Unraveling the Much-Maligned Dick Wilson
While reams of books and magazine articles have been written to celebrate the “golden age” works of Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie, A.W. Tillinghast, and C.B. MacDonald, scant information, given his impact on golf architecture, has been written regarding Dick Wilson.
Louis Sibbett (“Dick”) Wilson, was born in Philadelphia, PA, on January 29, 1904. Little is known of Wilson’s childhood, however, many attribute his start in golf came by way of Merion Golf Club, where his father worked as a dirt contractor.
Wilson attended the University of Vermont and was awarded a scholarship for football. He played the quarterback position. In 1924, he joined the golf course design firm of Howard Toomey and William Flynn. Between 1924 and 1925, Wilson worked in the field, (ironically) at Merion once again. Wilson went on to assist the firm at the Country Club, in Cleveland, two clubs in Boca Raton, nine holes at the Country Club, in Brookline, and the renovation of Philadelphia Country Club’s Spring Mill course in preparation for the 1939 US Open. Wilson’s most significant work came at age 27, while assisting Toomey and Flynn at Shinnecock Hills, in 1931.
By the late 1930’s, Wilson moved to Florida and oversaw the construction of Normandy Isles Golf Club, and as well, some touch up work at Indian Creek, in Miami. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, lean financial times soon followed once again, post-depression. With little work on the horizon, Wilson took a position as the golf course manager at Delray Beach Country Club and picked up small renovation projects whenever he could. It should be noted that Pete Dye was in his teens when his family took trips to visit Delray, where Pete’s father became friends with Dick Wilson. Soon after, Wilson was drafted into WWII, where he was called upon to construct and camouflage airfields in Florida.
In 1945, Dick Wilson started his own course architecture firm. His first solo work was completed in 1947, at West Palm Beach Country Club.
By the 1950’s, Dick Wilson and rival, Robert Trent Jones, were the most sought after golf course architects in the United States, following the death of William Flynn in 1945 and Donald Ross in 1948. Wilson had 9-10 design and field associates on his payroll and was working on close to 10 courses annually at his peak. The PGA tour held Wilson in high esteem, awarding him the design of their PGA National home course (now BallenIsles), in 1964.
Many experts consider his greatest design and the best example of his work to be Pine Tree Golf Club, in Boynton Beach, Florida. Praise for the course at the time was effusive:
“The best course I have ever seen.” – Ben Hogan
“A truly great course.” – Jack Nicklaus
“The greatest course I have ever played.” – Ruth Jessen
“Dick Wilson’s greatest work of all.” – Gardner Dickinson
In 1964, Wilson was hired once again to renovate the East Course at Merion. Less than 12 months later, Dick Wilson died from a fall at Pine Tree in 1965, where he had a home nearby.
Dick Wilson designed many significant courses throughout his career. The following are considered his best:
Deepdale Golf Club in 1954. This commission came after the C.B. MacDonald/ Seth Raynor, original course was relocated due to the building of the New York Expressway. Deepdale is one of the most intensely private clubs in America.
NCR Country Club, North and South Course, in 1954. Hosted the PGA Championship in 1969. Both courses are stellar examples of what Wilson could do on a rolling piece of property.
Meadow Brook Club, in 1954. In October of 1955, Herbert Warren Wind, described Meadow Brook as follows, “to my tastes, it is the finest golf course that has been built in this country since Bob Jones and Dr. Alister Mackenzie produced the Augusta National back in 1931. While the course is still much too young for the turf to have taken on body and for the whole 18 to have taken on a final aspect, Meadow Brook has struck me from my first visit on as a “born classic” destined to be mentioned in the same exalted breath with Muirfield, Hoylake, Pinehurst No. 2, Pine Valley and the other acknowledged touchstones of architectural greatness.”
Hole-in-the-Wall, in 1957. Gene Sarazen was quoted as saying, “If I only had one golf course to play, it would be Hole-in-the-Wall.” Course architect, Ron Forse said, “It is one of only a handful of courses in all of southwest Florida with no houses or buildings. Pure golf in a pristine, natural setting.”
Hillwood Country Club, in 1957. Cypress Lake Golf Club, in 1959. Royal Montreal, (3) courses, in 1959. Coldstream, in 1959.
Laurel Valley Golf Club, in 1959. Hosted the PGA Championship in 1964.
Bay Hill Club and Lodge, in 1961.
Doral Country Club, (2) courses, 1962, which includes the famed, “Blue Monster.”
Pine Tree Golf Club, in 1962. Ben Hogan declared Pine Tree, “the greatest flat course in America.” Tom Doak stated, “Pine Tree is the ultimate Dick Wilson layout – longer, flatter, more heavily bunkered and more difficult than most of his other courses.”
Callaway Gardens, 1963
PGA National, (2) courses, in 1964. Hosted the PGA Championship in 1971 and 1987.
Bidermann Golf Club, in 1964. Added 9 holes and lengthened the original Devereaux Emmet design.
Cog Hill, (courses 3 and 4), 1963.
The Club at La Costa, in 1965.
Notable Wilson renovation work includes:
Moraine Country Club, 1955
Colonial Country Club, 1956.
Winged Foot (West), 1958.
Bel-Air Country Club, 1961.
Columbus CC, 1962.
Scioto Country Club, 1963
Merion (East), 1964.