Who Was Hugh Wilson? – Part II

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Wilson’s Architectural Legacy

Years after Wilson’s death, George Thomas, who created such gems as Riviera and Bel-Air on the west coast, wrote; “I always considered Hugh Wilson of Merion, Pennsylvania as one of the best of our golf architects, professional or amateur.  He taught me many things at Merion and the Philadelphia Municipal (Cobb’s Creek) and when I was building my first California courses, he kindly advised me by letter when I wrote him concerning them.”

Hugh Wilson always preferred to let his architectural work speak for itself, and in that regard we are fortunate that most of his architectural work survives in fine fashion, with all of the courses where he worked still in existence.  Certainly the courses at Merion still bear much of his stamp, but one wonders what Wilson would have thought about recent efforts to wring every last bit of yardage and to narrow fairways to slender ribbons through swards of deep rough as a defense against the best players.  Wilson’s work also reflects a penchant for heavily sloped greens that reflected their natural surrounds so it’s likely he may have been concerned that modern green speeds would require them to be somewhat leveled, as the twelfth and fifteenth greens at Merion have been in recent times.

What little Wilson did say or write about architecture may provide some insight; “Hugh Wilson, who built the two fine courses at Merion believes every club would have better putting greens if it were not for the craze for lightning-fast greens.   The reason why it is necessary to seed the greens every year is that excessive cutting prevents the grass from seeding, and it is necessary each year to put seed into the green.   He says clubs would be much better satisfied if the grass on the putting greens were allowed to grow a little longer instead of having them like the surface of a billiard table.”

Certainly Wilson’s career shows he was not averse to evolving golf courses to reflect changing needs, but one senses that he would also recognize that there are practical limitations of acreage and cost that should be considered.   In that regard, as a man who worked to fit great golf holes on some tight properties, it is very possible that Wilson would have agreed with his friend George Crump, who argued  in 1917 for a standardized golf ball;  “Golf Clubs cannot afford to construct expensive courses and then have all that work undone by a golf ball that anyone can buy….unfortunately, the golf ball makers each year are turning out new balls that can be driven further…if it keeps up, we shall have to change all our bunkering to suit the new ball, or else bar certain balls from being used.   No club would care to do the latter, yet the expense of re-bunkering a course would be tremendous.   If even the poorer players can discover a ball that can be driven two hundred yards or more we will find that all our bunkering has gone for nothing, and the three-shot holes will be easy two-shot affairs, and the two-shot holes nothing but a drive and a mashie (wedge) approach.   In addition, none of the traps over which we have spent so much time would longer server their purpose.”

Wilson often worked in collaboration with others, seeking advice from experts, and sharing freely when he became an authority, as well.  In today’s competitive architectural world, such methods likely seem quaint, yet the very collegial methods employed by Wilson and others of the time served to create some of our finest courses that have stood the test of time.   Likewise, the idea of first creating the basic shell of a course, which then would be built up over time through the addition of features and hazards as play was observed and studied would be very expensive, if not completely impractical using today’s construction and irrigation methods.

However open Wilson was to seeking and heeding advice, it also seems that he was the ultimate decision maker and resident expert at Merion in matters of architecture and agronomics, as evidenced by Max Behr’s 1914 characterization of him (along with Herbert Leeds of Myopia and C.B. Macdonald at National) as “dictator”(s) within their respective clubs.

While Wilson’s early architectural style was derivative of courses he sought to emulate, he also exhibited a natural flair for routing and following what was suggested by nature to a greater degree than many of his predecessors.  While numerous early pioneers routinely placed their greens at the highest and lowest points of the property, Wilson’s greens are most unusual in their frequent placement at a slight offset just shy of the elevation peak, which serve to both increase their visibility as well as the degree of natural slope.  Fine examples of such are still found on the 12th and 15th at Merion East, the 5th at Merion West, and the 2nd at Cobb’s Creek.

Merion East #12

Merion East #12

Merion West #5

Merion West #5

Cobbs Creek #2

Cobbs Creek #2

North Hills #3

North Hills #3

Wilson’s greens on lower points of the property tend to be located just beyond the lowest point where the ground began to rise on the far side, often behind streams or creeks, such as the 4th and 9th at Merion East, the 9th at Phoenixville, and the 17th and 10th at Merion West.   Again, this served to be effective in terms of increased visibility, natural drainage, and degree of challenge.

Merion East #9

Merion East #9

Phoenixville #9

Phoenixville #9

When dramatic landforms were available, Wilson was not averse to locating his greens right on the very edge of precipitous falloffs, creating approach shots that increased the pulse rate by appealing to the visceral need of the golfer for a sense of adventure.  Wonderful examples can still be seen on the 7th and 15th at Cobb’s Creek, the 7th at Merion East, and the 10th and 11th at Philmont South where a ball missing to the wrong side can easily cascade down steep embankments.

Cobbs Creek #15

Cobbs Creek #15

Merion East #7

Merion East #7

 

Philmont South #11 where a miss to the low side leaves a brutal recovery shot

Philmont South #11 where a miss to the low side leaves a brutal recovery shot

Where less remarkable land was available, Wilson had an affinity for building tasteful greens that seem mere extensions of the fairway as evidenced by the 5th at Merion East, the 5th at Cobb’s Creek, or the long par-three 11th at Seaview.

Merion East #5

Merion East #5

Cobbs Creek 5th

Cobbs Creek 5th

Like many of the earliest architects, Wilson was not averse to using blind shots in his repertoire, yet in placing his bunkers, legend has it that Wilson would have Joe Valentine lay out white sheets in the distance, so insistent was he on visibly revealing them to the golfer.   Instead, most of Wilson’s blind shots are from the tee, with often the fairway itself hidden from view.   Merion East has many examples, most notably the drive over the rise of the quarry wall on the 18th, but it worked in reverse, as well, on holes where the fairway was located far below the player and out of sight such as the 11th.   Both Cobb’s Creek and Merion West have significant examples of the form, where the golfer needs to drive to the top of a sharp rise, the fairway concealed beyond.   Prime examples include the original 6th and today’s 10th at the former, as well as the 5th and 18th at the latter.

Merion East #18

Merion East #18

Cobbs Creek #10

Cobbs Creek #10

Wilson seemed to have a love for creating sharply downhill, “drop shot” par threes, usually with a green located just beyond a creek, such as the 9th at Merion East, and perhaps most definitively and more dramatically, the 6th at Merion West, the 2nd at Phoenixville, and the original island-green 12th at Cobb’s Creek which is no longer in existence.   The combination of lasting beauty, uncertainty, and accompanying drama makes one wonder why such holes are rarely built today.

Merion West #6

Merion West #6

Phoenixville #2

Phoenixville #2

Cobbs Creek 12th (Sadly since reconfigured)

Cobbs Creek 12th (Sadly since reconfigured)

 

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