PIONEER OF SA GOLF
Andrew Goosen and Adam Lawrence examine the life and legacy of Dr Charles Molteno Murray
The life and legacy of Dr Charles Molteno Murray.
He was the designer of some of South Africa’s earliest golf courses, including George and Royal Cape, the author of the first book on South African golf, and the man who learned how to grow healthy turf. Yet Dr Charles Molteno Murray, who did all this, is now a largely forgotten figure.
Murray’s father, Dr CFK Murray, was an Irishman who immigrated to South Africa; his mother was the daughter of Sir John Charles Molteno, first prime minister of the Cape Colony. Born in 1877 in Cape Town, young Charles went to England in 1895 to study medicine at Cambridge University.
Although his time at Cambridge coincided with those of some famous golfing names–notably Bernard Darwin, golf’s greatest early chronicler – there is no evidence that Murray participated in any golfing activities. Nevertheless, by the time he returned to South Africa, he was clearly a keen golfer. In 1905, as he recollected in a 1927 letter to the US Golf Association, he began to identify species and methods of cultivation of turf grass suited to South African conditions .“When I returned home in 1904, golf was very much in its infancy. It was supposed that turf would only grow in the British Isles, and so we played on hard putting areas covered with ‘blue ground’ from the diamond mines .These we called ‘blues. ’They are still in vogue on some of the country courses.”
Murray’s experiments led him to conclude that the grass we now know as Bermuda (Cynodon dactylon) was the best choice for courses in South Africa. “As time went on the maintenance of the greens began to give us trouble,” he wrote. “Having a working knowledge of chemistry I studied the problem of fertilising the greens as to favour the turf at the expense of the weeds. By 1914 I had discovered that our grass preferred acid soil and that lime and alkaline fertilisers promoted the growth of weeds.”
Murray volunteered shortly after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, and in November was given the temporary rank of major in the SA Medical Corps. He served throughout the war, including the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (GGG).
When he returned to South Africa in 1919 he fell straight back into golf. He wrote that the greens at Royal Cape had suffered badly during the war, and there was disagreement as to the best course of action. Murray argued for a programme of acidification of the soil, but this was rejected in favour of extensive use of lime to produce ‘sweet’ ground. He put in writ-
ing his view that this would destroy the greens, which duly came to pass. “All that I had foretold came true, and by the end of the second summer our greens were mere sandy wastes with nothing but an odd patch of turf here and there. After this disaster I was asked to try my scheme. I said I would do so if given three summers to show results. By the end of the first year the bare patches were disappearing. During the second year water was laid on and with its help most of the greens were completely healed.”
It was a natural step that Murray would move into course design. He had close connections with the British golf community – he knew Harry Colt and his partner Hugh Alison, and had been in communication with Dr Alister MacKenzie. He rebuilt Royal Cape, his own club, completed in 1929, and then moved on to create the George course in 1931,Westlake in 1933 and Clovelly in 1934.
He is also believed to have been the driving force behind one of the most significant events in South African golf – the visit of Colonel SV Hotchkin in 1929, which resulted in the Englishman creating the Humewood links in Port Elizabeth, and modifications to Durban CC, East London and Maccauvlei on the Vaal River.
To look at old photographs of Murray’s courses is to see the work of a man who was clearly at home with the Golden Age of golf design that had developed, first in Britain and then in the United States, in the years before World War One. His fairways are wide, enabling him to set up holes that demanded strategic thinking.
His bunkers are often sinuous and artistically shaped, reminiscent of the work of Colt or MacKenzie, and they are positioned not for eye candy purposes, or to give the golfer something to aim at, but to support the strategic nature of the holes themselves. They sit lightly on the surrounding landscape, allowing players to focus their attention on the beautiful environment, rather than on the hand of man.
And there were relatively few trees to start with (although the fairways at Royal Cape, George, Clovelly and Westlake are now tree-lined); in sympathy with the likes of Colt and Donald Ross, who between them described trees as ‘obnoxious’ and ‘fluky’ hazards on a golf course. We cannot be sure of the extent to which he influenced the selection of the sites of his courses, but Clovelly, for one, bears the sure hand of an expert, given the sandy nature of the property. He could not have been unaware of the similarity of the Cape fynbos landscapes to the heathlands of Surrey and Berkshire, where he had played much golf during his years in England.
Murray travelled extensively, usually with golf in mind. He visited the turf research station at Bingley in northern England (now the Sports Turf Research Institute) in 1926, and we know from shipping manifests that he spent four months in Britain during the summer of 1931, and visited Australia in 1936. He retired young from his medical practice, apparently comfortably off and preferring to spend time on his favourite recreation, and died, aged 74, in 1951. He is one of the important figures in the history of South African golf. Cape Town-based golf course architect Andrew Goosen has a special interest in Dr Murray’s work, as he is engaged in renovating Clovelly CC, one of Murray’s courses .Adam Lawrence is a golf historian and writer based in the UK, and the editor of Golf Course Architecture magazine. He is working on a biography of golf architect Harry Colt.The authors would like to thank Ceri MacKellar, granddaughter of Dr Murray, for her assistance.
Charles Murray rebuilt the golf course at Royal Cape in the late 1920s.
An aerial view of Royal Cape, circa 1950.
The second hole at Royal Cape today.
Serving in the SA Medical Corps during World War One.