Who Was Hugh Wilson?

by

Mike Cirba

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Merion East 1915-16

In July of 1915, as construction efforts at Cobb’s Creek were nearing completion and the grow-in process begun, the following article appeared in the “Evening Ledger”; “Merion is not trapped and bunkered at present because of the 90 per cent of the club’s golfers who are not cracks.   It is sufficiently hard for the remaining 10 per cent and not too difficult to take away a portion of the enjoyment from the others.   Should the national championship be awarded to Merion, traps and bunkers could be placed in short order.”

Within months, it was confirmed that Merion would host the prestigious US Amateur championship, which in those days was the most important tournament in the country.   Naturally, Hugh Wilson was pressed back into service, this time to add teeth to the club’s course through the creation of stringent bunkering strategies and an attempt to improve some of the course’s basic weaknesses.

Previewing the tournament for “American Golfer” in February 1916, Tillinghast wrote; “Certainly a reference to the Merion course over which the championship of 1916 will be played must be of interest.   The course was opened in 1912, and the plans were decided upon only after a critical review of the great courses of Great Britain and America.   It was the first of the two eighteen hole courses at Merion, the West Course being opened several years later.   The distances are admirable and altogether Merion presents a good test of golf, but in view of the fact that the National title is to be decided there next September, a number of hazards will be introduced to bring the play closer to championship demands.”

With the limited time available to get the course ready before September, Wilson and Flynn must have tore across the landscape of Merion East like a storm bent on construction.   Adding over fifty strategically-placed bunkers, all new tees, they also ripped up and rebuilt greens on what are today’s holes 6 and 9, created brand new greens on the 8th and 17th and planted new fairways on holes 10, 11, and 12.   Remarkably, the course was in superb condition by the time of the event.

By April 23, 1916 the “Philadelphia Inquirer” reported; “Nearly every hole on the course has been stiffened so that in another month or two it will resemble a really excellent championship course. Hugh Wilson is the course architect and Winthrop Sargent is the chairman of the Green Committee. These two men have given a lot of time and attention to the changes and improvements. Before anything was done to the course originally Mr. Wilson visited every golf course of any note not only in Great Britain, but in this country as well, with the result that Merion‘s east course is the last word in course architecture. It has been improved each year
until it is now nearly perfect from a golf standpoint.  The club has been very fortunate in having as its greenkeeper William S. Flynn. He is a New Englander and before coming to Merion was a professional in Vermont.”

On the same day William Evans concurred in the “Evening Ledger”; “These changes have been made by the Green Committee under the most efficient chairmanship of Winthrop Sargent and Hugh Wilson, to whose genius Merion owes both its courses.  In addition, Mr. Wilson, for many years chairman of the Green Committee at Merion, also constructed the Seaview course and so altered the Philmont course by adding two new holes that it now ranks among the best courses in Philadelphia.   Merion is particularly fortunate in having as its groundkeeper William S. Flynn, under whose personal direction all this work is being done.   In intelligence he is heads above the average greenkeeper and in addition is an excellent executive.”

The tournament itself was splendidly received, with Chick Evans defeating Robert Gardner in the finals, and which featured a 14-year old named Bobby Jones who created a stir with a 74 on the West course before fading with an 89 on the East and then losing in match-play.   In a statement sure to please Wilson and Flynn, runner-up Gardner later wrote that, “Somehow it did seem to contenders last week that Hugh Wilson…had set the Merion hazards on rollers and shifted them around several times a day as stage hands would scenery.”

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Walter Travis was equally laudatory, writing in “American Golfer”, “Great credit attaches to the Merion Club for the superb condition into which they rounded the course generally, despite the handicap of drought.   Mr. Hugh I. Wilson deserves great praise for his work in this direction…”

Sadly, just a few months before what should have been the pinnacle of Hugh Wilson’s architectural and agronomic achievements, his youngest daughter Nancy passed away just a month and a half before what would have been her sixth birthday in early September.   One can only imagine what a bittersweet event the 1916 US Amateur must have been for Wilson, the semi-final rounds on Saturday the 8th falling on what would have been her birthday.

World War I

While President Woodrow Wilson vainly tried to keep the United States out of conflict, much of the rest of the world had already been at war for years by the end of 1916.   Finally, the sinking of American ships by German U-boats created an intolerable situation and America declared war in April of 1917.   As one might imagine, golf related activities took an immediate backseat to more critical matters.

During the previous years of rapid golf courses development, there was another reason for keeping amateur architectural work low-profile.  Various movements were afoot to make anyone profiting from the game a “professional”, and Francis Ouimet was unfairly stripped of his amateur status for having worked in a sporting goods store.   Golf course architects were among those targeted.  A January 1917 article in the “Philadelphia Inquirer” mentioned a number of local amateurs; “Only one Philadelphian (Tillinghast) is affected by the rule as all other amateurs have been doing this work as a matter of interest and love of the game.   George Klauder had much to do with the laying out of the Aronimink and Cobb’s Creek courses, George Crump had done wonders at Pine Valley, Hugh Wilson built both the Merion courses and the course at Seaview, Ab Smith has done a lot of construction work at Huntingdon Valley, Cobb’s Creek, and North Hills, but it is very doubtful if anyone of these ever got a penny for their services.   According to the old rule golf architects were as good amateurs as the veriest dub, who played once a week and were exempted from the ban placed upon those who infringed the amateur rule.”

Pine Valley

Hugh Wilson had great admiration for what his friend George Crump was trying to accomplish at Pine Valley.   Likewise, he felt that Pine Valley was an inspirational model for anyone trying to advance their knowledge of golf course architecture.   In a news article published in April of 1917, it was stated, “George Crump has been called the “Miracle Man of Pine Valley” and even such an authority as Hugh Wilson, who laid out the two Merion courses over which the national amateur championship was played last fall, advises every club which intends either to build or reconstruct a course to go to Pine Valley to get the ideas about the holes and the bunkering.”

Tragically, on January 24th, 1918, with the war dragging on and George Crump having exhausted a fortune on his Pine Valley dream, Crump committed suicide at age 46.   The outpouring of genuine emotion and regret in the world golf community was palpable and profound, and Hugh Wilson shared in that shock and collective grief.  With only 14 holes finished, the very future of the great Pine Valley course seemed very uncertain.

By the end of 1918, with the end of war within sight, Pine Valley members asked Hugh Wilson and his brother Alan to come up with a plan to finish the remaining four holes according to George Crump’s expressed wishes.   With some generous donations, funding was garnered and the Wilsons spent five months at Pine Valley, working with Crump’s close friends Dr. Simon Carr and William Smith who detailed Crump’s “Remembrances”.   The Wilson’s brought in William Flynn to assist in the spring of 1919.  Overcoming a number of agronomic challenges, the team was finally able to get holes 12 through 15 completed, which opened for play in the summer of 1920.   Work continued on completing Pine Valley through 1922 with the help of Charles Alison when it is generally agreed the course was finalized.

In January of 1920, Hugh Wilson was elected to the Executive Committee of the United States Golf Association, a position of prominence and earned respect for a man who had become somewhat of an accidental leader in the game.   Circumstances had simply dictated that he was the right person for the job at reoccurring instances, which ultimately set Wilson on a trajectory that seems almost predetermined, in retrospect.

Merion 1922

By early 1922, as the economy began to prosper in the post-war years and the country zoomed into the “Roaring 20’s”, the increase in auto traffic along Ardmore Avenue created an untenable situation that needed resolution.   With this in mind, Merion was able to acquire land south of their original course.

In a February 18th, 1923 article by J.E. Ford (pen name “Donnie MacTee”), the significant changes to the Merion course affecting holes 10, 11, 12, and 13, all effectively replaced, were detailed.   More surprisingly, it was learned that this was land that Wilson and the others of his committee had hoped to use originally, but were prevented from acquiring at the time.

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“To the legions of golfers who have played the east course of the Merion Cricket Club the statement that these links have been improved will seem incredible.   Improving upon perfection, they will say, cannot easily be done.   True, perhaps, yet the changes that have been made upon four holes of this championship course since last summer have added greatly to its attractiveness.”

“The new holes are the realization of hopes held by the builders of the course in the days when golf in this country was virtually unknown.   At that time it was found impossible to obtain the ground necessary for the construction of ideal holes at the turn.   After a lapse of two decades the club has gained title to the necessary land and the new holes, as near ideal as most ever will be, await only spring to prove their worth….”

“Responsible for these improvements in the already unsurpassed east course is Hugh Wilson, a pioneer golfer here and chairman of the Merion green committee for seven years – or until his voluntary retirement.   Mr. Wilson was one of the original designers of the Merion course and the holes just constructed are ones he wished for, but was prevented from building when the course was designed.   He is still an active member of the greens committee, to whom all questions of architecture and grasses are referred as a matter of course.”

In early 1924, in preview of the US Amateur that was to be hosted by the club that fall, golf writer Frank McCracken discussed the changes and the man responsible; “Merion has been improved upon.   The improvements have brought out more of the course’s beauty.   That is not all.   It will be a test to try the mettle and might of our greatest golfers.   Hugh I. Wilson, one of the best known turfologists in these United States and an authority on golf architecture in proportion, is the man mainly responsible.   He is chairman of the Greens Committee at Merion.  Hugh Wilson does not court attention for his knowledge.   He prefers to do things and allows his accomplishments to go unsung.   Yet he is considerate.   He has the interest of golf at heart, especially the Merion course and the national amateur championship.   Trying to keep himself in the background, he has explained what has been done at Merion.   In making ready the bunkered battleground for the next national amateur grapple, the first thing considered was the elimination of three shots over a much-used highway.   This has been done.   Four entirely new holes have been constructed.   They are all beauties.”

Despite lingering health issues, by 1922 Wilson again seemed poised to continue his architectural and civic achievements.   The city of Philadelphia was in dire need of more public courses, his adored Cobb’s Creek was overflowing with golfers who lined up in the wee hours of the morning, so once again he and Ab Smith (with Alan Corson) were tasked with locating new sites within the city for additional public links.   The sites they recommended in the Tacony and League Island sections are today public courses known as Juniata and Franklin Roosevelt, respectively.

Additionally, he may have been part of the design team for the Juniata course before his untimely death   In August, 1924, when work began in earnest to build an additional public course at Juniata (Tacony) the following news item appeared in the Philadelphia Evening Ledger;

“The city will be saved a big fee for a golf architect, in the program for the erection of a course in Tacony, Mr. Corson said.  He announced that he himself, a golfer, and Frank Meehan, Hugh Wilson and A. H. Smith, all members of the Philadelphia Golf Association, would probably design the course.   Mr. Meehan, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Smith gave their aid in laying out the course at Cobbs Creek,” stated the chief engineer, “and I am sure that they will help us with the Tacony links.”

In early 1922 Wilson spent two days with William Flynn and Frederick Hood reviewing the site for Kittansett Golf Club, in Marion, MA.   The extent of his total involvement in that design is unknown, but in March he wrote Oakley, “I have just gotten back from Marion, where I spent two days with Mr. Hood and Flynn. It certainly is a pretty piece of ground and it ought to make a bully Golf Course.”

He was also named in 1922 as the pending architect for a new club to be formed in Bryn Mawr, PA, which never came to fruition, and began work over the next year with William Flynn on a new privately-owned (by William Flynn and stockholders including Wilson) public course in the Philadelphia suburbs called Marble Hall.   The course opened in the summer of 1925, after Wilson’s passing.

Merion 1924

The last great hurrah for Hugh Wilson took place in September of 1924, when the US Amateur was again played at his beloved Merion East course.   Photos of Wilson taken during the event show a tall, gaunt man, who appears happy and proud but with eyes expressing a certain weariness, as if the years of fighting physical afflictions were beginning to take their toll.   In the tournament, wunderkind Bobby Jones absolutely devastated the U.S. Amateur field, and won the final decisively from George Von Elm by the lopsided score of 9 and 8.

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Hugh Wilson dies

In one of his last letters to Oakley, Wilson complains of feeling like a “boiled owl”.   A subsequent letter late January from his brother Alan indicates that Wilson’s situation is dire, and that his kidneys are failing.

In the 25th year book of the class of 1902 at Princeton, the following synopsis was written; “The knowledge of golf courses that he possessed came from an intensive study of the famous links of Scotland and England. He planned the course of the Merion Golf Club and the City Golf Course at Cobb‘s Creek. He was active in the construction of other courses also. At the time he was stricken ill he was working on the Marble Hall Golf Course, near Barren Hill, an unfinished public course.”

Hugh Wilson died on February 3rd, 1925, at the young and promising age of 45.   It is difficult to imagine how he might have packed more activity into those short years, or how he could have been more valuable to helping advance the nascent game of golf in this country.

The Green Committee of the USGA eulogized him as follows;

Hugh Irvine Wilson 1879-1925

Hugh Irvine Wilson 1879-1925

It is with profound sorrow that we announce the death of Hugh Irvine Wilson, which occurred on Tuesday, February 3.   He was a member of our Advisory Board, and in a large measure was responsible for the formation and success of the Green Section of the United States Golf Association.   He was properly considered one of the best-informed men in the country on problems relating to the construction and maintenance of golf courses.   Not only did he have a wealth of practical, first-hand experience, but he was also a close student, and in his research work he visited the principal course abroad in seeking complete information.   Probably no one has been consulted more frequently by those interested in his work.   His passing represents a distinct loss, not only to the Green Section but to golf interests everywhere.

But next to his beloved family circle, the largest measure of loss and grief will fall upon those who have had the privilege of his personal acquaintance and good fellowship.   He was endowed with traits of character which set him apart.  His modesty, cheerfulness, and genuine unselfishness endeared him to all who knew him.   The feelings of his friends passed the bounds of admiration and amounted to downright affection.   No one went to him for counsel or advice who came away empty handed.   From the time he was a young man until the day of his death he suffered from physical handicaps which periodically brought him much pain and distress.  He succeeded in keeping his personal tribulations from his friends, and showed them only a cheerful, helpful disposition such as is possessed by but few men.   When he was consulted for advice, he had the happy faculty of giving it in a way that made you feel that he was favored by the call.   His charity was of the kind that you would expect from him.   Not only was he willing to help in a material way, but he showed a thoughtful consideration with regard to the comfort of those in distress, which made his benefactions the more acceptable.

The mature results of his studies in golf architecture are embodied in the East Course at Merion, which was remodeled under his direction in 1923-1924.   It is safe to say that this course displays in a superb way all the best ideas in recent golf architecture along the lines of its American development.   For a long time to come the Merion course will be a Mecca to all serious students of golf architecture.

It has been said that “a prophet is never without honor save in his own country”, but this was not true of Hugh Wilson.   In Philadelphia, where he lived and worked and played, were his closest and most affectionate friends.   Of few other men can it be said more truthfully that “none knew him but to love him, none named him but to praise.”

His loss represents a big gap in a very wide circle, bu the leaves behind him a precious heritage of high regard and affectionate memories of kindness and helpfulness to his fellow-men.

At Wilson’s funeral, caddies young and old from Merion flocked in attendance to pay their respects, and laid violets on his grave.   Wilson’s life work had energized and expanded the game in Philadelphia and beyond, not only through the development of wonderful private golf courses for the elite, but perhaps more lastingly,  through the thousands of common citizens he helped introduce to the game with his efforts to promote public golf courses in the city.

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 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 at Merion.   Max Behr, writing in “Golf Illustrated” in December 1914 stated; “By far the best work in this or any other country has not been done by committees but by dictators.   Witness Mr. Herbert Leeds at Myopia, Mr. C.B. Macdonald at the National, and Mr. Hugh Wilson at the Merion Cricket Club.   These dictators, however, have not been averse to taking advice.   In fact they have taken advice from everywhere, but they themselves have done the sifting.   They have studied green keeping and course construction as it was never studied before.   And they have given the benefit of their studies to the world at large.”

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.

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 same 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.”

After Wilson’s death in 1925, his brother Alan may have summed up his 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.”

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THE END

Please note: I dedicate this piece to Mr. Pete Trenham, PGA, for his wonderful research and gentlemanly example.

*The author wishes to acknowledge and humbly thank a variety of golf course historians, researchers, authors, and interested parties for the benefit of their prior publications and research materials and for providing background information from which this article is gleaned.   Those would include, in alphabetical order, Joseph Bausch, Jim Finegan, Brad Klein, the late Tom MacWood, David Moriarty, Wayne Morrison, Tom Paul, Geoff Shackelford, Jeff Silverman, and Phil Young.   In particular, I would be remiss to not mention many of the news articles that give depth and resonance to this piece were unearthed through the dedicated and time-consuming research of “Indiana Joe(nes)” Bausch, to whom I am exceptionally grateful.

Photographs courtesy of American Golfer, Golf Illustrated, the Princeton University Archives, and the Dallin Aerial Collection of the Hagley Museum.