Feature Interview with Anthony Gholz
Anthony C Gholz Jr was born in Detroit and moved with his parents to Port Huron, Michigan in 1950. After graduating from Port Huron High School in 1966 Gholz spent six years at Syracuse University attaining an undergraduate AB as well as professional Bachelor and Master of Architecture degrees. Midway through his Syracuse experience Gholz was a member of the Taliesin Fellowship of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. He retired from the active practice of architecture in 2011 after 24 years in partnership with Gunnar Birkerts in Birmingham, Michigan and 15 years as Director of Architectural Design at DiClemente Siegel Design in Southfield. In retirement he has written histories of the two courses he grew up on in Port Huron: The Golf Course at Black River: the Evolution of a Golden Age Links and One Hundred Fifteen Years of Golf in Port Huron: The History of the Port Huron Golf Club. He resides in Troy with his unusually patient wife Mary. They have two adult children. His just released book on Colt and Alison in North America may be purchased here.
1. Tell us how your affection for Port Huron GC developed and how it ultimately led to the creation of your book, Colt & Alison in North America: Golf Course Architects.
My affection, or rather the lack of it, started when I played high school golf in the early 1960s. I grew up playing Black River Country Club in Port Huron, Michigan. It was originally laid out in 1927 by amateur architect Fred Riggin with help from Wilfrid Reid. It lies on property with large scale land forms and a mile of river frontage. Black River served as the site of the Michigan Open and four Michigan Amateur’s in the post war era along with multiple national Open and Amateur qualifiers. It had a large clubhouse, all the appropriate practice facilities, and was clearly the best course in the area. However, Port Huron Golf Club (PHGC) near Lake Huron was the High School’s home course. With the omniscience of youth, we thought it was a rinky-dink layout. Other than a putting green It had no practice facilities and a very small clubhouse. All the greens were small circles and the bunkers had no relationship to the greens. I didn’t understand the ramifications then, but also during that time (1963-66) a local physician administered a well-funded tree planting program. Along with adding oaks and maples each side of the fairways, he planted exotic ornamentals and spruce all over the course, including several very close to the tee and green pads. They started out small ….
Fast forward to 2002 when the club decided that the greens needed “improving.” David Pandel Savic, our architect, was running his own firm at the time and he discovered the original green pads were much larger than mowed and the bunkering actually had related to the greens. He was aware that the course was a golden age creation and rumored to be by C&A. However, there were no drawings or documentation to back that up; only a 1968 letter written by an aging former member. David spent many weeks on-site and, using a probe and a sharp eye, discovered the original outlines of the greens. Luckily the club had the $ (or borrowing power) and voted to re-build all of the greens at the same time. With David on-site, the green complexes were restored to their original size and bunkering. They are now, of course, much larger (more than double, some triple) than what I played in HS. Mostly laid directly on the natural lake bottom sand ridges they have quite a bit of movement in them. Dave also removed several trees that had been planted near, and often in, the green pads. This effort changed the character of the course and local opinion for the better.
The Alison pedigree came to the surface in 2010 when the club celebrated what was thought to be our 100-year anniversary. A longtime member wrote a small pamphlet celebrating the club’s history. It contained many stories of the people and (non-golf) events held at the club. A little was mentioned regarding the club’s founding and what was thought to be our first course on the south side of town. One green drawing, captioned “from the 1920s,” was included and it caught my eye. By this time, I had done enough research to know a Colt sketch when I saw one and this was it. Except the hand writing didn’t match Colt’s. I asked the club’s GM where was the original of the drawing? The response: “Oh, we’ve got lots of those. I’ll find them for you.” I about jumped out of my chair. A week later I found a thick envelope in my locker and took it home. Long story short, the envelope contained eight original 6”X 12” Alison sketches on card stock similar to those I had seen of Colt’s (at the Tufts) from Old Elm dated 4/27/1913. I need to thank Jeff Mingay (again and again) for help in confirming Alison’s hand in those sketches. Jeff had been involved with Toronto GC and had a sample of Alison’s 1920s General Instructions sketch. It almost exactly matched Port Huron’s.
In 2013 while researching in the local library, I found the “smoking gun” newspaper headline that confirmed Alison’s presence on-site in 1921: “Golf Expert at Work Here, Capt. C.H. Alison, of London England, is Architect of Local Course.” Following that, many hours in the club basement turned up letters and blueprints on Colt & Alison letterhead dated 1928, with references to prior site visits by Alison and Lynn Edward Lavis (C&A’s American partner), most likely in 1925 and ‘26. All were in excellent condition despite the almost ninety years that had passed and the three moves the files made when the clubhouse changed locations on the same property. With these discoveries, I began to realize where PHGC fit in the bigger picture of the golden age and C&A’s oeuvre; and that Detroit was the epicenter of their work in the 1920s. I started to research all I could find regarding C&A, first in the Detroit area and later elsewhere in North America. That effort led me to realize that most of the published C&A material was all about their efforts in Britain and Europe (some in Japan); and when America was mentioned the main, and sometimes only, course discussed was Pine Valley. I thought that should change.
2. No offense, but Colt is one of the titans of golf course architecture and so too is Alison. How did Port Huron take so long to realize that one of the all-time greats had designed its course?!
None taken. I’m still fighting that battle. There are many club members who don’t realize their course and club history, and many others who simply are not interested or don’t care. Despite the monthly history column that I wrote for a couple seasons, and the club history that I published in 2013, the club’s website still has us founded in 1910, rather than 1899 as I’ve documented extensively. Our first course, near downtown Port Huron, was by Bert Way in 1899. Way was the architect of the first Country Club of Detroit course and the second Detroit Golf Club course in 1897 and 1905 respectively. The club also still lists our current course as designed by a Michigan architect who wasn’t even born until WWII. At least our professional has the correct architects and dates on the scorecard, so most golfers see those names and dates, even if they don’t register.
In the larger sense, lack of historical knowledge is a pattern I’ve seen many times. The Depression followed by a world war separated the club’s founders from the post war generation, and club history was forgotten. It had to be rediscovered. I cover this rediscovery process at PHGC in this book, where the 1968 letter mentioned above documented an early member’s recollections from 1915 through 1930. Unfortunately, it was looked at with skepticism for three decades, including by me. Our little town in Michigan, sixty miles from the big city, couldn’t possibly have a C&A course, could it? First, people need to know who Colt & Alison was. Outside of this site, and the Whittens/Kleins/Lawrences/and Shackelfords of the world, Colt & Alison is not the clubhouse name that Donald Ross is. And second, people need to open their eyes to what’s around them in their own community. Because of my adolescent interest in golf course architecture, I was aware of C&A’s pedigree from the late 1960s on.
Even then, when given a copy of that 1968 letter, I was skeptical that the “rinky-dink” course we played in High School was by anyone of historical importance, much less Charles Alison.
3. Define the Colt & Alison partnership. Did it vary from country to country? Where did they truly collaborate and where was it exclusively ‘divide and conquer’?
I would say more by Europe vs North America vs Asia vs Africa than by country. Although Alison’s work in Japan is definitely strong enough by itself for its own book. The partnership unofficially began in 1908 with Colt and Alison’s meeting and initial collaboration at Stoke Poges. It wasn’t until after WWI that Colt formalized the relationship and added MacKenzie, in the English corporation of Colt, MacKenzie & Alison. The pre-war workings of both C&A and C&M appear to me to have occurred separately, although I’d certainly defer to Adam Lawrence and Frank Pont on that. As soon as the corporation was formed in late 1919, and announced in 1920, Alison came to America almost immediately. He first visit was in September of 1920 to set up the firm’s headquarters in Detroit and he stayed at least through October. From that year on Alison spent most of the March thru September (sometimes December) months on his own in North America. Per Hawtree’s biography Colt & Co., it appears that even though C&A did several European projects together, Alison had wide discretion and several of his own projects.
I believe that Colt had great confidence in his younger partner. MacKenzie’s work with Colt was all done before the war and he did little, if anything, with Colt in Europe post war. In North America MacKenzie did zero with Alison, even though the early projects of 1920 though 1922/23 were done using the firm umbrella. Some clubs still insist MacKenzie designed their course with Alison. They’re kidding themselves. I cover this issue in the book and believe that by January 1922 Colt had given up on MacKenzie ever being a contributing partner, no matter the continent or country. Post-war, when Alison was in Africa, Morrison handled the European and British effort. There was no overlap, although they kept in constant touch.
I would love to see a timeline of C&A’s whereabouts during the winter months of the 1920s. All the partners, whether Colt, MacKenzie, Alison or Morrison, lived in different towns in England. How often did they communicate, in person or by letter? Hawtree’s book covers the post WWII period with the firm’s letters, but little else that’s first person exists. Knowing that Alison was going to contact the clients from Colt’s 1911-1914 visits, starting with Hamilton, what were their conversations like about Pine Valley, Toronto, or the Country Club of Detroit, before Alison got on the boat? It would be interesting to know their thoughts regarding both the architectural aspects of the courses and the individual clients involved. We do have a couple glowing quotes from Alison regarding John Sweeney and his letter to Toronto’s President is scathing regarding the course, so we know he didn’t hold back. Did Alison’s report to PV in 1921 contain Colt’s opinions (seven years later) as well as Alison’s contemporary on-site observations and recommendations? When Alison designed a new fourteenth hole at Toronto or the new par-3 at the CCD, did he have discussions about those designs with Colt over the winter? It hasn’t happened yet, but I continue to hope that a shoebox of letters will be found in someone’s attic someday, either side of the Atlantic.
4. Alison made a series of changes to Colt’s course at Country Club of Detroit across the 1920s. Is it accurate to say all such changes were done in consultation with Colt?
This continues the discussion from the previous question. Colt designed the original CCD course on the Grosse Pointe Farms site in 1911 during his first trip to NA. He made further improvements in 1913 and then added length and bunkers during his last trip in 1914 in preparation for the 1915 US Amateur. Although most give credit for this work as Colt solo, it is likely the CCD effort was supervised in construction by Archie Simpson, the club’s pro, and also Donald Ross with whom Colt had a professional relationship at the time. Simpson met Colt on that first trip and played golf with him over the club’s downtown Grosse Pointe course by Bert Way. In the 1920s, the street car line went directly out to Grosse Pointe from Alison’s downtown office in the Penobscot Building (it’s always about the rail lines). The CCD, and multiple club founder and member John Sweeney, was the prime client and reason for the location of the office in Detroit, rather than NY or further west in Chicago. For most of Alison’s efforts in the ‘20s the Detroit – New York City thru Ontario axis was the beaten path. Chicago, with side trips to Milwaukee and as far north as Green Bay, was the far west hub. In addition, Alison always had a NYC address to cover the suburban NYC projects, to coordinate with Lavis, and to pick up mail when coming in and out of the country from England.
Although Alison was on-site at the CCD every year from 1920 through at least 1929 and possibly 1931, his first major change was adding a par-3 to Colt’s course between the ninth and tenth holes in 1923. This was to eliminate the par-3 eighteenth which the members felt was a weak way to complete their “championship” links. There is no written record of Colt’s involvement with that change or the completely new course which Alison designed in 1926; and opened in 1927 on revised property. Colt never saw the new property. So even if he had any comments they would have been via information off the topo plan and from his memory. The 1926 design was drawn on C&A pre-printed paper and sent from England. Were the drawings mailed from Colt’s office in East Hendred or Alison’s in London? The CCD has recently retained Andrew Mutch to collect and organize their archives. Maybe we’ll learn something more?
5. What are the biggest differences, if any, between a Colt design and an Alison design?
The cliche response is scale and, as with all clichés, there is an element of truth. Alison’s American courses typically were designed at a larger scale and with bigger features. 1937 and 1940 aerial photos of the CCD reflect that large scale, both in fairway width and size of bunkers. Some of this scale difference may have been aided by the nature of the seemingly unlimited American landscape and outsized personalities that Alison encountered. The clubs that he worked with in Chicago, Detroit, and New York were founded by men (sorry, not women) with big egos and they were used to having the biggest and best of whatever. Some the courses were built around a polo field, the CCD included. Not that Europeans didn’t have egos, but they had a lot more history weighing them down, not to mention first hand experience with the direct effect of war. Having said that, to walk the ground at Colt’s Toronto, and especially Hamilton (Ancaster), is to see some large scale landscapes. And the beautiful Colt drawings at Hamilton show larger forms than what you see today.
To tell the truth, the greatest difference between the two might well be their personalities and how they handled and dealt with their clients. It seems to me that Colt was the consummate professional and every bit the club Secretary. He had great discipline regarding the use of words and his comments regarding the clients design “problem” was always addressed with tact. He could criticize with a smile and a handshake. Very deferential to all, whether a member of the peerage, a tradesman at the back entrance, or the laborer on the course. I think Colt would have been a great diplomat in the Foreign Office. Alison, on the other hand appears to have been a bit brusk. And called a spade a spade. His cover letter to the President of the Toronto Golf Club in his July 5, 1927 report to the club is straight to the point. It begins, although you have “… a splendid piece of land, and that the framework of the course is excellent, in detail, however, it appears to me to be very deficient”. He then spends ten pages detailing major and minor changes to every hole on the course, including two entirely new holes. He didn’t spare anyone including his mentor’s original pre-war design. The club did as he asked.
6. Though they died within a year of each other, Colt was 13 years Alison’s senior. Did you come across specific examples via letter exchanges, etc. of how Colt mentored Alison?
Unfortunately no. Hawtree’s bio has an entire appendix covering letters between Colt, Alison, and Morrison, mostly the latter two. These letters were written decades after Alison’s American experience. He had been to Asia and Africa since. Most of what I’ve read this side of the pond show that Alison had great faith in his acolyte, the firm’s eventual American partner, Lynn Edward Lavis. Lavis was a 1916 Syracuse University graduate in Landscape Architecture and held his first position working with an engineer in Cooperstown, NY. Lavis joined Alison on Timber Point in 1924 and was on-site almost continuously through its opening. He had addresses in both Detroit and suburban NYC throughout the ‘20s. After the firm’s NA work collapsed in 1929, Lavis became the property manager at the CCD. That position lasted through The Depression and World War II. He clearly had Alison’s backing and had no problem stepping in to consult with existing clients. It wasn’t until after WWII that Lavis did any work on his own and most of that was landscape architecture for city recreation departments, not course architecture. I do have a picture of him with 18-hole course drawings on-site in Western Michigan in the late 1950s. The article says nine holes were under construction, but I can’t confirm it was built.
7. Though the junior, Alison came to North America eight (!) years before Colt as a member of the Oxford & Cambridge Golfing Society Exhibition Team. That fact stunned me! He saw quite the collection of courses, including Myopia Hunt, Essex County, Ekwanok and Garden City where he played against Devereux Emmet. Surely, the impact of that trip on the 20 year old was immense?
I agree. He also played against Walter Travis and Charles Blair himself. Not a bashful group, of golfers or architects. On that trip Alison’s youthful golfing brilliance came up against many of the best in golf. That certainly must have helped with his confidence on course as a player and in his later interactions with clients. And this knowledge of his American counterparts and their courses had to have helped when he came back in 1920, at the age of 37, to represent THE architect of the time: Harry Shapland Colt. (apologies to CBM and SR, but Harry was first)
8. Colt made three trips from 1911 to 1914, which led to the creation of Toronto GC and Hamilton CC. This also included his famous visit at Pine Valley with George Crump. Colt never returned (i.e. the last time he was in North America was at the start of World War I!). So … when we talk about a Colt course in North America, what are we really talking about? For instance, you made the point on the phone that he never saw a single green built in North America at any of his original designs.
Let me temper that comment a bit. Colt was at a particular site for a maximum of a week (Pine Valley) to ten days (The CCD) during any one visit. It simply was not possible for him to watch any course or individual green design under construction. He often didn’t do all the design during the site visit and sent drawings back from England, sometimes months later. On wooded sites he never even saw the center lines cleared. Happily, the CCD site was a farm. Also, Colt’s drawings were not as detailed or as descriptive as Alison’s. Between Alison’s on-site stakes and chalk-lines and his precise and detailed green drawings, you couldn’t get it wrong. He often came back to a site (Grand’Mere, CCD, and Port Huron) and moved the stakes before final design work. The Grand’Mere drawings in particular reference these field changes. His sketches even show how not to build a bunker or mounding. At Hamilton, superintendent and historian Rhod Trainor agrees: though the greens are definitely on Colt selected sites, their details are probably more those of the construction supervisor and crew, or even Alison, and less particularly Colt. This is despite the beautiful Colt colored renderings they have on display.
On the other hand, Colt did come back to the CCD and Toronto on a later visit so he did see the product of his original design for those clubs and made additional recommendations which, in turn, he did not see in construction or completion. Alison was on-site at Colt’s CCD, Toronto, Hamilton, and Pine Valley so he would have been able to discuss those courses with Colt back at the ranch. Interestingly, although Alison was all over the Detroit and Chicago areas, I found no evidence of Alison visits to Bloomfield Hills or Old Elm, among other original Colt designs. So not all clubs invited the junior partner back, although all were sent letters informing them of the CM&A partnership. I also did not discover any photos, by either Colt or Alison, from any site. That is disappointing. As mentioned on this site and others, no pictures of C&A together have been found. You’re hallucinating if you’ve seen anything to the contrary in the dining room at Sea Island.
9. So much of the ultimate success of a design boils down to the routing. Colt is acknowledged as a master in that regard. Was Alison just as good?
I have only played a couple of Colt’s British courses and none of Alison’s, so their North American courses are my only comparison. Based on that I would say Alison was as good as Colt. And he added the housing master plan aspect to many of the American courses, especially The Colony Club and the CCD. The lessons of his collaboration with Colt at St George’s Hill in particular certainly made it across the pond. I think a review of Kirtland, the CCD, Orchard Lake and The Colony Club would be good evidence of Alison’s routing skills. Kirtland is actually two courses in one; a flattish farmland course and a wickedly rolling large scale river valley course (Westwood is a smaller scale version of both as well).
The CCD may be the best flat parkland course in America. Alison used the low lake bottom sand ridges to their best advantage. Only the clubhouse, first tee, and ninth green are on what might generously be called a low dune. Orchard Lake is on an excellent rolling piece of property (forgetting the peat bog) which had two roads running through it. It’s a wonderful mix of holes and use of the existing topo. The Colony Club is a man-made artifice, with almost all of the course and housing master plan on land constructed from swamp for the purpose. Alison used the one natural feature, a creek running diagonally through the swamp, on even or eight holes. Any contour or hazard location other than the creek is from Alison’s fertile (fiendish?) imagination.
Port Huron, on slightly more rolling land than the CCD, was never farmed, only logged and grazed. All the fairways, with the exception of two (15 & 16) which have been “improved,” have their original lake bottom humps and bumps. Today’s Alison course is an addition to, and renovation of, an existing 1912 nine hole Bendelow course. The original course diagram shows holes square to the area’s planning grid and traversing over the lake bottom ridges at right angles, which caused a number of blind shots. A review of an aerial today shows that Alison rotated the course routing 60 degrees to the grid in order to lay holes alongside and working diagonally with the ridges. That was the big scale routing decision, before any specific hole design. Alison created fifteen new holes and eventually, through 1928, redesigned the three remaining Bendelow holes and greens so they fit more with the natural contours of the land.
10. Alison spent 90 days on site at Orchard Lake during the routing and construction process. Apart from Country Club of Detroit where he altered Colt’s course as well as built a new eighteen, did he spend any more time at a place than at Orchard Lake?
No. That was exceptional. It was due to both the location in suburban Detroit and the club’s financial backing which allowed for more than two years of design and construction from 1925 until opening in 1927. Alison had time to contemplate the site, tweak his design, and also come back later to revise things. Lavis moved from Timber Point to Orchard Lake and spent almost as much time on-site during construction as at TP. The Colony Club outside Algonac was another with an extraordinary amount of Alison and Lavis time. There, C&A even had a two-year agreement to supervise and maintain the course after completion. Unfortunately, they were the first two years of The Depression. In addition, the Lochmoor Club received a lot of personal Alison time. It was a mile north of the CCD and was also revised (greens and bunkers, not routing) by Alison over the entire decade of the twenties.
11. What club deserves a shout-out today for preserving the integrity of the 45 yard + wide fairways that were a hallmark of their designs?
Nobody. It is almost a given that when you compare the earliest aerial photos, typically from 1937-40 in the Midwest, you’ll see narrower fairways and less sand today. Keith Foster, at both Orchard Lake and The Country Club of Detroit (and later Doak), has done about the best, but both courses are still a bit narrower and have less sand. Compare Timber Point day one vs the Alison holes still extent today. It’s night and day.
12. Great answer! Which design features the most exotic/your favorite bunkering?
I’ll probably never see it in person, but Hirono’s early photos look as close to C&A’s ripped and torn bunkers as any. Especially the fifth and seventh (see Tom MacWood’s IMO piece). They look as if the sand were blown up on the faces by the wind. The bunkering on American courses is almost uniformly too manicured. I think this is because of the presentation of most PGA Tour courses on TV and that the high-end club member demands Augusta like perfection. The ragged edge faces look like someone couldn’t afford to maintain them. When the leading edges start collapsing with age I think that’s the best time to get the ripped look going.
Although the “flat land” hole bunkers are too consistently edged, almost cookie cutter in their raggedness (is that a word?), I think Toronto has some of the visual ferocity that C&A wanted. This can probably be credited to Hawtree’s recent renovation. The bunkering on the par-5 sixth and par-3 fourteenth illustrates that. Very scary, but room to play if you analyze it for a minute. The view from the tee on the par-4 tenth may be the best presentation of an entire hole on rolling ground at Toronto. There the bunkers and their leading edges are fitted more naturally into the land forms and they still look like trouble.
At Hamilton, Rhod in fact brought up the PGA Tour’s (Canadian Open) preference for the homogenized manicured edge look. The club built one bunker that they thought showed the best of the ragged edge look for the Tour’s approval and the Tour nixed it. They defend that position on the grounds that there would be more rules problems. Think Whistling Straights. However, it seems to me if the USGA can make two back to back Opens at Pinehurst work, it shouldn’t be a problem. Of course, the Sandhills have the advantage of soil conditions that facilitate that look.
13. You are quite smitten with the Colony Club outside Algonac, Michigan. In particular, you note that it ‘took course construction technology to a whole new level.’ Tell us more!
I call it the ghost course, as a comparison of the 1937 and today’s aerial gives it a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t mystery. At most of the no longer existing courses you can see some original site contours, or at least are able to follow the perimeter of the original property. You can often “find” the sites and some of their golfing features. Ian Andrew claims you can still see golf features at Alison’s York Club site, now a public park in Toronto. In contrast, at The Colony your view across the two thousand acre site is exactly the same as when Alison first visited in 1925. It is back to the original wetlands marsh that existed for centuries. The original marsh creek that runs diagonally thru the property, and which Alison incorporated on at least seven holes, is as if it had been undisturbed. You need a kayak today to get close to the former fairway locations.
Alison was working on The Colony site before he followed Travis to Sea Island. Sea Island was a salt water ocean marsh with some dune-land and The Colony a fresh water Great Lakes marsh, so the grasses are different and there is no visible sand at The Colony site. Similar to Macdonald’s Lido, at both sites land had to be constructed in order to build a course. The Lido used slurry tubes to move sand from the ocean to the site. At Sea Island dredges and barges were used to gather the sand and then it was dumped on the site. But the site did have some dune-land, defined tidal basins, and visible water ways. At The Colony the marsh had to be diked along the west side, with a two mile long road above it, for water control, construction access, and ongoing access to the nearby waterfront town of Algonac. Then canals were dredged on all four sides, including the road side, of the two hundred plus acres planned for the golf course. Then the natural creek was damned at the dike road, and the entire site drained. After that a piping system was laid throughout the property. The piping system worked in two ways: in wet weather pumps sucked the water out through the natural creek, across the dike road and to Lake St Clair. In dry weather the reverse occurred with the pumps bringing the water into the creek and through the pipes, raising the water table to the root system of the turf. Not just the greens. The whole dang place. It’s similar to the systems used today at major football stadiums with grass fields.
With so many miles of piping and pumping, plus the golf course and two separate residential road systems, the maintenance level must have been astounding. For the housing developments that went both with, and separate from, the golf course Will St John, the developer, built a 100 foot water tower disguised as a working lighthouse. When the Depression hit St John’s money dried up and he slowly shut down parts of the system. Electricity for the lighthouse went first. Eventually World War II finished off the course. Part of the site was used for cranberry production. Once the pumps were turned off, the water came back in and nature took over. After the war the family tried to recreate nine holes, but that effort was very expensive and they gave up. The property is now part of the Michigan State Park system as the St John’s Marsh. The Colony Club philosophy was definitely the polar opposite of minimalist.
14. I was amazed to read that Colt and/or Alison touched 43 courses in North America. Which are/were their three finest sand based sites? How about three finest clay based sites?
I am not a golf course architect or superintendent, so take what I say regarding soils with a grain of salt. And I’ve stayed away from adjectives like “finest.”
I found sand based courses to be few. Six off the top of my head. Pine Valley of course. The CCD and Port Huron are the only true lake bottom sand ridge sites where if you dig into the ridges you get sand. Toronto is near Lake Ontario and, with the exception of one or two holes, is sand based and would definitely be high on the list. Timber Point and Sea Island are the Alison North American seaside courses. Both courses have sand and tidal basin fill, with Alison’s original Seaside Nine on sand, both natural and man-made. If Timber Point could be restored per Frank Pont’s pro bono master plan I think we’d find it was Alison’s (and Lavis’s) finest hour.
More of the courses are clay based and would include Milwaukee, Hamilton and Davenport. Orchard Lake is mostly sandy loam, but has two holes through (on?) a peat bog. Contractor William Connellan, with Lavis supervising for C&A, built today’s eighth green twice and it disappeared both times. Bummer. The ground still bounces a little on one, eight, and nine. Kirtland and Westwood, either side of Cleveland, have both farmland and river bottom land with a mix of soils. The Chicago north suburban sites are all on bluff or farmland with creeks cutting through that eventually get the water to Lake Michigan. Where there’s money, soils become a secondary issue for the founders and a forever issue for the superintendents.
We should mention a third soil type: ROCK. Grand’Mere, one hundred miles northeast of Montreal, is on the Laurentian plateau in a sub-alpine forest. It’s there because a pulp and paper company owned thousands of acres of trees and wanted a course as a company perk. The course was carved out of the forest by three architects, the last two being Travis and Alison. It is entirely rock based; visible rock, like a couple holes at Brookline. Many of Alison’s and Travis’s greens are draped over the rock profile with a sand soil topping trucked in from the nearby river banks. It’s quite startling to see a hogsback running thru a green with rock out-croppings exposed on either end, one you play over and one you hope not to reach. With the rock base and the surrounding forest, the maintenance is difficult to say the least. However, the scale of the course is epic in places with both long views and forest contained holes.
15. How many of the 43 sites have you visited?
All of the Detroit, Cleveland, and Canadian sites. A couple in Chicago and NY/NJ. Over half in total, including two of the no longer existing sites: The Colony Club near Algonac, Michigan and Seven Hills in suburban Cleveland. Seven Hills opened nine holes of a planned eighteen in June of 1929 and didn’t survive The Depression. It was on high rolling ground nine miles south of downtown Cleveland and had long views to Lake Erie. I’ve seen a scorecard, a 1940 map of the property perimeter, and one photo of the course, but no routing plan or aerial. That would be interesting. Full disclosure: I have not visited the most famous Colt & Alison course in North America: Pine Valley. Maybe someday.
16. Both Milwaukee and Kirtland are huge personal favorites and when you add in Davenport (which I haven’t seen), it is amazing the frequency with which Alison worked in a river valley. What brought him to Iowa? How does Davenport compare with the other two?
I see you … you’re trying to get me to make “ranking” comments. I tried to avoid those in the book, but …. okay I’ll bite.
At several courses west and north of Chicago I found that many of the community leaders sent their children to private schools in the Chicago area. Along with Detroit, it was the Midwest city of the first half of the Twentieth Century. The small town law firms and architects always seemed to have a Chicago or at least a Minneapolis connection. That may have been the case here. Both Colt and Alison had multiple Chicago projects, but Alison stayed for a much longer time. Just now, I’m reminded of Chicago based Louis Sullivan and his star pupil Frank Lloyd Wright. The connection from Chicago to Owatonna, Grinnell, Mason City (The Music Man!) Cedar Rapids, Sidney, and other small towns was constant from 1900 through the 1920s. They all have great buildings by the masters. Why not golf courses?
Davenport is certainly in the same class both in property and design. They all have great riverside holes. It could be argued that Davenport actually has better land than Kirtland or Milwaukee (gasp!). Kirtland has the great Chagrin Valley holes, but they also have nine “up-top” holes on rather flat farmland. Davenport’s land is moving all the time. I think that Milwaukee’s river is almost too big for the course. It’s not of the same subtle creek side character as that of Davenport or Kirtland. I think the tiebreaker is that Davenport also has the BIGGEST River, although it can’t be seen from the course. The clubhouse overlooks a bend in the Mississippi with a view that goes on for miles.
17. What were the most surprising things you found during your research?
My answer is in two parts, archival and then the courses themselves.
Regarding archival items, Grand’Mere was a great find for both Alison and Travis fans. Ed Homsey of the Travis Society suggested I see it. He was interested because of the Travis background, but the locals thought they also had an Alison course and original drawings. Mary and I made the trip to Shawinigan, Quebec this summer and met with the current owners, the Rousseau family, and with Jim Buki whose Hungarian immigrant father was the superintendent in the 1940s and ‘50s. Upon cleaning out his dad’s house in preparation for selling, Jim found TWO SETS of drawing behind the books in the family’s oak book case. The first was a complete set of blueprints of all nine of Travis’s drawings. Enclosed in a beautiful card stock pouch they were date stamped “Issued Sep 18, 1917” by the Laurentide Company, the original owners. The second set of drawings include an original hand drawn routing plan signed by “C.H. Alison for Colt, Mackenzie, & Alison 1230 Penobscot Building Detroit, Mich June, 1921.” The drawing included notes and lengths of holes hand lettered by Alison. Besides the routing plan there were a couple original Alison card stock drawings and also two tissue paper drawings. I had never seen C&A tissue paper drawings before. They were hand drawn green sketches with typed notes below each sketch. All the drawings were in excellent condition for being almost a century old. A comparison of the drawings with the course indicates that Alison’s plans were built as drawn. All historians should be so lucky.
Regarding the courses, Lost Nation, the municipal course in suburban Cleveland, is just north of Kirtland, but light years away in clientele and conditioning. It gets no respect from this site or any C&A commentary. With over 45,000 rounds played each year and a tight budget, it is the worst conditioned C&A course by far. However, it is the only course I found with seventeen of eighteen holes with their original routing and, more surprisingly, with their original push up greens still intact. The eleventh is the only hole that isn’t exactly in the original location. It was moved bodily north to get it away from the encroaching housing and is almost the same design. Former sand bunkers are visible everywhere, grassed over or buried in the rough. On most holes very narrow fairway corridors are cut, but remarkably the trees for the most part a cut back away from the playing corridors.
Also, just to start a little controversy, I believe that the original Master Plan for Detroit Golf Club’s two Donald Ross courses was actually by Colt, not Ross. Let that sink in.
18. Interesting! What information led you to conclude that?
As mentioned elsewhere, during Colt’s three visits to America Ross was his shadow, first at Old Elm in Chicago and later in Detroit with changes to the Country Club of Detroit. From newspaper articles of the time, Colt was first retained in 1913 (second NA visit) to re-bunker DGC’s second course. This was an 18-hole Bert Way design which went east-west, just north of Six Mile Road and west of Woodward. This course crossed from today’s Palmer Park on the east to the south half of today’s DGC. Way’s brother Ernie, the club pro, had been revising it, but I guess the chance to have an architect of Colt’s stature was too good to pass up.
At the time of this 1913 re-bunkering the club was in negotiations with Senator Palmer for part of his land north of the club. That purchase was eventually resolved with the help of Horace Rackham. Rackham was a founding member of DGC and a year or two later negotiated with the City of Detroit for creating a golf course four miles north of the DGC (eventually Rackham Municipal, also by Ross). Anyway, that property deal allowed DGC to dream of a 27 or 36 holes course on the land we know today as DGC. Somewhere in late 1913 Colt was retained to do the work. Starting as early as February 1914, in England before his last visit, Colt was working on the plan. The description of the final plan in the spring of 1914 reads as a perfect match for what is there today. Right down to the road and housing layout around the “Great Park” of the golf course. Unfortunately, when Colt went back to England, WWI interfered with any further involvement of Colt. He never came back to America. By the fall of 1914 Ross had taken over the project and his name is on what we see today.
As a followup, I’ve got a date with the Detroit Golf Club’s historian for first of the year to go through the club’s books and review closely the years from 1913 through 1915. It may give us confirmation of the actual arrangement that Colt, and later Ross, had. I’ll let you know.
19. What disappointments did you endure with your research?
Such is the nature of researching a subject from one hundred years ago. I should have started research for this book when I was 12 years old, when several of the principals, or those who knew the principals, were still alive. Can you imagine sitting down with Bernard Darwin for a couple hours! It turns out L.E. Lavis worked into the late ‘60s in Michigan. I missed the boat on that one. At that time I was only thinking if 36 holes a day was enough, not who designed what hole at which course.
As mentioned above the lack of any photos taken by either partner in America on any of their visits and not finding any pictures of them together. Also, there has been no evidence that the archive from their American Decade in Detroit was either sent back to England or saved by anyone. Maybe Mutch will discover a Lavis shoebox in the attic at the CCD. We should cross our fingers.
20. The world breathlessly waits to see the result of Martin Ebert’s work at Hirono. Having said that, what are your three favorite restorations of Colt & Alison courses in North America?
Yes, we’re all looking forward to seeing Hirono, post Ebert. I was born in Detroit and raised in Port Huron so I’m partial to the Detroit area courses. I’ve played all of them since I was a kid playing the Detroit Junior District events on Mondays in the early sixties. The Country Club of Detroit and Orchard Lake would be at the top of the list with Foster involved at both. Tom Doak came to The CCD after Foster and redid the greens, took out a thousand trees, and extended the par-5 seventeenth hole. Their combined efforts are very good.
David Savic’s restoration of Alison’s greens at Port Huron is the most startling transformation of any restoration I’ve seen anywhere, given what he started with. They don’t have the Oakland Hills or Crystal level of movement, and they certainly aren’t given the maintenance $ spent at the high end suburban Detroit courses, but overall they’re in the top ten green complexes in Michigan (remember I admitted prejudice up front). In this year’s Michigan Amateur qualifying event with 40 entries the four qualifiers shot 69, two 72s, and a 75. This on a 6,300 yard course. The greens were the defense.
21. Which Colt & Alison course do you most wish would receive a proper restoration in North America?
As mentioned above Timber Point would be spectacular. In previous interviews Ian Andrew and Jeff Mingay said Hamilton would be their choice. They have since backed off on that a bit. I spent a day with Rhod Trainer on site and saw most of the course. I’d seen the course on TV, but as we all know that doesn’t do a good course justice. I was impressed with the topography and general flow of the course, although that’s been tampered with a bit. I was most disappointed with the bunkering. It looks like standard PGA Tour bunkering and not even the best of that. I was happy to see that the twisting creek on the eighteenth was restored (by the government no less, as part of a flood control project) and it looks timeless. Of course, I’d like my home course in Port Huron to all of a sudden add a hundred new paying members and have the $ to re-bunker and build the tees called for in our Master Plan. We can all dream.
PS: In Detroit, we’re also hoping to see what Frank Pont and Mike Devries have planned for Bloomfield Hills. It is the last remaining solo Colt course in North America. Three holes had their Colt routing changed, two of them with new greens. It’s rumored that they may restore the back to back par-3s on the front side (4 & 5) that were taken out decades ago. The bunkering of that course needs to be redone from scratch. Very pedestrian.
22. What advice do you offer to any club fortunate enough to be a custodian of a Colt & Alison course?
Proclaim your heritage, both to the world at large, but also and more importantly, to your membership. They are the ones that need to know about it, guard it, and care for it. Every new board member should get a course history indoctrination. Hamilton has an archive put together by their long time member and historian Les King. They have done a great job framing and displaying their Colt drawings. Unfortunately, they have displayed some originals where the sun can get to them and, perhaps, degrade them over time. The Country Club of Detroit has recently retained Andrew Mutch to sort through and document their archives. Maybe there will be a new book? Until I went through the Port Huron basement storage and collected everything Bendelow and Alison related, the early historical items were in many different locations in the clubhouse without protection or organization. I had the Alison and C&A drawings and letters scanned for the record and to make high quality copies for display. The originals are now indexed and individually matted and stored in museum quality containers. Scans and hard copies are both on and off site. I’ve also donated copies of One Hundred Fifteen Years of Golf in Port Huron to the local library as well as the Hurdzans, the Tufts Archives, and the USGA Museum Library. Hopefully the next time a fire occurs all will not be lost, and the information will be available somewhere to future historians.
23. Any final words?
Absolutely, I have to give special thanks to Mike and Chris Hurdzan. Without their encouragement and gracious hosting of Mary and me over the last five years, this book wouldn’t have happened. Mike’s Columbus home and office collection is a national treasure. His guardianship of so many Colt & Alison artifacts, including Harry Colt’s personal scrapbook, was basic to this effort. Thanks guys.
And thank you for your time. To buy the book, please click here: http://www.blurb.com/b/9047508-colt-and-alison-in-north-america