Who Was Hugh Wilson? – Part II

By Mike Cirba

September 2013

(Part I published June 2013)


There were unusual and interesting features connected with the beginnings of these two courses which should not be forgotten. First of all, they were both “Homemade”. When it was known that we must give up the old course, a “Special Committee on New Golf Grounds”…chose the site; and a “Special (Construction) Committee” designed and built the two courses without the help of a golf architect…These two committees had either marked ability and vision or else great good luck—probably both—for as the years go by and the acid test of play has been applied, it becomes quite clear that they did a particularly fine piece of work. The New Golf Grounds Committee selected two pieces of land with wonderful golfing possibilities… The Construction Committee laid out and built two courses both good yet totally dissimilar—36 holes, no one of which is at all suggestive of any other.  – Alan Wilson 1926

Why Hugh Wilson?

Over a century since Merion East was designed and built, lingering questions remain as to why Hugh Wilson was selected by the club to lead the effort.  Certainly, evidence plainly indicates that the club was intent on ensuring that this was an “amateur” endeavor, (Alan Wilson termed it “homemade”) in the sense of the ethos and culture that word evoked in the sporting world of the time, and as exemplified in the golf architectural world by Macdonald, Leeds, Emmet, Fownes and others like George Crump who followed.

But why select Hugh Wilson when others on his Committee like Rodman Griscom and Dr. Harry Toulmin certainly had more years of administrative experience?  This article has attempted to profile Wilson the man in a way that accurately reflects his persona and hopefully provides a sense of who he was and why powerful, successful men like Robert Lesley and Horatio Gates Lloyd had such confidence in him.   However, the real answer to this persistent question may be as simple as understanding the existing Merion Committee structure and makeup during the time the course was conceived and created.

Merion Cricket Club as a sporting and social organization was a landmark establishment by 1910, having formed in 1865.   However, as the name indicates, the well-established sports of the club at the time included cricket and tennis, with golf still a relative and somewhat uneasy newcomer, having only been played by some of the members on leased land for just over a decade.   By that time the membership was also playing squash, soccer, billiards, pool, bowling, hockey, and skee ball.   Even by 1916 with a rapidly growing golf membership due to the addition of two popular courses the golf membership only numbered 700 out of 3800 total members, less than 20%.

It is important to note that the hefty land purchase the Golf Committee at Merion was proposing in the fall of 1910 was almost certainly not without its detractors and opponents within the club.   Indeed, in retrospect it was probably a stroke of business genius for the Golf Committee to tie the acquisition of new lands for golf into a real estate venture that the general membership could benefit from financially.   Still, the events of that time need to be viewed with the historical perspective of golf’s proponents trying to elevate the nascent game and its associated costs and risks within the structure of a traditional club with other already well-established areas of social and sporting focus.

The club governance was structured with a President and a Board of Governors at the executive level, and reporting upwards were individual sporting and social “Committees”, each with their own Chairman.   As such, there was a Cricket Committee, a Soccer Committee, a Tennis Committee, Squash Committee, Entertainment Committee, Membership Committee, and so on.   Individual Committee matters reaching the Board of Governors for determination almost invariably had significant financial or club policy implications.

Under such a broad, federalist system with each activity vying for club attention (and funding), it’s easier to understand the political value of bringing in well-known authorities such as Charles Blair Macdonald and HJ Whigham to vouch for the suitability of the new land Merion was considering for purchase, as well as their subsequent “approve”-ing of the new golf course plan that Merion’s Committee had determined was their best effort, but which required authorization by the Board of Governors for the purchase of three additional acres of land in April 1911.

Understanding the makeup of the MCC general membership of diverse and sometimes competing sporting interests, it also gives new insight into items such as January 1911 letter that went out to all club members notifying them of a dues increase for not only golf members, but any MCC member using the newly planned facilities for Tennis, Skating or “other” facilities at the new golf course.   To a membership where a significant majority weren’t golf members, and where the five Construction Committee members (who were appointed that month) had played the game of golf since virtually its inception in the city and held five of the lowest six handicaps at the club, the Merion Board of Governors wrote; “The land has been purchased and settled for and experts are at work preparing plans for a Golf Course that will rank in length, soil, and variety of hazards with the best in the country.”

Golf at Merion at that time was governed by two permanent Committees; the “Golf Committee”, who had domain over all inter-club business related golf and golf club policy matters, and the “Green Committee”, who had responsibility for ensuring the care and upkeep of the golf course and the day to day operational golf issues, the latter reporting to the former.   Robert Lesley, who was one of the men responsible for golf coming to Merion in 1896 was Chairman of the “Golf Committee”, and in that role also had responsibility to also create temporary, ad-hoc Committees for special purposes, such as the “Construction Committee”.

Hugh Wilson graduated from Princeton in 1902 and became a member at Merion the following year.   Given the fact that he immediately played on Merion’s competitive team in inter-club matches, was named in 1903 to the Philadelphia team to play in inter-city matches, and had spent the previous two years on the Princeton Golf Club Green Committee, coupled with his known interests and acumen, it seems likely that he very quickly would have been named to Merion’s Green Committee with the other top players although the documented record remains incomplete on that particular.

While we still don’t know precisely when Wilson became a member of the Merion Green Committee, it seems extremely likely that the primary reason he was appointed Chairman of the “Special” (as Alan Wilson termed it) Construction Committee” in January 1911 is because he was already serving as Chairman of the Merion “Green Committee” at the time, with considerable tenure in that role.

In 1934, writing for the US Open program, then Club President Robert Lesley wrote; “In connection with these 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 this successful development is due to the fact that during this period from 1909 to the present day Merion’s Green Committee has been kept almost intact from its origin up to today and only five Chairmen of the Green Committee have had charge of the work and development of the courses, thus insuring a consistent, systematic, and wise development.   These Chairmen were; Hugh I. Wilson, Winthrop Sargent, and John R. Maxwell, who are now deceased, and Arnold Gerstell and Philip C. Staples.”

It should be noted that Maxwell, Gerstell, and Staples all served in the later 1920s and early 1930s after the death of Hugh Wilson, and that Lesley’s listing of Chairmen is in chronological order.   Winthrop Sargent served consecutively during the period from late 1914 until at least 1923 (according to Spalding’s “American Annual Golf Guide”), and in fact took over from Hugh Wilson when the latter resigned, as recorded in the MCC Minutes of November 23, 1914;

“The resignation of Mr. Hugh I. Wilson, as Chairman of the Green Committee, was presented…the following resolution was adopted:

RESOLVED, that in accepting Mr. Wilson’s resignation as Chairman of the Green Committee, this Board desires to record its appreciation of the invaluable service rendered by him to the Club in the laying out and supervision of the construction of the East and West Golf Courses. The fact that these courses are freely admitted by expert players to be second to none in this country, demonstrates more fully than anything else that can be said, the ability and good judgment displayed by Mr. Wilson in his work.

The Board desires to express on behalf of the Club its sincere thanks to Mr. Wilson and its regret that pressure of business makes it necessary for him to relinquish the duties of Chairman of this important committee.  On motion duly seconded, Mr. Winthrop Sargent was appointed a member of the Golf Committee and Chairman of the Green Committee.”

Sargent had previously served as Chairman of the Green Committee in 1911, which would make perfect sense as Hugh Wilson had been appointed to head the new “Construction Committee” in January of that same year, charged with responsibility for creating the new course.   At the time, the club needed both roles filled as they were simultaneously serving the needs of the golfing membership at their original course at Haverford while casting an excited eye on their future in Ardmore.

Interestingly, there seemed to be some significant overlap in both membership and responsibility between the “Green” and “Construction” Committees and it is likely the latter was a subset of the former.   Robert Lesley, who was Chairman of the standing “Golf Committee” at the time the Merion courses were designed and built wrote in 1934; “Hugh I. Wilson and his Green Committee laid out Merion’s first course on the new land and it is now what is known as the “East Course”.”   Lesley later continued, “…a second eighteen hole course,  now known as the “West Course”…was created by Hugh I. Wilson and his associates on the Green Committee.”

Given that the primary role of the “Green Committee” was overseeing the care and development of the golf course, it should hardly be surprising that after decisions were finalized to purchase the new property in December 1910, the major responsibilities of at least some of this Committee would have shifted from the leased course they were leaving in Haverford to the creation of the brand new, club-owned course in Ardmore.

It was also common practice in Philadelphia (and other cities) at that time for the Chairman of the Green Committee of various clubs to undertake what is today regarded as golf course architecture, and almost an expectation of the job.   This effort often took the shape of trying to make significant improvements to their often “professionally-designed”, turn-of-the-century, courses in an effort to make them more challenging for the new, longer ball and an increasingly popular game in the city.

Green Chairmen such as Edward Bispham at the Philadelphia Country Club, Samuel Heebner at Philadelphia Cricket, Rodman Griscom at early Merion, Henry Strouse at Philmont, and A.H. (“Ab”) Smith at Huntingdon Valley all worked continually at adding bunkering, rebuilding greens, as well as creating brand new holes and lengthening others.

Others such as George Klauder at Aronimink, George Thomas at Whitemarsh Valley , and J. Franklin Meehan at North Hills each had opportunity to significantly contribute to the design of brand new courses during this period, each working with other prominent members of their respective clubs.

In the case of Hugh Wilson, in April of 1916 “Philadelphia Public Ledger” golf-writer and local insider William Evans wrote, “The 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.”  The article was referring to the extensive changes made to Merion’s East course during 1915-16 in preparation for the 1916 US Amateur.  A similar article that month in the “Philadelphia Inquirer” was not nearly so ambiguous in terms of the specific roles of the two men at the time, noting; “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.”

The Evans article went on, “In addition, Mr. Wilson, for many years chairman of the Green Committee at Merion…”   This is particularly noteworthy because at the time this was written, Wilson had not been Green Chairman since his voluntary resignation in November of 1914.  If Wilson’s tenure as Green Chairman had only been from 1912 until November 1914 it seems quite unlikely that Evans would have termed it “many years.”

That same year, writing for the Chicago-based publication, “Golfer’s Magazine”, Evans wrote; “The new Merion courses are largely the work of Hugh I. Wilson, for a number of years chairman of the green committee.   He has had as his assistants in laying out the courses R.S. Francis, H.G. Lloyd, R.E. Griscom and Dr. Hal Toulmin with Charles B. Macdonald and J.H.J. Whigham as the advisers.”   Again, it’s very doubtful that Evans would have termed a less than two-year tenure, “a number of years”.

In 1923, another well-connected local golf-writer J.E. Ford (using the pen-name “Donnie MacTee”) claimed that Wilson served seven years as Chairman of the Green Committee before his voluntary retirement; “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 the ones he wished for, but was prevented from building when the course was designed.   He is still a very active member of the greens committee, to whom all questions of architecture and grasses are referred as a matter of course.”

Of course, “seven years” as Chairman before his “voluntary retirement” is much more consistent with the “many years” in that role that Evans wrote in 1916.  If accurate, and there is no apparent reason to doubt the veracity or understanding of Lesley, Evans, or Ford, it would have placed Hugh Wilson in the Chair of the Merion Green Committee from approximately 1908 through 1914, (with the exception of 1911 as discussed prior) consistent with the timeframe Robert Lesley later referred to when he wrote that continuity of the Committee Chairmanship was responsible for the success of Merion’s golf courses.  It would also seem logical that Wilson would have served as a Committee member for some years prior to being appointed Chairman.

If these reports are accurate, Hugh Wilson would also have been Chairman of the Green Committee in 1909; the year Merion hosted the US Women’s Amateur on its original course in Haverford.   That course had nine holes originally designed by Scottish professional Willie Campbell in 1896 with ensuing revisions and another nine added by Rodman Griscom and his Green Committee in 1899.

For the prestigious U.S. Women’s Amateur tournament, which was won by Dorothy Campbell, work had been done prior in an attempt to get the golf course up to competitive tournament standards.   A.W. Tillinghast wrote in his preview of the tournament in “American Golfer”; “New pits have been judiciously placed and the course requires more playing now.”

Max Behr, writing for “Golf Illustrated” in 1914 noted; “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.”  It seems sensible to consider that no one accumulates that type of power within a golf club without significant tenure, and accompanying respect.   However long Wilson served as Chairman of Merion’s Green Committee, it is clear that none of his predecessors in the Philadelphia area were more painstaking in their approach – or more successful in their results.

A last word about Committees; although for convenience purposes we refer to Wilson’s Committee as the “Construction Committee”, the Merion Cricket Club Minutes never referred to it as such.   Alan Wilson’s later account first called it a “Special Committee” and later, a “Special Construction Committee” who “designed and built the two golf courses without the help of a golf architect”, while Robert Lesley simply referred to them alternatively as “a committee” and “Hugh Wilson’s Green Committee” who were responsible for both courses.   Richard Francis termed the team he was “added” to, “The Committee in charge with laying out and building the new course.”

Whatever the terminology, we do know that contemporaneous press accounts used the term “Construction Committee”, which has sometimes confused modern observers.  Given our modern day understanding of divisions of labor we tend to view the word “construction” as including only the building process, and not the design.   But that is not accurate from either a historical or an etymological standpoint and with a few examples, it becomes clearer that the men involved were using this term in a holistic fashion, to mean “something fashioned or devised systematically”.

In March of 1913, when George Crump and his committee were in the process of designing and building Pine Valley, and several months before Harry Colt’s arrival, Tillinghast wrote; “The Construction Committee is working slowly but surely.   No hole will be constructed until it has been tried out very thoroughly during the summer months and as quickly as it is cleared.   It is gratifying to notice that the old Philadelphia evil of parallel holes is being avoided.   The committee is determined that the fairways shall be far enough apart to preclude the possibility of playing from one to another…the Pine Valley builders have not lost sight of this vital feature of modern course building.   Then too, greens that are reached with irons are being more closely trapped than formerly, and the pits are constructed on a more ambitious scale.”

Donald Ross, writing an essay in 1910 on a tour of British Golf Courses (recently unearthed by historian Chris Buie) made the synonymous usage of terms like “constructor” and “architect” at that early time even clearer.   Ross wrote; “Perhaps of more striking and general importance to the players of golf here than anything discovered, certainly the one fact that proved the most stimulating and the most satisfactory to myself, was that anything that has been done by course architects and constructors in this country, which has been criticized as radical and extreme by home players, does not hold a candle to the work of the people on the other side of the water make their courses a severer, and therefore a better test of the game. Much of this construction work, or rather on many links much of this laying out of the courses, has been done during the past few years and whether in some cases the architects have gone too far is a question that time will answer….”

Ross continued; “The British architect of golf courses pays little heed to criticism, but is always open to valuable suggestions, knowing full well that the carping critic is usually a very ignorant man, while the one who has any advice worth taking gives it in the gentlest way knowing that no two experts ever agree exactly on the points of golf course construction and that the best courses usually are the outcome of a compromise of ideas gathered from many intelligent sources. For instance, they do not lay out a course by rule of thumb, with the idea of having the drive such a distance, the approach such a distance, and so on, even mentioning the clubs that shall be used for each shot. The course constructor casts his eye over the country and gets the idea of what he considers a good golf hole in his brain, lays it out that way, then says to the player : “There’s the golf hole, play it anyway you please.””

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