Who Was Hugh Wilson?

by

Mike Cirba

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The new Merion course that opened in September 1912 would likely be unrecognizable in stretches from the course we know today.   Even by the summer of 1915, nearly three years after opening, the golf course was described as having “less traps and bunkers than are usually to be found on a short nine-hole course”.   The first hole aimed the golfer directly and uncomfortably close to the boundary of Golf House Road.  Four holes originally crossed Ardmore Avenue and a number of original greens were less than desirable in terms of configuration for approach shots.   Committee member Richard Francis with good humor mentioned some of these issues in his 1950 remembrances; “In those days we thought Ardmore Avenue would make a fine hazard.   Play crossed it on the 2nd, 10th, 11th, and 12th holes.   The trouble was, Ardmore Avenue soon got over being a country road through farmland and became a much travelled highway.   The 2nd tee, which was just back of the 1st green, was rebuilt almost immediately on the other side of the highway – where it now is – but the other 3 holes remained unchanged until some time in the 1920’s.   More land was obtained at that time and the 10th, 11th, and 12th holes, were redesigned and a new 1st and 13th constructed…The 14th green was rebuilt…Somewhere along the line the 2nd green, a three-terraced affair, referred to as “awfully interesting”, was rebuilt as it is now.   Originally the 8th green took the contour of the hillside so that players had to play onto a green which sloped sharply away from them.”

While the course did have its limitations, the combination of potential challenge, natural interest, and fine conditioning led most observers to agree with Tillinghast’s assessment, including Alex Findlay who concluded; “The construction committee, consisting of Hugh I. Wilson, H.G. Lloyd, R.E. Griscom, R.S. Francis, and H. Toulmin have done for Pennsylvania what Herbert C. Leeds and his committee did for Massachusetts – built the two nicest courses in their respective states.”

Merion West 1913

The proverbial paint had barely dried on the just opened East course and Hugh Wilson and his committee were called back into service by Golf Committee Chairman Robert Lesley in December of 1912.  Only three months after opening, membership rolls burgeoned such that a fixed limit had to be placed on golfing members.   Tillinghast reported; “Merion has increased its membership to the bursting point, and it has been found necessary to place a limit.   The course has been practically congested over since it opened.  The golfers wanted to play over a real course, and they flocked there.   Additional ground has been secured, and another eighteen hole course will spring up beside the other.”

Working on a lovely rolling site just a mile west of the East course, Wilson and his Committee took what they learned in the previous months and fast-tracked the creation of the club’s second course, Merion West.   Although the official opening date was in May of 1914, by November of 1913 Tillinghast was able to report in “American Golfer”; “Merion has opened the second new course for play.   Your correspondent went out to look over the newest lay-out, for the purpose of describing it in THE AMERICAN GOLFER but before he had gone very far with Mr. Hugh Wilson, Mr. Rodman C. Griscom and Mr. H.W. Perrin, the heavens opened and the floods descended, the party being forced to take refuge.   However, through the deluge I saw something of it…It is undeniably sporty and golf is spectacular to an extreme.   Mr. Hugh Wilson and the construction committee have worked exceedingly hard and the various problems appear to be worked out in masterly fashion.”

Robert Lesley was understandably proud of the new 36-hole complex, and compared the two courses in an article for “Golf Illustrated” in December of 1914; “The first fact that strikes one in considering the two courses at Merion is their absolute difference in soil and in surrounding country scenery.   The old or east course is…in general characteristics a flat area, intersected with two or three creeks, and having about it in the shape of homes and other improvements, many of the indications of an advanced civilization.   The soil is largely clay loam, the holes are long, the going is good, the run of the ball is great and there is a freedom and openness about the course that tempts the man to lash out with a driver or brassie and to let go at almost every hole…requiring the best of club workmanship.   The new course…presents an entirely different picture.   Where on the old course backgrounds seem to be lacking in many of the holes, a forest, which surrounds the new course, furnished a background to almost every hole.   Where civilization seems to mark the old course, forests, hills and dales mark the new one.   Both courses are of championship size, the old of 6,420 yards and the other of about 6,015.  The new, although shorter, furnishes equally good golf.”

Indeed, when the US Amateur tournament was played at Merion just two years later in the fall of 1916, both courses were used for the Medal competition.   While it had its detractors (both Tillinghast and Walter Travis felt it had too many short and quirky holes for a major competition like the 125 yard steeply downhill 6th over a creek or the equally steeply uphill short par four 8th), the great English architect Charles Alison commented, “Of course, I know the East is your championship course; yet while it may be heresy for me to say so, I like this one even better because it is so beautiful, so natural and has such great possibilities. I think it could be made the better of the two.”

Over time, significant additional enhancements to the East course have kept it relevant for high-level competitions, while the West course has remained relatively untouched, time and technology having relegated it to a still honorable status as a fun, sporty, remarkably lovely “member’s course”.

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In 1934, writing for the US Open preview, long-time club President Robert W. Lesley again summed up the origins of the two Merion courses thusly; “…when Merion’s first golf course was found to be too short for satisfactory championship play with the development of the rubber cored golf ball, it was necessary to do something of a radical nature.   A new location was sought and in 1912 127 acres were purchased…Hugh I. Wilson and his Green Committee laid out Merion’s first 18 hole course on the new land and it is what is today now known as the “East Course.”   This development soon added so many members to Merion’s golf players that some immediate action became necessary to add further to the facilities for golf…and a second eighteen-hole course, now known as the “West Course”, one o the most beautiful in the country from a scenic standpoint, was created by Hugh I. Wilson and his associates on the Green Committee….those two courses, both of which are of championship character and have received the most favorable comments in golf circles all over the world, it may be stated that the reason for the successful development is due to the fact that during the period from 1909 to the present day Merion’s Green Committee has been kept almost intact from its origin up to today…thus insuring a consistent, systematic, and wise development.”

Philadelphia Public Course Committee 1913

For the game to grow in Philadelphia and to help develop competitive players, most of the influential golfers in the region felt it was essential that the game be made available to the “men of slender purses”, as Tillinghast put it, in the form of a free public golf course on city lands.  Robert W. Lesley of Merion was serving as President of the Golf Association of Philadelphia (GAP) in 1913, and became the primary catalyst.   For over ten frustrating years, the Golf Association had tried to work with the city officials of Philadelphia to create a public golf course in the city’s park system, to no avail.   In January of 1913, however, Lesley appointed a committee comprised of the Presidents of six influential clubs, all men of distinguished community presence who were felt to hold sway over public opinion and well versed in political maneuvering.   Two of those men were Clarence Geist of Whitemarsh Valley, a wildly wealthy Chicago import who owned the Atlantic City Gas Company and Ellis Gimbel of the city’s prominent Jewish club Philmont, whose family had created the Gimbel’s Department Stores.

In February of 1913, Lesley created a second committee whose responsibility was to scour the city’s sprawling Fairmount Park System and find a suitable location for a public golf course.   This was a challenge because the golf couldn’t interfere with other public activities, and the Fairmount Park Commission had a decree that no trees could be taken down for any purpose, including golf.

The Committee consisted of “Hugh I. Wilson, Merion Cricket Club; George A. Crump, Philadelphia Country Club (and creator of Pine Valley), A.H. Smith, Huntingdon Valley Country Club; and Joseph A. Slattery, Whitemarsh Valley Country Club…”, and in late April of 1913 they issued their initial report, recommending a site near Belmont Mansion.   It was reported, “…Hugh I. Wilson of the Merion Cricket Club, who was one of the two expert golfers present, declared that he believed Plot C would be the first one turned into a golf course.   He stated that it was admirable soil, which would only need a little fertilizer to be put into condition.”

In June of that year, the Belmont site was rejected by the Fairmount Park Commission. By then, however, the Committee had located another site in the far northwest corner of the city which they described as ideal for golfing purposes.  The Committee’s subsequent proposal was approved and it was recommended that council appropriate monies for a public course in the newly acquired Cobb’s Creek Park.

Seaview 1913-14

It is not known if it was the Public course committee that first drew wealthy Clarence Geist and Hugh Wilson together, but by the spring of 1913 Geist was developing plans to create a palatial resort on some low-lying farmland along the bay in Absecon, NJ, just outside of Atlantic City.  Certainly as an “amateur architect”, whose real source of income was the family insurance business, it is difficult to imagine that Hugh Wilson would have been soliciting additional golf-related work.   Still, after the success of the Merion East course (the West was still only being constructed at that time), it seems Wilson’s star was on the rise in Philadelphia sporting circles, and he quickly became the go-to guy for a number of golf-related projects.

Clarence Geist was unhappy with the crowding and slow-play at the public Atlantic City Country Club where he played each winter and felt the moderate temperatures near the sea would afford him the opportunity to turn Seaview into a year-round private club and resort.

An earlier day Donald Trump-like tycoon with a similar enormous ego, much of what was released to the press about the project bore the Geist stamp.   Never one to put others in the forefront, the details of the men behind the project were not heavily publicized, and given Wilson’s unassuming nature, he was probably fine with the lack of notoriety.   However, in October of 1913, golf writer William H. Evans of the “Philadelphia Public Ledger” noted, “Hugh I. Wilson, chairman of the Green Committee at the Merion Cricket Club and who is responsible for the wonderful links on the Main Line, has been Mr. Geist’s right hand man and has laid out the Sea View course.   Mr. Wilson some years ago before the new course was constructed visited the most prominent courses here and in Great Britain and has no superior as a golf architect.”

Despite construction setbacks when a number of holes along the bay became flooded during a January 1914 hurricane, as well as a subsequent revision in plans requiring four new holes to be created further inland, by the summer of 1914 the course at Seaview was ready to open.  In June of 1914 The “Philadelphia Inquirer” reported, “The eighteen hole course is in perfect shape.   It is prettily laid out for enthusiasts, too, Robinson (course pro Willie Robinson) and Hugh Wilson of Philadelphia, being highly complimented on their choice for the greens.”

In October of 1914, the “Philadelphia Inquirer” reported, “The Seaview, as one of the three most important golf projects undertaken in America, occupies a niche quite its own.   It was not intended to be like the National Links, the most severe test ever offered in this country, nor was it designed to cater almost entirely to the closest students of the sport, like Pine Valley.   Seaview occupies a middle ground, being planned for thinking players of both sexes with plenty of hazards, which call for the placing of exact shots without undue penalization.   It is doubtful if a course has yet been built on this side with such a variety of surface on the putting greens.   Those who received a jolt when hammocks were introduced on several greens at Garden City would be speechless over the variety of boundary humps that render every one of the Absecon greens distinctive…Of course, all of the distances on the club card are provisional until experience has demonstrated the wisdom of hazard location.”

Seaview

Seaview

Much like both courses at Merion, Seaview was built with limited bunkering with the idea that hazards were best located after careful observation and study of play.   Tillinghast wrote in January 1915, “Seaview will never be the test of golf that Pine Valley is.  It was never contemplated as such.  The course is flat with just enough of an undulation in the fairway to rob the flatness of the ground.   Some of the best courses in Great Britain are flat, but thanks to what is known as the Mid Surrey or Alpinization scheme of bunkering, the courses are really of a championship caliber.   And that is what Seaview will be in another year.   The bunkering has not yet been started and those who saw the course for the first time will be surprised when they see it a year from now…The greens, however, were a delight to all and in spite of their newness they will compare favorably with any course in the country…Each and every green is characteristic and no one resembles the other.   All are undulating and all are perfectly true.”

Golfwriter Verdant Greene, perhaps gently poking the movement that religiously copied holes from abroad wrote, “There has been no straining for effect at the Seaview course.  No famous hazards abroad or at home have been counterfeited there, nor have distances been stretched nor plans laid to keep contestants from drawing a long breath throughout the round…There are plenty of hazards which call for exact shots, but no ultra-penalization.   While the links, as is almost inevitable, being so near the sea, has not great variety of surface, being used as a farm up to two years ago, the putting greens present more undulations and humps than a camel’s back.   Even Garden City has been surpassed in that respect.”

Shortly after that “soft” summer opening, Clarence Geist fell deathly ill, and it wasn’t until he fully recovered that the course was officially opened with a prestigious, audacious four-ball tournament with top amateur golfers in the middle of January.   By that time, Hugh Wilson was looking to get back to the business of his real business, insurance.   He did find time in April of 1915, however, to return to Seaview to play as Francis Ouimet’s partner in defeating Clarence Geist and new Seaview professional Wilfred Reid in a highly publicized match, with Ouimet setting a new club record of 73.

The Seaview course that had its soft opening in summer of 1914 is the same routing that is today known as the Seaview “Bay Course”.   An opening day hole-by-hole description reads much like today’s course, and even though Donald Ross was engaged by Geist later in 1915 to “stiffen” the course with extensive bunkering, only some of Ross’s recommendations were ever followed.

Cobb’s Creek 1914

By April of 1914, Philadelphia City Council had appropriated $10,000 of the requested $30,000 towards the creation of a public golf course in Cobb’s Creek Park.   GAP President Robert Lesley named a committee to design and help construct the course, working with city engineers.   Lesley’s committee was literally a “Murderer’s Row” lineup of men experienced in golf course design and construction from the city’s clubs.   It included Hugh Wilson, George Crump and Father Simon Carr, who had begun the work of building Pine Valley, AH (Ab) Smith, two time Philadelphia Amateur champion who had made significant revisions to Huntingdon Valley, George Klauder, who had designed and constructed the new Aronimink course with A.W. Tillinghast and Cecil Calvert, and Franklin Meehan, who had created North Hills country club on his family estate and helped Tillinghast construct his initial course at Shawnee in 1910.

By June, the initial design had been completed, with the Philadelphia Inquirer reporting that, “Experts who have seen the layout say the first course will be the best planned municipal links in this country and that it will compare favorably with some of the best courses in this country.”   Not surprisingly, Hugh Wilson was later given specific credit as the man “who drew the tentative design for the course”.

Years later, an account in the “Philadelphia Inquirer” recapped, “Eventually the Cobb’s Creek course became possible, and George A. Crump, Hugh Wilson, Ab Smith, and George Klauder offered to lay it out for the love of the game.”

Philmont 1914

Much like his connection with Geist at Seaview, it seems that Wilson’s participation on the Cobb’s Creek committee with Ellis Gimbel may have been responsible for his being asked to come to Philmont to make recommendations for improving their golf course which had opened in 1908.   In November of 1914 the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “Philmont is also making a lot of changes that will greatly increase the pleasure of playing over that course.   The two new holes (both designed by Wilson), the tenth and eleventh, are two of the best short holes in Philadelphia.   The greens are well guarded and unless the shots are well placed there is trouble aplenty for the players.   The series of up and down hill holes in front of the cub have been improved by the elimination of two of them.   Five years ago there were scarcely fifty men who played over the course…Now the golfers are in ascendancy and number hundreds.”  In July of 1915 the Inquirer reported, “Philmont is a beautiful course to play on and is a much better test of golf than it was two or three years ago, when the same event was held there….the first four or five holes are particularly good golf as are the new holes, which were laid out by Hugh Wilson, who constructed the two courses at Merion and the one at Seaview.”

In writing retrospectively about Philmont in January 1916, the Inquirer noted, “The last named club (Philmont) for years was noted as a course where there was not a single artificial hazard… One of the leading members (Gimbel) had a great deal to do with the municipal course in Cobb’s Creek Park, which was laid out by A.H. Smith, George Crump, Hugh Wilson, and others, and he was greatly impressed with what these experts did.”

A May 1916 “Philadelphia Inquirer” article details some of the work done by Wilson at Philmont, in conjunction with Green Committee chairman Henry Strouse; “For those who have not played at Philmont it might be said that the course is one of the most interesting in Philadelphia.   While there is still a lot to be done in the bunkering of the course what has been done has been done intelligently.   Several of the holes, notably the eighth, tenth, eleventh, and thirteenth will compare most favorably with the best holes in and about the city.   The eight is patterned after one of the holes at Pine Valley.”

Philmont 1924

Philmont 1924

During this same time period, local lore has it that Wilson also designed the nine-hole Phoenixville Golf Club near Valley Forge, although documentation establishing that as fact has still not been uncovered.

North Hills 1914-1917

Much like Seaview and Philmont, it seems the connections Wilson cemented at Cobb’s Creek led to an increasing amount of golf course related work, this time at North Hills Country Club.   Franklin Meehan started this venerable club on family property in 1908, and in 1914 once additional land was acquired, a new eighteen hole course was designed by Hugh Wilson, Alan Corson (Assistant Engineer of Fairmount Park and Chairman of the North Hills Green Committee), Meehan, and Ab Smith, all four men at the time involved as well with the Cobb’s Creek initiative.  Course construction commenced that year under the leadership of Corson, but it was evidently slow-going.

In January of 1915, Tillinghast wrote; “North Hills has great possibilities, for the natural features are many. In a number of places the ancient mine workings offer exceptional opportunities to the course builder, but unfortunately the club has not been in a position to finance the work which would give them a remarkable course.  Lay out North Hills on a big scale and it will be a great golf course.”

North Hills 1924

North Hills 1924

The new course opened in 1917, and it’s likely that both Wilson and Merion Greenkeeper William Flynn helped over the next period of years as design drawings coinciding with some revisions and enhancements of the course were found in the “Flynn Collection” drawing years later.

Resignation

By the end of 1914, having designed and built both courses at Merion and Seaview, coupled with additional work at Cobb’s Creek, North Hills, and Philmont, Hugh Wilson needed a break.   The December 6, 1914 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “Hugh I. Wilson, for a number of years chairman of the Green Committee at Merion Cricket Club has resigned.   He personally constructed the two courses at Merion and before the first was built he visited every big course in Great Britain and this country.   He also laid out the new course at Seaview.   Pressure of business compels him to give up the chairmanship.”

Cobb’s Creek 1915-16

Events soon conspired against Wilson’s wishes to settle back into a business routine.   In early January 1915 it was announced that the city had come to agreement to fund and build the golf course Wilson and the others had previously designed in Cobb’s Creek Park.

Shortly after the course opened to sterling reviews, many citing it as the best public course in the country, a “Philadelphia Inquirer” article from July 16, 1916 fleshed out a bit more of the specific involvement of Hugh Wilson and Ab Smith, who seemed to have the most lengthy involvement during the construction phase; “The fact that there is a golf course at Cobb’s Creek is due entirely to the hard efforts of the Philadelphia Golf Association…And after the plans were decided upon Hugh Wilson, the man who laid out the two Merion courses, spent six months laying out the new public course. A.H. Smith, for years one of the most prominent members of the Huntingdon Valley Country Club, gave up his Sundays for as many months to the work of getting the course in shape.”

An early photo of public play at Cobb’s Creek

An early photo of public play at Cobb’s Creek

“The Golf Association of Philadelphia, the Executive Committee, and Messrs. Wilson and Smith have given their services gladly and freely in an effort to make the new course the finest public course in the United States.  At no time have they attempted to interfere in the slightest with the Park Commissioners in the running of the links.  They have always been ready to give whatever aid they can.”

An April 1916, “Philadelphia Evening Ledger” article discussed the architecture at Cobb’s Creek; “Everything is the latest word in golf architecture. There are no straight lines, none of the greens are built as they were in the olden days of a half decade ago, when the greens were flat as a pancake and rectangular in shape. Everything is irregular in shape, every green is undulating in character and every green faces the shot instead of falling away from it. There are no cross bunkers and there will be none. There are pits and traps, and grassy mounds and grassy hollows.”

As was the standard practice, the job of adding extensive bunkering was deferred; one article saying it was a job “likely to take two or three seasons”.   However, the reality is that the course was already more than difficult enough for fledgling Philadelphia public golfers.   Another city paper wrote; “Most of the trapping and pitting will go over till next year, as those in charge do not think it advisable to make the course too stiff a proposition in its early stages.   The rolling country which makes up the course and the fact that the creek guards quite a number of greens are sufficient at present to make the course difficult.”

As with most of Wilson’s projects, Cobb’s Creek benefited greatly from the involvement of Merion’s Superintendent William S. Flynn, who handled construction shaping and was a budding architect himself at that time.   As reported in the Evening Ledger piece, “William S. Flynn, the green keeper at Merion, has been a big aid in the development of the course and in the construction and seeding of the greens and in the actual building of the bunkers and traps.  And the work…certainly speaks for itself.”

Flynn had come to Philadelphia while Merion East was being built, likely at the behest of his brother-in-law Fred Pickering who was a man with vast golf course construction experience working with early pioneers Tom Bendelow and Alex Findlay.   Pickering was hired by Merion to lead the construction of Merion East and Flynn came to work for him through the course opening.   Later, when the West Course was under construction, Pickering and Merion had a falling out over concerns with Pickering’s drinking, and Flynn took over full construction and maintenance responsibilities, eventually leading to the full-time Superintendent job.   Pickering did go to work for Wilson again at Seaview, but problems continued and he was eventually replaced.

By all accounts, Wilson and Flynn developed a professionally symbiotic and personally close relationship and worked intimately over the next decade on multiple projects.   When Flynn’s first daughter was born, Wilson bought the family an Airedale puppy and later bought Flynn’s wife Lillian a horse and carriage so she could come and visit her husband on the Merion job site.

Flynn so embraced his new responsibilities during this period that he made a trip to New England to study the best courses there, The Country Club, Myopia Hunt, and Essex among them, looking for ideas he could bring back to the Cobb’s Creek construction process.   Flynn later became one of the most famous golf course architects in the country during the Golden Age of design, and his elegant style that sought to seamlessly blend the natural with the man-made helped to define what became known as the “Philadelphia School” of golf course architecture.  He also is the man responsible for the distinctive “wicker basket” flagsticks that are used at Merion (and were used at Cobb’s Creek), patenting them in 1915.

William Flynn, to whom “naturalness” was the most important design factor, summed up the philosophical approach of the Philadelphia School best when he wrote, “Naturalness should apply on all construction on golf courses, greens, tees, mounds, and bunkers alike.  It is much more expensive to construct a natural looking golf course on account of the tremendous amount of material that must be moved but the money saved in the subsequent maintenance greatly offsets the original cost.  Natural topographical features should always be developed in presenting problems in the play.  As a matter of fact, such features are much more to be desired than made tests for they are generally more attractive.”

Cobb’s Creek set a new standard for public golf when it opened due to the intensive collaborative efforts of men like Wilson, Crump, Smith, Flynn and the others, and unlike many courses of that era, its basic, attractive features have remained relatively unchanged over time.

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