for Golf,” Sanford’s 17th green is illustrated. 1929, American Golfer Magazine cites Sanford with other “first class facilities.” The fact Sanford attracted such talented players suggests it was a first class golfing venue. Generally, a course given high press praise and play by the world’s best golfers will have been designed by a leading architect, and not by a virtual unknown.

Two years ago I was able to locate Mike Whelchel. He and his father, Hugh Whelchel had leased and operated the Mayfair course following its management by the New York Giants, as did Mike’s brother-in-law after Mike retired. When interviewed, Mike attested to the Ross design, saying that when famous touring pros played the course, sometimes staying at their home, they always credited its design to Ross. He indicated that when he made design changes to the course he typically raised the greens giving them a “turtleback” look to emulate the look of Ross courses he’d often visited. I see no logical reason for Whelchel to have elevated the greens to achieve that particular look unless he strongly believed Ross was the original designer.

The score card provided to the authors by the course in 1999 read: “Public Welcome. Donald Ross Championship Par 72, est. 1920.” It is unlikely that a city that owns a public golf course would list Ross as the designer if it knew someone else had designed the course. (Since the earliest date of construction is 1922, the 1920 date probably represents when the course was organized by Syd Chase and local supporters of the club).

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt kept an old golf ball on his desk at the White House. He loved the game from the time when his father built him a 6-hole course on their estate at Hyde Park, NY. In his early teens he was shooting in the 80s. In 1899 as secretary of Maine’s Campobello Golf Club he designed and supervised the enlargement of tees and greens and won the club championship in 1904. He played until stopped by polio at age 39, in 1921. In 1926 Roosevelt commissioned Donald Ross to design a 9-hole course for his guests to play at Warm Springs, Georgia. It is still in operation.

As president during the Great Depression, FDR insisted that golf courses be included in public works projects constructed to create jobs during that period of high unemployment. The Works Project Administration built 386 courses nationwide in just its first 18 months. The WPA remodeled the course at Sanford, Florida in 1937-1938. The paper records for all WPA golf course projects were converted to film during the war. The film records for the Sanford location have been lost. It has therefore not been possible to learn if the US government called upon Ross to remodel Sanford, however it is known that many WPA courses were designed by him. He was well-known to WPA officials and to the president. When the WPA project was launched the city of Sanford hired the architect, engaged the contractors and paid their fees being reimbursed by the federal government. Neither Sanford nor the US government has records indicating who was paid, so one cannot determine if the Seminole County Historical Commissioners considered the 1937-38 remodeling project work done by Ross or not. Because the commissioners’ sign specifically credited Ross with the design for 1922, it is fair to assume they could not determine if Ross had done the 1937-38 remodeling work.

Conclusions:

There are many facts to support the conclusion that Donald Ross designed the present day Mayfair golf course. The Seminole County Historical Commission obviously felt this to be an historic fact since it installed its historic landmark sign on the property. And most significantly, had their attribution been in error, many old-timers in town would have questioned them on it. But none did. The sign is still standing prominently in front of the course attesting to Ross’ architectural design work at Sanford. The memories of members of the Whelchel family, whom the Historical Commissioners interviewed, further reinforce the commission’s findings that the public never ascribed the course to Cuthbert Butchart or to any golf architect other than Donald Ross.

When Donald Ross was at his busiest stage of course creation in the State of Florida Ross knew Joshua Chase from the time he spent designing the Timuquaua course in Jacksonville. Ross and his associates spent not months but years in the general area; plenty of time for Ross to visit with Joshua Chase’s brother Syd and either consult on plans being formed to build the 1922 course, or to actually develop plans to be followed by the men hired by the City of Sanford when it constructed the full 18-hole course in 1924.

To date no City of Sanford records have been found to show who was paid to provide architectural drawings for the Mayfair course either in the 1920s or 1930s.

Ross could also have also contributed to the modification designs of the course during its WPA phase, 1936-37. He had designed a course for President Roosevelt and built many courses under the aegis of the WPA. The US government’s destruction of its records related to Sanford has made it impossible to establish this connection.

I believe it is doubtful that Cuthbert Butchart did anything more at Sanford, Florida than stake out a distant citrus grove property. It is far from the property that would one day become the Sanford Golf Club, later known as the Mayfair Golf Club. The fact that Butchart described the property he worked on to the press as having been “laid off at the direction of J.D. Hood for the new Lakefront Hotel Company at Crystal Lake,” means that the course he was describing was not the present day Mayfair course. That’s because the Mayfair course is at least one mile from Crystal Lake.

Was the course originally designed by Cameron Trent? This is unlikely, but for that to have happened Syd Chase would have had to disregard the strong advice of Tom Bendelow, (who thought Trent too young and inexperienced), and the advice of his own brother Joshua, who was currently building a course (Timuquana C.C.) in Jacksonville using Ross as the architect.

The majority of courses Ross designed were not visited by him in person, but by his engineering associates who would direct the efforts of local contractors. Whether or not Trent performed such a contractor role for Ross and his associates we do not know, but it would not have been unusual to have happened just that way. This is a strong possibility in 1924, when Ross would have had a more time to execute the architectural plans required for an 18-hole course.

It its heyday Sanford was heralded in national golf publications as a course of superior quality. As such it attracted the nation’s top players. Later in the 1950s and 1960s it would host important professional tournaments. Typically courses drawing such generous press attention and praise usually stand as testimony to the designer. I find it unlikely that a first effort by the untested Cameron Trent is likely to have fathered the fine course that was ultimately developed at Sanford.

Having played the course I can attest to the fact that it has the feel of a Ross course laid out on level, sandy soil not unlike those which I play regularly in the Sandhills of North Carolina. Based upon all the evidence we now have, the course Syd Chase envisioned over 90 years ago, which has been affected by war, hurricanes, WPA remodeling and various operators’ changes appears to have been designed by Donald Ross.

April 2013

Golf Course Design
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