Bendelow and Alison at Port Huron Golf
Biography & Background
I was raised in Port Huron, Michigan within a golfing family as a member of the Black River Country Club from 1951-2001. Since 2004 we have been members of the Port Huron Golf Club. I began playing golf at age 13 in 1961 under the tutelage of Emil Beck, Black River’s professional from 1941 thru 1966. Among his other tasks, including at various times General Manager and Greens Superintendent, Emil was the on-site construction supervisor for the changes at Black River in 1955 designed by William H. Diddel of Indiana. Emil later made revisions to two additional holes on his own, perhaps to plans by Diddel. As a young teen I followed Emil around the course when he made the changes to the par-3 7th and the drivable par-4 10th in 1962. I was impressed to discover that golf holes didn’t just happen by accident, they were planned and built by real people.
At Christmas in 1981 I received a copy of Cornish and Whitten’s The Golf Course. It was an eye opener regarding both of our local clubs as well as many of the courses I played in the Detroit Junior District events from 1963 thru 1965. In the book, Black River Country Club was noted as original 9 by Reid and Connellan, and under Wilfrid Reid’s bio it said he and Connellan added 9. There was no listing for the Port Huron Golf Club.
In C & W’s revised edition (1993), The Architects of Golf, Black River was listed as the original 9 by Fred L. Riggin, with Reid & Connellan adding 9, and later William Diddel adding 9 and revising 9. All BRCC club members took Riggin’s authorship of the first 9-holes as gospel having heard his ball-of-twine-and-9-stakes story more than once in the men’s grill. Port Huron Golf Club (PHGC) was included in this edition with the original course listed as by Reid & Connellan. No dates were given in Reid’s bio for either course. At this point I realized that no one had written a history of Black River’s course (or PHGC’s) and that, looking around the membership at that time, if anyone were to do it, it would have to be me. I also realized that the “old guard” was dying off and if I were to have any chance of speaking with the original parties involved it had better be soon.
I was raising a family and establishing myself as an architect, so “soon” started slowly. Finally in October of 1995 I spoke by phone with Ron Whitten to see what or who was the source of his information. He was gracious and gave to me what he had. 18 years later I wrote a book The Golf Course at Black River: The Evolution of a Golden Age Links (www.blurb.com, 2013) describing my findings. The upshot is that Reid did indeed work with Fred Riggin on designing Black River’s first 18 holes completed in 1927. Wilfrid Reid did not, however, have anything to do with Port Huron Golf Club.
Port Huron Golf Club in Fort Gratiot Township: Thomas Bendelow
While researching the Black River book in the ‘90s I was given a copy of a letter by an older BRCC member regarding the design of the Port Huron GC. This letter has since been published in the club’s 100 Years: The Port Huron Golf Club 1910-2010 by Catherine Houghton. In the letter, dated July 19, 1968, Charles Kendrick, a member of PHGC since 1915, describes several key moments in the club’s history on property in Fort Gratiot Township, just north of Port Huron. The letter was written to, and at the request of, his good friend Fred L. Riggin, at the time when the Riggin family was making major building contributions to both the Black River and Port Huron Golf Clubs. Included in the letter was a description of the original 9-hole course on the current site from 1912. Recent research has determined that this course was designed by early golf course architect giant Tom Bendelow (1868-1936). Bendelow, responsible for over 600 courses throughout the United States, designed everything from rudimentary 6-hole private estate layouts to nationally known tracks such as Medinah #3 in suburban Chicago and the original East Lake course in Atlanta.
The 9-hole PHGC course was designed in 1909 for the club’s soon to be acquired Krafft Road property in Ft. Gratiot. This was while the club still played on their original Griswold and Twentieth Street links on the south side of Port Huron. The new course wasn’t constructed until the summer of 1912 after the new property, with room for 18 holes, was finally secured. Spalding’s Official Golf Guide of 1913, which Bendelow edited, confirms the pedigree of the course:
Port Huron has a new nine-hole course, which was laid out by Tom Bendelow and, from this writer’s personal point of view, will be the ideal golf course, being located on the shores of Lake Huron and having a beautiful outlook as well as having a real Bendelow golf course.
The 1st hole, part of the 2nd, and the 8th and 9th hole corridors from this design are still in play today as the 3rd, 4th, 1st and 2nd holes respectively. Two or three other tee boxes and green sites are also still in use. The course had one par-5 of 550 yards and five par-4s of over 370 yards each, with a total length of 3290 yards. With only one par-3 it was a big course for the days of wooden shafted clubs and the early Haskell rubber balls.
Port Huron Golf Club: Capt. Charles Hugh Alison comes to town
For our current purposes, two key paragraphs of the Kendrick letter describe obtaining the services of the prominent English golf course architecture firm of Colt & Alison in 1921:
John Sweeney, Sr. was Chairman of the Greens Committee at [The] Country Club of Detroit at that time and he had the famous firm of English golf architects, Colt and Alison, revamping the Country Club layout at that time. As you know, Colt & Alison designed the famous Pine Valley course and also the Hamilton Golf and Country Club course at Ancaster, Ontario. They were unquestionably the best of their day.
David MacTaggart and I happened to know Mr. Sweeney quite well and we went to him for advice. With Messrs. Colt and Alison in Detroit Mr. Sweeney was able to work out a deal for us whereby Colt and Alison would lay out the new Port Huron 18 hole course for an extremely reasonable fee. They did an excellent job and gave us a lot of good advice on how to grow turf on such light sandy soil.
In 1913 and ‘14, at the beginning of a period that became known as the Golden Age of golf course design, Harry Shapland Colt came to North America to consult and design several courses. These included the Pine Valley course in New Jersey, the Toronto and Hamilton Golf Clubs in Canada, and The Country Club of Detroit (CCD) course on Lake St. Clair, soon to be site of the 1915 U.S. Amateur. When WWI started Colt went back to England never to return to the States.
After the war Capt. Charles Hugh Alison, Colt’s partner, came to the United States to head up the firm’s American office. Their headquarters in Detroit’s Penobscot Building was presumably chosen because of the firm’s ongoing design work at the CCD. Begun in 1913, this lengthy Colt & Alison (C&A) effort for a single club, culminated in Alison’s 1927 new course for the CCD. This is the course that we see today on a site further west from the original Colt course on the lake. Alison’s course was the site of the 1954 U.S. Amateur won by Arnold Palmer. C&A advertising during the 1920s listed Detroit as the firm’s American headquarters with London and Paris as ancillary facilities. The office lasted through 1931 until the poor U.S. economy sent Alison to Japan and Asia where he stayed for most of the 1930s.
The essence of Kendrick’s letter regarding Colt & Alison’s involvement at Port Huron Golf Club has recently been confirmed. In the past two years drawings in the club’s files have been identified as being from the hand of Charles Hugh Alison and newspaper articles from the time note that Capt. Alison himself was on site for at least three days in March of 1921. The headline from the March 22, 1921, Port Huron paper reads “Golf Expert at Work Here – Capt. Alison, of London England, Is Architect of Local Course.”
Alison’s charge was to add 9 holes and reuse or rearrange the existing holes to form a new 18-hole course that took advantage of land east of today’s clubhouse to Gratiot Avenue. However, most of the new holes were placed on previously owned, but unused land, roughly north of the current 11th hole. The new holes included today’s 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th. Alison also rerouted today’s 18th and created a brand new par-4 1st hole that played from a tee just west of Gratiot Avenue uphill to the current practice green. A new 200 yard par-3 18th played from just east of our current 18th green toward Gratiot Avenue. The view from the tee included the lake in the background. It played downhill to a large green that still exists in long time member Marty Weiss’s back yard. In all Alison designed 14 new holes in March of 1921.
The Temporary Score Card shown above is from the first half of the 1922 season. Until the full course was opened on July 26th this 11-hole course was used. Alison’s new 1st and 18th holes bookended the original 9-hole course designed by Bendelow 13 years earlier. This created what is a uniquely combined Alison & Bendelow course.
Club files from the 1920s also show that C&A was invited back in the fall of 1928 to provide for three new greens on holes or green sites they had previously reused from the Bendelow design: today’s 2nd, 3rd, and 17th. The 2nd green was moved to the top of the dune from the swale below, creating a strong par-4 with one of the best green sites on the course. The 3rd green (Alison’s 4th) was relocated forward to its present position on a low ridge. It originally played as a punchbowl green in the swale beyond. The 17th green was redesigned at its same location. It was a leftover from the Bendelow days when it played as a par-3 from a tee to the left near the current 7th green.
Above is a 1941 photo that shows the no longer existing 1st and 18th holes. They are at the middle right, outlined by woods, and perpendicular to the lake and dunes. These two holes and the practice area just north of them were lost when the County Road Commission in 1950 built Fairway Drive thru them from north to south. The 1921 and 1928 work combined means that C&A created 14 new holes, relocated and redesigned the greens of 3 others, and rerouted 1. This left an essentially new 18-hole course. Only the Bendelow green of today’s 1st hole lasted thru the C&A revisions.
The course has had several revisions since 1928, most prominently the addition of the 5th and 11th holes in 1949 when the County Road Commission built Fairway Drive through Alison’s 1st and 18th holes. These new holes were most likely the work of the in-house staff at the time and were possibly planned before WWII when the County first proposed the road.
In 1982 Ann Arbor golf course architect Bill Newcomb was retained to update the course. At the height of his “up-North” Michigan reputation, he added 2 water hazards, many artificial mounds, and dozens of pine trees, as well as redesigning Alison’s 8th and 15th holes and Bendelow’s 1st green.
Even with these changes, Charles Alison’s work of the 1920s still provides the routing backbone, green sites, and rolling dunes-land character of the course we see today. His use of the main dune, running from the southeast corner of the property behind the 3rd tee at Krafft Road and Fairway Drive northwest until it exits from the property behind the 14th tee, provides the strong design and character of most of the front nine holes. The 10th tee starts from that same dune and the back nine exploits the many smaller ancient sandbar ridges, which run parallel to the main dune, and make up much of the east side of the course. See the topographical drawing below.
David Pandel Savic, founder of Old Course Design (DPS is now with Nicklaus Design), renovated the course in 2002 and removed the most jarring of the 1949 and 1982 changes that were out of character with the Golden Age design principles of C&A. These revisions included the complete redesign of the (by then non-Alison) greens at 1, 5, 8, 11, and 15. OCD also rebuilt and re-bunkered all of the green complexes in the manner of Colt & Alison.
Just over two years ago east coast Hurricane Sandy created 68 MPH winds along the western shore of Lake Huron, one block from PHGC. Sandy took out 31 major oak trees. Although not following our architect’s master plan, her effort did open up a few vistas and brought back the use of a few teeing areas. In addition, the club’s outstanding ten-year loan was paid off in 2013. Along with these two unrelated events, the course’s Bendelow and Alison heritage came to light. In discussion with our superintendent a few members determined that it was time to take a longer view look at our golf course.
During the summer of 2013 we brought David Pandel Savic back to review his work from a decade earlier and to discuss ideas for further work on tees and bunkers. The one-day visit produced nine pages of single spaced type written notes regarding everything from tree removal to dunes restoration to mowing patterns. The first tangible result was a 6-page list of trees to remove, beginning with evergreens and ornamentals planted as part of a classic 1970s tree beautification program. Last winter 61 trees were removed.
Although there was predictable skepticism from some members, the reaction after a summer of play has been very positive. We focused the tree removals on a couple of par-3s on our main dune and the holes in view from the clubhouse. This summer members and their guests have marveled at the view of the course from the main dining room and grill. The dramatic change to the course with the tree removals has excited enough of the membership to allow the club, through the generosity of a few members, to retain Mr. Savic to author a second Master Plan for future restoration. This winter we hope to remove another 60 trees.
This Master Plan will be the first step in addressing restoration possibilities with Charles Alison’s concepts as the driving design factor. Quoting the plan: “The design skills reflected in this new plan must not deviate from Alison and the Golden Age, as was done during a certain period of the club’s history. The golf course design and eventual maintenance must authenticate and reinforce imagery of the Golden Age and Alison. Positive change and the restoration of Port Huron’s original design is the greatest way to perpetuate the longevity of the club.”
Like many clubs in Michigan that were hit hard during the latest recession (a depression in the Detroit area) we are trying to survive as a private club with 200 members vs. the 330 we had in 2000. Whether we will be able to bring back dunes that Bendelow and Alison would recognize is debatable. Members have demanded a wall-to-wall green, and mostly parkland, course for a long while. A monthly history column, a series of history seminars over the last two years, and even paper placemats in the grill illustrated with Charles Alison original drawings at least have people talking about the course and the club’s history.
If we can make positive progress each year on the restoration whether thru tree removal, tee and bunker rebuilding, or dunes reclamation, I have no doubt that Port Huron Golf Club will show that the effort of two individuals from the Golden Age was well worth their time.
Submitted by Anthony “Tony” Gholz, September 2014
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