In My Opinion
The Missing Faces of Merion
A Reexamination of the Origins
of Merion East (1909-1912)
Author’s Note. When Hugh I. Wilson first built Merion East, the course was largely a “rough draft.” The core of the course was in place, but the Construction Committee left many of the bunkers and finishing touches to be added later, after Wilson’s further studies and after the course was exposed to the rigors of play. Merion East continues to evolve to this day. I encourage you to look at this essay in a similar light. While by no means a great work like Merion, it too is a work in progress. The core of my thesis is in place, but I hope and expect that my analysis will evolve as I continue to study the topic and as others challenge my ideas. Thank you in advance to those who will read, consider, and constructively challenge the work. Also, thanks to Ran Morrissett for providing me with a forum within which to express my views, and to Tom MacWood, not only for his encouragement and help, but also for the example he sets through his own dogged devotion to finding the facts. To those who have graciously proofed the draft version or patiently and civilly discussed these issues with me, I will thank you by leaving your names out of this-no use your taking the heat for my indiscretions.
Scope. This initial essay focuses on the origins of the famous East course at Merion Cricket Club, from 1909 until the course opened for play on September 14, 1912. It does not provide every last interesting detail from this period- Details like the $10 annual increase in fees charged to those who would use the new facility (for golf or skating) are fascinating, but they are outside the scope of my analysis and therefore mostly omitted. Likewise, an analysis of the extensive early evolution of the course after the opening is outside this essay’s very narrow scope. In fact I barely even begin to discuss the holes in the ground on opening day. These important analyses, whether written by me or someone else, will have to follow.
Synopsis. While Hugh I. Wilson is credited with designing the great Merion East course that opened in 1912, he did not plan the original layout or conceive of the holes. H.H. Barker first sketched out a routing the summer of 1910, but shortly thereafter Barker’s plans were largely modified or perhaps even completely replaced by the advice provided by the famous amateur golfers, C.B. Macdonald and H.J. Whigham who provided their written opinion of what could be done with the land. Richard Francis and H.G. Lloyd of Merion also contributed to the routing plan. After the course was planned and land finally purchased, Merion appointed Hugh Wilson and his “Construction Committee” to build the golf course. Immediately thereafter, the Construction Committee departed for NGLA so that Macdonald and Whigham could teach them how to build the golf holes at Merion East. A few months later, before Merion began major construction, Macdonald and Whigham again visited the site and further helped Wilson and his Committee with the plans. In the spring and summer of 1911, Wilson and his Committee built the golf course, leaving many of the hazards to be built later. In the spring of 1912, Wilson traveled abroad to study the great golf holes and to get ideas for the course. He continued to work on the course for years to come. Whatever our modern impressions of the singularity of Merion’s original design, multiple reports indicated that the concepts for at least some of the original holes were derived from great golf holes abroad. At least one report indicated, “Nearly every hole is patterned after some famous hole abroad.” Other contemporaneous commentators singled out the famous “Redan” and “Alps” holes, noting that each inspired a hole at Merion. While my research is in the early stages, my preliminary view is that many of the original holes at Merion East were based upon the conceptual underpinnings of the great holes, as understood by Macdonald and Whigham.
The Legendary Merion East: A World Class Course Rooted in a Masterly Routing
Merion East is not America’s oldest, but it may well be America’s most legendary golf course. No club has been chosen to host more United States National Championships than the Merion Golf Club, and Merion’s East course has served as the backdrop for dozens of American golf’s most important national and regional events, including “Chick” Evans’ American double at the 1916 Amateur, young Bobby Jones’ phenomenal debut in the same tournament, Jones’ first Amateur victory in 1924, the final leg of Jones’ “grand slam” in 1930, Ben Hogan’s storybook post-accident win at the 1950 US Open, and Nicklaus’ and Trevino’s historic duel for the US Open Championship in 1971, where not a single golfer broke par for the four days of regulation play. Despite unsubstantiated concerns that today’s long hitters have outgrown the course, Merion successfully hosted the 2005 Amateur Championship on its East course, and will host the Walker Cup Match in 1909 there as well. In 2013, ninety-nine years after Merion East served as the site of its first major championship, Merion East will serve as the site of the United States Open Championship for the fifth time. While far from complete, this list reminds us the East course has achieved a level of fame matched by few if any other American golf courses. Even the bunkers, known throughout the golfing world as “the white faces of Merion,” are famous on the East course.
It is no secret why the U.S.G.A. has repeatedly returned to the hallowed course on Ardmore Avenue. Merion East is not only a great and historic tournament setting, it is routinely considered to be among the best ten or fifteen courses anywhere. In his authoritative Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, acclaimed golf course designer and author Tom Doak gave Merion East a rare “10” on his “Doak Scale,” and Golf Magazine currently rates the course as the tenth best in the World.
While the course’s bunkers and features are beautiful and its list of great tournaments impressive, Merion East’s most impressive characteristic may well be its brilliant routing. In the 1989 Edition of Merion’s excellent club history, Golf at Merion, Desmond Tolhurst described the routing as “masterly.” The holes fit “onto the land as compactly as a jigsaw puzzle” so that “players only had to step a few yards between any green and the next tee.” Indeed, the original course, historic clubhouse, and outbuildings all fit snuggly onto land measuring just less than 120 acres, and the small parcel was bisected by Ardmore Avenue.
The routing utilizes virtually every natural feature on the small site to its fullest potential, and is perceived as a brilliant study in the utilization of natural features to create compelling and strategic golf holes.
As Tom Doak wrote in his Confidential Guide to Golf Courses:
[S]omehow Merion has an aura of perfection that other courses lack-every nook and cranny of the property is so well utilized, it is about the only course I know of where a self professed golf architect would be hard pressed to suggest any concrete changes that might improve the layout. For that reason, I believe it is one of the first courses any young golf architect should study, and I am in awe of Hugh Wilson, the man who designed both Merion courses but practically nothing else.
Jack Nicklaus was more succinct when evaluating Merion East: “Acre for acre, it may be the greatest course in the world.”
The Legendary Hugh Wilson
The unlikely hero of Merion’s creation story is bright young insurance man named Hugh I. Wilson. In January 1911, Merion appointed Wilson, the former captain of Princeton’s golf team, to chair the committee in charge of constructing Merion East. Through careful study, hard work, and a willingness to seek out the most knowledgeable experts available, Wilson became an important figure in the early history of American golf. He not only oversaw the construction of and changes to Merion East, he was also involved in the design and construction of Merion’s West course, among others. In the process he became a leading agronomy expert, helped found and served on the board of USGA’s Green Section, contributed to the section’s magazine, and was an active proponent for the implementation of proper agronomic principles and techniques. He was also instrumental in bringing quality public access golf to Philadelphia, campaigning for and helping design Cobb’s Creek, a quality public course located along the same creek as Merion.
Sadly, Wilson died prematurely in February of 1925, at the age of 45. He was remembered fondly in that month’s Green Section Record, the publication he was partially responsible for creating:
It is with profound sorrow that we announce the death of Hugh Irvine Wilson, which occurred on Friday, 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 courses abroad in seeking complete information. Probably no one has been consulted more frequently by those interested in this work. His passing represents a distinct loss, not only to the Green Section but to golf interests everywhere.
After describing Wilson’s tremendous personal attributes, the remembrance continued:
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 of 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.
While the moving remembrance noted that Wilson directed the redesign of Merion in 1923-24, it did not mention what is commonly considered his greatest accomplishment: the initial design of Merion East. Indeed, I have been unable to locate any record to indicate that Hugh I. Wilson actually considered himself the designer of the Merion East. Nonetheless, history has since credited Wilson with the design of the course, a remarkable feat considering that Wilson had no design experience at the time.
Merion’s Creation Story
Merion’s Creation Story, starring Hugh I. Wilson, was expressed in Tolhurst’s club history and similar versions appear in just about every publication that describes early Merion. Supposedly, after appointing Wilson to head the Construction Committee, Merion sent him abroad to study and play the great courses so that he could lead the effort to design and build Merion’s “new” permanent course. Before departing on his study trip abroad, Wilson wisely traveled to Southampton, New York to visit with C. B. Macdonald. Years earlier, Macdonald had taken a similar journey in search of templates to duplicate at his National Golf Links of America. While Wilson was not interested in copying template holes, he nonetheless went to Macdonald for advice and suggestions as to Wilson’s itinerary. Thereafter, Wilson traveled extensively, spending seven months overseas playing and studying the great courses. When Wilson finally returned from his trip, he was well prepared to design a golf course for the ages.
According to Tolhurst, Wilson’s “trip to the Old Country had paid off.” Armed with “reams of sketches and blueprints” of the great holes, Wilson fashioned his “masterly” layout. The design was not only excellent, it even compared favorably to Macdonald’s masterpiece at NGLA. Like Macdonald, Hugh Wilson had been profoundly influenced by the great golf holes each had studied overseas. However, unlike Macdonald at N.G.L.A., Wilson did not merely duplicate these great holes as if from a template. Rather, Wilson’s design work at Merion was original. The great golf writer Herbert Warren Wind put it this way.
While not detracting the least from C.B. Macdonald’s obvious abilities as a golf architect, it is debatable whether he understood some of the fundamental principles as well as Wilson. There are no blind holes at Merion, for one thing, and his touch in adopting the features of the famous British holes appears to have been surer than Macdonald’s.
While Tolhurst tried to be a bit more diplomatic, even his equivocal effort to distinguish between Wilson and Macdonald expresses a strong preference for Wilson’s subtle integration of great principles, as opposed to Macdonald’s supposedly blatant copying of the holes.
It has been said that Hugh Wilson grasped the principles of Scottish and English course design and conveyed them in his work better than Charles Blair Macdonald. However, to compare Merion to the National Golf Links is somewhat of an apples and oranges proposition. Macdonald set out to ‘model each of the 13 holes (at the National) after the most famous holes abroad,’ that is, to duplicate these holes. Wilson never intended to design Merion under such constraints. . . . Wilson admitted that the concepts sprang from the holes he’d seen in Scotland and England . . . Yet none of the holes at Merion is an out and out copy.
“Wilson,” a rank novice, “had absorbed the principles underlying the great holes, then applied them to the terrain at his command.” As a result, he created what would become an absolute masterpiece.
Or so the story goes. But as is often the case with creation stories, this one is a blend of myth and reality. In reality, Wilson neither planned the routing nor conceived of the holes at Merion East. The course was planned months before Merion even appointed Wilson and his “Construction Committee.” Wilson and his Construction Committee were not appointed to design the course or conceive of the holes, but were to do what the name of their committee implies, construct the golf course. They laid the course out on the ground and built it according to plan.
Moreover, while Wilson did travel overseas to study the great courses, he and his Committee had finished building and seeding the course months before Wilson’s departure. When building the course, the Committee had wisely left many of the hazards to be built later, and while traveling overseas Wilson got ideas for the finishing touches on the new course. But while artificial hazards and stylistic touches were added after Wilson’s return from Europe, the core of the course was in place before Wilson studied the great holes from which he supposedly received his inspiration for the design.
Finally, while the original routing plan for Merion East may never be located, we can piece together enough of the early history to know that H.H. Barker sketched the first routing plan, but it may have been superceded by C.B. MacDonald and H.J. Whigham, who played a major role in planning the course. Richard Francis and H.G. Lloyd also contributed.
A history of the earliest origins of Merion’s East course follows.
Golfing on Land Leased and Borrowed, Merion Fails in its Efforts to Purchase Current Site
Members had been golfing at Merion since 1895, when they had laid-out a nine-hole course on 100 acres of land leased from the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1900, Clement A. Griscom, the shipping magnate and a prominent member of Merion, generously began allowing the club to use a portion of their estate to expand the course to 18 holes, free of charge. By 1909, the Board of Governors of the Merion Cricket Club had recognized that golf had come to stay, but that large tracts of land were becoming scarce while real estate prices rose. So Merion began to take steps to secure a permanent golf site.
Merion Cricket Club appointed a committee (the “Site Committee”) to secure a permanent location for a golf course, preferably by purchasing Merion’s existing golf course site. According to Merion’s Board of Governors, “It was impossible to secure the present course, as the price at which it could be acquired, was more than the Club was able to pay.” So the Site Committee began seeking out alternative sites.
Developers Speculate on Merion’s Golfing Future
Around the same time, two ambitious developers “received information that the Merion Cricket Club was desirous of obtaining a permanent golf course.” (Philadelphia Record, Nov. 1910.) The developers already owned over 140 acres on College Avenue next to Haverford College (the “Johnson Farm” property) and put together a consortium of wealthy men to secure neighboring properties through the newly formed Haverford Development Company. Among the investors in the development company was a group of men from the Merion Cricket Club, lead by H. G. Lloyd, who was also a member of Merion’s Site Selection Committee and would later be a member of Hugh Wilson’s Construction Committee. By summer 1910, Haverford Development Company had secured approximately 300 contiguous acres including the Johnson Farm property.
The information received by the developers turned out to be prophetic. Merion did indeed need a new course, and what is now Merion East came into being as part of the developer’s real estate scheme. I have not yet discovered when Lloyd and the other Merion members became involved with Haverford Development Company, but their early involvement would explain where the developers got their information about Merion’s need for a new course.
The Developers Offer Merion a Site for a Golf Course
According to Merion’s Board of Governors, the Site Committee had reported on several possible permanent sites, but only one site was both accessible and affordable. On July 1, 1910, the Site Committee reported that Haverford Development Company had secured a tract of land of “approximately three-hundred (300) acres” and had offered Merion “100 acres, or whatever would be required to lay out the Course.” The land bordered both the Haverford College and Ardmore Avenue railway stations on the Philadelphia and Western Railroad.
The developers had offered the land to Merion at great discount, $726.50 per acre, less than half the developers’ average per acre cost for the entire property. They conditioned the sale of the property on Merion’s agreement to promptly build a golf course, and were willing to take a substantial loss on the sale in the hopes that proximity of the golf course would greatly increase the development value their surrounding property. To Haverford Development Company, the land for the golf site was a loss leader meant to attract buyers for the surrounding land. The Board explained, “They feel that the proximity of the Golf Course will so enhance the value of the remaining 221 acres as to more than offset the loss on the 117 acres secured by the club.” For the developers, Merion’s course would be a showpiece in their development. They even promised Merion that all of the bordering houses would be built facing the golf course.
H.H. Barker Plans a Golf Course
To make the offer even more enticing, the developers even tried to supply the golf course, or at least the architect and design. They brought in a professional golf course architect, H.H. Barker, to inspect the site and to draw up a plan. Barker, originally from Yorkshire England, was a well-known golf professional at Garden City Golf Club. He had been a protÃƒ©gÃƒ© of Sandy Herd and, just as Herd had, Barker left a promising amateur career to turn professional. According to Walter Travis, he and Barker had often discussed golf course design at Garden City, and Travis had encouraged Barker to pursue a career the golf course design business. Barker’s design career was cut short when he returned to England in 1915 to join the Royal Air Force. Prior to that, he may have been the best-known professional golf course architect regularly practicing in America, and was probably second only to C.B. Macdonald among both amateurs and professionals. At the time he planned the course for Merion, Barker claimed to have already planned upwards of 20 courses. In the July 1914 issue of Outing magazine, the great British champion Harry Vardon wrote that Barker’s Mayfield Country Club in Ohio was the best course in America.
According to Tom MacWood, Barker’s other designs include Country Club of Virginia (Westhampton Course,) Waverly Country Club in Oregon, Spokane Country Club, Rumson Country Club, Columbia Country Club (1910), a remodel of Detroit Country Club, Mayfield Country Club, Country Club of Asheville (NC), a remodel of East Lake Country Club, Youngstown Country Club, Raritan Valley, Arcola, Brookhaven, Druid Hills (Ga), Winnetka (with H.S. Colt,) Roebuck Country Club, a remodel of Newport Country Club, Palm Beach Country Club, Westhampton (Long Island, with Seth Raynor.) He also had reportedly planned or remodeled three courses in or near Philadelphia.
According to Barker, he inspected the Ardmore avenue site on June 10, 1910, and on the same day wrote, “The land is in every way adapted to the making of a first class course, comparing most favorably with the best courses in the country, such as Myopia and Garden City.” He also included a sketch of a proposed layout and wrote that course would be ready for play in the autumn of 1911, provided he could begin work immediately. Haverford Development Company forwarded Barker’s letter to the Merion’s Site Committee, and the Committee reported it to the Board.
H.G. Lloyd Offers Merion’s Members A Chance to Share the Potential Profits
Making the deal even more enticing, and to allay any appearance of double dealing or impropriety, H. G. Lloyd and Haverford Development Company gave Merion’s members a chance to share in the potential profits of the development under the same terms as those members who were already invested. As H. G. Lloyd put it in a letter to the membership:
The members of the club who subscribed to the stock of the Haverford Development Company . . . did so with the understanding that all other members should have the right to become subscribers on precisely the same terms and conditions as themselves. The reason for this was that they were unwilling to put themselves in the position of having received what may prove to be a privilege not enjoyed by every other member.
Merion’s members would not only have their own course, they might eventually profit from it as well.
Merion’s Site Committee Brings in Macdonald and Whigham
Apparently not content with Barker’s routing plan, the Site Committee brought in two renowned amateur golfers and golf course designers, C.B. Macdonald and H.G Whigham, to inspect the site. The Site Committee explained their qualifications to the Board of Governor’s as follows:
These gentlemen, besides being famous golfers, have given the matter of Golf Course construction much study, and are perfectly familiar with the qualities of grasses, soils, etc. It was Mr. Macdonald, assisted by Mr. Whigham, who conceived and constructed the National Course at Southampton.
After inspecting the site, Macdonald provided his (and Whigham’s) written opinion “as to what could be done with the property.” With Macdonald’s letter, the Site Committee now had two written recommendations about what to do with the property; first from Barker, and then from Macdonald and Whigham. The Committee must have preferred the latter, because according to Merion’s Board, the Site Committee’s report “embodied Macdonald’s letter,” and the Committee’s recommendation was based largely upon the views expressed by Macdonald.
The Site Committee’s recommendation to purchase had a few important caveats. They wanted the land at a slightly better price than had been offered. Also, the development company had contemplated selling Merion 100 acres, but now, after Macdonald’s review and recommendations, the Site Committee required specific parcels measuring nearly 120 acres.
It is probable that nearly one hundred and twenty (120) acres will be required for our purposes, and provided they can be obtained at not exceeding $90,000, we believe it would be a wise purchase.
The committee did not request an approximate acreage, but “required” specific land measuring “nearly 120 acres.” As will be discussed below, this was because the routing had already been planned.
While the Site Committee tried “to impress upon the Board the fact that . . . prompt action [was] necessary,” immediate action turned out to be impossible. Haverford Development Company did not yet own all of the “nearly 120 acres” that Merion now required for their purposes. The company controlled approximately 300 acres, but Merion needed two specific parcels totaling 24 acres that were not part of Haverford Development Company’s extensive holdings. The purchase would have to wait until they could gain access to this additional land.
Merion Purchased the Land they Needed for their Golf Course.
It has been widely assumed that Merion bought the land before Merion East was planned. To the contrary, Merion bought the land upon which their golf course had already been envisioned. Macdonald and Whigham had chosen the land for NGLA in a similar fashion. They first inspected the land and found the golf holes they wanted to build, and then they purchased that land. In Chapter 10 of Scotland’s Gift, Macdonald explained that he had chosen the best land for golf from a much larger 405-acre parcel.
The company agreed to sell us 205 acres, and we were permitted to locate it as to best serve our purpose. Again, we studied the contours earnestly; selecting those that would fit in naturally with the various classical holes I had in mind, after which we staked out the land we wanted. (p. 158, emphasis added.)
In all likelihood Merion also made the purchase based on where the golf holes fit best. The major difference between the approaches at Merion and NGLA? At NGLA, Macdonald and Whigham did not veer off the large parcel from which they were to choose the course, while Merion had to go outside a 300-acre tract to two additional parcels to suit their requirements.
Haverford Development Company Acquires 21 Acre “Dallas Estate”
While Merion’s requirement of the two additional parcels may have delayed the purchase, the development company acted quickly to resolve any apparent impasse. On August 14, 1910, the Inquirer reported the pending sale of the “Dallas Estate,” a 21 acre parcel bordering the southwest corner of Haverford Development Company’ holdings. On November 4, 1910, the Inquirer reported that sale of the Dallas Estate had settled for $25,000, and that the purchaser, Mr. James Freeman, would build a large house on the estate.
But despite the reports about Mr. Freeman and his supposed plans for a house, ownership of the Dallas Estate immediately passed to Haverford Development Company. In fact, within 11 days of the November article reporting Mr. Freeman’s supposed purchase, the development company had not only secured the Dallas Estate, they had also sold an option on the parcel to Merion Cricket Club. Given this quick turnaround, Mr. Freeman (if he existed) may have been acting clandestinely on behalf of the development company, which was perhaps hoping to avoid having to pay an extortionate sum for land crucial to their deal with Merion
Regardless of how the development company secured the Dallas Estate, this purchase was critical to Merion’s future golf course. The former estate is the site of the current third green, the fourth tee and part of the fourth fairway, the sixth green and most of the sixth fairway, seventh hole, the eighth tee and part of the eighth fairway, and the fifth green and part of the approach.
Merion Secures 117 Acres from Haverford Development Company
On November 14, 1910, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Merion had acquired “130 acres” of land for a new golf course. According to the article, H. G. Lloyd had been a “prime factor” in bringing about the purchase, and had brought in MacDonald, Whigham, and Barker to inspect the site before Merion agreed to the purchase. Also according to the article, all three “pronounced that the ground the equal of Myopia, Boston or Garden City, Long Island.” In fact, the parcel was 117 acres, and it was Barker who had made the comparison to Myopia and Garden City, in his June 10, 1910 report.
The next day, November 15, 1910, the Board of Governors of the Merion Cricket Club informed the membership that Merion had “secured” 117 acres straddling Ardmore Avenue, and that the site would serve as the permanent location for a new golf course. Merion had acquired an option on the property, and the sale would not be finalized until early January 1911. Merion included the following diagram with the announcement.
The bulk of Merion’s purchase (about 96 acres) had come from the 140 acre “Johnson Farm” parcel, west of Cobbs Creek on both sides of Ardmore Avenue. The development company had owned this tract outright for a number of years, and it is likely that this was the bulk of the 100 acres that Haverford Development Company had originally offered Merion for their golf course. The rest came from the just acquired Dallas Estate, bringing the size of the parcel to 117 acres.
But the “Plan Showing Proposed Golf Course” is a few acres short. The Site Committee had sought “nearly 120 acres,” not 117 acres. The Plan does not include one small tract – a little less than three acres – that the Site Committee needed for the course. Like the “Dallas Estate,” this last small parcel was not under the control of Haverford Development Company at the time site committee recommended its purchase. Unlike the “Dallas Estate,” the Merion may have been unable to secure this parcel prior to the date Merion secured the rest of the land.
Merion’s Unsecured Three Acres
Like much of their original golf course in Ardmore, the remaining small tract of land needed for Merion’s “permanent course” was controlled by a railroad. The Philadelphia and Western Railway owned almost three acres located west of their track, east of Cobb’s Creek, and running north of Ardmore Avenue to a little past the old historic farmhouse that would become Merion’s future clubhouse.
The railroad parcel was small but important, as it would become the site of the original green and approach on the long dogleg par four 12th hole, plus the entirety of the original 13th, the tremendous short hole with a large undulating green surrounded by Cobb’s Creek on three sides and bunkers on the fourth. According to Pennsylvania Railroad Atlases dating from 1908 to 1937, the Philadelphia and Western Railroad continued to own this small parcel long after Merion built their golf course. The maps may be erroneous, and I have yet to confirmed how and when Merion gained access to this land, but this land was used for the original course, yet was not part of the 117 acres secured by Merion in November 1911.
While the Plan for Proposed Golf Course does not include the routing plan, when viewed in light of another crucial piece of the puzzle, it does reveal that the course had already been planned at the time the document was drawn up. This piece of the puzzle was not hidden in archives or lost to history, but is another commonly known yet misunderstood component of Merion’s creation story.
Richard Francis Fixes the Routing Plan
According to Tolhurst’s excellent history, in 1950 Merion’s Richard Francis recalled his major contribution to the layout of the course. Francis, an engineer, would serve on Wilson’s Construction Committee, and later become a foremost expert on the rules of golf, writing a groundbreaking book on the subject and serving for many years on the USGA Rules Committee. But most importantly for our purposes, he was also the mastermind behind a crucial land exchange that enabled Merion to better fit the last five holes into the routing.
According to Tolhurst, Francis wrote:
The land was shaped like a capital “L” and it was not very difficult to get the first 13 holes into the upright portion – with the help of a little ground on the north side of Ardmore avenue – but the last five holes were another question…. The idea was this: We had some property west of the present course which did not fit in with any golf layout. Perhaps we could swap it for some good use?
Francis immediately ran the idea by H.G. Lloyd, proposing that Merion exchange land west of the routing for the land now used for the fifteenth green and sixteenth tee. Lloyd agreed, and “a few days later the quarryman had his drills up where the 16th green now is and blasted off the top of the hill so that the green could be built as it is today.”
Given Francis’ description of the timing of the quarryman’s blasting, and given that he eventually served on the Construction Committee, it has long been assumed that the “swap” occurred while Construction Committee was in the process of building the course. But the supposed land exchange must have occurred much earlier, before Merion secured the land, which was before Merion appointed Wilson and his Construction Committee.
As quoted by Tolhurst, Francis wrote that Merion gave up “land west of the present course which did not fit in with any golf layout;” land which was later “covered by fine homes along Golf House Road.” In exchange, Merion received a small section of “land about 130 yards wide by 190 yards long – the present location of the 15th green and the 16th tee.” No doubt Francis was describing the land between the present practice area and Golf House Road, a small triangle of land that perfectly matches Francis’ description. More importantly, the land was acquired while Merion was putting the finishing touches on the routing plan for the course. So the date of the supposed “swap” will allow us to determine when the final touches were being put on the initial routing plan.
Surprisingly, as one can see in the land plan above, Merion acquired this small projection of land as part of the 117-acre parcel designated “Merion Golf Course” in the Plan. Merion optioned and purchased the land for the 15th green and 16th tee as part of their option and purchase of the bulk of the golf course property. Property records confirm this. The supposed land swap must have occurred prior to mid-November 1910, when Merion obtained an option from Haverford Development Company. This was six weeks before the purchase was finalized and the Construction Committee appointed. The “swap” was not a swap at all but actually a small but significant reshaping of the large parcel Merion intended to purchase from Haverford Development Company. Before the purchase, the parties must have agreed to shave off a portion on the right side of the parcel and added the projection of land for the 15th green and 16th tee.
Francis and Lloyd had been fine-tuning the layout plan before Merion secured the land. Francis described his epiphany as having occurred while he was looking over a “map of the property.” He also noted that the land Merion gave up “did not fit at all in any golf layout.” So by this time the planning process was well underway, and the “swap” allowed them to better fit the last five holes into the plan for the routing. “It was not very difficult to get the first 13 holes into the upright portion – with the help of a little ground on the north side of Ardmore avenue – but the last five holes were another question.” The Francis land “swap” allowed them to complete the routing plan. All before November 10, 1910.
So, by mid-November 1910, the layout had already been planned. I have found no evidence that Hugh Wilson had been at all involved in the purchase or the planning at this early date. To the contrary, as will be discussed below, the historical record indicates that Wilson became involved in early 1911, after the purchase was finalized.
Merion Completes Its Purchase
In early January 1911, Merion’s Board of Governors announced to the Committee that Merion had completed the purchase contemplated in the November 15, 1910 report. On January 7, 1911, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported “The Merion Cricket Club will have one of the best golf links in the country when their new course is finished . . .. [L] ast November option was secured . . .. Financial difficulties were finally overcome on the property and the land has been purchased and settled for.” Merion finally owned land for their new course, or at least all but the three acres apparently still owned by the railroad.
Experts at Work Preparing Plans for the Course
The Board of Governors also announced to the members that “experts are now at work preparing plans for the course which will rank in length, soil, and variety of hazards with the best in the country,” and the Inquirer reported the same. Unfortunately, neither the Board nor the Inquirer identified just who these “experts” were. While it is possible that the paper was referring to Hugh Wilson and his Committee, it is also highly unlikely, unless the Board was engaging in pure hyperbole. Hugh Wilson was by no means an “expert” when it came to planning or building golf courses. Rather, he and his Committee were complete novices. In 1916 Wilson wrote that:
“The members of the committee had played golf for many years, but the experience of each in construction and greenkeeping was only that of the average club member. Looking back on the work, I feel certain that we would never have attempted to carry it out, if we had realized one-half the things we did not know.”
According to Hugh Wilson himself, the Construction Committee was not even formed until early 1911, until after the land was purchased. So on January 7, 1911, Wilson and his Construction Committee either had not yet been appointed, or had just been appointed, and so they were by no means “experts at work preparing plans.”
The only “experts” who had evidently been involved up to this point were Barker, and Macdonald and Whigham. It seems unlikely that Merion was referring to Barker, as I have found no evidence of his involvement other than his report and his initial plan for the layout from June 1910. Plus, his plan was for a 100-acre course, and the current plan was for a course of just less than 120 acres, including almost 24 acres that were not even controlled by the development company when they hired Barker to plan the course. Plus, the Site Committee’s report to the Board encompassed Macdonald’s letter, and their recommendation was based largely on Macdonald’s and Whigham’s ideas on what could be done.
Moreover, the timing and the synopsis of the site committee’s report both strongly suggest that requirement for the specific “nearly 120 acre” site came about largely as a result of Macdonald’s and Whigham’s inspection and subsequent letter. Lastly, Macdonald and Whigham remained significantly involved even after Merion purchased the land based on their recommendations. In fact, Wilson’s inexpert Construction Committee would soon be departing for Southampton to meet with these two gentlemen who were considered at the time to be the foremost domestic experts on golf design.
The Construction Committee Gets off to a “Good Start” at N.G.L.A.
According to Hugh Wilson himself, Merion appointed the Construction Committee in early 1911 to “construct a new golf course on . . . land which had been purchased.” Also, according to Wilson, the Construction Committee – not just Wilson – traveled to Southampton to meet with Macdonald and Whigham. So the NGLA trip necessarily occurred some time after the land was purchased, which was after Merion appointed Wilson’s Committee, in early 1911. Merion purchased the land around the first week of January 1911. Then they appointed the Construction Committee. Then the Committee traveled to NGLA.
In his 1916 essay, discussed extensively below, Wilson himself strongly suggested that he and his committee traveled to NGLA as one of the Committee’s first undertakings. After describing the Committee’s lack of experience in course construction, he noted that “fortunately” Macdonald and Whigham had given Wilson and his Committee “a good start in the correct principles of laying out the holes,” thus implying that the Committee’s trip to NGLA occurred at the beginning of their endeavor.
The Committee’s trip to NGLA probably occurred in January of 1911, the same month Merion finalized the purchase of the land and appointed the Construction Committee. By February 1, 1911, Wilson had already begun working out the details of the construction. On that date, Wilson sent a letter to agronomy expert Charles Piper requesting advice on viable grass strains for Merion. In the letter, Wilson noted that Macdonald had recommended Piper’s services, and that the committee valued Macdonald’s advice and was writing based on Macdonald’s advice. Thus, before February of 1911, Wilson and his Committee had already been in contact with C. B. Macdonald, discussing matters as specific to the construction as the type of grass Merion should try to grow.
Presumably, any such discussions between the Construction Committee and Macdonald occurred while the Committee was meeting with Macdonald and Whigham at NGLA. If not, then Wilson and his Committee had even more contact with Macdonald than is currently known. Either way, Wilson and his Committee began discussing the details of Merion East with Macdonald shortly after the Committee was appointed in January 1911.
Wilson also noted that the Committee had decided to write to Piper immediately after receiving the advice from Macdonald. Since, according to American Golfer, Macdonald was in Chicago for the USGA annual meeting in mid-January 1911, the Committee was most likely met with him in the second half of January 1911, with Wilson writing to Piper immediately thereafter. Alternatively if Wilson did not write immediately after the trip, Wilson and his Committee may have traveled to NGLA before Macdonald’s trip to Chicago.
Notably, in the February 1st letter, Wilson also wrote that he was sending Piper a contour map so that Piper could mark sections from where he wanted topsoil samples. Of course such a map would have been most worthwhile if it showed the golf holes, so that Piper would know from where to choose the soil samples. Given that the routing had been known for months, and given that experts (most likely Macdonald and Whigham) had been working on preparing the plans, and given that Wilson and his Committee had just spent three days with Macdonald and Whigham learning how to build the course, it seems extremely likely Wilson had been working out the particulars of the plan with Macdonald, and that he sent Piper a contour map of that plan.
Wilson did not Travel Overseas to Study Until After He Had Built and Seeded Merion East
According to Merion lore, Wilson traveled to NGLA to meet with Macdonald, and then studied the great courses overseas, and then designed and built Merion East. This makes for a great story and helps explain how a complete novice with no prior golf course design experience could have designed one of the greatest golf layouts in history, one that seamlessly incorporated many of strategic underpinnings of the great courses abroad. But it is most likely mistaken. While Wilson eventually traveled abroad to study the great courses, he did so after he had already built and seeded Merion East.
Wilson wrote that he traveled abroad “later,” after his trip to NGLA. But between the time Wilson traveled to NGLA and the time the course was seeded in September 1911, it is extremely unlikely Wilson could have taken an extended study trip overseas. He was far too busy planning and constructing Merion East. It was not until spring of 1912 – over a year after the NGLA trip – that he would have time for his study trip abroad.
n In or about October 1910, Hugh Wilson lost in the semifinal of the Merion Cricket Club championship to the eventual runner up, H.L. Willoughby.
n In or about early January 1911, Merion appointed Wilson and his Committee.
n In the second half of January 1911, Wilson’s Committee traveled to NGLA.
n On February 1, 1911, Wilson sent Piper a letter from Philadelphia.
n In or about April 1911, Macdonald and Whigham met onsite at Merion with the Committee to further assist them with the lay out.
n “In the Spring of 1911” Wilson and his Committee began building the golf course (H. Wilson)
n In September 1911, Wilson and his Committee seeded the course.
n In or around October 1911, Wilson lost in a four ball match at Merion.
n On January 17, 1912, Wilson attended a dinner at the Annual USGA Meeting in Philadelphia.
n On March 1, 1912, Wilson sent letter from Philadelphia to Russell Oakley, who worked with Piper.
With this schedule, Wilson had little time for even a brief trip overseas, much less an extended (seven month!) trip to study and play the great golf courses. The transatlantic journey alone took around seven to ten days, each direction.
Over a year would pass between the time Wilson and his Committee visited NGLA and the time Wilson finally departed for his study trip abroad. Shipping manifests indicate that Hugh I. Wilson, aged 32, returned from his trip overseas to New York City harbor on May 9, 1912 aboard the S.S. Philadelphia, a ship owned by the Griscom family business. This travel date corresponds exactly with an old Merion legend about how, when Wilson was returning from this study trip abroad, he narrowly missed being aboard the Titanic, which departed Southampton approximately 3 weeks before the S.S. Philadelphia.
Regardless, we need not even consider the manifests to determine when Wilson traveled abroad to study the great courses. As is discussed above, Wilson himself wrote that his study trip abroad occurred after he and his Construction Committee traveled to NGLA to study under Macdonald and Whigham. The timing of Wilson’s trip abroad is further discussed below.
Macdonald and Whigham Teach Wilson and his Committee How to Build the Golf Holes
Contrary to golf legend, Wilson did not travel to NGLA in order to prepare for his study trip overseas. If this had actually been the case, then there would have been no reason for his Construction Committee to travel to NGLA with him, yet they did. Wilson and his Committee traveled to NGLA so that Macdonald and Whigham could teach them how to build Merion’s new golf course. By the time of the NGLA trip:
1. Merion already had a routing plan. Francis had been putting the finishing touches on the layout plan months before, when he resolved the routing issue.
2. Macdonald and Whigham had already been integrally involved in the planning process. They had inspected site and provided their written opinion of what could be done with the land. Merion’s Site Committee had recommended the purchase based largely upon Macdonald and Whigham’s written opinion, and the Committee’s report to the Board had encompassed Macdonald and Whigham’s views.
3. Merion had already purchased the land.
4. Hugh Wilson had just recently become involved in the project. Shortly before the trip he was appointed to the Construction Committee, and there is no evidence that he had been involved before his appointment.
While Wilson was an admitted novice at building courses, his greatest attribute may have been his willingness and ability to learn. To this end, he sought out men considered to be the foremost domestic experts to help him address the many “problems” he and his Committee faced at Merion. So it should be of no great surprise that Wilson and his Committee traveled to NGLA to learn how to build the golf holes as they had been. Further, Macdonald and Whigham had sent their advice as to what could be done with the land in a letter, so at the NGLA meeting they were all likely working out the particulars of the golf holes that Macdonald and Whigham had envisioned.
About four years after Merion opened, Hugh Wilson authored an account of the origins of the courses at Merion which was published in the last chapter (“Personal Experiences”) of Charles Piper and Russell Oakley’s seminal 1916 work on golf course agronomy, Turf for Golf Courses. While Wilson’s essay mostly focused on the early agronomy issues at Merion’s two new courses, he began the piece by tracing the origins of Merion’s East course, and was most effusive in his praise of Macdonald and Whigham and the help they had provided during the NGLA meeting.
Wilson started off the essay by briefly touching on Merion’s need for a new course, the acquisition of the Ardmore Avenue land, and the subsequent creation of the Construction Committee. As was discussed above, he then described the Committee’s qualifications, or lack thereof, at the time they traveled to NGLA, and noted that Macdonald and Whigham got them started on the right foot.
[T]he experience of each in construction and greenkeeping was only that of the average club member. Looking back on the work, I feel certain that we would never have attempted to carry it out if we had realized one-half the things we did not know. Our ideals were high and fortunately we did get a good start in the correct principles of laying out the holes, through the kindness of Messrs. C. B. Macdonald and H. J. Whigham.
Note that Wilson did not even bother to mention the Committee’s lack of experience designing courses, but instead only described their lack of qualification for course construction and green keeping. It was not that he was an expert in design. Rather, his concern was only with building the course and growing grass on it.
Wilson next credited Macdonald and Whigham with giving the committee a “good start in the correct principles of laying out the holes.” In so doing, Wilson was not abruptly changing the topic to golf course design. To the contrary, Wilson was discussing the construction of the course, and was being quite literal. He was charged with laying out the course on the ground. According to Oxford English Dictionary, to “lay out” means to “construct or arrange (buildings or gardens) according to a plan.” This was precisely how Wilson used the phrase. “Our problem was to lay out the course, build, and seed eighteen greens and fifteen fairways.’ The committee had to arrange and build the holes on the ground according to plan, and Macdonald and Whigham gave them a good start in understanding how to do so.
Wilson’s entire discussion of his role focuses not on the planning, but on the building.
We spent two days with Mr. Macdonald at his bungalow near the National Course and in one night absorbed more ideas on golf course construction than we had learned in all the years we had played. Through sketches and explanations of the correct principles of the holes that form the famous courses abroad and had stood the test of time, we learned what was right and what we should try to accomplish with our natural conditions.
Hugh Wilson and his Committee were learning how to build the golf holes at Merion. The previous summer, MacDonald and Whigham had helped Merion’s site committee choose a proper site for the golf course, even sending Merion their ideas on “what could be done with the property.” Now Macdonald and Whigham were teaching the Construction Committee “what [they] should try to accomplish with [their] natural conditions.” They were teaching the Committee how to build the holes Macdonald and Whigham had envisioned on their previous visit.
The next day Macdonald showed them how he had incorporated the principles of the great holes into his course at NGLA, presumably to give Wilson examples of how to successfully build similar holes at Merion. To Wilson, the holes provided terrific exemplars, not only for Merion but for any new or changing course.
May I suggest to any committee about to build a new course, or to alter their old one, that they spend as much time as possible on courses such as NGLA and Pine Valley, where they may see the finest types of holes and, while they cannot hope to reproduce them in entirety, they can learn the correct principles and adapt them to their own courses.
No doubt that Wilson took a similar approach at Merion East. As was the case at NGLA, the holes Wilson built at Merion were not copies, but were based on the “correct principles” of the great golf holes. Only Wilson had a number of advantages over the average committee member hoping to build a great golf course based on NGLA or Pine Valley. Not only did Wilson travel to NGLA to study and learn, but Macdonald and Whigham traveled to Merion, first to assess and advise on what could be done there, and then to further assist with that plan. Macdonald and Whigham themselves had taught Wilson and his Committee not only about the “correct principles,” but also how Wilson and his Committee should apply them at Merion. Macdonald and Whigham even checked up on Wilson and his Committee to make sure they were on the right track.
Over the years, one sentence from Wilson’s essay has been misunderstood as confirmation that Wilson traveled overseas before he and his Committee laid out and constructed Merion East. Wilson wrote:
. . . Every good course that I saw later in England and Scotland confirmed Mr. Macdonald’s teachings.
In this passage Wilson revealed that he traveled overseas after the NGLA trip, but he did NOT write or imply that he went overseas to study before he built Merion East. Misunderstandings about this distinction probably contributed to the inaccuracy in Merion’s legend.
In reality, Wilson built the course first, and then departed on his study trip abroad in the spring of 1912. According to the shipping manifest from the S.S. Philadelphia, Hugh I. Wilson returned to New York City on May 9, 1912, on a shipping line owned by R.E. Griscom’s family.
Macdonald and Whigham Return to Merion to Further Assist with the Layout
As is discussed above, within a month after the land purchase was complete, the newly appointed Construction Committee had already traveled to NGLA to meet with Macdonald and Whigham, and Wilson had written Piper for additional help, as Macdonald had counseled. A few months later, in or around April 1911, the Committee again met with the two U.S. Amateur Champions. This time Macdonald and Whigham journeyed back to the Ardmore site, as they had done before Merion’s purchase.
In the May 1911 edition of American Golfer, “Hazard,” thought to be A. W. Tillinghast, reported on their return visit to Ardmore Avenue.
The new course of the Merion Cricket Club is nearing completion in the planning. During the month Mr. Chas. B. Macdonald and Mr. H. J. Whigham, who have been aiding the committee, visited the course and expressed themselves as being greatly pleased over the prospects. Mr. Macdonald said that in his opinion seven of the holes equaled any in this country and as our first national champion has played over most of the links, this statement of his should cause much satisfaction.
Tillinghast did not mention how long Macdonald and Whigham were on site, and while he did note that Macdonald and Whigham “have been aiding the committee,” he did not explain the specific purpose of their visit, or what aid they had been providing. But given the level of their involvement up to this point, the most logical explanation for their return visit was that they were continuing to guide Wilson and his Committee with the layout of Merion East.
Alan Wilson, Hugh Wilson’s brother, offered an account that confirms this interpretation.
Those two good and kindly sportsmen, Charles B. Macdonald and H.J. Whigham, the men who conceived the idea of and designed the National Links at Southampton – both ex-amateur champions and the latter a Scot who had learned his golf at Prestwick – twice came to Haverford, first to go over the grounds and later to consider and advise about our plans.
Both Tillinghast and Alan Wilson referred to the course as still in the pre-construction state when Macdonald and Whigham returned. Apparently, Wilson and his Committee had not yet begun in earnest to construct the course. Perhaps they were waiting for Macdonald’s and Whigham’s return, or perhaps they were waiting for better weather. In same edition of the American Golfer, Tillinghast also reported that it had been a late winter in Philadelphia, and that even by mid-April the courses were far from fit.
The lingering of winter in the lap of spring has seriously interfered with the opening of the courses, none of which have been really fit during the month of March, and indeed the middle of April finds them all very backward.
So even if Merion had tried to start building before Macdonald’s and Whigham’s second visit, it is unlikely that much would have been accomplished until April, at the earliest.
Close to the same time as the above-mentioned “Hazard” article, Tillinghast authored an April 30, 1911 article in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, in which he wrote, “I have seen enough of the plans of the new course as to warrant my entire confidence in the future realization of the hopes of the committee.” Tillinghast did not identify who it was that showed him the plans, but he had apparently spoken to Macdonald about the course for the American Golfer article.
Wilson and His Committee Construct the Golf Course
Tellingly, Hugh Wilson’s 1916 write-up completely omitted any discussion of how and why the routing was planned as it was. He did not address how the holes were fit together or why certain natural features were used as they were. He did not mention or describe the concept or design of a single golf hole. Rather, Wilson transitioned directly from praising Macdonald and Whigham to discussing the construction of the golf course.
According to Wilson, the Committee began building out the golf course beginning “in the spring 1911.” In September 1911, Merion seeded the course. A year later, the course opened for play.
After completing the construction of the greens, and thoroughly harrowing and breaking up the soil on both fairways and greens, we allowed the weeds to germinate and harrowed them in about every three weeks. We sowed from September 1 to 15 and made a remarkably good catch, due to two things – good weather conditions and a thorough preparation of the soil. We opened the course September 14, 1912, just a year after seeding, and it was in good playing condition.
Even after it was seeded, Wilson and his Committee continued to work on the course. “We have been working on this new course all Winter, and it will take most of our time next year. The course will not be opened to the members until 1913, and we’ve got quite a little work to finish before that time. ” (Philadelphia Press, January 7, 1912.) But whatever work Wilson and his committee were doing that winter, the core of the course must have been in place by September 15, 1911. By that date, the routing had been planned and laid out, the greens had been constructed and seeded, and the fifteen fairways that were to be seeded had been. Also, the most pronounced major artificial feature was before that winter. The large mound backing the original 10th green is visible in the upper right portion of the photograph below, which was featured on the program for the Merion Cricket Club 47th Annual Dinner, held December 2, 1911, months before Wilson departed for Europe. The mound was an integral part of Wilson’s attempt to build hole based on the “alps” hole concept, a concept that C.B. Macdonald incorporated into his courses.
Wilson Travels Abroad to Get Ideas for the Course
As is explained above, Wilson did not travel overseas until sometime after the course was seeded, in the spring of 1912. In January 1913, the winter following Merion’s opening, “Far and Sure” (thought by some to have been Walter Travis, the great American amateur golf champion, course designer, golf magazine editor, and golf writer) wrote that Hugh Wilson had traveled overseas “last summer” to get ideas to use on the new course. While Far and Sure was off by a few months – Wilson traveled in the spring and likely concluded his trip in May- he was apparently readily aware that Wilson’s study trip occurred in 1912.
But why would Wilson have traveled overseas after he had already constructed the course? This would have made no sense if Wilson had actually been seeking out ideas and concepts to integrate into the course plan. But Wilson’s task was limited to building the course and preparing it for play, not designing the routing and holes. Since Wilson did not expect the course to open until 1913, traveling in the spring of 1912 would have given him plenty of time to put the finishing touches on the course before it opened.
Indeed, Macdonald and many others considered it a good practice for a club to wait to add the finishing touches to a new course until later, after the course had grown in and been played. As Macdonald discussed in the Chapter 15 (“Architecture”) of Scotland’s Gift, he was of the opinion that many of the hazards should only be placed after a course had been played, noting, “The undulations and run of the ball tell the story of how the hazards should be placed. Don’t place them without experience.” Macdonald also thought that to understand the “character and placing of hazards . . . one only has to study the great holes which the world concedes are unequalled.”
As Macdonald had done at NGLA, Wilson and his committee left many of the artificial features to be added later, after Wilson could observe play not only at Merion, but also on great courses upon which Merion was based. After the opening, Far and Sure observed that “. . . many of the pits and traps have yet to be built.” Early newspaper reviews indicated that many of the hazards were yet to be added, with one paper also noting that Wilson had traveled overseas to find “ideas for the new course.”
A few months after the opening, Far and Sure also wrote that the course was still very much a work in progress; that many of the holes were still “rough drafts,” and Wilson had recently (“last summer”) traveled abroad “searching for ideas, many of which have been used.”
The “ideas” specifically described by Far and Sure were of the type that could have been added after the core of the course was built.
Many of the imported ideas of hazard formation are good, and the grassy hollows of Mid Surrey have been well introduced. On some of the sand mounds I noticed the growing of something which looked suspiciously like the bents of Le Touquet.
Hazard formation . . . grassy hollows . . . bents of Le Touquet . . . these are the types of finishing touches that Wilson could easily have added after his trip abroad in 1912.
Far and Sure also indicated that Wilson tried to build Merion’s 15th green as a reproduction of the famous Eden hole at The Old Course. Supposedly, “the sloping green [was] so keen and barren of undulations that the player is practically forced to ‘skittle,’ his approach in fear of getting above the hole.” I am not yet familiar enough with the early history of this hole to know if this description was accurate, but if this was so, then Wilson’s failure to produce an adequate reproduction may well have stemmed from his never having seen the real Eden green at the time he built the 15th green.
Early newspaper accounts of the origins of Merion are ambiguous about when Wilson traveled overseas to study, and may well account for some of the later confusion. The day after the opening, the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that Wilson had gone abroad “to get ideas for the new course” and “helped largely in the planning of the new holes.” This indeed appears to be the case, but did he go before initial construction and seeding, or after? And when did he begin helping with the planning? The column addresses neither question.
Perhaps as a result of the ambiguity in the column discussed above, other newspaper articles later stated or implied that Wilson went overseas before the course was planned. Unfortunately, none of these articles source their claim, and at least one is very ambiguous as to which Merion course it is referring.
But Wilson himself never claimed to have gone over before the course was designed. In fact, as is explained above, Wilson’s essay establishes that he went after his trip to NGLA with his committee to study under Macdonald and Whigham. As is also discussed above, this occurred after the course routing had already been planned. Further, in 1914 Robert Lesley published an article on the two Merion courses and discussed the connection of some of the holes at Merion to holes overseas, but he did not even mention that Wilson went abroad to study the great holes or even that Wilson designed the routing. Nor did the articles written by Tillinghast (“Hazard”) in 1911. Nor did other newspapers articles written about Merion East before it opened.
In fact, I have been unable to locate a single reference to a Wilson study trip abroad that was written before Wilson trip in 1912. Not one.
Another source of the legend may have been a letter written by Alan Wilson 1926, not long after Hugh Wilson’s unfortunate death. The letter was apparently written to a member who was planning to write a history of Merion, and in it Alan Wilson makes the case that his recently deceased brother deserved the lion’s share of the credit for the architecture on both of the courses, at least in comparison to the other members of Wilson’s Committee. He also wrote the course was “homegrown” and designed by the committee without out the help of an outside architect. But he did exempt help that had been provided by those “two good and kindly sportsmen, Charles B. Macdonald and H.J. Whigam, the men who conceived the idea of and designed the National Links at Southampton.” As was discussed above, even Alan Wilson acknowledged that these two men Alan Wilson were a great help. Tom Paul posted an excerpt of the letter on the Golf Club Atlas website in a post that was long ago deleted.
Alan Wilson wrote, “the land for the East Course was found in 1910 and as a first step, Mr. Wilson was sent abroad to study the more famous links in Scotland and England.” Alan Wilson’s version directly contradicts Hugh Wilson’s own account of the timing of the trip, and is not supported by any contemporaneous evidence. While the course may have been found in 1910, this is only part of the story. As is explained above, the routing was planned in 1910 as well. This was before the land had been purchased and before the Construction Committee had been appointed. Moreover, as a “first step” Wilson did travel to study the great golf holes, but it was not overseas, but rather to NGLA to learn from Macdonald and Whigham. The actual overseas travel would come later.
The mistake regarding the relative timing of Wilson’s study trip might have been born from the ambiguous then mistaken newspaper accounts, all written after the course opened; or the misinterpretation of Hugh Wilson’s mention of the trip in his 1916 essay; or the inaccuracy in his brother’s quick coverage of the issue, written fourteen years after the fact; or a combination of these.
But another factor may have been that, there is an element of truth to this portion of the legend. Hugh Wilson did work on the course when he returned from his trip in 1912, and as was described by Far and Sure, he did incorporate some of what he learned overseas into the course. Even more than that, Wilson was surely involved in working out the particulars of the routing plan, as this would necessarily have been part of learning how to build the holes from Macdonald and Whigham.
So it would not have been a big leap to have started giving Wilson credit for coming up with the routing and hole concepts in the first place, especially if one does not fully understand how significant the routing and hole concepts are to the quality and integrity of a golf course.
It is quite possible than another bit of the legend may be explained by a misunderstanding the 1916 Hugh Wilson essay. While there is no conclusive proof, Wilson returned from the NGLA trip (not the European trip) with “reams of sketches” of the great holes, along with the blueprints of Merion East.” After all, Macdonald had such sketches from his earlier trip, and Wilson did explain that Macdonald and Whigham used “sketches and explanations of the correct principles of the holes” to teach the Committee “what was right and what we should try to accomplish with our natural conditions.” Further, since it already existed, it is inconceivable that the course plan was not present, discussed, and probably even tweaked while the Committee was at NGLA.
Regardless, whatever the source of Merion’s legend, Wilson did not travel overseas to study the great courses before he initially built and seeded Merion East.
Reviews Praise New Course, Note Overseas Design Influence
According to contemporaneous reports written both before and after the opening, many of Merion’s holes and features were modeled after great holes and features on overseas courses. One such report, published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, lavished praise on the course, as did many others.
Merion is making an entirely new course . . . [and] has been working over its new course for more than a year and as compared wit the new links the old course is flat, stale, and unprofitable . . . Merion intends to have a course second to none in the country and has spent and will spend thousands of dollars in its making.
Later in the same article, the author briefly discussed the merits of the layout, noting that the design of Merion’s holes was largely derivative of the great holes overseas.
Many of the holes at Merion are patterned after the famous holes abroad and the rolling character of the country has contributed largely toward making the course excellent.
This article is particularly telling because it was published in April 1912, almost a month before Hugh I. Wilson returned from his trip overseas, where he was studying the great courses upon which the holes were supposedly based. Whatever the inspiration for the noted overseas influence at Merion, it was not from Wilson’s study trip abroad.
When the course finally opened, the Inquirer went even further: “Merion has a course in which nearly every hole is patterned after some famous hole abroad.”
On September 13, 1912, the members at Merion celebrated their last round on their old course with a tournament followed by a dinner celebration, which was reportedly quite festive. The next day they began playing on their new course.
Alex Findlay’s review in the Public Ledger may have provided the most detailed description of the course around the time of the opening. Findlay was well-known Scottish golfer and course designer in both the United States and Great Britain, and had traveled extensively, playing courses all over both. He also authored a column called Breezy News about Golf and Golfers, in which he described Merion’s new course shortly before the opening.
The Merion Golf Association will throw open its doors of the new club and play its initial tournament on the new course on Saturday, September 14. It is 6,245 yards in length, with tee space enough to stretch it out to 6,500 at any time. There are a few nice water hazards, and also a few sand ones, but the placing of mental hazards, etc. will be left until spring. One can by that time find places wherein shots will like, and place hazards accordingly. The eighteen putting greens will be in fine shape for the opening. They are the largest and nicest in the state.
He then went on to briefly critique the holes, calling the first and second “rather plain and somewhat easy.” He continued, comparing the third with a famous hole overseas, presumably the Redan at North Berwick. “The third is a very difficult driving iron or spoon of 185 yards. It will remind golfers who have played abroad of one of the nicest golf holes in existence. ” While apparently referring to the Redan, Findlay must have thought that the comparison was so obvious that he need not go into detail or even identify the hole to which he referred.
The fourth he described as a “three-shot hole” with the approach “played over a deep ditch onto a lovely green, the slope of which faces the shot.” He continued . . .
The fifth and sixth are rare two shotters. The seventh a shot and pitch, with much trouble around the green. The eighth is plain, downhill of the drive and iron order. The ninth is a midiron shot onto a green beautifully laid out and trapped, and an easy three if one’s tee shot is placed.
When describing the 10th Hole Findlay again drew a comparison to a great hole overseas, but this time was specific about his point of reference.
The tenth is a two shot hole, and the second there to requires a stroke precisely like that of the Alps, or seventeenth at Prestwick, Scotland.
He continued . . .
The eleventh a drive and a pitch. The twelfth is a of the dog-leg order . . .. The thirteenth a short lob of 130 yards. The green is surrounded by water and sand hazards.
As would many others over the years, Findlay saved his most lavish praise for Merion’s illustrious finishing holes.
The last five are the most wonderful in this country. In fact, I cannot recall having seen such a succession of holes anywhere. They must be seen and played over in order to be appreciated. The second shot on the sixteenth, the tee shot to the seventeenth over the huge quarry to a putting green, and the tee shot back over the quarry to the home holes are shots of the nicest kind, and must be played accurately.
Findlay then heaped praise on Wilson and his “Construction Committee,” noting that they had done “for Pennsylvania what Herbert C. Leeds and committee did for Massachusetts-built the two nicest courses in their respective States.”
Fred Pickering, who at the time was Merion’s greenkeeper but had also supervised the construction of various other courses, also received lavish praise. After listing some of the other courses where Pickering supervised construction, Findlay proclaimed, “this, his latest creation, far surpasses any of his previous achievements. He has had much his own way in the planting of the right seed and in the general make-up of the course, and to him we owe thanks for one of the prettiest golf courses in America.” What Findlay did not disclose is that, according to golf historian Thomas MacWood, Pickering sometimes constructed courses for Findlay, including at least two in Philadelphia. Again according to MacWood, Pickering may have also worked with H.H. Barker on one of Barker’s courses in Atlanta. While somewhat ambiguous, even by Findlay’s description, Pickering deserved credited for construction the course, not designing it.
No mention was made of Pickering’s capable assistant, William Flynn, who would soon replace him as head greenkeeper and would not only help shape Merion’s future but would also help shape the future of golf design in America.
Findlay was by no means the only knowledgeable golf writer who noted the influence of great holes abroad. Far and Sure’s comments have already been discussed above. Plus, writing in October of 1912, Tillinghast (“Hazard”) also noted that parts of the course were modeled after famous holes abroad:
The new course lies about a mile and a half south of Haverford, Pa., and was constructed under the direction of Messrs. Hugh I. Wilson, H. G. Lloyd, R. E. Griscom, R. S. Francis and H. Toulmin. . .. Some of the famous holes abroad have been reproduced and the course abounds in water and road hazards, although many of the pits and traps remain to be built.
After the opening of Merion’s West course in 1914, Robert Lesley, a member of Merion’s Site Committee and President of the Merion Cricket Club Golf Association, wrote a piece in Golf Illustrated (called “The Merion Courses”) which briefly described the creation of the two courses. While he did not offer a detailed description of the holes, he did briefly discuss of few of them, including the current third.
The seventh, or the Redan hole, is a one shotter, situated on a side hill with a deep gulley and severe bunkering in front of it, and requires the most delicate placing to hold the green.
He also compared the tenth hole to the famous Alps hole at Prestwick.
The tenth hole . . . has for background a high hill covered with grass, and resembles the Alps hole at Prestwick; in principle, that is a two shot hole with a cross bunker guarding the green. A long drive and a good second are required. The second must carry Ardmore Avenue and a number of deep bunkers. If the ball overruns the green it finds lodgment up on the slope of the mountain which is at the rear.
As was mentioned earlier, the “mountain which is at the rear” of the 10th was built long before Wilson traveled abroad to study the great courses.
The Next Step: Analyzing the Golf Course
Many knowledgeable commentators thought that at least some of the holes were derived from great holes abroad. What they do not mention is that, at the very least, the overseas influence would likely have had to flow through Macdonald and Whigham, since Hugh Wilson had not yet studied overseas. More than that, while it is possible that they used some of H.H. Barker’s routing plan, Macdonald and Whigham look to have originally conceived of the golf holes and routing, or at least part of it. At least H.J. Whigham thought so. After Macdonald passed away in 1939, Whigham authored a moving obituary in Country Life magazine entitled The Evangelist of Golf, in which he discussed NGLA in detail, then listed some other of the best-known courses designed by one or both of Macdonald and his protÃƒ©gÃƒ©, Seth Raynor.
The Macdonald-Raynor courses became famous all over America. Among the most famous are Piping Rock, the Merion Cricket Club at Philadelphia, the Country Club of Saint Louis, two beautiful courses at White Sulphur, the Lido (literally poured out of the lagoon), and that equally amazing Yale course at New Haven, which was hewn out of rock and forest at the expense of some seven hundred thousand dollars.
While Whigham modestly omitted mention of his own role in the creation of the course, we know that he was uniquely qualified to speak about the design of Merion East. H.J. Whigham was there. He was there with C.B. Macdonald when they inspected the potential golf site at Merion’s request, when they taught Wilson and his Committee how to build the golf holes, and when they returned to Merion to further help the Committee with the final planning. H.J. Whigham knew first-hand who conceived of the holes and routing at Merion East.
Given their extensive involvement in the planning, at least some of the original holes at Merion East should be based on Macdonald’s and Whigham’s concepts for the holes, or at least Wilson’s construction of them. Wilson’s versions of a Redan hole and an Alps hole are good examples of this. These holes were key fixtures in Macdonald’s repertoire, and their existence at Merion is strong indication that Macdonald and Whigham were responsible for at least some of the plan. Further, while my research is far from complete or conclusive, my preliminary analysis of the original holes suggests that other holes and features may have based on Macdonald and Whigham’s view of how the principles of the great holes should be applied in Merion’s natural conditions. In other words, while it may not have looked like it on the surface, the initial version of Merion East may have had Macdonald and Whigham’s concepts at its core. But this analysis is outside the scope of this essay, and will have to wait until another day.
As a serious student of golf courses, Hugh Wilson bestowed what may have been his highest praise on Pine Valley and NGLA by encouraging those interested golf courses to spend “as much time as possible” studying them. The Green Section Record bestowed a similar honor on the memory of Hugh Wilson by calling Merion East “a Mecca to all serious students of golf architecture,” and Tom Doak did the same when he recommended that any young student of golf architecture should study Merion East. It is in that same spirit that I too praise Merion Golf Club, Hugh I. Wilson, H.H. Barker, C.B. Macdonald, H.J. Whigham, William Flynn and everyone else who has in one way or another contributed to the greatness of Merion East.
Merion East is truly a great golf course. But more than that, it is worthy of serious study.
While match play at the 1916 Amateur took place entirely on the East course, the 36 holes of stroke play were split between the East and West courses, with half the field playing one of the courses in the morning, then the other course in the afternoon. On the first day of stroke play competition the 14 year old Jones, playing over the West course, shocked the golfing world by posting the lowest score of the morning rounds. The two-course format was a first for the U.S.G.A., which was trying to accommodate the growing popularity of golf and the consequent increase in tournament entries. The decision was widely debated, and while a few defended the USGA change as a necessary accommodation of the growing popularity of the game, the two-course format was largely criticized with the two main points of contention being that, first, each golfer did not play each course under the same conditions, and second, according to early press accounts, the West course was perceived to be inferior as a championship venue. Before the 1916 U.S. Open, Merion had portrayed the East and West courses as very different in character but of equal merit as championship courses; but the 1916 Amateur may have cemented the East’s reputation as the superior of the two.
The phrase is thought to been coined when Chick Evans, the newly crowned 1916 American Amateur Champion, described them that way. It may be hard to imagine Merion without the white faces, but none existed until just before the 1916 Amateur. Before the tournament, the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that “a layer of white sand has been spread in all the bunkers and it certainly adds to the picturesque appearance of the course, a regular vanilla and chocolate ice cream effet.”
As quoted by Tolhurst.
If there is any record of Wilson having suggested that the hole concepts or routing sprang from what he’d seen overseas, I am unaware of it. As will be in discussed in great detail below, Tolhurst and many others most likely misinterpreted a largely misunderstood essay written by Hugh Wilson in 1916, in which he mentions his “later” trip abroad.
The details relating to the purchase were compiled from a November 15, 1910 report from Merion’s Board of Governors to the members, from a letter of the same date written by Horatio G. Lloyd to the members, and from numerous contemporaneous accounts of the transaction printed in the local newspapers.
Tolhurst and others have written that Merion’s move was necessitated because changes in equipment brought on by technology – specifically the emergence of the Haskell ball – had rendered their old course too short. In contrast, those who were actually there and involved (including Hugh I. Wilson, Robert Lesley, Merion’s Board of Governors, and even contemporaneous newspaper accounts) all wrote that Merion wanted and tried to purchase their old location; that Merion would have not have moved to a new location if the original site could have been acquired at a reasonable price. Perhaps the misunderstanding stems from the November 1910, Philadelphia Record article, which appears to be loosely based on the Board’s November 15, 1910 report to the members, except that many of the details in the article, including the price and acreage, are incorrect. The Record reported, “The members of the club want a larger area than the one they are now using . . ..” Merion’s report contained no such information, but it is possible that the anonymous reporter or his source misinterpreted Merion’s report, particularly the where the Board wrote that soon “it will be practically impossible to secure a tract large enough for a Golf Course.”
I have not yet discovered when Lloyd and the other Merion members became involved with developers and their plan. If it was in the very beginning, then this explains the source of the “information” that was given to the developers.
In July of 1910, the developers controlled approximately 300 acres, but their holdings had increased to nearly 340 acres by November 15, 1910. As will be explained below, 21 of the additional acres were purchased because Merion required them for their golf course.
Tom MacWood, who has researched Mr. Barker’s career as a golf course designer, generously supplied much of the information regarding Barker’s history and courses.
Travis made the claim in a section of his autobiography, as published in the American Golfer on October 8, 1920. For what it is worth, in the same article Travis also took credit for almost all of Ross’s design work at Pinehurst #2, essentially claiming that he had poured all the ideas for the course into Ross’s ears.
According to Merion’s Board, R.E. Griscom aided the Committee in obtaining Macdonald’s and Whigham’s assistance. Griscom was not on the Site Committee but was a top-notch amateur competitor and likely knew both Macdonald and Whigham from various amateur competitions. He would later serve on Wilson’s Construction Committee.
Merion did not publish or distribute the letter because it was written to a member of the committee and “not written for publication.”
This mystery could quickly be resolved by a careful examination of the property records.
“Merion Cricket Club Golf Association” was the actual purchaser. The Association then leased the land to Merion Cricket Club, which had a similar lease arrangement with a similar associated company for Merion Cricket Club’s main grounds and clubhouse.
On the Proposed Golf Course drawing, the road bordering the proposed golf course on the west is marked “Approximate Location of Road,” indicating that Golf Course Road had yet to be built.
The Records of a subsequent land swap with Haverford College confirm that the small section of land was part of the original land deal with Haverford Development Company. In 1928, Merion acquired a small, triangular slice of property along the west border of the College’s adjacent property, presumably to create a wider corridor for tee shots from the 16th tee. In exchange, Merion deeded to the College two small tracts in the northernmost corner of the property, the land pinched between Golf House Road and the private property bordering the both the golf course and College Avenue. (The Course retained the right to continue to use and pass over some of this property so long as the use was golf.) The transfer documents indicate that land in this corner of Merion’s property was included in the original mortgage used to purchase the property described in the November 1910 circular.
What of Francis’ description of the quarrymen blasting off the top of a hill “a few days” after the land exchange, so that the 16th green could be built? According to Francis’ description of events, the entire matter, from the time of Francis’ late night epiphany to the time the quarrymen blasted the green site, took place within a couple of days. But two separate legal entities could never have completed a formal exchange of titles in a couple of days, especially since Merion’s land was encumbered. Francis’ recollection of the timing of the timing may have been hyperbole, but if not, then it makes sense only if there was no formal land exchange, but rather a change to the terms made before Merion actually optioned the 117-acre parcel in November 1910. And if the hilltop was actually blasted a few days after this alteration, then it was when the Haverford Development Company controlled the land, not Merion Cricket Club. Given Lloyd’s close relationship with both, this seems entirely possible.
The Committee consisted of R. S. Francis, R. E. Griscom, H. G. Lloyd, Dr. Harry Toulmin, and Hugh I. Wilson, Chairman.
Skeptics will undoubtedly suggest that Wilson could have had his dates wrong, and that the committee could have been formed sometime before early 1911. However, Wilson’s recollection is corroborated by multiple sources, including Merion Golf Association President Robert Lesley in his 1914 article about the Merion courses, as well as contemporaneous press accounts. Plus there is absolutely no solid contemporaneous evidence that Wilson traveled abroad to study before the spring of 1912.
While I have no physical record of the letter, it was described and quoted by Tom Paul on the Golf Club Atlas website in a post that has been deleted.
Macdonald was reportedly having trouble growing grass at NGLA and had also turned to the experts for help, so it is not surprising that Macdonald referred to Piper on this topic.
Like the February letter, I have not yet seen the March letter, but am relying on Tom Paul’s statement on the Golf Club Atlas website that the letter exists. Tom Paul also recently noted that Wilson had sent letters from Philadelphia in every month of 1911, further confirming that Wilson did not take an extended trip abroad that year.
The manifest record is an excellent match, except that it lists Wilson as single rather than married. During the time period in question all United States ports were required to keep shipping manifests listing all incoming passengers, and most of these manifests are now available online. An extensive search of the digitized manifest database on ancestry.com failed to turn up any likely matches evidencing an earlier Wilson trip.
In or around December 2006, Tom Paul wrote about this longstanding Merion rumor on the Golf Club Atlas website. His post increased my skepticism about the timing of Wilson’s study trip abroad, and sparked by further research into the matter. Wayne Morrison, an expert on William Flynn and a member of Merion, recently claimed on www.golfclubatlas.com that, according to Hugh I. Wilson’s daughter, Wilson actually had a ticket on the Titanic but was detained, and luckily missed the boat.
Thanks to Joe Bausch for locating and sharing this and other articles.
Merion originally tried to use the pre-existing pasture grass for the 10th, 11th, and 12th fairways, but the experiment proved unsuccessful, and the fairways were replaced with sod within the first few years the course was open.
Excerpts from the Alan Wilson article were posted by Tom Paul some time ago on the Golf Club Atlas website, but then deleted.
As republished in George Bahto’s outstanding book about C.B. Macdonald and his influence, also titled The Evangelist of Golf (2002), page 265.