A Radical in Pinehurst Robert Hunter No. 25

A Radical in Pinehurst

The double life of Robert Hunter: Pinehurst club champion, Cypress Point inspiration, and author of course design's bible

In December 1912, a guy named Robert Hunter walked onto Pinehurst No. 2 and defeated Walter Travis, a three-time U.S. Amateur winner and future World Golf Hall of Fame member who’d notched the lowest score for an amateur at the U.S. Open just months earlier. Travis was, at the time, likely the winningest amateur in American match-play history, a man who lived and breathed the game. He wrote numerous books and articles on golf, founded and published The American Golfer magazine and designed and renovated golf courses himself. Here was someone who was a golf professional even if he was not technically a professional golfer, and he’d just got beat by someone many might consider a no-name. 

Robert Hunter: A man of contradictions. Photo: New York Public Library. Pinehurst photo: Ryan Barnett

Today, Hunter’s contributions to the game are clear. But back then, Cypress Point, Crystal Downs and the seminal book The Links were all more than a decade from creation. In fact, if the folks down in Pinehurst recognized Hunter’s name at all, it was for something entirely different: He was, at the time, one of the most well-known members of the Socialist Party of America, alongside the likes of authors Jack London and Upton Sinclair, perennial presidential contender Eugene V. Debs and Representative Victor L. Berger. Four years prior, Hunter had been accused of giving a speech in New York City’s Union Square that, according to a New York Times editorial, “implant[ed] ideas subversive of law and justice and order” into a crowd and led to somebody setting off a bomb. He was a pen pal of Leo Tolstoy; had been a delegate at the 1907 Second International Socialist Congress, attending alongside Rosa Luxemburg, George Bernard Shaw and Vladimir Lenin (he thought Lenin was secretly a cop); and had made his name advocating for then-radical policies such as social security for the old, women’s suffrage, equal rights for all races, free school lunches for the young and a minimum wage for all. On top of that, Hunter spent vast amounts of time at Pinehurst, competing in tournaments, joining a sporting society and making the place his home away from home. I wonder if he felt like a spy, too. 

He wrote The Links, which was meant to serve as a how-to manual for aspiring golf course architects, in 1926. By that point, Hunter had become friendly with nearly all the top course designers of the day, and he used The Links to pass on their tips, diagrams and philosophies. The book functions both as a guide for how to design a golf course and a treatise on what makes them work on both a practical and philosophical level. It remains a vital text today; Bill Coore told The Golfer’s Journal in 2020 that the book inspired the bunkerless routing he and Ben Crenshaw developed for Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes. 

During the plum years between World War I and the Great Depression, golf was gaining in popularity. Hunter mused that “the time seems not far distant when every man, woman and child will have a set of clubs.” Public golf courses were on the rise, and Hunter’s book presented itself as a field guide for non- professionals who’d suddenly been conscripted into designing their new public golf course, with the ultimate goal that “the immense sums now flowing into golf ” could be “used to mold all over this country lovely landscapes to refresh the soul.” 

Hunter liked courses that made minimal changes to the landscape, thought that hazards like sand traps and ponds should be placed in a way that inspired golfers to be creative rather than be penalized for screwing up, and prized the quality of care given to a course over all else, to the point that he thought a course with five nicely manicured holes was preferred over some 18-hole goat track. In his eyes, if a person could design a cheap municipal course that challenged golfers and brought out the best in their game, then that course could serve as a social equalizer, providing a space where everyone, both the privileged and working class, could meet—and would want to meet—and play together. 

I sympathize with Hunter and often wonder if he struggled with some of the thoughts that plague me: If I want to play the best courses, I have to shell out money I normally don’t have, yet I do it anyway. Does this make me a willing participant in a system that takes us away from a more equitable world? Will people take me seriously when I talk about the problems of capitalism if I’m obsessed with a sport that most people perceive as being only for the rich? 

To Hunter, there was no such contradiction; everyone deserved the good life. In fact, his embrace of golf helped get him into the mental space where he was able to get his message out. So let’s rewind a moment and tell the story of Robert Hunter’s life.

A Radical in Pinehurst Robert Hunter No. 25 Cypress Point
Robert Hunter consulted with Dr. Alister MacKenzie when writing The Links, which led to both being involved in the creation of Cypress Point. Photo: Kohjiro Kinno

He was born in 1874 in Terre Haute, Indiana, the son of a well-to-do Civil War veteran on the Union side who was a manufacturer of horse-drawn carriages. After graduating from Indiana University, he trucked it out to Chicago, where he lived in Hull-House, the famous experimental community dedicated to social reform founded by Jane Addams. If you’d grown up moneyed and sheltered, working-class Chicago was likely gross and sort of terrifying; Hunter later wrote of visiting a flophouse in the city and recoiling in horror at men sleeping on newspaper-covered floors, using their coats as pillows, others packed onto shelves that had been repurposed as beds, and a child sleeping on an upturned box because he was afraid of all the rats running around the place. “I made a thorough search for a place to sleep, but, not being successful in finding an unoccupied spot, I decided not to remain for the night,” he wrote. “The air made me faint and weak, and I hardly had strength to pick my way out of the room.” 

It was during this time that Hunter came upon the same realization that lots of rich kids do once they make their way into the world: There are people whose lives are truly awful due to no fault of their own, and you can choose to ignore the problem, gloat about it like an asshole or try to do something about it. Hunter went with the third option, to an almost self-parodic degree. He and his wife, the reformist-minded heiress Caroline Stokes, moved to Greenwich Village in New York, where they could be close to the city’s working class and immigrant populations, enacting what was, depending on the source, literally or figuratively an open-door policy in their home so that they could help whomever, however, whenever. Hunter gave away every coat he had to the homeless, and instead of replacing his own, he opted to shiver in solidarity for an entire winter as some sort of personal endurance test or example of Christlike sacrifice. Drawing from his experiences in both Chicago and New York, as well as mounds of statistics, charts and tables, in 1903 Hunter began putting together a book on poverty called, uh, Poverty

Published the next year, Poverty hit like a bomb (a metaphorical one, rather than the actual bomb someone set off after his 1908 speech). It described a world in which employment was precarious, yet simply hanging out and not working could be punished by jail time, where 1 percent of America owned 54.8 percent of its wealth, where few owned their own homes and where wages were so low that even many who had jobs still couldn’t get by. He viewed poverty as a “suction force,” easy to slip into but hard to escape, and proposed that America institute a social safety net including unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, the decriminalization of addiction, and a system that we would now recognize as Social Security.

“We put property before human life,” he wrote indignantly. “We unconsciously estimate it more highly and foster it more tenderly; we do it as individuals and we do it collectively.” 

But Hunter worked so hard on Poverty that it nearly did him in. From what I found on him, he didn’t seem like a very strong dude physically. A 1905 New York Times profile describes an early 30s Hunter as “spare of face and figure, with brown hair gradually retreating from an exceptionally high forehead,” while also making note of his “well-shaped feet.” Eventually, all this researching and writing and moralizing and shivering caused Hunter to have something of a nervous breakdown, and his doctor sent him and his wife packing for the countryside with directions for him to do more physical exercise. So he took up golf, writing in the mornings before hitting the course with a local pro in the afternoons. Before long, he’d struck up a golfing friendship with Finley Peter Dunne, the humorist famous for his fictional character Mr. Dooley, an Irish bartender in Chicago; in his memoirs, Hunter also recalled having played with the department-store magnate Marshall Field as well as the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens. Competitively, Hunter went toe-to-toe with some of the best golfers, professional and amateur, in the country, once beating the noted Scottish professional Stewart Gardner in match play. 

One of the qualities of history, as with literature, is that we occasionally find pieces of ourselves within others. How many of us have come to the game at a time of stress, when we’re so wrapped up in ourselves and our worlds that we need something to help us achieve a sense of remove? Curiously, as Hunter became more enmeshed in golf, he actually became more radical. He was very much a product of his time, which is a polite way of saying that there are parts of Poverty that scan as shockingly racist to the modern reader. (Don’t get him started on the Irish, for example, or skull shapes.) This sort of paternalistic racism was common among reformers of the early 1900s, but that by no means makes it OK, and it’s probably one of the reasons that Poverty is read by approximately no one today. That makes the tone of his next book, Socialists at Work (1908), even more remarkable. He writes that reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk was liable to replace a white person’s sense of racial superiority with “a humiliating sense of shame. “He rails against capitalism and urges his readers to check out The Communist Manifesto. Socialism, he believed, was coming to nations throughout the world, “to destroy wage-slavery, and to raise what are now the subject classes into a position of dominant influence.” 

Yet simultaneously, he and his wife had begun vacationing regularly at Pinehurst, where, even with his kooky politics and relative inexperience with the game, he managed to win multiple club championships and come in second at the North & South Amateur Championship, considered then to be one of the majors of amateur golf. I would have imagined that having a full-on Socialist, let alone a famous one, in their midst would have made the titans of industry in Pinehurst uncomfortable, or even outright hostile. Here was a guy who, in addition to beating them on the course, was actively working to break down the system that made so many of them so wealthy. This was a time during which political violence, whether it was lone anarchists carrying out assassinations or unions getting into skirmishes with the National Guard, was commonplace, and there was legitimate cause for concern that class tensions might boil over into revolution. 

Yet Hunter’s status as a “salon socialist” (a name given to him by Teddy Roosevelt) appears to have been seen as a curio by the greater Pinehurst community. Newspaper archives show that the local library always stocked his books, and when it was announced that he would be running for Senate in Connecticut as the Socialist Party’s candidate, one paper quipped that if Hunter was as good a Socialist as he was a golfer, then he’d win the election in a landslide. (Spoiler alert: He didn’t.) Maybe it’s that the golf course has a leveling influence. It’s a place where, regardless of what we believe and who we are in the outside world, we’re all trying to navigate the same space, playing by the same rules, on our own yet side by side.

As Hunter later joked in The Links, “One inoculated with the virus must swing a golf club or perish.” 

By the time Hunter got around to writing The Links, however, he’d largely left the Left behind. The one-two punch of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia kind of killed the Socialist Party in America, because (a) nobody ever really got a handle on whether or not it was more Socialist to be for or against the war, and (b) Lenin’s success in taking over Russia suddenly made the possibility of a Socialist party taking control—in America, an ideal to be reached through battling it out at the ballot box—a very real thing that had been achieved through battling it out with guns. The whole thing made Hunter and his friends squeamish. 

The movement began to break into factions, with Hunter championing a more intellectually minded, moderate vision of socialism, leading him to catch heat from both the Left and mainstream society, which was quickly developing a reactionary streak. He couldn’t win, so he dropped out. He moved to California to teach at UC Berkeley, but The Links kept him connected to the golf world, where his influence is still being felt. He reunited with a designer named Dr. Alister MacKenzie, one of the guys he’d consulted for the book, and helped him dream up Cypress Point. A fan of the book named Walkley Ewing owned a piece of property in Northern Michigan that he believed was special. Ewing wrote to Hunter, asking advice on an architect. Hunter recommended MacKenzie and convinced him to visit the site. Once there, MacKenzie immediately agreed with Ewing’s appraisal and paused a trip back home to London to begin the layout for Crystal Downs. 

A Radical in Pinehurst Robert Hunter No. 25 Crystal Downs
Hunter and MacKenzie’s relationship directly led to Crystal Downs: Hunter recommended the designer to the course’s owner. Photo: Kohjiro Kinno

By the 1940s, Hunter was nearing the end of his life and had become bitterly suspicious of political extremes on both the right and left. He wrote letters to friends railing against Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and claimed he knew of active Communists working in the U.S. government. He began drafting a memoir (it was never published; however, the Indiana Historical Society provided me with a copy) in which he referred to the Socialist ideal to which he once devoted his life as “a fallacy.” He writes of his youthful activism with nostalgic distance, as if his political views were a phase he outgrew, their folly revealed to him with the passage of time. 

There are moments when I look at the news and think the America of today is alarmingly similar to the one that first radicalized Hunter. Wealth concentration, universal health care, guaranteed income, protections for workers and reworkings of the justice system were all topics Hunter spoke loudly about. It all reinforces my theory that no matter what they tell you, the point of working is not to keep working, to get rich or to simply survive. It’s to stop working as quickly as possible and to do something else. And this, I think, is the ultimate point that Robert Hunter’s life gestured toward: The closer our society gets to utopia—whatever that might look like—the more time we’ll all have to go and play golf together.

A Radical in Pinehurst Robert Hunter No. 25
Robert Hunter’s adventurous life in the game is further proof that golf can bring people together no matter their politics. Photo: Ryan Barnett