Who Was Hugh Wilson? – Part II

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He also seemed to have an early, almost instinctual understanding of the concept of “half-pars”, and the variance of yardage seen in his courses was virtually unprecedented.  Every one of his courses includes one very short and one very long par three, with others in the mid-range.  Seaview for instance, has the diminutive 17th at 110 yards, and the protracted 11th at 240, both with greens protected commensurate with their shot demands.

Seaview #17

Seaview #17

Seaview #11

Seaview #11

All also include par fours ranging the gamut from drivable holes in the 280-320 range alongside beasts requiring two solid blows with long clubs.   Merion West’s almost petite 7th and 8th holes, for instance, are followed by the long, uphill 9th, much as Merion East’s pitch shot 13th is followed by the lengthy uphill 14th, with a fearsome stretch to follow   Such balance and variety serve to not only keep the golfer off-kilter, but also serves to keep the shorter hitter from being discouraged by hole after hole featuring long, demanding slogs.

Merion West #7

Merion West #7

Merion West #9

Merion West #9

Wilson was also an early adopter of using a “great hazard” on par fives, often in the form of an intervening cross-bunker (ala the Hell bunker) that needed to be carried on the second shot.   Good examples of this type of hole are seen at the 4th at Merion East, and the 9th at Seaview.  He was not averse to employing much the same strategy on a par four, where he sometimes used cross hazards, usually on a diagonal to both hide the fairway target as well as create options for lines of play.  Many of his par fives are reachable in two today with modern equipment, but one senses most were built with the intent of being true three-shot holes requiring precise placement and distance control to reach the green in regulation.

Merion East #4

Merion East #4

Seaview #9

Seaview #9

While many of Hugh Wilson’s greens permit a running approach, particularly on long holes, he often required full-carry approaches with shorter irons.   When a natural hazard wasn’t available to use, he would place a bunker across the entire front of the approach

Seaview #5 (Green NLE)

Seaview #5 (Green NLE)

Merion East #8

Merion East #8

Of course, where streams, ditches, and creeks were available to Wilson, he used them with relish.  Perhaps his trademark hole is the short, downhill par four to a bend in the waterway, with the creek then wrapping around two or three sides of the green.   With magnificent early examples of the type already built on the 10th at Merion West and the 3rd at Cobb’s Creek, he perfected the form by 1922 when Merion was able to acquire land along the creek they originally wanted in 1910 with the creation of the diabolical 11th at Merion East.

Merion West #10

Merion West #10

Cobbs Creek #3

Cobbs Creek #3

Merion East #11

Merion East #11

Getting such wonderful variety of golf holes out of a property was likely a distinct result of Wilson’s careful study of the available natural landforms and a routing methodology that was not restricted by convention.   For instance, none of Hugh Wilson’s golf courses have a ninth hole that returns to the clubhouse, a practice that tends to tie the architect’s hands for convenience sake.  Instead, all of Wilson’s original routings have the ninth out somewhere in the middle of the course, the better to maximize the entire property and give the course a sense of journey.

It seems quite possible that this was a practice Wilson learned from C.B. Macdonald, as NGLA’s ninth hole was/is an out and back routing with the 9th (today’s 18th) at the furthest point from the clubhouse.   Whatever Wilson’s inspiration, that decision was also likely vindicated by the number of great, famous courses abroad Wilson visited later which did not have returning nines.

Wilson’s routings usually started by following along the eastern property line in a counter-clockwise fashion, and then at some convenient (or dramatic) point penetrate directly into the property, often then turning in a concentric circular fashion in the other direction.   These “circles within circles” were an effective way of creating mini loops of holes that could all use a particularly interesting landform in different ways and from different angles.  Sometimes, as in the case of Merion East, Wilson routed the countering loop outside the original one, creating more of a figure eight configuration of holes.   The original layout of the four courses where we know Wilson was involved in the routing follow below.

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Below is the earliest found routing drawing of Merion East from 1916, sketched by William Flynn.   It should be noted for historical understanding that this drawing shows the extensive bunkering done by Wilson and Merion during late 1915/early 1916 in preparation for the 1916 US Amateur, (likely around 50 added) as well as newly rebuilt greens on holes 3 (today’s 6th), 8, 9, and 17.

It should also be noted that the course routing was changed for this tournament so that today’s 3rd through 7th holes played as holes 7, 5, 6, 3, and 4, respectively.   Sometime after the tournament, the course was returned to the original routing which is the same as todays.

Through the photographs and routing examples contained in this article, one can get a good sense of Wilson’s consistently appealing and judiciously prudent use of landforms and man-made architectural touches across his various courses, but much like Donald Ross at Pinehurst #2, none of Wilson’s courses but Merion East benefited from his almost constant attention, wholesale revisions, and detailed tinkering throughout his life.  The primary reason for that is simple; not only was Merion East his first course but once it became Philadelphia’s new “championship course” in 1916, the perceived need to make it a stringent and fascinating test to challenge the very best players is a tradition begun at that time which continues to this day.   It is interesting to consider that between the time Merion East opened in 1912 until the time of Wilson’s death in 1925, upwards of 100 bunkers had been added, 4 completely new holes were created (replacing original holes 10, 11, 12, & 13), and at least 8 new greens built.   A decade later another original hole and green (the 1st) was replaced and another 3 greens rebuilt (1, 2, & 14).

route

Perhaps Wilson’s most lasting architectural legacy and one most worthy of study and emulation today was his pioneering work in combining naturalness, the blending of artificial construction seamlessly into the surrounding landscape, with the creation of golf holes that are fun for everyday play, where recovery is always a possibility, and that are adaptable to stringently challenge top players in competition.  Indeed, Hugh Wilson’s courses today give the impression of very little moved in the way of dirt, where good golf holes are found through careful study of what nature offered instead of being jack-hammered, exploded, and plowed into existence.

Wilson’s greens often contained significant slope, but also had tremendous variety in internal contouring.   During his career, Wilson built everything from punchbowls, to inverted saucers, from steep false fronts to greens falling subtly away from the player at the back.   Many of his greens slope not only from front to back, but with pronounced slope from side to side.  Most tend to fall away around the edges, though on a number of his courses, most notably Seaview, some of the green sizes have shrunk considerably over the years through altered mowing patterns.  That’s a shame, because some of Wilson’s most interesting and precarious hole locations tend to be out towards the corners of the fill pads.   Indeed, at the time it was built Seaview was noted for having greens that were marvels of undulation and cunning on par with any in the country.   Today, some of his best and most original greens, however, simply seemed to mirror nature, with various subtle ripples, dips, protrusions, and valleys seemingly placed at random, such as the wonderful 15th at Merion West, and the lovely 11th at Cobb’s Creek.

Although Wilson had an imitative flirtation with the creation of large, ostentatious earthworks such as the original “Alps” 10th at Merion during his earliest “experimentation” period, he soon settled into an elegance, simplicity, and economy of design that mirrored his reserved, conservative personality.  Most of his greens and tees flow from the fairway or surrounds “at grade” from the highest or lowest point, and are only almost imperceptibly built up, or cut on the opposite side, the dirt garnered through the digging of adjacent bunkering, or the excess used for soft mounding.  This approach has proved timeless, and has led to the beautiful simplicity of naturally-sloping, subtly-devilish greens like the 5th at Merion East, the 10th at Philmont, the 14th at Merion West, and the 12th at Cobb’s Creek.

Merion West #14

Merion West #14

Cobbs Creek #12

Cobbs Creek #12

However, by contrast, and quite ironically considering that Merion East and most of Wilson’s courses had a scarcity of bunkers in their early years,  it is Wilson’s innovatively bold, distinctive, yet naturally appearing bunkers that ultimately are his most noteworthy architectural feature.

Indeed, the Merion bunker “style” has become iconic.   Often imitated, but rarely duplicated as successfully, at their best they look as weathered and distressed as the face of a retired sea captain, the steep rise of their faces seeming at times to be near tippling, cracking, and tumbling back into the hellish pits from whence they came.  Today at Merion East the bunkers have somewhat morphed in recent years, deepened, but stabilized with thick faces of turf and fescue that seem an accommodation to both modern equipment and practical maintenance considerations.   Over time, the rebuilt bunkers have begun to weather into their own distinctive look, but to some observers with heightened aesthetic sensibility, mores’ the pity in comparison to the Wilson originals.

Wilson wrote, “The question of bunkers is a big one and the very best school for study we have found is along the seacoast among the dunes. Here one may study the different formations and obtain many ideas for bunkers. We have tried to make them natural and fit them into the landscape. The criticism had been made that we have made them too easy, that the banks are too sloping and that a man may often play a mid-iron shot out of the bunker where he should be forced to use a niblick.  This opens a pretty big subject and we know that the tendency is to make bunkers more difficult.  In the bunkers abroad on the seaside courses, the majority of them were formed by nature and the slopes are easy; the only exception being where on account of the shifting sand, they have been forced to put in railroad ties or similar substance to keep the sand from blowing.  This had made a perfectly straight wall but was not done with the intention of making it difficult to get out but merely to retain the bunker as it exists.  If we make the banks of every bunker so steep that the very best player is forced to use a niblick to get out and the only hope he has when he gets in is to be able to get his ball on the fairway again, why should we not make a rule as we have at present with water hazards, when a man may, if he so desires, drop back with the loss of a stroke.  I thoroughly believe that for the good of Golf, that we should not make our bunkers so difficult, that there is no choice left in playing out of them and that the best and worst must use a niblick.”

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After Wilson’s death in 1925, his brother Alan may have summed up his architectural legacy best when he wrote a year later; “The most difficult problem for the Construction Committee…was to try to build a golf course which would be fun for the ordinary golfer to play and at the same time make it really exacting test of golf for the best players.  Anyone can build a hard course—all you need is length and severe bunkering—but it may be and often is dull as ditch water for the good player and poison for the poor.  It is also easy to build a course which will amuse the average player but which affords poor sport for players of ability.  The course which offers optional methods of play, which constantly tempts you to take a present risk in hope of securing a future advantage, which encourages fine play and the use of brains as well as brawn and which is a real test for the best and yet is pleasant and interesting for all, is the “Rara avis”, and this most difficult of golfing combinations they succeeded in obtaining, particularly the East course, to a very marked degree. I think the secret is that it is eternally sound; it is not bunkered to catch weak shots but to encourage fine ones, yet if a man indulges in bad play he is quite sure to find himself paying the penalty.”

“We should also be grateful to this committee because they did not as is so often the case deface the landscape. They wisely utilized the natural hazards wherever possible…We know the bunkering is all artificial but most of it fits into the surrounding landscape so well and has so natural a look that it seems as if many of the bunkers might have been formed by erosion, either wind or water and this of course is the artistic result which should be gotten.”

“The greatest thing this committee did, however, was to give the East course that indescribable something quite impossible to put a finger on,—the thing called “Charm” which is just as important in a golf course as in a person and quite as elusive, yet the potency of which we all recognize. How they secured it we do not know; perhaps they do not.”

 

The author wishes to again gratefully thank Pete Trenham, PGA, for the 1934 US Open Program found at his wonderful site, http://www.trenhamgolfhistory.org/ and Joe Bausch for his unparalleled research efforts, as well as for the liberal use of his photo catalog, the “Bausch Collection”, which can be found here; http://myphillygolf.com/gallery.asp?id=7479&pid=2236 Additional photos have been copped from the pages of Golf Illustrated and George Thomas’s “Golf Architecture in America”, and the online Dallin Library of the Hagley Museum, Wilmington, DE.

THE END