Marion Hollins: The ‘It Girl’ of golf who broke down barriers
Marion Hollins was never afraid to push boundaries.
Golf could be an unforgiving sport for women, in particular at a time when women’s rights were severely restricted in the US.
However, Hollins became one of the leading figures in the sport during the first half of the last century, with her fingerprints all over a few of the most famous courses in America.
From star amateur golfer to key cog in the creation of the most famous course in the world, her admission into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2022 was arguably a long time coming.
Emily Chorba, Pasatiempo board member and historian – one of the iconic courses Hollins developed and founded – believes she was much more than just a golf course developer.
“I think she became the It Girl,” Chorba told CNN Sport. “But she was also a social influencer way before the social media tools of today.
“And she was doing it in the days [of] letter writing, telegraphs. She just was a big influencer and apparently very fun to be around. She was a social influencer before it really was a term.”
Born in 1892, money wasn’t an issue for Hollins and her family.
Her father, H.B. Hollins, worked on Wall Street, owning a brokerage firm and was a business associate of William K. Vanderbilt and J. P. Morgan.
Growing up on her family estate in Long Island, Hollins was exposed to various different sports.
She was a proficient horse rider and tried her hand at many different things, including swimming, tennis, race car driving and golf. Chorba describes her as being a “tomboy” growing up with four brothers.
According to David Owen – author of “The Making of the Masters: Clifford Roberts, Augusta National, and Golf’s Most Prestigious Tournament” – Hollins was the only woman in the US with a male polo handicap.
Although her father’s estate went bankrupt in 1913, it didn’t appear to hinder Hollins’ burgeoning golf playing career.
In the same year, she finished runner-up at the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Eight years later, she finally won the prestigious tournament. At the time, it was the biggest tournament in women’s golf.
She would later go on to captain the first-ever US team at the Curtis Cup in 1932 – the biennial tournament which sees teams from the US and Great Britain & Ireland go head-to-head.
But an experience in 1922 – combined with her dedication towards fighting for women’s rights – sparked her interest in developing golf courses, specifically for women.
At the start of the 20th century, women in the US didn’t have the right to vote. Their rights, in general, were few and far between.
During the 1920s, Hollins was socially active, marching with the suffragettes under the banner ‘Failure is Impossible,’ according to David Outerbridge – who married one of Hollins’ nieces – in his book, “Champion in a Man’s World: The Biography of Marion Hollins.”
And according to Chorba, after Hollins and some her friends were denied entry to a golf club on the basis of their gender, they decided to take matters into their own hands.
She set her mind on creating a golf and tennis club exclusively for women, a safe haven for them to come and play the sport they loved away from any prejudice.
“So that’s what I think sparked her interest because here she fought for women’s voting, in the 20s,” Chorba explained. “In 1920, women got the right to vote, which she participated in lobbying for that. And so I think that’s what started her path to designing golf courses was that men said: ‘Oh, no women allowed.’”
In preparation for developing her first course, Hollins went on a factfinding mission to the UK. Armed with a camera and a small motion picture outfit, not only did she acquire knowledge about how to develop a golf course and an appreciation of architecture, she was also introduced to Ernest Jones, described as the “great golf teacher of the day” by Owen.
And so, when she returned to the US with Jones by her side, he was made the head professional at her first course: the Women’s National Golf and Tennis Club.
Instead of taking a step away from developing the club, Hollins was hands-on throughout the process. She worked closely with architect Devereaux Emmet, was also involved in the scouting and procuring of the land, finding the appropriate funds and overseeing the construction.
Establishing a women’s-only golf club in 1923 was momentous – but Hollins was just getting started.
Hollins’ next big break came through a meeting she had made a few years earlier.
She had met Samuel Morse, and such was his interest in Hollins’ ability as “one of the best salespeople he ever knew,” says Chorba, he decided to offer her a role in his line of work.
One of Morse’s dreams was to use his Del Monte Company to transform the Monterey Peninsula into a golfing hub, one where both men and women could come to quench their thirst for the beautiful game.
In her role as the athletic director of the Del Monte Company, Hollins introduced multiple tournaments, most notably the Pebble Beach Championship for Women in 1923, which attracted some of the US’ top amateur golfers.
In 1924, Hollins decided to embark on her next big venture, something she’d need the backing of Morse to accomplish.
She proposed plans for an “exclusive club just like the clubs back on Long Island,” explains Chorba, on the West Coast of the US. It would eventually become the world-renowned Cypress Point Club.
“She saw the Cypress Point property and said: ‘You know, there’s one hundred and fifty acres here. We can design a very swanky course,’” Chorba explained.
Such was the detail and research put into the plans, Morse decided to reserve 150 acres for the project and put her in charge. He also hired C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor as designers, mainly because of their connection to their work with Hollins at the Women’s National.
While Raynor died before much headway could happen, Hollins turned to Alister MacKenzie to take his spot – a decision that would come to reap rewards for both parties.
Working side-by-side on every hole, MacKenzie and Hollins designed one of the most stunning coastal courses in the country, with the crowning jewel being one of the shortest holes on the course.
The par-three 16th – which Owen describes as “the greatest par three anywhere” – with its tee on a rocky bluff to the left of the clubhouse across the bay to a promontory green has bamboozled many a player with its treacherous location.
“I do not expect anyone will ever have the opportunity of constructing another course like Cypress Point, as I do not suppose anywhere in the world is there such a glorious combination of rocky coast, sand dunes, pine woods and cypress trees,” MacKenzie said.
Yet, having designed one of the sport’s most iconic courses, Hollins’ biggest solo project was still to come.
Now a world-renowned developer, Hollins saw an opportunity to design something that had never been done before: a sporting/residential complex in North America.
She didn’t want to just create a place for people to come and enjoy their golf; Hollins wanted more.
“She wanted to have a golf course, tennis, swimming, horseback riding, equestrian, bridal trails, etc., and then houses around the golf course,” Chorba explained.
And she happened to stumble across the perfect location in Santa Cruz while she was riding on horseback one day.
Hollins’ funding for this course came through a tip-off from a friend about an undiscovered oil reserve in California which, after Hollins bought a shares in, dramatically increased in value, providing her with the money needed to embark on such an ambitious project. According to Chorba, her stake was approximately $50 million in today’s money.
With the connections she had developed through her other projects, Hollins began. She hired the Olmsted brothers – a landscape architectural company – Thomas Church – another landscape architect – as well as architects Clarence Tantau and William Wurste.
She once again had MacKenzie develop the course, although Chorba describes her as the “sole visionary” for the Pasatiempo project.
And it was the good impression her courses had on another golfing legend which opened the doors to Hollins’ involvement in one of the biggest projects in the sport at the time.
Bobby Jones, the legendary golfer of the time, found himself in California with little to do after a shock early exit from a tournament, so he decided to play Cypress Point.
Jones was very impressed by the course and he was invited by Hollins – the pair first met and played together during an exhibition at East Lake in Atlanta in 1924 – to play on the opening day of Pasatiempo.
Playing alongside fellow golf champions Cyril Tolley and Glenna Collett-Vare and with MacKenzie walking alongside them, Jones got a firsthand view of Pasatiempo, while also having plenty of time to discuss his future plans.
During their round, they discussed Jones’ and Clifford Roberts’ desire to create a “great golf club where the US Open could be played in the South,” Owen explained.
Such was the impressiveness of Pasatiempo, Jones and Roberts decided to use many of the methods used by Hollins – MacKenzie as the developer and hiring the Olmstead Brothers to do the landscape and the real estate development plan – for their own project.
That project became Augusta National.
Through the connections Hollins fostered, Jones and Roberts had everything in place to create the course of their dreams.
Owen said that the pair had “basically replicated Hollins’ conception of Pasatiempo” for Augusta National, with “at least a couple of dozen residential building lots, right around the course, overlooking the course, and their hope was to sell those and they hoped to sign up 1,800 members from all over the world.”
“It was going to have a bridal trail where people could ride horses, there were going to be tennis courts. There were going to be two golf courses, one for men, one for women.
“They were going to tear down what’s now the most instantly recognizable golf clubhouse in the world, even probably more than the Royal and Ancient in St. Andrews, because it was a dump, it was a wreck and they were going to build what they really wanted, which was this gigantic sort of southern mansion with a huge locker room for men and a huge locker room for women.”
However, in 1929, the US experienced its worst ever economic crises.
As a result of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression that followed, not only did they struggle to drum up interest, they also had to settle for a “much smaller” version of their original plans, says Owen.
Jones and Roberts struggled for money so much that they couldn’t pay MacKenzie his fees, despite him slashing them multiple times. Even when he died, a few months ahead of the first Masters, MacKenzie was still owed money.
And, because of the financial instability of the country at the time, MacKenzie found it difficult to travel all the way from California to Georgia to check on the progress of the course. And that’s where Hollins came in.
MacKenzie trusted Hollins’ judgment to such an extent that he sent her in his stead to evaluate the progress being made.
Although Roberts questioned MacKenzie’s decision to send Hollins, he was steadfast, saying: “I do not know of any man who has sounder ideas.”
Hollins reported back “favorably,” according to Owen, and with her help, it became one of the most famous courses in the world, and the host of golf’s most prestigious tournament.
Although a car accident affected her later in life and she died at the age of 51 in 1944, Hollins had already had a profound, multi-faceted effect on the game of golf.
As Outerbridge’s book is titled, Hollins was a “champion in a man’s world.”