Perry Maxwell: The Master Of The Plains
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  Perry Maxwell first studied the great courses of Scotland to get an idea of how the Scots utilized landscape and other natural elements. (Courtesy Chris Clouser)

By Chris Clouser

Southern Hills has long been the standard bearer of championship golf in the Great Plains. And that is exactly as it was intended by the man who laid out the course in the midst of the Depression and Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl era of the mid-1930s, Perry Maxwell. 

Maxwell is one of the more unsung golf architects and designers of his generation. Born in Kentucky to Scottish parents in 1879, Maxwell was not trained as a golf course architect; he studied classical literature in college and worked in a bank in Ardmore, Okla., into his 30s. His credentials, however, stack up to those of anyone from what has often been described as the “golden age” of golf course architecture.

The spark for a career in golf came when his wife showed him an article in Scribners Magazine about the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y. After consulting with C.B. Macdonald, the founder and architect of the club on Long Island, Maxwell laid out four holes over a dairy farm that he owned just north of Ardmore, a property that would eventually evolve into Dornick Hills Country Club. 

After the tragic loss of his wife in 1919, Maxwell toured the great courses of Scotland, studying the way the Scots utilized the landscape and other natural elements. At that point he settled on the design philosophy that would become a trademark of his work -- incorporating the naturalistic elements of Scottish layouts with the formulaic nature of his mentor Macdonald’s template holes. 

When he returned to America, Maxwell was intent on changing the way that golf courses looked in Oklahoma. He did this not only from a design standpoint, but also in regard to the surface on which the game was then played. Maxwell was the first designer to implement grass greens in Oklahoma, starting with his Dornick Hills layout. Some of his earliest works included the fine layouts at Twin Hills in Oklahoma City, the Muskogee Country Club, and Hillcrest Country Club in Bartlesville. But his masterpiece was the extension of Dornick Hills to 18 holes, a layout that was considered the best course in the state for many years.

After working in Oklahoma for a few years, Maxwell joined with Alister MacKenzie, whom he had met during his visit to Scotland in 1919. With Maxwell working as MacKenzie’s Midwest Associate, the duo would become one of the more celebrated golf-course design teams in America, creating such successful joint ventures as Crystal Downs Country Club in Michigan, Melrose Country Club in Philadelphia and what is now the Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club. MacKenzie was involved in the design process to varying degrees of each course project. But Maxwell would remain behind and oversee the construction of each course -- an attention to detail that later became part of Southern Hills legend: It’s said that Maxwell lived in a tent at Southern Hills during the two years it took to finish the project.

With MacKenzie’s death in 1934 and the dissolution of the partnership, Maxwell began the most fruitful phase of his career. This was no small feat considering the Great Depression was in full bore as he produced notable designs at Southern Hills, Prairie Dunes in Kansas and the Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, N.C. But perhaps the best known aspect of Maxwell’s work during this stage of his career was his prolific renovation work. He made notable contributions to several of the top courses around the country, including Pine Valley, Gulph Mills, Philadelphia Country Club, Brook Hollow, Colonial, Saucon Valley, the National Golf Links and, perhaps his best-known redesign, Augusta National. 

After World War II, Maxwell continued working, even after losing a leg from below the knee due to cancer. But Maxwell’s focus was on Oklahoma once again and on his son, Press, who had joined the business after returning from his tour of duty in Europe. The Maxwells had several notable efforts in Oklahoma, including Oakwood and the University of Oklahoma course. They also did the first golf course at the Grand Hotel in Mobile, Ala. Among other projects completed just prior to his death in 1952 were Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City, the Oak Cliff Country Club in Dallas and a major renovation of the Omaha Country Club.     

One of Maxwell’s enduring legacies is his contribution to putting-green design. Maxwell’s work at places like Prairie Dunes, Crystal Downs and the Old Town Club featured some of the best putting complexes found in golf. Maxwell implemented unique scalloping along the edges of the greens and large internal contours that effectively segmented the putting surfaces without using the large slopes employed on many other courses to create the same effect.

Perry Maxwell was also skilled at routing golf courses to capitalize on the dominant features of a site, such as the cliff and southern rise at his home course in Ardmore. Long before the term was popularized in golf architecture criticism, Maxwell was considered a minimalist due to his restraint in moving dirt for his projects. This led to quicker results —and lower costs. Another often overlooked aspect of his designs was his mastery of controlling water drainage on a given site. This aspect of his work was a key to developing great courses over the hard clay soil of Oklahoma. Though some may think of him primarily as a regional architect, Maxwell completed 70 original designs and 50 renovations in 21 states over the course of his career. 

The relevance of Maxwell cannot be lost on today’s golf world. His courses are still prominent in many ways, such as contesting national championships. Notable case in point: The 2009 U.S. Amateur is the ninth USGA championship and second U.S. Amateur held at Southern Hills in Tulsa, and it’s also been the host site for an unprecedented four PGA Championships. Previously, the club has hosted three U.S. Opens (1958, 1977, 2001), the 1987 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur, the 1965 U.S. Amateur, the 1961 USGA Senior Amateur, the 1953 U.S. Junior Amateur and the 1946 U.S. Women’s Amateur.

Maxwell’s design philosophy is also something to be admired in an age of ever-increasing maintenance budgets. The more restrained approach of the Depression-era banker turned architect was, and remains, in sympathy with one of the major concerns facing the golf world, the cost of the game. Perry Maxwell was a student of the art of golf architecture, an innovator, a humble partner and a man who understood what was at the heart of the game.

Chris Clouser is the author of “The Midwest Associate: The Life and Work of Perry Duke Maxwell.” Clouser can be reached at chris.clouser@comcast.net; for information about his book, “The Midwest Associate,” please click here.