Southern Hills designer Perry Maxwell never won acclaim

Let’s play “match the architect to the course”, starting with Augusta National and Pine Valley.

If you said Alister MacKenzie and Harry Colt, you’re not wrong, but you left out a designer who touched them both.

No points for your omission.

Many people are unaware of Perry Maxwell’s complete portfolio, a hidden gem from the Gilded Age. From 1914, when he innovated on a course in his own backyard, until his death in 1952, Maxwell got his hands on a long and luminous list of projects. He fine-tuned National Golf Links of America and co-created Colonial. He has put his name, with full or partial credit, on Prairie Dunes, Crystal Downs and Old Town Club – all GOLF’s TOP 100 courses.

And we haven’t even made it to Oklahoma, where he’s built his most extensive body of work, highlighted by the Southern Hills Country Club, which hosts the PGA Championship next week. As a great dormant course, Maxwell has always been esteemed in architectural circles. But he cut a low-key profile that belied the size of his contributions.

“The big problem was that he wasn’t prolific on the coasts or in the big northeast markets, and he wasn’t the ‘hot’ architect like [Donald] Ross or MacKenzie,” says Christopher Clouser, author of The Midwestern Associate: The Life and Work of Perry Duke Maxwell. “The deeper you dig, the more you are struck by everything he has done.”

If the scope of his work seems unexpected, the same goes for the path he took in the field.

Born in Kentucky in 1879, Maxwell moved to Oklahoma, where golf was barely bigger than bobsledding. In the town of Ardmore, where he settled, two people played the game. Maxwell was not one of them. His sport was tennis. It was only at the request of his wife, Ray, who was worried about his health in the sweltering heat (Maxwell had suffered from tuberculosis), that he traded in his racquet for a set of clubs. He was 35 years old.

Perry Maxwell

Photo by Alay

It was Ray who also planted the idea that a plot of farmland the couple owned could be adapted to become a range. In 1913 Maxwell began drafting plans for what became Dornick Hills, his first course and the first in Oklahoma with grass greens.

A banker by trade, Maxwell had no formal training in architecture, but he had taken care to educate himself, visiting Southern clubs before heading northeast to meet CB Macdonald, the progenitor of American design. In 1923, on a longer trip to Scotland, he met MacKenzie, forming a friendship that would lead to a fruitful partnership in the United States. Its fruits included collaborations at the University of Michigan and Ohio State and, most famously, Michigan’s Crystal Downs CC.

Unlike MacKenzie and other leading architects of the time, Maxwell never published books or articles detailing his design principles. But his observations, quoted in articles written by others, made it clear that the best approach was to play with little.

You could spend a lifetime on this property and not find a better route.

Gil Hanse

“It is futile to try to turn totally inadequate acres into adequate course,” he said. The American Golfer in 1935. “Invariably the result is the inauguration of an earthquake.” A worthy site, he added, “should be there, not taken there.”

Which didn’t mean you couldn’t shape fresh greens. The outlines of Maxwell’s putting surfaces were so distinctive, favoring undulations over levels and ridges, that they became known as “Maxwell Rolls”. The term lives on, as does the aesthetic, informing the work of prominent modern designers, including Bill Coore and Tom Doak.

In addition to his own projects, Maxwell’s shrewd reputation has seen him work at the National and Pine Valley, among other prestigious clubs. In the mid-1930s he was brought in by Augusta National, first to help introduce a bentgrass test plot, then to reshape a handful of greens, perhaps most notably the 10th, which he retired about 50 yards from his original spot, turning a benign par-4 into a bear. Considering the changes he also made to the 5th, 6th, 7th and 17th, it could be said that no architect other than MacKenzie and Bobby Jones had more influence on the Masters house than Maxwell.

Although he wasn’t everywhere, he often seemed to be.

“He looked like Forrest Gump that way,” says Ed Oden, founder of the online archive Perry Maxwell. As well as rubbing shoulders with movers and shakers, he had a knack for making cameos on historic occasions. In 1930, Maxwell was at Merion when Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam. Five years later, he was standing near the 15th green in Augusta when Gene Sarazen threw his “shot heard ’round the world” for double eagle.

At home in Ardmore, however, Oden says, Maxwell was “more of a George Bailey figure,” low-key, charitable, devout — a linchpin of small-town life. When he wasn’t busy serving the local church or ticking the clock on savings and lending, he was busy with architecture, a commitment that only intensified after the death of Ray in 1919 from appendicitis. And there was a lot of work. Isolated from the biggest golf markets, Oklahoma was also isolated by pockets of oil money. The jobs kept coming, even after the Depression hit.

Southern Hills’ iconic clock tower towers over a lush practice green.

Getty Images

Of the dozens of courses Maxwell built in the state, none had more cachet than the project he completed in Tulsa, on hilly terrain donated by oil magnate Waite Phillips. Southern Hills (World No. 46 in GOLF) was meant to be a flagship country club. Maxwell set himself the added ambition of making it the best course in Oklahoma and a tie for national tournaments. The site permitted this, with its rugged terrain cut by a stream and tributaries which Maxwell used to soft strategic effect. The club, founded in 1935, opened its doors the following year.

In the decades since, Southern Hills has been worked on more than once, but nothing in the way of major surgery. The most recent procedure, a 2019 restoration by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, focused, according to Hanse, on “peeling away layers of evolution,” removing trees, reviving stream beds, the return of green-edged slopes and folds that had either bulged or faded. Some fairway bunkers have been moved. Some footage has been added. The 7th green has been pushed closer to the creek. But Maxwell’s original plan remains.

“You could spend a lifetime on this property and not find a better route,” Hanse says. “It’s one of those cases where the bones are so good you’d never want to change much.”

Now comes the 2022 PGA Championship. It’s the fifth time the event has been held at Southern Hills and the eighth major championship for a venue that has also hosted three US Opens. In a hallway near the dressing room, a display of memorabilia includes photographs of Maxwell and his correspondence. This area will not be open to spectators. But Southern Hills itself will be on full display, another round of the spotlight for a famous course whose designer deserves the same.

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