PI­O­NEER OF SA GOLF

An­drew Goosen and Adam Lawrence ex­am­ine the life and le­gacy of Dr Charles Molteno Mur­ray

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents - By Adam Lawrence and An­drew Goosen

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.

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