Who Was Hugh Wilson?

by

Mike Cirba

June 2013

“There was peculiar pleasure in revisiting Merion after an interval of years for I have known the course since its birth.  Yet, with it all, there was keen regret that my old friend Hugh Wilson had not lived to see such scenes as the National Open unfolded over the fine course that he loved so much.   It seemed rather tragic to me, for so few seemed to know that the Merion course was planned and developed by Hugh Wilson, a member of the club who possessed a decided flair for golf architecture.  Today the great course at Merion, and it must take place along the greatest in America, bears witness to his fine intelligence and rare vision.”  – A.W. Tillinghast – “Golf Illustrated” – July 20, 1934

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We all know the legend.

A novice member – a fresh-faced, inexperienced insurance salesman is inexplicably picked by the vaunted Merion Cricket Club to design their new golf course in 1911 and creates a masterpiece.

Towards that end, he makes a trip to the mountaintop to visit with the sage Charles B. Macdonald at National Golf Links, absorbs the imparted wisdom of what constitutes great golf holes, goes overseas to confirm that vision, and then voila’, alchemy ensues!

Seemingly coming out of nowhere to prominence, he devotes his short life to the creation and modification of the Merion East course which he largely perfects before dying just after the 1924 US Amateur.

It makes for a compelling Walter Mitty-ish story, and as with most legends, it is an oversimplified mixture of truth and fiction.   Troubling to the student of golf history, however, is that this commonly accepted, reductionist version of Wilson’s architectural achievements minimizes the prodigious effort required to create one of America’s greatest golf courses.  Similarly, the related characterization of Wilson as an architectural savant ironically serves to diminish the efforts of man primarily responsible for that creation.

The real story of Hugh Wilson is one of raw talent refined by educated privilege and sharpened by dogged devotion, boundless curiosity, and almost obsessive persistence.   Although he remains somewhat of an enigma, what we do know about the real man is much more fascinating than the myth.

By all accounts humble and unassuming, Wilson exhibited a streak of competitive impatience for getting things done “yesterday” often seen in those who die too young.  This insistent ambition was tempered with a reservation for the personal limelight that preferred to let his work speak for itself.   Born into upper-crust society in 1879 at Trenton, NJ, not much is known of Wilson’s childhood except that he attended the best private prep schools in Philadelphia and surrounds before enrolling in Princeton University in 1898.    While he was highly active in sports, it was golf where the spindly, sometimes sickly Wilson excelled.   At the age of 18, he held the competitive course record and was club champion at his home club (Belmont Cricket Club, which later became Aronimink), and became Captain of the Princeton golf team in 1902.   It was during his time at Princeton that he likely had his first exposure to golf course design and construction, when a new course designed by Scottish émigré Willie Dunn was being built for Princeton while Wilson served on the club’s Green Committee during his junior and senior years.

After graduation the young Hugh went to work in his family’s insurance brokerage business, and became a full partner by 1905.   He met his wife to be, Mary Warren in 1898, and after a lengthy courtship was engaged in 1903 (joining Merion that same year) and married her in October of 1905, with Mrs. Grover Cleveland in attendance.   A year later their first daughter Louise was born, followed by another daughter, Nancy, in September of 1910.

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Wilson’s early 20s were also the pinnacle of his competitive golfing accomplishments, representing Philadelphia in the prestigious “Inter-City Matches”, held annually between the top amateurs in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, the predecessor to today’s Lesley Cup.  In an interesting wrinkle for architectural aficionados, the 1903 match featured A.W. Tillinghast and Hugh Wilson playing for Philadelphia against a New York team with Charles B. Macdonald and Devereux Emmet.   (Walter Travis was also a frequent star of competitions Wilson played in while at university, as well as H. Chandler Egan from Harvard.)   Ironically, it was these very matches, and the fact that Philadelphia was often on the losing end that spurred a movement among top golfers in the region who believed the city needed to build challenging golf courses to spawn top championship golfers    Wilson, asked a few years later by A.W. Tillinghast what was wrong with Philadelphia golf, replied; “My thought in the matter is that it is due to three causes.  First. Lack of encouragement to the younger players.  Second.  Lack of a public course.  Third. Lack of tournaments which will bring good out-of-town players to Philadelphia.”“ Wilson would spend much of his life addressing all three.

Golf in the United States at that time was very much a game of advantaged privilege among the upper class who could afford both the time and expense of participating in the imported pastime.   Generally men of higher education and social refinement, they were looked upon, and looked upon each other, as “gentlemen” whose status was partially defined by their athletic participation and prowess.   The expectation, somewhat conveniently given their economic status, was that these endeavors would remain untainted by money or profit; the so-called “simon-pure” amateur status.

By contrast, the early Scottish and English émigré golf professionals who came to earn a living and spread their native game were viewed as part of the common laborer class, and restricted from even entering the clubhouse of many of the clubs where they served.   In the course of their duties, they were expected to give lessons, make clubs, run the shop, tend to the course, and perhaps most importantly in those early days, utilize their perceived native “expertise” to lay out of new golf courses, most often over the course of only a day or two for modest compensation.

Other clubs bypassed that step entirely, often for economic or egocentric reasons, and had courses laid out by members somewhat familiar with the game, usually some of the better players under the generally mistaken belief that their athletic skill would somehow translate into inspired architectural acumen.

That almost none of these early courses were anything but rudimentary and often crude playgrounds for the elite was simply commensurate with the elementary understanding of the game that existed in the states at that time.   However, by the turn of the 20th century, more knowledgeable and prominent American golfers like Charles Blair Macdonald (who had been schooled in St. Andrews) began to publicly bemoan the lack of quality golf courses in the United States, particularly in comparison to what existed abroad.   This dissatisfaction eventually led Macdonald on a decade-long quest to first define the best golf holes in the world, and then attempt to replicate their strategies on a single “Ideal” course.  This effort culminated in Macdonald’s creation of the first great American golf course at National Golf Links of America (NGLA) in Southampton, L.I., officially opening in 1911.   Other early notable exceptions to the rule by 1910 included Myopia Hunt Club, in MA, which was largely developed and refined by amateur sportsman Herbert Leeds over the better part of a decade, and Garden City Golf Club in NY, which was created by amateur Devereux Emmet and then developed into a stern test of golf by amateur champion and club member Walter Travis.

It was against this backdrop that the Merion Cricket Club in 1910 decided to look for a new site for a permanent golf course.   Land surrounding Philadelphia was rapidly increasing in value and their golf course was on leased land at risk of being sold out from under them.   In addition, the acceptance of the new far-flying “Haskell” rubber-cored ball had made their course a bit short for the sporting tastes of the competitive membership.    As member Richard Francis recollected in the 1950 US Open program, “In 1909 or 1910, it became apparent that the old golf course…was antiquated and it was decided to build a new course.  The Committee in charge of laying out and building a new course was composed of Mess’rs Horatio G. Lloyd, Rodman E. Griscom, Hugh I. Wilson, and Dr. Harry Toulmin.   I was added to it, probably because I could read drawings, make them, run a transit level and tape.”

The land eventually selected by the club was part of a sophisticated deal where the golf course was designed with fronting estate properties along its boundaries, maximizing their value.  There was some question as to whether the land itself was suitable for an excellent course, and in that regard, Rodman Griscom hosted his friend Charles Macdonald and his son-in-law H.J. Whigham in June of 1910 with the intent of gaining their learned insight.   In a follow-up letter the next month, after stating reservations about both the limited size of the property under consideration as well as the clay-based soil, Macdonald and Whigham somewhat grudgingly recommended the creation of a 6,000 yard course on the site and advised contacting Baltusrol Golf Club regarding the proper treatment of the soil for growing grass and draining water in a clay-based environment.  They also advised contacting agronomic experts in Washington, DC for detailed soil analysis.

Although we generally take excellent golf turfgrass conditions for granted today, this was no small consideration for these early pioneers.   Macdonald himself had significant problems growing healthy turf at his National Links, even with the seeming advantage of rapidly draining sandy soil near the sea.   Indeed, quality of turf was as much a consideration as any architectural or strategic considerations of the course itself, and it was being painfully learned that whatever knowledge of maintaining grasses most foreign born professionals brought with them from their seaside courses was not translating effectively to inland soils and grasses in the states.  The organic process to improve that dire agronomic situation to support a rapidly growing game had only just begun.

Merion East 1912

The men of Merion were inspired by what Charles Macdonald and his Committee were accomplishing at NGLA and that they wished to emulate that success.   In modern times, when “golf course architect” is an established and respected profession, we may find it odd that Wilson and his Committee of amateurs were selected by their club for the task of creating their new golf course.   In truth that was how most of the best courses (like NGLA) were created and developed at the time, primarily due to the amount of ongoing effort and trial-and-error architectural and agronomic revisionism required to evolve a truly superb golf course into being.   This contrasted significantly with the brief amount of time clubs were willing to pay service fees to a professional.   The best examples of how to do it well had been accomplished by the friends and golfing acquaintances of these men at Myopia, Garden City, and NGLA, so a spirit of amateur competitiveness as well as collaborative scholarship likely played into the decision.

In the case of Merion, the five men selected happened to be five of the six best golfers at the club.   In addition, Dr. Toulmin was involved previously with the laying out of the Belmont Club where Hugh Wilson learned the game, and both Griscom and Lloyd were members of the Merion Green Committee for a decade and likely were both involved in the design of the second nine of Merion’s original course which was built on Griscom’s father’s land.  Indeed Griscom and his sister had prior studied golf at North Berwick, learning the game under revered professional Benny Sayers.  Richard Francis was a surveyor and engineer by trade, skills that would serve the Committee well in their fledging enterprise.

That didn’t mean the Committee knew what they were doing, necessarily.   Golf and the creation of golf courses had evolved in the decade or so since these men had their prior experiences and concepts of strategy and “scientific bunkering”, as well as sound agronomic and maintenance practices had advanced well beyond where they had been at the turn of the century.

Hugh Wilson summed it up with characteristic modesty when he wrote later, “The members of the Committee had played golf for many years, but the experience of each in construction and greenkeeping was only that of the average club member.   Looking back on the work, I feel certain that we would never have attempted to carry it out, if we had realized one-half the things we did not know.”

Wilson was nothing if not resourceful, however.   Like most intelligent men in positions of responsibility recognizing a challenging predicament, Wilson pursued expert advice.   In early 1911, shortly after the new land had been acquired, Wilson initiated what was to become a remarkable ongoing and voluminous series of correspondences with Dr. Charles V. Piper and Dr. Russell A. Oakley (the Washington-based agronomists Macdonald had recommended) who were among the earliest scientists to conduct studies in the fields of turfgrass science and golf course management.   Their advice and testing of soil and turf samples sent from Wilson proved invaluable and over the next decade the men shared over 2,000 letters on matters of common agronomic interest.  These efforts eventually culminated in their collaborative efforts becoming formalized with the creation of the USGA Green Section in 1920, Piper and Oakley serving as co-chairmen.

Similarly, Wilson and his committee sought advice from the acknowledged expert in matters of golf course architecture, Charles Macdonald.   Macdonald was the self-proclaimed Father of Golf in this country, and was often consulted by golf clubs for his expertise.   A July 1905 “New York Sun” article stated, “He laid out the first course of the Chicago Golf Club…where the distances and the order of holes was the same as at old St. Andrews, and he has been called in as a friendly adviser whenever a noted course has been in construction in the East.”

In early March of 1911, Wilson and his committee ventured to NGLA to visit Macdonald and Whigham.   Wilson later wrote, “Our ideals were high and fortunately we did get a good start in the correct principles of laying out the holes, through the kindness of Messrs. C.B. Macdonald and H.J. Whigham.   We spent two days with Mr. Macdonald at his bungalow near the National Course and in one night absorbed more ideas on golf course construction than we learned in all the years we had played.   Through sketches and explanations of the correct principles of the holes that form the famous courses abroad and had stood the test of time, we learned what was right and what we should try to accomplish with our natural conditions.   The next day we spent going over the course and studying the different holes.   Every good course that I saw later in England and Scotland confirmed Mr. Macdonald’s teachings.   May I suggest to any committee about to build a new course, or to alter their old one, that they spend as much time as possible on courses such as the National and Pine Valley, where they may see the finest type of holes and, while they cannot hope to reproduce them in entirety, they can learn the correct principles and adapt them to their own courses.   Our problem was to lay out the course, build and seed eighteen greens and fifteen fairways.”

Evidently, the time spent with Macdonald at NGLA had immediate impact to the group’s ongoing efforts.   As recorded in the Merion Cricket Club’s Board minutes from April, 1911, “Your committee desires to report that after laying out many different courses on the new land, they went down to the National Course with Mr. Macdonald and spent the evening looking over his plans and the various data he had gathered abroad in regard to golf courses. The next day was spent on the ground studying the various holes, which were copied after the famous ones abroad. On our return, we re-arranged the course and laid out five different plans.”

Wilson’s brother Alan echoed the value of Macdonald and Whigham’s advice when he wrote in 1926 after his brother’s death, “Those two good and kindly sportsmen, Charles B. MacDonald and H.J. Whigham, the men who conceived the idea of and designed the National Links at Southampton…twice came to Haverford, first to go over the ground and later to consider and advise about our plans. They also had our committee as their guests at the National and their advice and suggestions as to the lay-out of Merion East were of the greatest help and value. Except for this, the entire responsibility for the design and construction of the two courses rests upon the special Construction Committee, composed of R.S. Francis, R.E. Griscom, H.G. Lloyd. Dr. Harry Toulmin, and the late Hugh I. Wilson, Chairman.  The land for the East Course was found in 1910 and as a first step, Mr. Wilson was sent abroad to study the more famous links in Scotland and England. On his return the plan gradually evolved and while largely helped by many excellent suggestions and much good advice from the other members of the Committee, they have each told me that he is the person in the main responsible for the architecture both of this and of the West Course.”

As instructors, Macdonald and Whigham seemed equally pleased by the Committee’s final efforts.  In early April, Macdonald and Whigham came back to Ardmore for the second and final time to review and advise on the newly developed plans.  From the April, 1911 MCC Minutes; “On April 6th Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Whigham came over and spent the day on the ground, and after looking over the various plans, and the ground itself, decided that if we would lay it out according to the plan they approved, which is submitted here-with, that it would result not only in a first class course, but that the last seven holes would be equal to any inland course in the world.”

That plan was subsequently accepted by the Board and construction commenced in the spring of 1911.   Others, such as AW Tillinghast shared Macdonald’s optimism when he wrote that spring; “I have seen enough of the plans for the new course as to warrant my entire confidence in the future realization of the hopes of the committee.”

For many years it was believed that Hugh Wilson sailed to Europe to study the great courses prior to the routing of the golf course at Merion.   That interpretation is understandable based on the a number of factors, not the least of which was the “Philadelphia Inquirer’s” account the day after the course opened; “Mr. Hugh Wilson went abroad to get ideas for the new course and helped largely in the planning of the holes.”

Over the past decade, however, a series of golf historians and researchers made discoveries that showed that to be in error; Wilson did not travel until early March, 1912, staying for approximately two months while the routed course was growing in.  First, a ship’s manifest showing Hugh Wilson coming back from Cherbourg, France in May, 1912 was found by a researcher at an online archival site.   This corresponded to a letter to Piper & Oakley from Richard Francis in March, 1912 that mentions Wilson was abroad, as well as later articles found in European newspapers mentioning an American there to study golf courses.   Finally, a Philadelphia “Evening Telegraph” article from June 1912, written by golf pioneer and architect Alex Findlay where he interviewed Wilson was found and indeed confirmed that this was Wilson’s first trip abroad.

Findlay wrote; “The writer spent a pleasant hour last Wednesday afternoon with Hugh I. Wilson,
wandering over the new Merion golf course, which he has spent so much of his time on. His main object is to make this the king-pin course of Pennsylvania…Wilson had no end of a good time, and is sorry at not having gone over years ago.   It certainly broadens one’s ideas.   He now possesses golf knowledge that will stand him in good stead for many years to come…Wilson made a study of the topography of the whole golfing country, such as H.C. Leeds did before he built our greatest American golf course, Myopia, near Boston, and C.B. Macdonald and his National course…We need such men as Wilson to help build up the nation’s ground for the coming game of golf.”

From the accumulated articles, we can glean that during his trip abroad Wilson visited a number of prominent courses in Great Britain and Ireland, including St. Andrews, Muirfield, Prestwick, Deal, Hoylake, Portrush, Formby, Sunningdale, Swinley Forest, North Berwick, Troon, and Princes.   It had been rumored for years that Hugh Wilson’s daughter Louise had claimed her father had a return ticket for the maiden voyage of the Titanic, but was providentially detained.  Again, that would be consistent with the timing of the trip in the spring of 1912.

Given our modern notions about golf course architecture and construction, where the expected result on opening day is a finished and polished product, it is perhaps surprising that Wilson’s trip abroad had nothing to do with locating and routing eighteen tees and greens on the new land.   Instead, the trip’s intent was to foster a process of continuing improvement, experimentation with ideas and best practices, and placing hazards and strategic interest over time as play was observed.   A few articles give us some insight into the process.   Committee member Richard Francis wrote; “While the Committee was at work, Mr. Wilson went to the British Isles to study golf-course design, and returned with a lot of drawings which we studied carefully, hoping to incorporate their good features on our course.   One hole which benefited was the 3rd.  It was copied from the Redan at North Berwick.   The location of the 3rd lent itself to this design”.

It is illuminating to note that the intent was not specifically to find a place on the new Merion land to build a copy of the Redan hole, but instead the promontory location of the third green lent itself to the Redan bunkering scheme.   Indeed, while there are holes at Merion which attempt to copy the strategic principles of great holes abroad like the sixth which is patterned after the Road Hole at St. Andrews, or the original (and later abandoned) tenth hole “Alps”, most of the foreign influences are subtler, such as the “Valley of Sin” fronting the seventeenth green, or the sloping green and bunkering pattern of the fifteenth green designed to resemble the Eden.  A.W. Tillinghast, writing in American Golfer in January 1913 under the pen name “Far and Sure” described the borrowing of specific features from abroad, with a caveat; “Mr. Wilson visited many prominent British courses last summer, searching for ideas, some of which have been used….Many of the imported ideas of hazard formation are good…However, I think that the very best holes at Merion are those which are original, without any attempt to closely follow anything but the obvious.”

Wilson had the decided advantage of first seeing Macdonald’s versions of many of the ideal hole concepts and attempted reproductions at NGLA before the routing at Merion was determined, and then benefited from seeing the originals when he went abroad later with specific intent of seeking refinements to incorporate at Merion over time.

Tillinghast described this evolutionary process at Merion for “American Cricketer” magazine in January, 1913; “”Before winter came down on us I visited Merion to play over the new course for the first time.   I liked it then, but I permitted weeks to pass before I attempted to put my impressions on paper.   It must be remembered that the golf course is unlike a book or the play, for it is not a work that is finished and to be judged as it is.   As a matter of fact, a golf course is never completed, and Merion is at present in a very early stage:  consequently we must regard it as the foundation from which there will gradually rise the structure of the builder’s plans.   To attempt an analysis of some of the holes today would be manifestly unfair, for they are not nearly so far advanced as others, and yet some day the very holes which now are rather uninteresting and featureless may be among the best of them all…As I’ve already said, comparatively few pits have been placed.  The committee wisely desires this to be the work of time…Every hazard is more or less experimental, and when the real digging is started, the pits and mounds will be sufficiently terrifying, I am told. Summing up my review, I believe Merion will have a real championship course and Philadelphia has been crying for one for many years.   The construction committee, headed by Hugh I. Wilson, has been thorough in its methods and deserves the congratulations of all golfers. ”

Tillinghast, as “Far and Sure” expressed similar sentiments; “It is too early to attempt an analytical criticism of the various holes for many of them are but rough drafts of the problems, conceived by the construction committee, headed by Mr. Hugh I. Wilson.   Mr. Wilson visited many prominent British courses last summer, searching for ideas, some of which have been used.”   Alex Findlay wrote much the same in his course review, “There are a few nice water hazards, and also a few sand ones, but the placing of the mental hazards, etc., will be left until spring.    One can by that time find places wherein shots will lie, and place hazards accordingly.”

Wilson and Tillinghast at GAP dinner in January 1915

Wilson and Tillinghast at GAP dinner in January 1915

With the new course opened for play, the membership wrote the club president proposing a dinner and gift to honor Hugh Wilson’s contributions.  It read, in part; “A number of the golfers of the Merion Cricket Club, who appreciate the great amount of work that has been put upon the present course by the Construction Committee, consisting of Messrs. Lloyd, Wilson, Griscom, Francis, and Toulmin, propose to give this Committee a dinner and on this occasion present Mr. H.I. Wilson with a suitable gift for his painstaking, diligent, and efficient work in the construction of this beautiful course.  Mr. Wilson has spent many hours of careful study, and has devoted every moment of his spare time in laying out and constructing this course.   He has been ably assisted by the members of the Committee, but there is no one who has devoted the time and energy and real hard work on it that he has.”

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