Willie Campbell: The Golf Legend Who Designed the Machrie Course

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Born in 1862, just outside the city of Edinburgh, Willie Campbell learned to play golf on the local links at Musselburgh as a young boy, and also worked there as a caddie. Over time, he developed into one of the most successful golfers in the country, finishing in the top 10 of the Open Championship — better known in the United States as the British Open — eight times during the 1880s.

Campbell was also an expert club- and ball-maker, and in 1889, he added “course architect” to his résumé when he designed a nine-hole track at the Ranfurly Golf Club near Glasgow. For several years, he served as head professional and keeper of the green there, and it was during that time that he accepted a commission to design the links at The Machrie, on the Isle of Islay. The course opened in May 1891.

Willie Campbell in 1885 - GolfClubAtlas.com/Wikimedia CommonsThree years later, Campbell moved to the United States as part of the first wave of immigrant professionals who traveled to the New World to spread the gospel of golf, which was suddenly becoming popular among the well-to-do. Specifically, he was compelled to cross the Atlantic by offers from the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, and the Essex County Club northeast of Boston to serve as head professional in both places. His salary the first year was $300, and among his duties was the expansion of the course at the Country Club from six to nine holes. The following year, Campbell worked exclusively at Brookline, designing a second nine holes to give the Country Club one of the first 18-hole tracks in America.

Next, he moved to the Myopia Hunt Club, in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and as his golf operation flourished there, he turned to his wife, Georgina, for assistance. She, too, had grown up on the Musselburgh links and had developed into a formidable player. At Myopia, Georgina began to give golf lessons, mostly to youngsters and women. She also toiled in the golf shop and helped her husband make both clubs and balls. In the eyes of most golf historians, her labors make her the first female golf professional in the United States.

The Myopia Hunt Club in South Hamilton, Massachusetts
The Myopia Hunt Club in South Hamilton, Massachusetts - Jay Burnham/Wikimedia Commons
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While at Myopia, the Campbells approached the city of Boston to build a municipal nine-hole golf course in Franklin Park, a green space in the Dorchester neighborhood, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Having learned the game on a public course in Scotland, Willie and Georgina felt it was important to keep the game open and affordable to all. Franklin Park was the second municipal course ever built in America — Van Cortlandt Park in New York City was the first — and for four years, the couple worked together there, building a golf operation that in 1900 recorded a remarkable 40,000 rounds of golf.

Alas, Willie Campbell did not live to see another season, as he died of cancer in November of that year, at age 38. Despite the loss of her husband, Georgina stayed on at Franklin Park, taking over as the golf professional. She held the job for the following nine years.

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